On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
George Pelecanos’ books, movies and television series have won awards and fans all over the world. Stephen King dubbed him “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer.”
But Pelecanos is about as D.C. as they come, setting nearly all of his 21 novels in his native Washington, and inspiring Esquire magazine to call him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.”
The king of D.C. noir joins us to talk about his books, HBO series, latest projects and favorite reads by other local authors.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- George Pelecanos Author of 21 crime fiction books, including "The Man Who Came Uptown"; Producer and writer for the television series "The Wire," "Treme,"and "The Deuce"
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. George Pelacanos is a D.C. literary superstar. He, of course, is too modest to admit that, but we occasionally loan him out to New Orleans or New York, but most of his work -- which has won fans around the nation and the world -- is set right here, in the District of Columbia. George Pelacanos was born in Mount Pleasant and raised in Silver Spring, where he still lives. He joins us today to talk about his latest projects and other local writers he's enjoying, in particular, these days. George, welcome to the program.
GEORGE PELECANOSThanks, Kojo. How you doing?
NNAMDIDoing pretty good. George Pelacanos is the acclaimed writer of 21 crime novels and a writer and producer on the HBO series "The Wire," "Treme," and "The Deuce." George, for those who do not know your history, tell us how your family arrived in the Washington region and the businesses they built here.
PELECANOSWell, my dad came over from Greece when he was a toddler, and he lived in Chinatown, which is where a lot of the poor immigrants lived. And my mom was Greek-American, born in Annapolis. And, you know, like many Greeks, we went into the food business. My dad, when he came back from the Marine Corps in World War II, he got right into that with my grandfather on 14th Street, 14th and R. And then my dad had a diner at 1225 19th Street, which many people in Washington know as the old CF Folks, but it was called the Jefferson Coffee Shop when my dad had it. So, there it is.
NNAMDIMaybe delinquent is too strong a word, but you were not exactly a moderate teenager growing up. What were you like coming of age in the 1970s? And did your run-ins with the law make you a better crime writer?
PELECANOSNo, I don't think it -- I think of myself as just a normal guy who grew up, you know, was a teenager in the '70s, here. You know, I liked playing basketball. I also liked drinking beer and getting high and driving a muscle car and, you know, doing all the things you do. I wasn't really thinking about being a writer back then. I was just living my life and working. I always loved to work.
PELECANOSStarted out at 11 working for my dad and delivering food downtown during the lunch hours. And it was really a tremendous opportunity that my parents gave me to work, starting out when I was a kid, because I got socialized very early on. And I was walking around the city. That's really when I started to make up stories in my head, because I had that time on my hands. And I love movies, and I started sort of making up these movies in my head while I was working for my dad. And those were my earliest forays, really, into writing books.
NNAMDIGeorge, let's talk about some of your more recent work. "D.C. Noir," a series of short films you wrote, produced and directed, now available on Amazon Prime. I've been watching them. In the opening credits, you proudly said that the series was filmed entirely on location in the District of Columbia. And I got to tell you, a lot of the names I see in those credits are names I know from around the District of Columbia. Tell us about some of the stories in the series and what it was like filming here.
PELECANOSWell, it was really great filming here. We had cooperation from the District government and the D.C. Film Office and the neighborhoods. We used a lot of people as background, which people call extras. We used them for security. Like you say, we proudly shot 100 percent within the borders of Washington, all four quadrants. We had 60 Howard University students that interned with us as production assistants and got their first credit. You know, many of them, I understand, have since gone on to work in the industry, and you always need that first credit. So, it was really nice.
PELECANOSAnd then, you know, my son directed one of them, Nick Pelacanos, which I thought he did a beautiful job. The actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, who's been in our shows and was also Tom Robinson on Broadway in "To Kill a Mockingbird," he directed one. And Gbenga is a local guy. He grew up in Montgomery County. Stephen Kinigopoulos directed the third one, and I directed one. So, we had a good time.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned your son Nick. You and I have talked about your children over the years. You and your wife have two black sons and a Latina daughter. How are they?
PELECANOSThey're doing great. They're all working, which is a blessing. Seriously. I mean, right now, it's a big deal to be working, and my sons are in the film business. They work on crews. And my daughter manages a dog kennel out in Rockville, one of those doggie daycare places. So, it's great. And I'm working, too. You know, the whole thing with this pandemic, you know, I was down like everybody else. But once I started working again last summer, you now, things changed for me, psychologically. And work is very important, which is why, unlike you, I'm never going to retire. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhat was it like having Nick direct your work?
PELECANOSWell, I tried to stay out of his way. I tried. There were times when I gave him advice, and then I had to step back. But he had it in hand, and I was really proud of the way he dealt with the crew with respect. And that's what I was most proud of, but he did a really nice job. I gave him one of the stronger scripts. I wrote all the scripts, but I gave him one of the stronger ones, to be honest with you, because he's my son. (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, I'm proud of him too. We've got a clip from "D.C. Noir," in which we are introduced to a white cop patrolling a black neighborhood at night. He comes across a dad reading outside with his young daughter, and then a group of young men. Let's take a listen.
OFFICER SERGEANT PETERSThe name is Peters. The younger officers in the 4th District call me Sergeant Dad. I don't mind, as long as they say it with respect. I ride midnights, mostly. I prefer to ride alone. You get aches and pains when you're behind the wheel for hours at a stretch. I should get one of those things the African cabbies sit on. It looks like a rack of wooden balls. I've been doing this for 22 years now. I guess the damage I've done to my spine, or whatever, is permanent. Hey, pretty late for her to be out.
FATHERIt was just hot in my apartment. We're just getting some air.
PETERSBeen some armed robberies on this block.
FATHERI know. We won't be out too long.
PETERSOkay. A smile from officer friendly.
NNAMDIWell, Sergeant Peters seems to understand that he's not necessarily universally beloved by the people he's sworn to protect. Tell us a little bit about the scene and about this character.
PELECANOSHe's an old-school cop in the sense that he has gotten to know people in the neighborhood. And now he's policing the neighborhood where he recognizes grandchildren of people that he's known for years. And, you know, it's sort of my contention that that style of policing, that neighborhood policing that sort of went away, is responsible for a lot of the problems that we have. Because people who have been locked up or shaken down for trivial things or for nonviolent drug crimes are not going to talk to the police, and neither are their children.
PELECANOSAnd that's how a successful police force operates, is by, you know, gathering information. It's a partnership. And the drug war is what put a damper on that partnership. So, he's of another generation, and one that I think should come back.
NNAMDIWhen you first started filming "D.C. Noir" in neighborhoods all over Washington in 2017, you said you hoped the series would help put D.C. on the cinematic map. Do you think that's happening?
PELECANOSWe need to have ongoing film production here. And, you know, I think the D.C. Film Office is doing a good job attracting that, and Mayor Bowser's behind it. But the companies need to get used to filming here. And there should be an ongoing tax credit that makes that possible. People should realize that what happens -- and I saw it in New Orleans, for example, right after Katrina, when we were shooting down there, is that the film industry lifted the economy, completely.
PELECANOSIt's not just jobs for crew. There's also, you know, the work that you get from restaurants and hotels and car rental companies. And these cottage industries grow up around it, like sound houses, places like that. So, you know, I hope it happens. I mean, that's still something that I want to see happen here in Washington. And I continue to advocate for it.
NNAMDIThough you can't give us too many details, fans of "The Wire," the HBO police drama that you were involved in, will be excited to know that you are soon going to be filming in Baltimore again. What can you tell us about that project? And where the heck is David Simon? I haven't been hearing from him lately.
PELECANOSYeah, we're keeping him underground. We did round up the writing and producing crew from "The Wire," so we're all together again. I need to make it clear that this is not a sequel to "The Wire," because that sort of went around for a while, that rumor. However, we are doing a limited series that involves some very real events that happened in Baltimore regarding the police and its citizens. And I think it's going to be really good, because it has implications for, really, all cities around the country. And we're excited. We're going to shoot that late in the spring. We're going to start that.
NNAMDIAll right. Here, now, is Brian in Tacoma Park, D.C. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHello and welcome -- thank you for taking my call, and hello to you and your guest.
BRIANHey, how you doing, George? I read just about all of your books, and they all are great. I like the fact that you know D.C. And I wanted to know, were you going to write any more about the black private detective down on Upshur Street?
PELECANOSDerek Strange, yeah. That's my favorite...
PELECANOSThat is my favorite character. I would say yes. It's hard to stay away from him. And you know how it is in a writer's mind, is those characters exist. They're still out there. So, yeah, I'll go back to him. I really like that character. I appreciate that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. George, as a crime writer, you've created many characters who are cops, many who are trying to avoid cops. Has the focus on police brutality in the past year or two and the black lives matter protests changed the way you write about the police? Have you seen it affect the way other writers and directors depict the police?
PELECANOSI think so. I mean, people are trying. You've still got network television that sort of distorts the reality of that. You know, there's a show called "S.W.A.T." on TV right now that is kind of mindboggling, because people are wondering, why is there such a thing as a "S.W.A.T." team on a police force? Why is there this emphasis on the militarization of police?
PELECANOSAnd I have to be clear, you know, I think defund the police is an idiotic expression, but it's also a dumb idea. Police forces should continue to be financed, and that money should go for training and education, and also, you know, to pay quality people. You've just got to change the culture, and it's happening. It's happening slowly.
PELECANOSBut, you know, I've been writing about this a long time. I remember in 2000 or 2001, the first Strange book, "Right as Rain," was about a police shooting in D.C., a wrong police shooting. And when I went around the country on that book tour, you know, I had walkouts in places like Arizona. People didn't think it was real, and they didn't want to hear about it. But it's very real now. Everybody knows about it.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, the phrase "defund the police" is the source of a lot of discussion and a lot of arguing, because different people mean different things by it. Some people mean that there should be more support for community services, and nobody disagrees with that. But you also seem to think that we need to return to this kind of community policing that my friend Ron Hampton used to talk about when he patrolled in Adams Morgan for more than 20 years without ever having to use his service weapon. Is that what you're talking about?
PELECANOSYeah. If you talk to people in lower-income neighborhoods, they want a police presence. But they don't want to be hassled when they're walking home from work, or they don't want to be hassled in their car, because they're black behind the wheel, or wearing a hoodie, or whatever. You know, they just want to be protected.
PELECANOSAnd, you know, it's very important, again, that this communion between citizens and police is reintroduced and reestablished. And that's how things are going to succeed, not by taking money away from the police force. We need police.
NNAMDIHere's Ari, in Northeast D.C. Ari, your turn.
ARIHi. I was just wondering, as a male writer, how he balanced having kids and a career.
PELECANOS(laugh) You know, I know it's difficult for some people, but I sort of have thrived on the confusion. Actually, the most fertile period of my novel-writing career was when my kids were little and there was a lot of noise in my house. And, you know, we had a couple dogs, too. I mean, there was a lot going on, but I just blocked it out, and I went to work every day. And, you know, that was out of necessity, too. I had to work. So, there it is. It's different for everyone, but I didn't have any problem with that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ari. George, you also write about the incarcerated, as you did in your latest novel "The Man Who Came Uptown." The prison librarian is a key character who uses books to help change the lives of people behind bars. You have some experience yourself with the incarcerated and the redemptive power of books. Can you tell us about that, the book groups that you used to go to see at the jail?
PELECANOSYeah. I was doing that for many years. I haven't done it this year, for obvious reasons. They don't let you in. But, yeah, I was going down to D.C. jail and other juvenile facilities around, and, actually, jails around the country. And, you know, you just run these book groups, but basically, it's just getting people talking about books that leads into other discussions. I'm just of the mind that, you know, books are wonderful, anyway, but for somebody who's incarcerated, they're a lifeline.
PELECANOSAnd at the D.C. jail, they have a great library there now, an actual physical library. And, you know, it's just been a wonderful experience to be able to do that. I work with a couple of organizations, Free Minds Book Club, Open City Advocates. These are all good places, if people want to donate a little bit to -- that actually help people out, directly.
PELECANOSAnd before you kick me out of here, Kojo, I do want to say one thing. First of all, I want to congratulate you on a life well lived and your work life -- you know, because you've got a long life ahead of you, obviously -- but just your legacy in D.C. is unparalleled. I don't mean to embarrass you, but you've been the voice of reason in this city for intelligent discourse and rational conversation. And I just want to let you know how much we all appreciate you.
NNAMDIThank you very much. And you've been the voice in this city for crime fiction. And there are people who want to know, when are you going to get back to writing books again.
PELECANOS(laugh) Yeah. I've got a lot of work in television and the movies right now, and I'm trying to take advantage of that, because I really enjoy that kind of work. But, as I said earlier, I'm not going to retire. So, when I'm done with that, I'm going to get back to writing novels. And I will do that for the rest of my life.
PELECANOSSpeaking of books, I just want to mention two Washington books that I read recently that I thought were really great.
NNAMDII was about to get to that, but go ahead.
PELECANOSOkay. There's one coming out later this month called "Creatures of Passage" by Morowa Yejide. And it's a wonderful book set in Anacostia in the '70s, about a cab driver, of sorts, who kind of ferries people around town who have problems, you know, troubled people. And then there's a plot about a kid -- a subplot about a kid who's in trouble in Anacostia. And the community gets together to save him. And it's just a beautifully written book in the tradition of Toni Morrison. A very good book.
PELECANOSAnd then the other book I read recently is called "Black Broadway in Washington, D.C." by Briana Thomas, who's a Washingtonian. And that book is sort of a -- as the title suggests, a lot of it is about U Street and people like Duke Ellington and all the businesses down there. But it's also a history of black Washington that is very concise and educational for people, especially people who have moved here in the last 15 years who want to know what their neighbors are about and their history. You know, it's a very good book on that subject. So, I just want to give a shout-out to those two.
NNAMDIWell, talking about D.C. history leads me to ask about another subject you've apparently been learning about lately, the 1919 riots, which most people are not familiar with. What have you learned about that chapter in D.C. history, and why is it particularly interesting to you?
PELECANOSWell, a lot of people know about what they called the Red Summer of 1919. There were race riots all over the country, including the Tulsa race riots, are probably the most famous. But in Washington, in July of that year, I guess, it was about four days of rioting. But the thing that set it apart from the other riots is that it was more of a race war, a mini-war. I mean, black Washingtonians took up arms against whites who were trying to kill them.
PELECANOSAnd folks don't really know about this. I've actually wanted to write about it in novel form, but, you know, who knows if I'll get around to it. But it's detailed in this book, "Black Broadway in Washington, D.C." If you want to read about it, there's a little chapter about it in there, and it's a fascinating part of our history.
NNAMDIHere is Angela in Alexandria, Virginia. Angela, your turn.
ANGELAHi, Kojo. I grew up in New Orleans. I wasn't born there, and I left quite early, but go back all the time. "Treme" was just wonderful.
ANGELAAnd it reminded me so much of so many places I knew. The first time I saw the show, I started calling up my brothers and friends and saying, is that really so-and-so, is that really -- you know, because, you know, I thought it was -- you know, you would have made it up. And I said, those are the real places. Those are the real people. Unfortunately, there were a lot of people expect New Orleans to be quite different than it actually is. So, I think they missed out on a really great show, because New Orleans wasn't what they expected.
NNAMDIAngela, you should know that George does a lot of research on the actual places and tries to include them. When I watched "D.C. Noir," I was not surprised to see the real restaurant, The Hitching Post, portrayed in there.
PELECANOSOh, yeah, love The Hitching Post.
NNAMDIBecause that's exactly where they shot that movie. And I, as you know, am pretty familiar with it, too. But I'm afraid that's all the time we have. George Pelecanos is the acclaimed writer of 21 crime novels and a writer and producer on the HBO series "The Wire," "Treme" and "The Deuce." At one point, you said that you had nothing left to say about cops in Baltimore, but that's changed a little bit, hasn't it?
PELECANOSYeah, the events, they've kind of reared their ugly head and inspired us to go back. Yep.
NNAMDIYep. Well, George, thanks so much for joining us. Always a pleasure.
PELECANOSSame here, Kojo. Congratulations.
NNAMDIThank you. This segment with crime writer George Pelecanos was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about combating gun violence in the District was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, the Save Our Stages Act earmarks $15 billion for arts and music venues. It's a much needed boost, but what does this mean for our local venues? When will it be safe to go to a concert or to the theater? We'll check in with our local stages. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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