BETHESDA MAGAZINE interview
By Julie Rasicot
Want to know what makes award-winning crime writer George Pelecanos tick?
Look no further than his novels.
You can find him in Detective Gus Ramone
of The Night Gardener (Little, Brown and Co.,
2006). Ramone is a white man dealing with
the issues of raising mixed-race kids; Pelecanos and his wife, Emily, adopted a Guatemalan daughter and two African-American sons
when the three were infants.
Read about the fictional Alex Pappas taking
over the family diner when his father falls ill in
The Turnaround (Little, Brown and Co., 2008),
and you might just as easily be reading about
Pelecanos’ experience running his father’s
coffee shop in D.C. at age 18.
Pelecanos, 57, grounds his novels in the
language, music and culture of the world
in which he grew up: the working-class
neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and Silver
His gritty, hard-edged realism has earned
him numerous awards and accolades. Esquire
labeled him the “poet laureate of the D.C.
crime world” in 2001. Pelecanos has parlayed
that success into a separate career in television. He received an Emmy nomination for
his writing on the acclaimed HBO series The
Wire, and was a co-writer and producer on
the World War II miniseries The Pacific. He
recently served as executive producer and
writer on Treme, the HBO series based in New
Orleans that ended in December.
Pelecanos lives with his wife, Emily, adult son
Pete and daughter, Rosa, a junior at Montgomery
Blair High School, on an unassuming street near
downtown Silver Spring. As we talked in his dining
room one rainy April morning, Pelecanos sat
beneath “Double Portrait,” the oil painting by artist
Minerva Chapman that inspired his most recent
book, The Double (Little, Brown and Co., 2013).
Seeing the actual painting—two portraits of the same man from different views—
really makes your book The Double come alive.
Yeah, I was always wanting to write about that because I was fascinated by the painting. Obviously, it’s the duality of one guy. It was my uncle’s, and he died in 1990 and
it’s the only thing I took from his house because I loved it. It’s actually by a noted
American impressionist [Chapman].
That’s one of the pleasures of reading your books—the references to culture as
well as to familiar locations in the D.C. area.
When I started out in the early ’90s writing books, it hadn’t been done before in
Washington. There wasn’t anybody writing about the living city. My mom and dad
grew up in the city. My mom—she’s 90 years old—I can call her up and say, “Mom,
what was on H Street, between 8th and 10th, and she’ll go right down the line and tell
me every single store. So if I say there is a house that’s white with green shutters at 9
and Quackenbos or something like that, there [actually] is a house there that is white
with green shutters.
You do your own research. You’re out there on your bike, just like your character Spero Lucas in The Double, checking things out.
I do a couple months of that before I start writing a book…in addition to doing
things like going to the D.C. jail and meeting inmates or working with lawyers
In The Double, there’s a scene where Spero, an Iraqi war vet-turned-private investigator, delivers books to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. You write that the recovering vets “enjoy a good story
with clean, efficient writing, a plot with a problem to be solved and everyday
characters readers can relate to.” Is that how you would describe your writing?
That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what I admire. The writers that I mention in that little
passage [Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, among others] are the writers that I really look up to because they do that successfully. If it’s done well, it can be art.
How did you end up a writer?
In my senior year [at the University of Maryland], I took an elective in crime fiction
with this guy, Charles Mish, and he turned me on to books—and, specifically, crime
novels. I wanted to be a filmmaker, [do] film production, and that’s what I got my