Book Sense Author Turns D.C. Streets Into Setting for Gripping Crime Writing

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George P. Pelecanos, the crime-fiction author whose Hell to Pay (Little, Brown) is a Book Sense 76 pick for March/April, started laying the groundwork for a writing career when he was still a youngster -- although he didn't know it then.

"When I was 10 years old, my dad put me to work at his lunch counter and carry-out shop," said Pelecanos, a life-long Washington, D.C., resident. "To get there, I had to take a couple buses downtown and crosstown. It was quite an education for a kid. Even at that early age, I was really interested in looking at people and wondering about their lives and listening to the way they talk. Washingtonians, we do have our own slang and speech patterns and so on.

"And then," he continued, "my job was to deliver food to the offices around the neighborhood, so I was out on foot all day in the city as a kid. On top of that, I had a real active imagination; I was into movies. So, to pass the time while I was delivering food for my dad, I would make up stories. And I would serialize them -- so that on a Monday, I'd start a story; and by the end of the week I'd come to the climax, and I'd end it."

Pelecanos explained, "I thought in my head I was making movies. But what I was really doing was writing books."

After college and several years of purposeful reading, Pelecanos began writing books for real, almost one a year, in a decade during which he also worked for (and eventually headed) a film production company in D.C. Two years ago, he left that firm to write full-time.

A serious exemplar of the write-what-you-know adage, Pelecanos creates his hard-hitting, neo-noir crime fiction almost completely out of the D.C. world he grew up in and still sees daily. Of the several years between school and his first book, he said, "I was basically working blue-collar jobs, and getting -- not consciously, but nonetheless getting -- material for the things that I'll probably end up writing about for the rest of my life."

So firmly is his fiction anchored in fact, Pelecanos has worked his own family into his stories. His father's lunch counter, the Jefferson Coffee Shop, appears as itself in the '70s-period work King Suckerman (1997), he said -- along with his father and Pelecanos himself. "My father's behind the counter (in that scene). And then there's a long-haired Greek kid with a white-boy Afro, way in the back, who drives a Camaro. That's me."

His father's early biography made its way into a 1996 Pelecanos book, he said. "In The Big Blowdown, Peter Karras is my father, up until the time he comes back from World War II; that was what his childhood was like, growing up as an immigrant kid in Chinatown. And my mother and my grandparents are all in the book by name; they sort of drift in and out. I got to do that, which was really cool, because my grandmother was still alive, and my parents are still too, and -- it's on record, now."

Despite his close fictional focus on his hometown, Pelecanos said he didn't form his most mature vision of the nation's capital until he took a 1993 trip to Brazil.

"I went down there to adopt my second son, Peter," he recounted. "We were stuck down there for several months, my wife and I. For the first time in my life, I saw kids who were hungry for real, laying down in the middle of the street, eating out of dumpsters, all this stuff.

"And at the same time, I'm reading in USA Today, the only American newspaper there -- and this is the time of Gingrich's so-called 'revolution' -- where they wanted to do away with welfare here -- and so on. And I made the connection, and I got radicalized."

After he returned to Washington, Pelecanos said, " I started looking around a little harder at the place where I was born and raised. And the books began to change."

He consciously challenged himself, Pelecanos said, to become a better writer, and to reflect his changed worldview in his fiction. His most recent novels, he said, deal with "what happens to kids in the inner city, and racial issues, and the human politics that make these kind of conditions possible here."

The current book, Hell to Pay, features Strange and Quinn, a pair of ex-cop private investigators introduced in last year's Right As Rain. In nominating the title for the Book Sense 76, Robert Segedy of McIntyre’s, in Pittsboro, North Carolina, wrote, "Pelecanos once again rocks my world. If you have not sampled some of his very real mysteries, then I encourage you to belly up to the bar and start doing shots of George P."

His publisher, Little, Brown, is sending Pelecanos on a 22-city tour to promote Hell to Pay. This, his 10th novel, is being given significant attention by the publisher. "I don't know anything about the business," he said, "but the book looks richer…. The paper's different, and the letters are raised on the cover!"

But the author vows not to be distracted by whatever may or may not happen with this novel's sales. "I just keep my head down, and keep working. I'm very satisfied with the way things are going. I don't want to get ahead of myself. I'm not necessarily writing to get to a certain level. I just want to keep getting better." -- Tom Nolan