"Novelistic" TV

Bestselling author George Pelecanos explains to Salon what lured him to the mysterious world of "The Wire," and what makes the show different from the formulaic -- and sometimes racist -- offerings on network TV.

Published July 12, 2003 9:42PM (EDT)

It still seems like a bit of a mystery to David Simon, the creator of HBO's "The Wire," why George Pelecanos agreed to be a writer for his show this season. "He didn't need the gig," Simon says. "Though I'm certainly glad he said yes."

Pelecanos enjoys a level of success writers dream of. He's virtually guaranteed that what he writes will be published and read, and by lots of people. He has broken out of the bookseller's "thriller" genre ghetto to become a bona fide fiction star, a bestseller critics swoon over. (Salon's Charles Taylor calls Pelecanos' novels the "the sharpest and smartest urban thrillers around," saying "he's also holding up the tradition of novelist as social reporter.")

Yet this latest writing job seems somehow inevitable. Everyone enjoys describing "The Wire" as "novelistic" (including Simon, Pelecanos and many critics) and that's apt, with its layered story lines and characters -- including a steady stream of supporting roles -- so fully formed they seem sprung from a viewer's psyche. The Washington underworld of Pelecanos' fiction is not only geographically close to Simon's Baltimore, but explored similarly; both have heavily researched the urban problems that animate their characters. As a result, Pelecanos' recent novel "Soul Circus" isn't just a face-off between an ex-cop gun dealer and Derek Strange, the African-American private eye who stars in Pelecanos' last three books, it's a searing examination of gun culture. Simon, meanwhile, a former crime journalist, is a social reporter by training, and the cops and drug dealers on "The Wire" dramatize nothing greater than the futility of the war on drugs.

With this season -- which has just passed its halfway point (Episode No. 7 of 12 premiered on Sunday) -- Pelecanos has helped Simon explore a dizzying array of Baltimore dockworkers, the drug-dealing Barksdale family and cops whose motivations can seem as blurry as their Baltimore accents, all revolving around Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), the exiled homicide detective who tries to do good but often makes a mess of things. The results have been mesmerizing.

And Simon is grateful for Pelecanos' contribution. "George doesn't need it. It's cool. And it just makes me feel like I can justify any arrogance now," says Simon. It also gave him the confidence, he says, to lean on Pelecanos to try and recruit the novelist Richard Price, a hero of Simon's, to pen a few episodes next season. They're still leaning, though they did convince Price to appear in a brief cameo as a prison librarian. ("That's what you call homage," Simon says.)

Pelecanos, meanwhile, says he wants to keep writing for "The Wire," fitting the show in between his novels. He spoke to Salon by phone.

Your books are big critical, and now financial, successes. What's the allure of doing TV?

You know, no matter how many books you sell, you never reach the amount of people you do on a television show. And you know, the goal is to be read. If your balls are big enough and you think you're pretty good, you want a lot of people to read you.

But are TV viewers absorbing the writing the same way a reader is? Is it really as gratifying?

Well, I don't think most viewers, when they're watching a television show, are thinking about a writer. What they're saying is, "This is a good show," or "I like that actor." You're not really doing it for your ego. It's a new challenge. And quite frankly, it's pretty cool to see somebody say your words up on screen.

Before your career as a novelist, you wrote and produced a lot of independent films, so this wasn't completely new to you. But, of course, you stopped doing it. What was it about Simon's pitch that made this appealing?

Simon sold it to me as, we're going to be attempting to write a novel for television, and in a way that you can stretch out your characters. Not everything had to be on point, or had to advance the plot.

The other part that appealed to me was his own history, both the books, "The Corner" and "Homicide" [which was adapted into the NBC series] and the television adaptation to "The Corner," which I thought was the best thing I'd ever seen on television. So I knew I wasn't going to get embarrassed. My name now means something, I think. But I didn't get scared at all about that part of it.

Simon talks about how you drove up from Washington every day, "ate the same crappy lunches on shitty paper plates as everyone else," and endured eight-hour story meetings.

I didn't know if I would enjoy working in that kind of atmosphere again. I produced a bunch of independent movies in the '90s, and I'd also written some films, some of which were produced without my name on them and some of which were never produced, and almost always the experience had been bad. Besides the obvious bad things that you always hear, which is dealing with the people in the business ... one of the things that really didn't appeal to me anymore is wasting my time. And it's almost always a waste of time when you're writing for film because most of the stuff just never gets produced. When they pull a trigger on a TV show, when they make the first one, they've got the make the rest of them. There's a commitment there. This huge ball has begun to roll down the hill and they can't stop it. So I knew what I wrote would wind up on screen in some way.

I mean, yeah, you can take the money. Most of the public doesn't realize this, but there's a lot of people living fat out there who have never had a movie produced from what they've written. And I guess they don't care. But I do care. I don't have that time to waste anymore. I could be writing a book that I know will get published rather than writing for a film that will never get made. I won't do that anymore.

You -- and Simon -- have both talked about how the politics in the show are really important to you, too. Can you describe what you mean by that?

[Simon's] going out there and presenting the world the way it really is. He's not trying to present answers to anybody, or even trying to inject his politics. He's laying it out in a reportorial way. And it's what I try in my books also. I try and leave my voice and my politics out of it.

The crime aspect of it, to both of us, is the least interesting part of it. It's just a vehicle to heighten the drama. It's all about why they're doing it.

It is political in the way it does portray problems, though. The first season surely raised more questions about the futility of the war on drugs, than, say, any number of "Dateline" or "60 Minutes" segments.

Or newspaper articles.

Or newspaper articles. So is there a cause at all involved here? Are you trying to, I don't know, do good?

[Pause.] No.

You can't hope for that much. You can hope that when people turn the set off, or close the book, that they're now going to look at the world a little differently, when they're rolling their windows up and locking their doors when they're driving through that neighborhood.

If anything comes across in these shows or these books it's the waste, you know? And the failure of the phony drug war. Yes, drugs destroy lives, but the drug war is destroying entire neighborhoods.

"The Wire" does offer a pretty strong corrective to the type of shows -- the Dick Wolf "Law & Order" franchise, "NYPD Blue" -- that most viewers have been weaned on, where the issues are wrapped up tidily in an hour. They portray plenty of drug dealers, but they're never going to be read as metaphors for the war on drugs.

The one thing we don't want to do is make people comfortable with the world they've just seen. We do want to entertain them, but we do want them to feel uncomfortable so that they do think about this world differently. Network television in particular and most films try and leave you with the impression that, you know, the world really is all right. Black people and white people, we really are all the same deep down inside. And, if you just stay in school you will get out of that neighborhood.

You know, the world doesn't work that way.

Are there specific shows you're talking about?

Yeah. "The District" is really an insult to the people who live here [in Washington], and it's also a racist show. It tells people, "If we could only bring in a white police chief to come in here and clean up these Negroes who have messed up this city, everything will be all right." Nobody in D.C. watches that show, because they know it's bullshit, and they know it's a lie. But the real crime is that in other parts in the country people will watch that and think, "Hmm, you know what, that's right, that's all we need." And all that is, is people making money off of other people's misfortune. CBS should be ashamed of that show.

So "The Wire" is a corrective to shows like that, right? Which is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. You're doing good, right?

You're not going to make me say that. It's too big a claim. You can only hope that you can make people look at the world a little differently.

The show does go to great pains to show how both the nominal good guys, like McNulty, and the bad guys, like D'Angelo Barksdale, are deeply conflicted. And the differences between these characters can often seem incidental.

Because they were both trying to work themselves outside of the system. And as Simon says, it's the institutions, whether it's the drug business or whether it's the administration within the police force, that will destroy you if you try and operate outside the box.

McNulty is a perpetual screw-up. And that makes him a notable contrast to Derek Strange, the main character in your last three books, who is a former cop, but an unambiguously good guy. Does that make McNulty more of a challenge for you?

McNulty actually has a closer affinity to one of my earlier characters, a guy named Nick Stefanos, because his life outside of his work is getting increasingly troubled. The only thing that makes sense to him is when he's working a case. Strange, on the other hand, is trying to make a life for himself outside of the work.

I can't speak for Simon, but I know we both share a certain affinity for the film "The Searchers," and Ethan Edwards has always been the archetype for these characters I write. If you remember the last scene in "The Searchers," the camera is in the house, and Ethan Edwards/John Wayne is walking back into the wilderness, and the door swings shut on him from inside the house; the wind was blowing it back and forth. And that's McNulty and Strange and Stefanos, and all these guys. In other words, these guys have either been charged or self-charged with protecting the community in some way. But they can never live in it. They can't live in it as productive family men without these deep dark waters swimming around in their head.

How do you decide to kill off a character like D'Angelo, which happened last week? Season one was really as much about him as McNulty. How do you decide to get rid of a character like that, who is so much a part of the show's soul?

It was tough. Also because the actor was very good and we liked the actor a lot. But last season, when he rose up against his own [drug-dealing family] ... you know, death can be redemption, too. People in these TV shows or movies, redemption is always something else. You get in these character meetings and people are always saying, "We have to give these characters redemption." But that was his redemption, he got out.

One of the things that made the first season so bracing was the fact that both McNulty and D'Angelo finished in disgrace, McNulty demoted to a police boat and D'Angelo sent off to jail. There was no happy ending. But fans surely tuned in to this season to see if they find redemption. How do you struggle with that? Because if you deliberately don't give them any redemption, it could seem just as formulaic.

We're going to do whatever feels real. To HBO's credit, we get notes from them about the scripts, and we've never gotten a note from them saying, "McNulty's the star of the show, can't we have him stand tall for once, can't we have him win?" We never get notes like that because they're not beholden to advertisers, or networks that are owned by conglomerates. It's always about making the show better.

And I'm not kissing their ass either. I'm not privy to everything -- everything filters up and down through Simon -- but I know that in our script meetings Simon has never said, "HBO wants us to do this." And it's been pretty liberating.

Simon talks about how this is a writer-driven show. You told me that when you write your novels, you don't chart them out. You don't know where the story is going until you sit down to write. But how does that work when you're putting together a series?

We beat out the first eight episodes before we started shooting. Of course that changed a lot as we went along, but we had a blueprint for eight episodes. And then, somewhere in the middle of the season, we sat down and started beating out the last four, which was really intense work. It was days spent behind closed doors in an office, and a lot of oftenheated discussion.

And in the process you've been watching dailies, watching how the characters emerge on screen.

Yeah, you know writers will want to write up characters and actors that they enjoy writing for. And the opposite is true. So you're going to see some people recede and other people bubble up out of the mix. Which is very much like writing a book too; you don't always intend for a minor character to become a major character.

So there were characters who were downsized, once the shooting began?

I would say so, yes. That's accurate.

And you're not going to tell me who those are, so who were the characters that benefited the most? Who grew as the season went on?

Well, Frank [Sobotka] was always going to be a pretty major character, but this guy Chris Bauer just blew everybody away. He's an amazing actor, he's like a young Gene Hackman.

And Amy Ryan, who plays Agent Russell. We knew, from watching dailies, that people were going to really relate to her character, and her journey, from going from a lowly port cop to being real police. She started to come up front and center too.

Will this spoil you, though, to have so much involvement when your novels start to be made into movies? Curtis Hanson ["L.A. Confidential"] is developing "Right as Rain" -- will it be difficult not to be so deeply involved?

They've been pretty good about keeping me involved. And Hanson is a world-class director. You can't ask for anything more.

But casting Derek Strange must cause you some concern. You've put a lot of effort into creating him.

Yeah. And I don't see him being an extremely good-looking guy. I always say that when he's walking down the street women's heads might not be turning, but once they get to know him, they come around.

So who would you cast?

I think there are a lot of great character actors, like Keith David, people of that nature who I just really respect as actors. You know, and we've resisted this in "The Wire," I just don't like seeing actors who I really know. You know, where I say, "Look, there's Tom Cruise in a wheelchair," or "Look, there's so-and-so playing a retarded person." I just like to get lost in it. I'd prefer to see not really big stars, but just good actors.

By Kerry Lauerman

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