Few writers have employed the mean streets of Washington, D.C. as effectively as George Pelecanos, the award-winning author of two acclaimed detective series and several standalone noirs of exceptional quality.
Pelecanos debuted in 1992, with A Firing Offense, a fast-paced crime novel that introduced Nick Stefanos, a Greek-American advertising executive for an electronics chain who is reluctantly drawn into investigative work when a stock boy at his company goes missing. By book's end, Nick has lost his job and applied for his P.I. license, paving the way for further (mis)adventures. Neverthless, the series has proved anything but predictable. Some books move forward in time to reveal Nick's sad descent into alcoholism; others flash back to investigate his family's past -- with Nick relegated to cameo appearances in stories that span several generations and feature a cast of interrelated characters. Beloved by readers and critics alike, the Stefanos books cast unsparing light on a city tragically mired in crime, poverty, and racism.
In his Derek Strange and Terry Quinn series, Pelecanos delves further into the racial and cultural divide between white and black. Beginning with 2001's Right as Rain, these novels feature a "salt and pepper" team of ex-cops turned detectives who forge an uneasy friendship as they investigate cases in the blighted heart of D.C. The very model of noir, the stories are steeped in the violence, brutality, and despair of urban life, but the dynamic between the tough but sensitive Strange and his younger, more volatile partner offers a hopeful and humanizing counterbalance.
A distinguishing characteristic of Pelecanos's writing is an inclusion of musical references to create atmosphere, anchor period settings, and develop his characters' personalities. (His 2004 novel Hard Revolution, a prequel to the Strange/Quinn books, was packaged in limited quantity with a CD of '70s soul music.) Pelecanos has also published mysteries and thrillers, short fiction, reviews and essays, and screenplays for film and television -- most notably HBO's superb urban procedural The Wire.
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In our interview, Pelecanos shared some interesting anecdotes about past gigs:
"I began to work at my father's lunch counter in downtown D. C. when I was 11 years old, the summer after the riots of April 1968. It was the single most influential experience of my life. Everything I've written about since has seeds in that summer."
"Another good job I had was selling women's shoes, for obvious reasons. Writing for a living isn't bad, either. It beats digging ditches or washing dishes. I know, because I've done those things, too."
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In the fall of 2003, George P. Pelecanos took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests. .
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I have to name a teacher, Charles C. Mish, as my biggest influence. He got me reading crime novels in college and put me on the path. Among the novelists he recommended: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, James Crumley, and many others.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren -- Ambitious and uniquely American.
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley -- Exley's one-of-a-kind howl of genius.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler -- Chandler writing at the peak of his power.
An American Dream by Norman Mailer -- Mailer claims he never wrote a full-on masterpiece. This book proves him wrong.
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley -- Holy ground for crime novelists, the best novel of its kind ever written.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- Astonishing and beautiful, even (especially?) after repeated readings; it captures a time and place masterfully. Hemingway's prose was never more seamless or clean.
Clockers by Richard Price -- My generation's Grapes of Wrath.
Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg, and The Burglar by David Goodis -- Much more than pulp. The final chapters of these two books will haunt you to your grave.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy -- Apocalyptic.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Anything by John Ford, Peckinpah, Leone, Robert Aldrich -- genre films that resonate.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like damn near every kind of music. Occasionally, I listen to soundtracks -- Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin and the like -- when I write. Nothing with vocals.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to buy my own books and music. The search is part of the fun.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write seven days a week when I am working on a novel. That's the ritual: stay obsessively in the fictional world you have created, and get it done
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I sold my first novel myself, un-agented and over the transom, because no one would represent me. I was not connected to the publishing world and had never even met a writer before I'd been published. I have been at it for 15 years now and don't think that I'll ever feel as if I have arrived. My ambition is to write good books and stay in the game.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write with ambition.
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