Pelecanos in LA
Last night, along with perhaps 40 other individuals, I saw novelist (and Wire producer and writer) George Pelecanos speak with fellow novelist Lawrence Block at the Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles. Both writers spoke about their lives as writers as well as their current books. Pelecanos is on tour to promote his new novel “The Way Home,” which he told the audience was “my chick novel,” since it’s all about the relationship between fathers and sons.
Surprisingly, I was among perhaps four people under the age of 40 in the crowd with most questions directed towards Block. Pelecanos was very articulate and used the plain language that populates his books. Well-trimmed with a tightly clipped beard and clad in a black blazer over a light purple dress shirt, he looked just a little Hollywood for the night. He spoke very cleanly and directly when asked questions, his voice rarely emphasizing any words. He always made firm eye contact with the questioner and was effusive in his praise of novelist Block (I bought one of Block’s novels he recommended, “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.” I must admit that I had never heard of him before that night.)
One audience member asked him about the differences between writing novels and screenplays. He made it sound like a mixed bag. Your writing often would get tore up in screenwriting and you’d have to accept the fact that you didn’t have final control over the product. He said the writing room at “The Wire” was sometimes contentious with competition among the show’s bevy of talented novelists (Lehane, Price, himself) to write certain scenes or episodes. However, working with such talented people though also improved the quality of one's own writing.
I asked him how he came to write the second-to-last episode in every season and about his influence on the show. He told me that he had originally been brought in to the write the episode where Wallace was killed, and every season after that he and David Simon had an unwritten understanding that that’s the episode he would write. Pelecanos said that David wanted to keep him on as a producer and writer for the second season because he was going to have a lot of Greek characters in the season at the docks (he made a humorous joke about this that everybody laughed about in regards to this). From that point forward, he was on the staff.
Pelecanos spoke about how he was instrumental in introducing a character on the show who would win. The character of Cutty was his idea. Much like his novels, where the hard-working man usually emerges triumphant, so too does Cutty navigate the drug world to come out on top with his boxing gym.
Finally, one audience member asked him how he was able to portray the character of Derek Strange, a black cop turned private eye, who is the protagonist in several of his novels. “He is so different than you, how did you look through the world through his eyes?” He talked about how his parents put him to work at their diner when he was 11, and how he rode the bus in the D.C. at a time when the city was 80% black. He would just sit on the bus and listen to people, much like he says he sometimes goes into a bar and just listens to people. Someone then asked, “Do you go home and write it down?” Pelecanos said no, it’s just something that he can remember and call up. It didn’t seem like he was a very methodical in making notes and said he didn’t use outlines in his novels. Overall, he came across as a hardworking, empathetic straightforward guy.
At the end of the night I approached him and told him about the blog. “Yeah, I’ve read it,” he said. “David read it. He brought in that stuff.” That made my day. His matter of fact reply though masked whether he and the staff liked the blog. I made an off-hand query into that but didn’t get a solid response. That’s cool. It was enough, and a lot, to be acknowledged. He did tell me, “You’re gonna love ‘Treme,’” the forthcoming Simon series on HBO about musicians returning to post-Katrina New Orleans which he’s also working on.
After that I drove to Hollywood and saw the Decemberists play. A good night.
- Speaking of Simon, he was a featured panelist on the last week’s episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO. Haven’t watched it yet. Sometimes those panels are a too awkward of a mix like that time Mos Def kept interrupting Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie to make some pedestrian point.
(photo is of me, Block, Pelecanos from left to right)