George Pelecanos may not be a household name, but his credentials suggest he should be. The Silver Spring resident is Montgomery County’s most prolific author, with 18 novels as well as numerous short fiction and essays published to date. Only superstar Alice McDermott of Bethesda may exceed his local literary stature.
Stephen King is a fan, once alluding to Pelecanos as “perhaps America’s greatest living crime writer.” To that high praise, the writer modestly noted that King said “perhaps,’” and offered his own compliments to King, an “if anything, underrated” writer who will be read “in hundreds of years, the way Dickens is still read.” And to those who consider Pelecanos the D.C. area’s most important chronicler, he replied, “I can only say that I have a plan, and I know what I’m trying to do. I’ll leave it to others to make the final judgment.”
As the producer and writer who worked with David Simon on two acclaimed HBO dramatic series, “The Wire” and “’Treme,” Pelecanos has no area rival.
“I’m just very fortunate to be able to straddle both worlds,” the 57-year-old writer acknowledged about his dual career.
Despite the fact that both vocations rely on writing skills, they are very different, especially in terms of responsibility: fiction is a solitary pursuit, and television, largely, a collaborative one.
“When I’m writing a novel, after the research phase, I’m pretty much alone in a room for five or six months, and I work seven days a week,” Pelecanos said, quipping, “That can be socially limiting.”
In contrast, he points out, “On a TV show or a feature, I’m working with a hundred people every day. I consider the crew who work on film sets — costumers, hair-and-makeup, props, art directors, camera department, you name it — to be artists. So it’s a kick to collaborate with these talented individuals and make something together.”
Among Pelecanos’ novels, mostly in series and some standalones, he has favorites. “Hard Revolution,” which culminates in the 1968 riots was a “very important book for me on a personal level, and I worked real hard on it. I think that’s the one that’s going to be on my tombstone.” And “The Night Gardener” is his “best pure crime novel” choice.
“The Martini Shot,” a book consisting of the title novella and seven short stories, written “as far back as 1994 and as recently as last year,” was released in January 2015. He described it as “a broad sampling of my writing, but there are thematic similarities that link the stories, if only because they come out of my psyche.”
Pelecanos identifies with all his characters “in a way. Even the ones who most people would think of as wrong. You have to do that as a writer. Inject yourself. That’s how you get inside their heads.”
In fact, characters in two “Martini” stories allude to a workout routine consisting of 200 daily pushups. Pelecanos said this four sets of 50 is his own habit. “Yeah, it’s true. I have a pair of rotating pushup stands I travel with, so even on the road, I’m pretty diligent about that. Pushups and crunches every day. Biking and kayaking if the weather permits. It’s part vanity, but also, I’m just driven. I’m not bragging about this, but I find it hard to relax.”
Spero Lucas, a veteran who works as a street detective for downtown attorneys who is the protagonist of two recent Pelecanos novels, first appeared in the collection’s “Chosen.” “The story focuses on his parents, but when I was done, and I looked at it, I felt like there was a novel to be written about their son,” the author recalled.
The new volume is dedicated to two previously unsung influences, to whom Pelecanos said he owes a great deal. The first, Charles Misch is the University of Maryland professor that Pelecanos said “turned me on to crime novels and populist fiction … We barely spoke to each other, but he changed my life.” The other, Estelle Petrulakis, a public school teacher who also taught Sunday school with his mother at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, “gave me books when I was growing up and inscribed motivational words for me inside the pages. I never thought I could become a writer. But she thought I could.”
As D.C.’s chronicler, Pelecanos, a Northwood High School alumnus, now lives a few miles from where he grew up. “Writing about the city is my life’s work, and I have to be here, close in, to do that successfully,” he observed. In addition, he noted that his mother lives nearby and his wife and children love the neighborhood. In short, he said, “I live here, for now, because I want to.”
The area, he said, is different in some respects. “The downtown business district of Silver Spring has obviously been radically transformed, and that’s a good thing, but the residential part of it hasn’t changed much since I was a kid, and I don’t think it will. There are a lot of apartment buildings around here, and immigrants, and different races. Frankly, that keeps the people away who would aspire to turn this into something else,” he said. “And that’s fine with me.”
Recently, Pelecanos has focused on TV and film development. HBO bought “The Deuce,” a Pelecanos-Simon collaborative pilot, set in 1970s Times Square, as well as a show based on the novelist’s Derek Strange character. The “long-gestating” film adaptation of his novel “Shoedog” is in pre-production. Beyond that, his aspirations in this sphere include doing another series in New Orleans, where he worked on four seasons of “’Treme,” and making a Western. “As always, I plan to write many more books,” he said. “I want to get better. That’s my goal. And I’m going to keep trying.”