Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is a conversation with George Pelecanos. George is one of the great detective novelists of his generation and the executive producer several HBO dramas including The Wire and The Deuce, the latter of which he co-created with David Simon. 

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In this conversation, George and I discussed the people and forces that shaped his creative thinking, and we zeroed in on his experiences writing detective fiction and then collaborating with David Simon in shaping the series that became The Wire

One piece of context, before we begin. Prior to my interview with George, the students in the class screened an episode of The Wire written and produced by George: The 11th episode of the third season called “Middle Ground.” This episode is ranked by vulture.com as the best episode of one of the great series in the history of television.

In the episode we see the culmination of police major Bunny Colvin’s experiment in drug legalization, and the episode ends with the death of super popular antihero Stringer Bell played by Idris Elba at the hands of Omar Little and brother Mouzone.

Finally, the interview was conducted via Skype which will explain the somewhat fuzzy quality of George’s part of the conversation.

And so with all that said, here is my interview with George Pelecanos.

Kary:

As I was preparing for our conversation, George, I read the following passage in a Washington Post story about you from a few years back, “In the summer of 1968 when George Pelecanos was 11 years old, he went to work as a delivery boy at his father’s diner, The Jefferson Coffee Shop. He dreamed up serial Westerns in his head to amuse himself as he made the rounds on foot. Two months before the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. had sparked riots in Washington as it had in other American cities.”

Kary:

Tell us how those experiences and, in a larger sense, growing up in a racially and socially divided Washington, DC affected your outlook on the world.

George Pelecanos:

I was lucky enough to have parents that had the foresight to say, when I was 11, “It’s time for you to go to work.” I used to catch the bus downtown every day, and it went down Georgia Avenue for… I don’t expect any of you to know the geography, but Georgia Avenue and 7th Street was one of the riot corridors in Washington. There were three corridors, and it was one of the ones that basically burned to the ground. Every day, this was just a couple of months after the riots, every day I took this bus downtown. I was on the bus with black Washingtonians, working class. That was the area that we were in. I noticed a change in the people.

George Pelecanos:

Before, when I was riding the bus before the riots, the people were kind of beat. In a sense, they looked to me like they were beaten down, subservient, that kind of thing. After the riots, they looked different. They looked like the weight had been lifted off their shoulders. They were even dressing different. They were wearing louder clothing. I remember these huge earrings women were wearing that said “Black is Beautiful.” It was like a rain had come and cleared the streets. It was a rain in a sense. It was fire.

George Pelecanos:

Anyway, I’d go down to my dad’s place, which was in a different part of town. It was my father and I, Greek Americans. My dad was born in Greece. Then all his employees, it was about four or five people who were black Washingtonians. On the other side of the counter were white Washingtonians wearing ties, and we were serving them. That counter was a divide of race and class. I didn’t understand all of this on an intellectual level, but I certainly knew that something was happening. It’s not an accident that I’ve been writing about these things my entire career.

Kary: 

As I think most of the class knows, George is one of America’s most celebrated detective fiction writers. Tell us the story of how you became a novelist. What was your path to publishing your first novel?

George Pelecanos:

First of all, I wanted to make movies my whole young life. That was my goal. I was a film major at the University of Maryland with full intention of doing that. Then, in my senior year, I took a class in crime fiction, an elective class. I had never been much of a reader before. The teacher turned me on to books that spoke to my world, which is… Crime fiction is proletariat literature. It’s written by the people who it’s intended for. Then I just changed my… A light bulb went off, basically, and I decided that I wanted to change what I wanted to do in life…

George Pelecanos: 

But how do to that, I had no idea. I’d never taken a writing class or anything like that, and I wasn’t that well-read. So for the next 10 years out of college, I read voraciously. I read two or three books a week, novels, trying to figure it out while I worked the kind of jobs like bartender, ladies’ shoe salesman, all these things, retail, waiter, that I would write about for a long time. I was getting a lot of life experience while I was reading.

Kary:

Tell us about how you got your first novel published. It sort of seemed to happen around the same time you got your foot in the door in the film business.

George Pelecanos:

I wrote my first book when I was 31. I had no idea what I was doing or how to get it published. I couldn’t get an agent. I couldn’t even get anybody to answer my query letters, so I sent the book up to New York, the manuscript. I only sent it to one publisher because I had done the research, and I saw that this publisher actually did a lot of crime novels. Didn’t know anything. I didn’t call them or anything like that. I didn’t bother them or write any letters. I started writing my second book because I was so in love with the process at that point.

George Pelecanos:

Around that time, I got a job with the Pedas brothers, Jim and Ted Pedas, in Washington, DC. They were distributing foreign films, and they were producing the Coen Brothers’ early movies. I saw that they had bought John Woo’s The Killer for distribution in the United States. I dug the film a lot. I wrote them a passionate letter, said I wanted to come help them promote that film, and they let me in the door. For the next 10 years, I worked for them. We ended up producing a couple movies together, and I learned the business while I was writing novels at night. At the end of that decade, one of my books was bought for the movies, and I tied myself to it as the screenwriter. That’s when things started accelerating for me on the other side of the business.

Kary:

Who were your influences as a novelist as you came along? Who did you look to in developing your voice? Give us a sense, particularly in those early novels, how your voice evolved.

George Pelecanos:

In that class that I took, we read the classics. By that I mean the American classics that started with Dashiell Hammett, and then the line went to Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald, and all these people. I read all those books, and then I moved into the pulps. I got really interested in that, people like David Goodis, and Jim Thompson, and Horace McCoy who were writing these very… American realism. Then, from there, people like John Steinbeck and A. I. Bezzerides and all these guys who were kind of out of the depression writing about things like capitalism and touching on socialism. It was the people’s literature.

George Pelecanos:

That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write clean books that were for everybody, not for the academics or the elite, but books that… I wanted to see somebody walking down the street carrying a paperback novel of mine and reading it, who was on their way to work or on the subway. I was really attracted to that idea about writing books for working-class people, and those were the writers that influenced me.

Kary:

We started the class by watching the Richard Brooks film of In Cold Blood. I’ve never asked you this question, but did that book have an impact on you as your career was evolving or as your interest in writing about crime evolved?

George Pelecanos:

No. I read that relatively late. I probably read that book 10 years ago when I was well on my way.

George Pelecanos:

I have to say it’s a different thing that a lot of writers will say. They always want to name these books that are very difficult. I got my sense of storytelling through the movies. I was very lucky to grow up in a time when the golden age of films, which was the ’70s and late ’60s, early ’70s… When I was a kid, it was a lot of westerns like The Wild Bunch, Magnificent Seven, that sort of thing, and then, going into the ’70s, people like Scorsese and Coppola and all these folks that… you’d go to the movies, and you’d see extraordinary films all the time. That’s what television is doing. I mean television is, to me, is doing the best stuff. Those kind of films, that subject matter, that treatment of social issues has moved over to television, which is why I’m working in TV.

Kary:

Let’s go there. What was the first film or television project that you wrote that you got hired to write?

George Pelecanos:

Well, I got hired to write a thing for ABC about Bellevue Hospital, which is the mental hospital here in New York. I only lasted a couple days on that show, if you remember, because you’re one of the first guys I called. I thought I was flushing my career down the toilet.

Kary:

I remember it vividly. Why don’t you tell us what happened there? You moved up to New York. It was Pete Berg’s show. I think it lasted half a season or something. You were in and on the ground floor of it. You were there at its inception. What happened? Why did you decide it wasn’t for you?

George Pelecanos:

It just felt wrong. It wasn’t Peter Berg. I’ve worked with Peter Berg since then, and it wasn’t him. The decision I made was the wrong decision at the time. I was doing it for money, which I learned a big lesson then which I’ve tried to adhere to, which is not to take a job for money but to take a job because you’re passionate about it, that you really want to do it.

George Pelecanos:

As you know, at the time, I had babies at home. I remember leaving Union Station in DC, getting on the train. I was walking to the train. I looked up, and I saw my oldest son who was… He was about five or six at the time. He was looking at me walking to the train, and I could see it in his eyes like, “Where you going? What are you doing, Dad?” It tore me up, man. I got up to New York, and it was just that’s all I could think of. Well, what happened was I came home, and I immediately got a job rewriting a film for Miramax. Then, not long after that, I hooked up with David Simon.

Kary:

We heard a bit from Tom Fontana about his experience with David working on Homicide: Life on the Street. Tell us what you know about the origin of David’s creation of The Wire and then how you became involved in the show.

George Pelecanos:

Yeah. I had gone to the funeral of a mutual friend, and I had only met David once or twice. I knew his wife, the author Laura Lippmann. David says, “Why don’t you ride with me to the shiva?” We’re in the car together, and he says, “I just sold a show to HBO.” He downplayed it. He said, “It’s about cops and drug dealers in Baltimore. Would you be interested in writing an episode?” I knew what he had done. This is further along than when Fontana broke him into the business. David had, since then, had done The Corner, which I thought was an extraordinary show. I kind of knew where his heart was from watching that show and what he could do.

George Pelecanos:

I said, “Yeah, I’ll try it. I’ll write an episode.” That was the first actual screenplay I wrote that ever got produced. It happened to be the episode in Season One, this is not a spoiler now after all these years, it’s been 15 years, where Wallace, played by Michael B. Jordan, a young Michael B. Jordan, is executed by his friends. It’s a very powerful scene, and people liked it. David asked me to come on board full time. I did, and then I kind of picked it up pretty quickly, and I became a producer within a year.

George Pelecanos:

One of the good things that happened from writing that particular episode is that David and I had an unofficial deal after that that I would always write the penultimate episode, which is the next-to-the-last episode. It happens to be the one where a lot of things happen. A lot of violent things happen. I was responsible for the death scenes of many of the most beloved characters on the show.

Kary:

You’re a killer. Tell us how the writers’ room was structured on the show beginning in the second season. I know you can’t really speak to the first. If I’m not mistaken, you brought in other novelists to work on the show. Tell us about all of that.

George Pelecanos:

Dennis Lehane and I had been friends since we both started out as novelists, so I sort of made the call on that one, and we got him. Richard Price was in Washington doing a reading of one of his books, new books. David’s like, “I’m thinking about asking him to be a writer with us.” I said, “Well, let’s go. Let’s do the Pincer move. Let’s go into the green room, and we’ll come at him from both sides,” and we did. To our surprise, Richard decided to write with us too.

George Pelecanos:

We had sort of a murderers’ row of novelists on that show, which is an unusual thing. It was, certainly, at the time. People tend to hire television writers. David didn’t want that. It worked out with me. What happens is is that it doesn’t mean that they’re not good writers, but they’re trained in a certain way when they work for the networks. We didn’t want people who were tainted like that. We just wanted good writers. It didn’t even matter if you knew Baltimore or not. I’m from DC. I’m not from Baltimore. Richard said to me, at one point, “I’m a little reticent because I don’t know this town.” I said, “Yeah, but you know people, and you’re a hell of a writer. Just write the scenes. We’ll plug the street names in. You know what I mean? Don’t worry about it.”

Kary: 

What was the dynamic like in the writers’ room? How long would you guys get together to break the season? Did it work that way? Then how were assignments allotted?

George Pelecanos:

The way we worked was we would get, way in advance of when we’d start writing, we’d get together and sort of talk about, okay, what’s this season going to be about, who are the characters, where do they start, and where do they end, that kind of thing. There were no scenes, episodes broken or anything like that. That’s how we started.

George Pelecanos:

Then we would get together and beat out each episode scene by scene. We are much faster than other productions. I can tell you that. We’ll beat out an episode in two days, and so we don’t have a writers’ room that convenes every day during the season like other shows do. We’ll get together for a week or two and then come back in a couple months, get together again to do the second half of the season, that sort of thing.

George Pelecanos:

Our room on that show was pretty intense. We were all very competitive and opinionated. Each one of us thought we were the best writer in the room, which is as it should be. There was a lot of argument. I don’t mean just polite argument. There was the kind of arguments where you’re standing up and got your finger in some guy’s chest. You know what I mean? At the end of the day, it was like that was business. It wasn’t personal, but it could be an emotional room. I feel like, and I’m sure David feels like that that kind of argument is what produces a good show. I’ve been in rooms where it’s dead, man, and everybody’s really polite, and nothing happens.

Kary:

How did David preside over the room, or did he preside? Was he an arbiter, or would he just hang back and let the blood spill?

George Pelecanos:

He and Ed argued a lot, Ed Burns.

Kary:

Tell everybody about Ed Burns. He’s the kind of forgotten one in a lot of this.

George Pelecanos:

Yeah. Ed has done a lot of things in life. He’s a combat veteran of Vietnam, came back after the war, became a police officer in Baltimore, started out in uniform on patrol then became… worked his way up to homicide. He did a lot of big wire taps and put away a lot of the biggest drug dealers in Baltimore history in the federal joint, but I got to say about Ed is he was the guy that would go visit those guys all the time when everybody else had forgotten them. A lot of those guys ended up on our show as actors when they came out. Then Ed, when he left the force, he became a public schoolteacher in Baltimore for many years, so he had a tremendous amount of life experience.

George Pelecanos:

Ed’s a pretty gruff guy. When he has an opinion, he sticks to it. I don’t know if any of you all read the latest, this book that came out of The Wire. It’s called All the Pieces Matter. It’s an oral history of The Wire. Ed is still reminding everybody that he was right and we were wrong. There’s stuff that’s on the show that he still hates to this day because he didn’t get his way. Ed was right a lot of the time, but nobody wanted to say they were wrong in that room.

Kary:

Did David get to know Ed when Ed was a homicide cop?

George Pelecanos:

Yeah. Ed Burns is in the book Homicide, his chronicle of the homicide squad in Baltimore, which became the show. Ed’s in there by name. They became friends, and they wrote The Corner together. Ed spent a year on The Corner getting to know all those people.

Kary:

A lot of Ed’s life experience is in The Wire. The whole fourth season revolves around the kids in school and the Pryzbylewski character. His character experience is inspired by Ed. Correct?

George Pelecanos:

That’s right. Everybody’s got their opinion, but I think Season Four is the top, top shelf of the show. It’s because it’s about kids, and you follow them in a year of school. It’s a tragic season of television, and it’s the most affecting one because we show what happens to these kids. I really think that that’s the best thing we did on that show is not… I’m not talking about the season but in the general sense that we showed people how things really work. You hear all your life, “Why can’t those kids just work hard and get out of the ghetto?” We showed you why.

Kary:

We spoke a bit about the other novelists. Their voices, as novelists, and David’s natural inclinations seem to have been much darker than yours, at least yours were when you started working on the show. My reading of your early novels, there was a lot more hope in them than the world that The Wire depicts. How did the show change you as a writer, and what was your role in that dynamic?

George Pelecanos:

I did get a little more realistic about things after working on that show. You have to remember those weren’t sets. I mean we shot in those neighborhoods. They were locations not sets. We got to know the people.

George Pelecanos:

Sometimes I’d go home, and I’d feel guilty about what I was doing because I was starting to make a bunch of money writing this stuff and producing it, and then I was leaving all these people behind and getting in my nice car, whatever muscle car I was driving at the time, and driving back to my beautiful house in DC. You know what I mean? I started really thinking about that. It did change me. That’s when I got out and started doing things and working in schools and working in prisons and juvenile lockup. All these things that I do, to this day, was a result of working on that show.

George Pelecanos:

And the one character that I sort of brought to the table was Cutty who, to answer your question, finally, who was a guy who makes it through to the other side. He’s one of the rare characters in The Wire that gets there. He’s the guy that comes out of prison. I was writing a book about a guy who comes out of prison and gets a job as a dog police in DC, and so I was in prisons a lot and juvenile lockup and stuff like that. I had a lot of material that I wasn’t using for the book, and I wanted to use it in the show so…

Kary:

I just want to get into a little bit more of the way things worked on the show, and then we’ll get into the episode, the “Middle Ground” episode that everybody watched tonight. What were your producing responsibilities early on, and how did they evolve over the course of the four seasons that you were on it?

George Pelecanos:

Well, first of all, I was on set a lot. That’s where you not only learn how to actually produce, but you become a better writer because I feel like that’s the turning point is when you’re on set you can see the actors how they… their strengths and their weaknesses and so on. You also learn how to write for production, meaning not to write unnecessary scenes or, even within scenes, unnecessary action that… If you write a guy, take a guy from one room to another, and he’s going through crowds and everything like that, that’s a couple lines on the page, and it’s another four hours on set. We worked a really tough schedule, and so I learned how to make it leaner while keeping it dense on the page. I’m a fan of detail.

George Pelecanos:

If you look at our scripts, they don’t look like typical scripts. They’re very dense. There’s a lot of type on the page, but what that is is details. I like to control things in the same manner that I do as a novelist. I took that ethos to the TV show. Little by little, they gave me more and more responsibility. I’d start sitting in on casting and casting day players and stuff like that. It wasn’t until I got into the editing room that I really felt like I was crafting something from start to finish. Actually, that didn’t happen on that show. It didn’t start happening until my next show with David, which was Treme down in New Orleans. That’s when I started editing.

Kary:

Was there a producing director on the show each season?

George Pelecanos:

Yeah. We had Joe Chappelle. Joe directed the episode that you all saw tonight. Then that wonderful scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale on top of the hotel looking down on Baltimore, that was directed by Joe. I think that’s a really good scene. It’s probably one of the best things I ever wrote.

George Pelecanos:

Here’s what I want to stress is that it can be a great scene on paper, but it doesn’t mean anything in this medium without a lot of other people that are bringing it to life. It’s the actors, but it’s not just the actors. If you look at the way that scene was shot, there’s a master like there always is, and then Joe used long lenses in that scene. If you look at it again, you’re really focused on the characters, and everything else behind them is blown out. Only thing you see is no definition, but you see a lot of colors which represents the city. You’re really in on these characters because it’s a very dramatic moment between them. Joe did a beautiful job.

George Pelecanos:

Joe was always there for if we needed second unit work, which is… If you all know what that is, it’s sort of like the overflow work that the director of the episode that you have in town can’t do. It’s the extra work. Joe was a really good director. He went on to a good career in Chicago on lesser shows.

Commercial break for crimestory.com.

Kary:

So this episode, “Middle Ground,” was the next-to-last episode. We talked a little bit about the fact that you would write the next-to-last episode of each season. Can you just elaborate on how you developed that role as, essentially, the kind of clean-up hitter?

George Pelecanos:

Well, people liked what I was doing, and then it sort of became a little bit of a bone of contention amongst the other writers because that was… They have the episodes where guys were sitting in rooms talking, and I had the episode where Omar and Brother Mouzone are… They’re stalking Stringer Bell with shotguns. You know what I mean? Then it would be like, “Well, why don’t you just give Pelecanos the Emmy now?” I mean it wasn’t fair, but I didn’t care if I wasn’t fair. I liked having that episode.

George Pelecanos:

I was getting a reputation amongst the actors. We don’t tell the actors when they’re going to die. We don’t tell them in mid season or at the beginning of the season, “Look, I’m sorry, but in episode eight, we’re going to kill you,” because we don’t want their performance to be telegraphed knowing they’re going to die. Essentially, when the script drops, they read the script, and they see their death. It’s like handing somebody a pink slip, “You’re fired.”

George Pelecanos:

In this particular episode, Idris Elba didn’t take it too well when he read the script that he was going to die. He really didn’t take it well. The original script, we were always in the moment on that show, so whatever was happening at the time… At that time in Baltimore, guys, after they killed somebody, they would piss on them. You know what I mean? It was a trend. I wrote it that Omar takes a piss on Stringer Bell after he kills him in that scene. Idris Elba didn’t like that either. I said, “Idris, they’re not going to piss on you. They’re going to piss on a dummy of you like a mannequin.” He said, “They’re not even going to piss on my dummy,” so we cut it out, which was fine. You know what I mean?

George Pelecanos:

But I want to say that, the night we shot his death scene, I was walking down a alley off of Howard Street at 4:00 in the morning, and it’s Baltimore. You don’t be walking in any alley in Baltimore. I hear this guy running behind me. I turn around, and it’s him. He just ran. Even though we had argued about all this stuff, he had come to shake my hand and say, “It’s just business.” Idris Elba didn’t get hurt. He’s an international movie star now. After he left our show, it all blew up for him. He’s a hell of an actor and a good guy.

Kary:

You’ve told me that it’s your favorite episode. Why?

George Pelecanos:

I think it all sort of came together. It was one of those sort of magic times, and it’s happened to me writing books where I couldn’t write it fast enough. It was all coming out, and it was coming out good.

George Pelecanos:

In the beginning when I was writing for The Wire, the very first script I wrote, I probably got 30% of what I wrote in. David rewrote the rest because I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I didn’t know the characters and stuff like that. That script was about 90, 95% what I wrote, what I turned in. I just think all the pieces kind of fit in on that one.

George Pelecanos: 

It was an interesting season. The legalization of drugs was something that we all thought we were for until we started writing it and talking about it. A lot of interesting things came out in that season that changed our opinions about certain convictions we thought we had as well. It was good.

Kary:

I read that the film is… I mean the episode is designed to be a Western. Can you talk about that a little bit?

George Pelecanos:

Yeah. The opening scene where Brother Mouzone and Omar face off in the street was written as an homage to a Sergio Leone Spaghetti-Western, and it was shot that way, a lot of close-ups. That was in collaboration with Joe Chappelle. I told him what I was going for. There’s a neighborhood that, when you take the train into New York from DC, you drive right past that bridge where Omar emerges where he’s whistling The Farmer in the Dell. We waited that night for the train to go over the bridge in the background, which is also a Western motif.

George Pelecanos:

There was one season where we would give each other challenges like how many lines from Peckinpah films can you put into the scripts? We would do stuff like that just to keep ourselves kind of amused, so there’s a lot of references to movies in there.

Kary:

Let’s go back to Cutty for a second. There’s so much darkness, particularly in this episode, as the Amsterdam thing is collapsing and as Stringer Bell goes to his death. There are these moments with Cutty where he goes to Avon for money and when he’s working with Justin, the kid who’s fighting the little kid, that are these moments of hope. Was that done by design, juxtaposing the darkness against the kind of humanity or redemption of the Cutty moments?

George Pelecanos:

Yeah. I think there’s more of me in that script than you’ll see in a lot of the scripts I did for The Wire. That’s me. I still believe in that stuff. That’s why I do reading programs in prisons and stiff like that is because you don’t… You’re not trying to save a bunch of people, but I definitely feel like you can pull somebody through the keyhole once in a while, and Cutty was that guy. I love his arc because he’s got so much going against him. All’s he’s trying to do, like he doesn’t save all those kids, he just wants to help out one or two in the end, and then you’ve done something.

Kary:

Let’s talk a bit about Bunny Colvin, the cop that started the Amsterdam project and that takes the politician Carcetti through Amsterdam in the latter part of the show. Give us a sense of his journey and what he’s trying to communicate to Carcetti in that scene as he takes him through the kind of the legalized drug or decriminalized drug zone.

George Pelecanos:

Bunny is a guy who he fails at what he’s trying to do, but he succeeds as a man, not in this season, but he ends up adopting one of those boys in Season Four. Again, it’s one of those small things. It’s a very small thing, but he impacts one person’s life, but he couldn’t get this done. In all fairness, it wouldn’t work. I mean that’s the conclusion we came to is that you can’t just legalize drugs and expect it to be the cure-all. There’s got to be a lot of things that happen. Colvin realizes it too in the end.

Kary:

That’s basically what I was looking for was a sense of how he reflects the collective writers’ experience of working through what the decriminalization of drugs would mean in an urban environment.

Kary:

McNulty is kind of the lead detective character in the show. There’s this scene between him and the political consultant character, Theresa D’Agostino, in the restaurant. She makes a comment about what we come to realize is Bunny and what he comes to realize is Bunny. It’s in that moment that he makes a decision he’s not going to sleep with her again. It seemed to me to be a kind of transformative moment for that McNulty character. Was it meant to be that way in the room?

George Pelecanos:

I think so. He’s obviously a complicated guy that… He’s weak with women and alcohol, and he makes a lot of bad decisions. But she goes a bridge too far with him. There is a morality to this guy and things that he won’t do. That was it, the betrayal of this guy. He wasn’t going to go there. It helped us with the character a little bit because McNulty was sometimes too far in the other direction, I think.

Kary:

I’ve often been curious about the scene between Stringer Bell and Bunny Colvin in the cemetery. I know you haven’t seen it in a while, but it seems that Stringer’s going there to betray Avon Barksdale, his partner, and he’s doing that because he’s frustrated that Avon won’t let him take out the Baltimore politician. Is that what’s going on there, or is it something else? Do you remember? 

George Pelecanos: 

I don’t. I mean I think it was more that… Stringer wants to be a businessman. He doesn’t want to be a gangster anymore, and Avon won’t let him be that guy. That’s his way of getting away from him.

Kary:

I’m going to ask just a couple more questions, then I’m going to turn it over to the students to ask questions of you.

George Pelecanos:

Sure.

Kary:

Tell us about the construction of the scene of Stringer Bell’s death. Is that a kind of return to the kind of book-ending the show with these Western moments.

George Pelecanos:

Well, a lot of it was visual too. Joe and I went to this location, not on an official scout, but we got into this warehouse, and we kind of just hung out there for a half a day and walked through it and choreographed the whole thing. Then there were pigeons flying around in there. I said, “We got to have that too.” The night of the shoot, we brought pigeons in even though that… because we didn’t know if they would be there or not, the ones that were living there. We choreographed it. I knew Joe had wanted to make movies. We said, “I want this episode to be as good as a movie and look like a movie,” so that was it. Yes, it was like a Western, the final confrontation.

Kary Antholis:

Now we’ve collected questions from our students. The first question is… One of the things that marks your work is the authenticity of the characters and the situations. Can you speak a bit about the balance between telling a story that’s compelling and engaging and doing it in a way that’s deeply authentic? 

George Pelecanos:

You’re making a crime show, so even though it was much more than that, we were aware of the fact that there were certain expectations we wanted to shatter but, also, there are guns, and there are shoot-outs and stuff that like, but the shoot-outs never are very balletic or choreographed or anything like that.

George Pelecanos:

There was one episode I didn’t write, but where Bodie and all them got into a shoot-out, and they were firing over their shoulders. Nobody was hitting anything, and nobody was holding the gun sideways or anything stupid like that. It was just a lot of confusion and fear. Any time we did something that was pretty much in that genre area that we felt was genre-ish that we had seen before on cop shows, we would squelch it in the writers’ room. The question was not should we have the character do this? It was always what would happen? If we were on the street in Baltimore, what would happen?

George Pelecanos:

That’s why there’s a lot of humor in the show because, when you’re out there, you just realize that the people that are living in this world are really funny. It’s like soldiers. Police are funny. It’s people under pressure deal with it by humor, and there’s a lot of humor in the show for that reason. It’s sort of unusual for a drama.

George Pelecanos:

I think, to get to your question, is you got to listen to the way people talk. To even go where you haven’t gone yet, but I’m going to go there, is you got a bunch of white writers doing black characters. The mistake that a lot of white writers make is they have a black character, and they say, “He’s going to talk like this.” You know what I mean? He’s going to drop his Gs and everything. I drop my Gs when I’m talking. I just did it. If you go into a room and there’s… and you go into a room, let’s say you go to a wedding reception or something where it’s all black people, and you close your eyes and listen, there’s 100 different black voices in that room, not one.

George Pelecanos:

What I’m trying to say is: “Respect people.” That’s the thing we try to live by is: “Respect people and remember that everybody has a voice.”

Kary Antholis:

The next question is… the show seems to make a point of emphasizing that no character is either fully good or fully bad. Drug dealers donate money to a boxing gym. Cops sleep around, get drunk, and act in imperfect ways. Can you talk a bit about the moral ambiguity of the show?

George Pelecanos:

It is true to life. In Washington, we had this guy, Rayful Edmond, who was a big sort of a kingpin who’s well known. He had a lot of people killed and ruined a lot of lives but then, at Thanksgiving, he’s driving around with turkeys giving them out to families.

George Pelecanos:

They talk about Marion Barry, Mayor Barry being a crack head and stuff. That’s the first thing you hear, “Oh, that guy was a crack head.” He also built nursing homes for old people in areas of Washington that had never had nursing homes to house people’s mothers and grandmothers. He created a black middle class by creating a workforce for people and a job market for people that had never had it before.

George Pelecanos:

There’s complexity to all these people that I think you need to address because that’s what makes them interesting and also human. It’s the reality. I don’t believe there’s any villains, really. The character of Marlo came the closest to being a villain, but he was a guy that represented this sort of new breed of guys that were coming up in Baltimore, at the time, that were a little… had less honor, let’s say, than some of the older gangsters that had been in the city.

Kary Antholis:

Can you talk a little bit about research for both your novels and for TV shows you work on?

George Pelecanos:

For my novels, I’m alone. I don’t have a researcher, so I go out and I do a lot of street research. Some of the things that I’ve talked to you about, it makes it sound like I’m altruistic when I say I go into prisons and I do reading programs and stuff, but when I go into prisons, I’m getting a lot of material. Again, I’m listening to people talk, and their stories, and the inflection in their voices. I’ll do that. I go to trials. I go to murder trials, which is anybody’s right, as a citizen, to go to these trials. I’m not really interested in the legal aspect of it. I want to hear people up on the stand, and I want to hear their voice and the poetry in their language and so on.

George Pelecanos:

I used to ride with police. I don’t really do that anymore because now I have contacts. I have people on the police force that let me into their world on a one-on-one basis and also people on the other side in the underworld that I’ve gotten to know who call… Sometimes I’ll get a call, and it’ll be somebody I don’t know, and they’ll say, “I used to be one of the biggest drug dealers in southeast. I want to talk to you. Would you like to get together?” I’m like, “Damn straight. Let’s go have a cup of coffee.”

George Pelecanos:

It’s gotten easier. The Wire opened up a lot of doors for me that had been otherwise closed because people knew the show and, also, police actually like that show a lot. Right after The Wire, I finally got into the homicide squad in Washington, and they let me work with them, actually work on a murder case or observe a murder case from the day of the murder to the day they got the confession in the box. They wouldn’t have done that if not for The Wire, so that helped me out quite a bit.

George Pelecanos:

On the television shows, we have researchers that do a lot of work for us. They’re constantly in libraries and with sources and that kind of thing. We tell them what we need, and they go out and get it for us.

Kary Antholis:

This next question is from a student named Sara, and she asks… How do you create attachment in these characters? For example, I love this episode so much because it has my two favorite characters — Stringer Bell and Omar — go head to head with one another. How do you create the intensity of people’s feelings for these characters?

George Pelecanos:

Omar was a strange case because we never intended Omar to become folk hero. One of the things that you wonder about, as a writer, whether you’re writing for television or writing novels, is I know what I’m trying to get across, but how are people going to perceive it, specifically impressionable younger people?

George Pelecanos:

I remember watching Season Four with some kids from my neighborhood. If you remember, one of the kids, Randy… They firebomb his house because they think he’s a snitch. Randy wasn’t a bad kid. It was a misunderstanding. The teenagers that were in my house watching it were like, “Yeah, Randy got what he deserved. Randy was a bitch.” You know what I mean? They were perceiving it like that.

George Pelecanos:

Omar got to be this folk hero. We loved writing Omar. We loved the character and all that, but the one thing we didn’t want to do is give Omar a noble death or a death that would mythologize him. As you know, you’ve all seen the show, I guess by now, he’s shot by a kid in the back when he’s going to the corner market to get a pack of cigarettes. He gets shot in the back. The subsequent scene is in the newsroom where they get word of this dead guy is West Baltimore. To them, they just throw it in the basket. He’s just another “yo”. Outside of Omar’s world, he wasn’t this big man. He was just another dead black guy to these guys in the newsroom.  But you don’t know how it is going to be perceived and you have to be careful about that.

Kary Antholis:

Before I came over today, I was talking to my son who’s 17. and he said, “I wish you were showing the last episode of the season because that’s my favorite.” He said the reason for that was, when McNulty goes into Stringer’s apartment, he starts to learn things about Stringer that makes him sympathize with Stringer in a very human way. He sees The Wealth of Nations. This kind of goes to Sara’s question is, in crafting these characters, they’re so human and complex, creating human and complex characters. The way people interpret them is very individual and specific to what speaks to them.

George Pelecanos:

Jack is right to like that episode. David, by the way, always wrote the last episode of the season and the first. 

Kary Antholis:

One last question, George, which I ask all of our guests. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

George Pelecanos:

My agent told me early on not to worry about the business side of things and worry about the money and the advances and all that or even the sales figures. It was to keep your head down and write and focus on becoming a better writer. That’s always been my goal. I mean it will be my goal to the end. I’ll be chasing that great book or that great script, you know what I mean, and hoping to get it.

Kary Antholis:

Join me in thanking George Pelecanos for coming.

George Pelecanos:

Thanks, everybody. Thank you.

End interview.