Interview: George Pelecanos: Telling the tales of two cities

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The Wire has been dubbed the greatest series on TV. George Pelecanos, one of the writers and producers of the show, talks to Gaverne Bennett.

In November all eyes will be on Washington DC as the world waits to see who is to occupy the White House.

However, if you want to know what is behind and beyond that shiny residence there is no better chronicler than George Pelecanos.

Born and raised in Washington DC, Pelecanos had his first novel published in 1992. Fourteen crime novels later, and with many of the episodes of The Wire to his credit, George Pelecanos is still going strong.

From the very beginning George Pelecanos novels were not ust crime novels in the classic sense. In many of them he writes about the side of US life that you used to only hear about in Hip Hop songs until The Wire came along - the side where poor blacks, Latinos, and whites co-exist. In describing this world Pelecanos is undoubtedly a master.

His novels chronicle US working class life from all angles - racial and otherwise - over the past 30 years. Novels such as A Firing Offense, Hell to Pay, Hard Revolution, to mention but a few, are both hard hitting and revelatory.

In his novels and screen work you will see the underbelly of Washington. He shows you places that are a bus ride away from the White House where people bob below and above the poverty line; where in many cases neighbourhoods have been left to rot; and where murder and an illicit drug economy seem to flourish.

Pelecanos has in his own unique way given faces, names, personalities, intelligence and feelings to whole populations. These are people who only appear as news stories, statistics, or hot political footballs to be alluded to, and kicked around, but will never be mentioned by name during the US elections.

His work is one of the most powerful indictments of the impact of neoliberalism on the US working class. However, he not only shows you the impact of neoliberalism but how working class people themselves make sense of their lives in order to fight or just simply survive.

Can you tell Socialist Review readers a little about yourself?

I'm a Greek-American married with three children. I'm the author of 15 novels and think of myself first and foremost as a novelist.

What you see on The Wire is very similar to how I approach my fiction. It's crime fiction with a social bent, or urban reportage. I also produce movies occasionally, take other screenwriting gigs, and write for magazines and newspapers when something interests me. I like to have many guns in my arsenal.

What is The Wire about?

On the surface The Wire appears to be a cop show. That is, cops vs drug dealers in Baltimore. But the best description, I think, is that it is about the way things work. Every season we have added more and more elements and characters: politics and politicians, teachers, kids, attorneys and the courts, journalists and the newsroom. So that what you have is a panoramic view of an American city and a good idea of why we have failed so many who have slipped through society's cracks.

We spend many hours in the writing room trying to make each character complex, with a unique voice. There is a lot of discussion in that room, and argument too. We do try to get it right.

What is your favourite season?

My favourite season was season four, where we follow four boys through their school year, and see their home life, their life on the streets, and witness the tragedy of their respective fates.

You reach out to kids because with them you can arguably still "fix" things. But there are no grandiose solutions. The reality is that it is a supreme victory if you can pull one kid through the keyhole and give them a chance at a better life.

Everything we were trying to say, in my opinion, came together in season four.

You have said of Washington that "the dichotomy between the federal government and the working city is unique".

There is a disconnect. The government does not really care about the underclass because the members of underclass have little power and, for the most part, don't vote. Politicians pander to voters and special interest groups.

The drug war is the greatest example of this. Our representatives use legislation to disenfranchise and jail the less fortunate in our society. They destroy families and neighbourhoods in the process for their own political gain. The effect is that people in the inner city feel no connection to their government and consider the police to be their enemies. In DC it is most obvious because this poverty and violence is occurring in the shadows of the monuments and our hallowed halls of justice.

Washington has changed for the better in the last ten years. This is due to the gentrification that occurs in all cities sooner or later. It's not just white people moving back in; it is people of all colours who can afford to do so. So what we're seeing is an integrated city, economic momentum, and natural progress.

I'm very hopeful, but an unacceptable percentage of our populace are undereducated and still live under the poverty line. So we have work to do.

You go to great pains in your work to show how the drug industry dominates life in parts of DC.

It has created an underground economy. I'm strongly in favour of drug legalisation.

The writers of The Wire wrote a piece for Time magazine that said the following: If I was on a jury, and the charge was drug related but non-violent, I would without exception find that person innocent. If only one juror does that, under our laws, this results in an acquittal. It's called jury nullification. Sometimes civil disobedience is the answer in the face of a government that refuses to do what is right.

Do you think The Wire made more sense to people after New Orleans, that life for lots of African-Americans has not improved much in the last 20 years?

It has improved for some and not others. The lack of attention to the Katrina victims is more about them being poor than it is about them being black. The administration handled the disaster with the same degree of mismanagement that they did the war.

The last time I saw you Bush had just been elected. How would you describe the past eight years?

I would describe them as a bad dream. But bad dreams always end.

I am a strong and vocal supporter of Barack Obama. It's the most important presidential election of my lifetime. I believe in his honesty, integrity, and courage. I truly believe that he is the one chance we have to turn our country back around. Moral leadership through example; charity and compassion over aggression. That's what we need. Whether or not he will be effective remains to be seen.

George Pelecanos's latest novel, The Turnaround, has just been published by Orion. It will be reviewed in October's Socialist Review and is available from Bookmarks.