George Pelecanos, a detective fiction novelist famous for writing and producing The Wire, visited Georgetown on Tuesday for a reading and Q&A with students. At the event he discussed growing up in the District, beginning his career, and his experiences in television.
The event, sponsored by the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, began with a video introducing the audience to Pelecanos’s work, namely his 18 novels and his involvement with the television shows Treme, The Pacific, and The Wire. The Q&A portion consisted of questions previously collected from Georgetown students, followed by questions from the audience.
Pelecanos introduced himself by discussing a detective fiction class he took in college at the University of Maryland. While he had previously focused on studying film, he took the class for an “easy grade” and discovered a new passion in the genre.
“It is what I consider to be proletariat literature,” Pelecanos said. Other genres “didn’t speak to [his] world,” which up to that point had mainly consisted of working at his father’s diner in D.C. during and after the 1968 race riots. He credits his professor, Charles Mish, for having sparked this love of books. Pelecanos published his first novel in 1992 and soon gained notoriety as a writer.
Most of his novels take place in and around the District and highlight the socio-economic and social issues facing the area. Working in the diner with his Greek immigrant family and black employees and seeing white men in ties on the other side of the counter, Pelecanos noticed a dividing line at a young age. This experience led him to write about such issues.
He says he doesn’t have any illusions about “creating change,” but rather he hopes to raise questions with his writing.
“I’m taking the reader where they don’t want to or can’t go,” he said.
David Simon, producer and writer for The Wire, sought out Pelecanos for the show after reading his novel The Sweet Forever, a crime drama about the challenges facing an American city.
Pelecanos said he took a similar approach in writing for the show as he did with his novels. He and other writers did extensive research and based their ideas on actual events in the city of Baltimore in order to portray the city as realistically as possible, in addition to including social commentary.
“You have to listen to people if you’re going to do this kind of thing,” Pelecanos said. He would do research by going for ride-alongs with Baltimore police, reading about crimes in the area, and even sitting in a bar and listening to the way people talked.
Because of this approach, Martin O’Malley, the mayor of Baltimore at the time, attempted to revoke their filming permit, as he believed the crime and corruption shown would have negative effects on his election. Instead the show brought millions of dollars in revenue into the city.
Because The Wire was not popular while it was on the air, Pelecanos and others involved in the project were able to experiment and create a better series with their truthful approach, which Pelecanos found fortunate.
“I feel like we caught lightning in a bottle,” he said, referring to the show’s development and success.
The Georgetown Voice also got the opportunity to interview Pelecanos after the event. Read more in the issue of the Voice that was published today.
Photo by Raquel Rosenbloom