D.C. Author George Pelecanos Writes What He Knows In 'The Martini Shot'
When writer George Pelecanos was growing up in Washington, D.C., he was chased by the police several times.
"It was almost like there's respect there. 'Chase me,' you know what I mean? 'See if you can,' " Pelecanos tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Sometimes when I'd be pulled over or whatever, there were times when a police officer would say to me, 'Where do you live, son?' 'Well, I live a few blocks down here.' And instead of arresting me for — he saw the beer cans in the back, or he could smell the weed in the car with my friends — he would say, 'All right, get on home and be careful driving there.' "
Pelecanos says he wonders what would have happened if he had been arrested as a kid and "put in the system."
"My life would be completely different today," he says. "It's why I'm so opposed to these stops for possession and this broken-window policing, because once you do that to a kid — once you put them in the system — it's very, very hard to come back."
Pelecanos is now a successful crime novelist who sets his stories in D.C.'s neighborhoods. His new book, The Martini Shot, is a collection of short stories and a novella about a TV writer and producer who discovers a member of the production crew has been murdered and then tracks down a killer. It's a plotline that blends a few elements of Pelecanos' writing and personal experience.
On writing in the first person as an African-American character in the story "String Music"
I'm aware of the responsibility, let's put it that way. I wouldn't go there if I didn't think I could do it and do it well. I do feel like that's what a writer does, is he goes into other people's heads. Growing up [in D.C.], around here, in a city that was, when I was a kid, 75 percent black, you pick up the voices. And my dad had a diner and I was always out on the street, working with people, playing sports, things like that, and listening all the time. ... I sort of picked that up. I'm still very interested in that. A lot of what I do now, when I say I'm "researching" — it's really just being out there in the world and listening to people and trying to respect them when I get to the point where I'm putting it down on the page.
On racism in America
In general, you take the race thing and people seem to be surprised that there's still racism. It was supposed to end when Obama got elected, right? "Post-racial America." So I'll say in general that what I think, unfortunately, is that this problem will be solved when people of my generation and older die off, basically. Because you see it very rarely now in kids — and kids, juveniles, people in their 20s, they just don't care about it. Even people of my generation who have these bad feelings, they know enough, they've been smart enough not to pass it on to their kids, and so that is what's going to happen. I think things are going to get better in probably 20, 30 years, when people my age and older are gone.
On his experience adopting two kids from Brazil, which inspired the story "When You're Hungry"
Everybody thinks that adopting kids is some kind of noble calling, but I wanted to demystify it, take the mystery out of it and also show the humor of it. Because there are some sort of ridiculous things that happen when you adopt kids, and one of them is when you go to the lawyer's office — or whoever you're dealing with – [and] they throw a bunch of pictures on the table, of babies, and they'll say ... "Choose a baby."
I would say to my wife, "Well, OK, that's all well and good, but when I choose this baby, what happens to all the other ones? I'm rejecting them, it's a pretty big decision." Then we were in a meeting at some point and the attorney says to us, "What kind of baby do you want?" And I said, "What do you mean, 'What kind?' Like, what color?" And he's like, "Well, yeah." I was sort of dumbfounded by that. ...
It's relatively easy to adopt kids if you're not trying to get kids that look exactly like you. Because you hear how hard it is. But actually it happened very quickly for us.
On writing for The Wire
Laura Lippman, who was [series creator] David Simon's girlfriend at the time and she's a great writer out of Baltimore ... she gave David one of my books. It was a book called The Sweet Forever, which was one of my deep, urban, dark books that were set back in a time in Washington when things were pretty crummy.
I think she said to him, "Read this guy. He's doing in Washington what you're sort of doing in Baltimore." So David read it and I met him — I saw him at a funeral, actually, of a mutual friend ... and he says, "Ride back with me to the wake." So we're riding back and he says kind of casually, "I just sold a series to HBO about drug dealers and police." He downplayed it. He didn't tell me about his ambition or really what the show was going to be about. But I knew his work from Homicide and especially The Corner, [the book he co-wrote with] with Ed Burns. ... He offered me an episode for that first season. I accepted David's offer and I wrote the episode, which was the penultimate episode of Season 1.
On the last time he was arrested, when he was 28 years old
I had been to a wedding in the daytime, which is always a bad idea, especially for my group of guys. So I got in a little accident, a little fender-bender in a parking lot, and it escalated — more than one guy and me. There was shoving and stuff like that. Somebody called the police and one of those guys blocked my car from behind so I couldn't leave. I saw the police pull into the parking lot and I was all jacked up on adrenaline and I just got in my car and I took off. I had to drive down the sidewalk to do it and a high-speed chase ensued, let's put it that way. I lost them because it was in my neighborhood where I grew up and I knew all the alleys and side streets, but it was very dangerous what happened because I was blowing red lights and cars were spinning. ...
Anyway, the next day they called me at my apartment said "Would you like to come in or would you like us to come arrest you?" Because they had my license plate numbers. So I went by my parents' house ... I told them, "Mom and Dad, I'm about to go turn myself in," this and that. Anyway, I got charged with a bunch of stuff, including driving on the sidewalk, which is my favorite charge of that checkered night.
I ended up having to go to this class at night for six weeks and I was looking around at the people in the classroom and I saw a bunch of guys who, to me, they were losers, you know what I mean? And then I came to the realization that I was one of them. So I sort of grew up and that's what happens. I got married shortly thereafter; two or three years later I wrote my first novel, started a family. People do change. I believe in that.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a new novella by George Pelecanos, a writer and producer on a TV show finds out a member of the production crew has been murdered. The writer ends up tracking down the killers. It's a plot line that blends a few elements of Pelecanos's writing and personal experience. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and had minor brushes with the law before eventually becoming a successful crime novelist, telling stories rooted in the district's neighborhoods. Pelecanos later became a writer and producer for two HBO series - "The Wire" and "Treme." His new book "The Martini Shot" collects several short stories along with a novella.
He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. They started with Pelecanos reading from a story called "String Music." The passage is written in the voice of an African-American teenager who's in a pickup basketball game and is being guarded by a young man named Wallace who runs with neighborhood drug dealers. The narrator is describing how he's a better player than Wallace and could be making mistake by embarrassing him on the court.
GEORGE PELECANOS: (Reading) About the third time I drove the lane and kissed one in, Wallace bumped me while I was walking back up to the foul line to take the check. Then he said something about my sneaks, something that made his boys laugh. He was cracking on me is all, trying to shake me up. I got a nice pair of Jordans, the penny style, and I keep them clean with Fantastik, but they're from, like, last year. And James Wallace is always wearing whatever's new, the 17s or whatever is they got sittin' up front at the Foot Locker, just came in. Plus Wallace didn't like me all that much.
He had money from his druggin', I mean, to tell you that that boy had everything, but he had dropped out of school back in the 10th grade, and I had stayed put. My moms always says that guys like Wallace resent guys like me who have hung in. Add that to the fact that he never did have my game. I think he was a little jealous of me if you want the truth. I do know he was frustrated that day. I knew it and I guess I shouldn't have done what I did. I should have passed off to one of my boys, but you know how it is. When you're proud about something you got to show it, especially down here, and I was on.
I took the check from him and drove to the bucket, just blew right past him as easy as I've been doing all afternoon. That's when Wallace called me a bitch right in front of everybody there. There's a way to deal with this kind of stuff. You learn it over time. I go 6-2 and I got some shoulders on me, so it wasn't like I feared Wallace physically - nothing like that. I can go with my hands too, but in this world we got out here, you don't want to be gettin' in any kind of beefs, not if you can help it. At the same time, you can't show no fear. You get a rep for weakness like that. It's like being a bird with a busted wing, something like that.
The other thing you can't do, though, you can't let that kind of comment pass. Someone tries to take you for bad like that, you got to respond. It's complicated, I know, but there it is.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
And that's George Pelecanos reading from the story "String Music." It's in his new collection called "The Martini Shot." Well, George Pelecanos, welcome to FRESH AIR. I loved that passage. I loved the language. Now, this kid in this confrontation has to figure this out. You want to kind of give us a sense of what he does to deal with the fact that this, you know, this bad guy - this Wallace - has picked on him in front of everybody else?
PELECANOS: Well, it's like he said. He can't - he doesn't want to get in a fight with the guy 'cause it's never going to end or it's going to end really bad in a very violent way. And it might even come back on his family. But by the same token, you know, he can't be punked out completely because then you're going to be a target forever, so it's a choice how to walk that line and survive.
DAVIES: And he kind of diffuses it with a joke that makes all of Wallace's guys laugh and then they move on. And then he stops humiliating him quite so directly on the court, but it doesn't work out so well as the stories proceed. You played a lot of basketball - street basketball - coming up. You must've seen a lot of scenes like this.
PELECANOS: Yeah, and experienced it, too.
DAVIES: Yeah, you had that...
PELECANOS: We used to go all over the city.
PELECANOS: I mean, it's a part of, you know, look there were beefs. It's a part of growing up for a boy to get shook down and, you know, we used to play for push-ups, stuff like that. Then you make the other guys do push-ups and then sometimes you'd win and the other guys didn't want to do push-ups. And then what do you do. You know, does it elevate? And you just got to walk away knowing well, we won. You know, that's the victory is we won and they know it, so...
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah, did you have your own technique for dealing with a situation where you had to save face, but you didn't want to escalate it?
PELECANOS: No, I mean, I didn't diffuse it with humor or anything like that. You always hear guys saying that, you know, especially comedians and when they're adults - I always diffused everything with humor. It just - I wasn't a particularly big guy. I was a - very aggressive in sports to compensate for my lack of size.
So, you know, I tried to prove myself on the court or the playing field always. And I always felt like I loved sports 'cause sports are a meritocracy. It's one of the last meritocracies. Doesn't matter who your father is, you know, or how much money you have. It's all about what did you do today on the basketball court? And it's still like that today, you know?
DAVIES: This kid, Tonio Harris, is African-American.
DAVIES: Yeah, do you have any hesitation writing in the first person as an African-American character? I'm wondering how you know you have it right.
PELECANOS: Well, I'm aware of the responsibility. Let's put it that way. And I wouldn't go there if I didn't think I could do it and do it well. And - but I do feel like that's what a writer does is he goes into other people's heads. And growing up here, around here, in a city that was - when I was a kid, the city was 75 percent black. You know, you pick up the voices and my dad had a diner and I was always out on the street, working with people, playing sports, things like that, and listening all the time.
Since I was a kid, very interested, you know, taking the bus downtown every day, listening to people talk. You know, I sort of picked that up and I'm still very interested in that and a lot of what I do now, when I say I'm researching, it's really just being out there in the world and listening to people. And then trying to respect them when I get to the point where I'm putting it down on the page.
DAVIES: Do still play basketball?
DAVIES: It's a little tough on the knees at our age, isn't it?
PELECANOS: Well, yeah, I mean, I do - I'm physical. I ride my bike quite a bit. I kayak, I workout every day. And being physical is what kind of keeps me from thinking too much all the time because this job is one where you are always - you are always working. No matter what you're doing, you're always working.
DAVIES: Taking notes - do you keep a pad with you?
PELECANOS: No, I have a good memory and I carry my phone, which is now a writer's notebook.
PELECANOS: And camera.
PELECANOS: It's everything.
DAVIES: You take pictures of scenes, people.
PELECANOS: Absolutely, I ride around town on my bike. I take a lot of photographs with my phone. I will do something like - there was a scene in my novel "The Cut" where Spero Lucas breaks into this guy's house and - to take something back. And I found the house that I wanted and then - so I went around to the alley and I made sure that the sightlines were right. If you were breaking into this house, other people couldn't see you from the buildings beyond. And I found a perfect house to break into and I took a bunch of pictures of it, and that's just one example. I do that all the time.
DAVIES: And got away before the suspicious activity was noticed and anybody called 911.
PELECANOS: (Laughter) Well, people (laughter) I don't know what it is - I mean, people are always suspicious of me when I'm (laughter) when I'm sort of lurking around, taking photos, but nobody ever asked me anything.
DAVIES: Right, the other character in the story that we just read from is Sergeant Peters. He's a cop that drives, I guess, is it the midnight - the overnight shift. Is this based on somebody in particular?
PELECANOS: I was riding with one guy for a while and I would just listen to him and his sort of attitude about what he was doing and he was a good guy, you know, but he was a little jaded, too. And he had been doing it long enough so that, you know, he would see a kid and he would say to me I knew his grandmother, you know? He knew the history of people.
And, of course, a lot of the things in the story are taken from our rides together and it's a very interesting time of night to be a police officer because, especially after 2 o'clock, let's say, the city kind of slows down and goes to sleep. But there's a lot of people out still and the calls that you make are not generally violence related or, let's say - they're not homicides or manslaughters or anything like that.
They are violent sometimes, but they're usually domestics, or maybe some guy is drunk and he's gone to the wrong house and he's trying to put his key in the lock and he's wondering why the door isn't opening 'cause he's at the - he's two doors down from where he lives. That kind of stuff.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right, right, right.
PELECANOS: And, you know, it's just a cool time of night to be out with the police.
DAVIES: There's a lot of discussion these days about how white cops relate to African-American citizens. How would you describe the attitude of this guy - the guy that you rode with?
PELECANOS: I think my experience in the city, in Washington, D.C., with the police has been pretty good. It's when you get out into the suburbs - I live in Silver Spring, Maryland, right over the district line, and I think the attitudes change then. And I've seen it firsthand, you know? And, you know, Ferguson is an example of it's not right there in St. Louis and the police do look at - they look at young, black men differently. They do, and they deny it, but they do. It's just a fact.
I mean, if you ride around in my neighborhood, you always see young, black men - they're pulled out of their cars, they're just sitting on the curb with their hands behind their back. And basically, you know - and they're tossed in the car. And, basically, they're stops to see if they can get some marijuana, you know, find some marijuana in the car, something like that. But, you know, as we all know, the - it's about 50-50. You know, black kids and white kids smoke weed, but you never see a white kid sitting on the curb, and, you know, really, almost never. So there it is.
DAVIES: Our guest is George Pelecanos. His new collection of short stories and a novella is called "The Martini Shot." We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer George Pelecanos. He has a new collection of short stories and a novella called "The Martini Shot."
You know, in the novella that's in this collection - and I'm going to talk about this a bit more in a while - it's told in the first person from the point of view of a guy who's a writer and a TV producer, which you have done. But he says at a point that he grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood where they - he had an adversarial relationship with the police. You know, not that he was, you know, doing violent stuff, but that you just didn't deal with the police and wouldn't talk to the police. Was that you? I mean, did you have that kind of relationship with cops growing up?
PELECANOS: No, I didn't. I got chased by the police quite a bit, and it was almost like there was a respect there. Chase me - you know what I mean? - and see if you can. And then, you know, sometimes when I would be pulled over or whatever, you know, there were times when the police officer would say to me, you know, where do you live, son? Well, I live, you know, I live a few blocks down here. Instead of arresting me for, you know, he saw the beer cans in the back or he could smell the weed in the car, you know, with my friends, he would say all right get on home and be careful driving there. OK. So what would have happened if he had arrested me and I had gotten put into the system? My life would be completely different today. And it's why I'm so opposed to this sort of, you know, these stops for possession and this broken window policing because once you do that to a kid, once you put them into the system, it's very, very hard to come back.
DAVIES: Right. You know, since you mentioned Ferguson and you've spent a lot of time, I know, thinking and writing about relationships between police and citizens, I'm wondering what your perspective is on what if anything will make a difference. I mean, it's, you know, I mean, can national changes in police policy change these kinds of relationships?
PELECANOS: I don't know. I think in general we take the race thing and people seem to be surprised that there's still - that there's still racism. It was supposed end when Obama got elected, right?
PELECANOS: Post-racial America. And, so I'll say in general, that what I think, unfortunately, is that this problem will be solved when people of my generation and older die off, basically. Because you don't see it - you see it very rarely now - in kids, juveniles, people in their 20s. They just don't care about it. And even people of my generation who have these bad feelings, they know enough, they've been smart enough not to pass it on to their kids. And so that is what's going to happen, I think. I think things are going to get better in probably 20, 30 years, when people my age and older are gone.
DAVIES: Well, an optimistically morbid thought.
DAVIES: There's another story in here which is different from a lot of them, called "Chosen." It's about the - it's the life of an affluent family that has one natural child and then adopts three. And you have adopted kids, right?
DAVIES: Is this kind of your - well, it's not your own family story, but what's interesting to me about it is that, I mean, so many of the stories that you write are, you know, very intense, close-up encounters, scenes. I mean, often all the action takes place in a day or two days or a weekend. This is sort of a wide-angle view in some respects of the entire life of this family and their kids. And I'm just kind of interested in why you chose to kind of take this approach to this story?
PELECANOS: Yeah. It is kind of funny. I mean, usually - most of the stories in this collection were - people reached out to me and said, hey, can you contribute to this anthology I'm doing? But this was something where I just started writing one day. And I had a break, and I took about a month and I wrote this sort of sweeping story. I guess it covers about 25 years in this family's life. And what I wanted to do was, you know, everybody thinks that adopting kids is some kind of noble calling or something. But I wanted to take - demystify it, you know, take the mystery out of it. And also show the humor of it because there are some sort of ridiculous things that happen when you adopt kids. And one of them is when you go, you know, when you go to the lawyers office or wherever you're dealing with they throw a bunch of pictures on the table of babies and they'll say - it's like a photo array - and they'll say, you know, choose a baby. And I would say to my wife, oh, OK, you know, that's all well and good, but when I choose this baby what happens to all the other ones? You know, I'm rejecting them - this is a pretty big...
PELECANOS: This is a pretty big decision. And then one day we were in a meeting at some point and the attorney says to us what kind of baby do you want? And I said what do you mean what kind, like, what color? And he's like, well, yeah. And I was sort of dumbfounded by that. Being a white liberal too, I didn't want to, you know, give the wrong answer. And my wife says we want whoever needs to be adopted. You know, leave it to a woman to sort of, like, cut through all the bull and say the smart thing and the right thing, because I'm just a guy as dumb as any other guy, you know. I didn't know how to answer that.
PELECANOS: And, you know, it's something that I'll never forget. So and that's what we did. You know, it's really - it's relatively easy to adopt kids if you're not trying to get kids that look exactly like you. And, you know, because you hear how hard it is, but actually it happened very quickly for us.
DAVIES: So what kind of baby did you adopt?
PELECANOS: Well, here's what happened. And if my wife was here she would probably have a different story. I always remember things wrong. But we got a call one night, it was pretty soon after our home study was completed. So six months after the whole process started. And we were told this is probably going to take years. We got a call from somebody, and they said there's a baby coming up from Brazil and he's coming in tomorrow. Do you want him? And of course I'm like, well, what's wrong with him? You know, and, well, he's - the people that...
DAVIES: And you asked what's wrong with him - why? Because it was a light-skinned kid and they're not easy to get?
PELECANOS: No, no it wasn't. I mean, it turns out that he is a light-skinned black guy or medium-skinned, but I think the people that were going to adopt him looked at his most recent picture and they thought he was too dark. And so the next - and my wife and I weren't even ready. We didn't have a crib, bassinet - we didn't have anything. We went to the office the next morning and they hand me this baby in an airline blanket, you know. And, you know, I always say, well, that was their loss because I got, like, one of the most beautiful kids I've ever seen. And my second son was just as good looking. He's also - came from Brazil. You know, we did the - when they were kids we tried to do that politically correct thing and, like, hang, you know, Brazilian flags in their room and stuff. And then I'd go into their room and they were, you know, I'd see they were torn down and on the floor. And finally I said what's going on with you guys? You know, he says, like, dad we're black guys - you know what I mean? - you don't have to do that. And I was like all right. Thank you because now it's much easier.
GROSS: George Pelecanos will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Pelecanos has a new book called "The Martini Shot." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with George Pelecanos, who Stephen King described as perhaps the greatest living American crime writer. Pelecanos has written several novels and was a writer and producer on the HBO series "The Wire" and "Treme." His new book "The Martini Shot" is a collection that includes several short stories and a novella.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVIES: The novella in this story "The Martini Shot" is told in the first person by a guy who's a writer and producer, who's working on location, shooting a - I guess a crime, a police series for television, which is a world you know well. And what's interesting about that, I guess a lot of people think of that God, that must really be exciting and fun and glamorous. The picture you paint is pretty different. You want to come to just describe what it's like a bit?
PELECANOS: Well, it's a lot of hard work. I think people don't realize that the shows that I've worked on, we always worked, you know, an average of 12 to 14 hours a day, every single day for six months straight because it's a series. And I do find it very fun. There's a lot of writers that don't like being on set and they don't really like production. But I love it. And here's what I really like about it. First of all, when I'm wearing my novelist hat, I'm sitting in a room by myself for five or six months.
PELECANOS: Because I frontload all my research basically. I'm out there in the street for a couple months and then I come into the house and I really almost lock myself in for five months and I write seven days a week. So then I get these jobs where I go into production on television and I'm in a van in the morning. I just stepped out of the van and all of a sudden, I'm working with a hundred people every day. And these people are - I consider them to be artists - the DPs, the gaffers, the hair and makeup people, locations, costumes. We are all together as artists making something. I find that really interesting and fun. And you know, I'd never read anything. I read a lot of Hollywood novels that really are about executives and actors and so on. But I never really read anything about a film crew before. So when I came back from - we were out to New Orleans. I was doing "Treme" for HBO. As soon as I came back, I wrote this novella and while it was still fresh in my head.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean there's a lot of really close friendships and some intense sexual relationships because people - there's a sense of transience to but kind of - you're spending so much time together in all this unity and purpose.
PELECANOS: Well I would see on these shows, I'd see people fall in love and then at the end of the show when it wrapped, they'd go their separate ways because they took jobs on opposite sides of the country, that kind of thing. And in my observation because it was sort of a doomed love affair in a way, they conducted it much more intensely, let's say. So this novella is pretty graphic sexually. And the reason it is is because I just wanted to write about what it's like for people who were not doing anything wrong. They're not cheating on anybody. In the end, these are two single people. They're not hurting anybody. It's people - two consenting adults who are expressing their love in a physical way and there's nothing dirty about that to me.
DAVIES: Right. It is as you say pretty graphic. And I wonder kind of how you consider how much detail to include in this and other stories. I mean, do your publishers want it? Do they ever advise you to tone it down?
PELECANOS: No. They don't want it nor do they tell me to tone it down. And I don't think it makes it particularly commercial. I just think that if you are - I choose to do that occasionally when it fits the story. And I'd been reading a lot of James Salter the last couple years. I think he's a really great novelist and he writes about eroticism beautifully and in a nonexploitive way. And you know, here's the thing is I always think that a writer should try to do things that take people where they can't go or don't go themselves. And when you are making love and if you are lucky enough to be, you know, attached to your spouse or your partner and it's good and you're in the throes of it, I mean you always think like wow, somebody should write about this, you know.
PELECANOS: I mean it's really great. And so I wrote about it.
DAVIES: You wrote for the HBO series "The Wire" and we in FRESH AIR are huge fans of "The Wire." You want to tell us how you got involved in writing the series?
PELECANOS: Laura Lippman, who was David Simon's girlfriend at the time. And she's a great writer out of Baltimore. And now, she's married to David.
DAVIES: Who is the creator of the series; yeah, yeah.
PELECANOS: That's right. Yup. And she gave David one of my books. It was a book called "The Sweet Forever," which was one of my sort of deep, urban, dark books that were set back in a time in Washington when things were pretty crummy, you know. And I think she said to him, you know, read this guy. He's doing in Washington what you're sort of doing in Baltimore. So David read it and then I met him and I saw him at a funeral actually, a mutual friend. But I barely knew David. And he says ride back with me to the wake. So we're riding back and he says kind of short and casually, I just sold a series to HBO about, you know, drug dealers and police. He downplayed it. He didn't tell me about his ambition or really what the show was going to be about. But I knew his work from "Homicide" and especially "The Corner," which he cowrote the book with Ed Burns and then did the show with our friend David Mills. So he offered me an episode from that first season. I accepted David's offer and I wrote the episode, which was the penultimate episode of season one.
DAVIES: Right. And people who know this series will remember a really powerful scene here which you wrote and I don't think that we worry about a spoiler. I mean, this is a series that's been around forever. But there are these bunch of teenagers who are basically lookouts for a neighborhood drug gang. And one of these kids, this kind of sweet kid named Wallace, is now under suspicion by the leaders of the gang. And well why don't you tell us what happens and tell us about writing the scene.
PELECANOS: Well, his friends Bodie and Poot are sort of put in a position where they have to get rid of Wallace and he is their friend. But they decide that they have to do it for various reasons. One of them is that when you're asked to put work in an organization like that, you either do it or you're out. Or you don't advance. So I had to write the scene where they kill their friend and it was very powerful on set that day when it happened because the actor who played Wallace, Michael B. Jordan, who's a movie star now - he was 14 years old at the time, I think, and everybody liked him, you know. They'd been working with him all season and then they had to do the scene and it was an emotional day. It wasn't an easy scene to write. It's not something that I like doing. But I knew that it had to be, it had to have weight in order for it to work. And so anyway, that happened and everybody sort of liked it and David asked me to come on the next year as a producer on the what they call the, you know, the season with the Greeks and the longshoremen and so on. He said I need you because there's going to be a lot of people talking Greek in the season, so...
DAVIES: Coming back to the scene with Wallace, you know, I read that when you wrote it, it was longer than others had expected. Is that true and why?
PELECANOS: Well, I think what I wanted to do was show the agony of everybody in that room, giving the boys who were doing the shooting as much empathy as the victim because they were the ones who were going to suffer forever because of that act. And so the scene is long. And it's excruciating, really, as it would be.
DAVIES: Did it leave an effect on you or others in the production?
PELECANOS: I think the crew was pretty upset that day. Yup.
DAVIES: We're speaking with writer George Pelecanos. His new collection of short stories and a novella is called "The Martini Shot." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer George Pelecanos. He has a new collection of short stories and a novella called "The Martini Shot."
You also wrote for the HBO miniseries "The Pacific," which is sort of not what a lot of people would think of as a George Pelecanos subject.
PELECANOS: Yeah, well, it's actually the first time in my career that I've gone after a job because my dad was a Marine who fought in the Pacific in the Philippines, and I wanted to honor him. And my dad was sick at the time, and I sort of felt like, well, this is something I have to do now. So I went out there, and I actually chose the episode which is not a combat episode; it's about the Marines on leave in Melbourne. And of course I had Leckie the character sort of get adopted by a Greek family in Melbourne 'cause it's - Melbourne is the biggest population of Greeks outside of Athens.
DAVIES: I didn't know that.
PELECANOS: Yeah, and while the Australians were men - were all away fighting, the Marines were in Melbourne tasting the spoils of victory, so to speak. You know what I mean? There was a lot of single women there. So anyway I did that, and my dad knew that I had done it. He never saw it. He didn't live to see it, but he knew. And he was very emotional about it. So I'm glad I did it.
DAVIES: You know, you said that you grew up in - I guess, outside of Washington, D.C., and your dad had a coffee shop in town and that you just observed and collected memories and voices. Were you thinking then that you were going to do anything with it?
PELECANOS: I wanted to make movies. When I was a kid, that's what I wanted to do. And I - so these stories that I was making up in my head when I was delivering food for my dad on foot - I was 11 years old - were - in my mind, they were movies that I was writing. And I wasn't much of a book reader, so when I got to college, I took a class in crime fiction when I was a senior as an elective by a guy named Charles Mish, who's one of the people I dedicated this book to. He was the teacher. And although Mr. Mish and I didn't really talk much, if at all, he turned me onto reading books.
And it was the first kind of book I had read that sort spoke to my world, meaning it was about generally crime fiction deals with working-class people who don't always win, but they had these little moments of, you know, inglorious redemption. But they don't win all the time, which is - American literature is really about winners, if you think about it. And so I got, you know, the flame went - it got turned on inside me, and I decided that's what I wanted to do. I want to write novels.
And so for the next 10 years, I just read a lot of books trying to teach myself how to become a writer. While I was working a series of jobs, like, you know, bartender, kitchen man, that sort of thing lady's shoe salesman and getting a lot of material along the way, not consciously but sort of just living a full life, which I think is what any writer should do. You know, there's - this job is not like being an athlete or a movie star where you have this very small window.
So I didn't start writing until I was 31 years old. The very first thing I ever try to write was my first novel, and it got published. But then I had the rest of my life to write. You know, and I planned to - you know, hopefully in 20 years, you guys will have me on the show again, and I'll be talking about the same stuff because I am not going to retire.
DAVIES: OK. You know, you also had an experience which, you know, most crime writers haven't. When you were 17, you were playing with a friend, and you accidentally shot him with your father's gun. The kid was shot in the face, and he recovered. And you became great friends, but I'm wondering...
PELECANOS: He was - yeah, I mean, he was my best friend from kindergarten, so...
DAVIES: I should say you remained good friends. Yeah.
DAVIES: But I wonder how - I mean, how that affected your perceptions of violence having actually had that experience. And I don't know. Do you ever draw on that in your writing?
PELECANOS: Well, I see - I've seen what happens when somebody's shot. It's not the only time I've seen somebody shot. And, you know, in my dealings with homicide investigators, for example, one of the things they like to do is take me to the morgue. You know, they're trying to get me throw up or something. And, you know, so I've seen a lot of gunshot victims. It's not a good thing.
I don't own a gun. There's one thing. I don't keep a gun in my house. I'm not against responsible gun ownership, but it's not for me. You can put it that way because I know that, you know, teenage boys, if there's a gun in the house, they're going to find it. And they're going to mess around with it 'cause that's what happened to me.
DAVIES: So you do work in prisons and work with kids.
PELECANOS: Yeah. For years, I've been doing reading programs, going to juvenile facilities here and also in the adult population. And I do reading and a writing program, and that's some of the best people I've ever worked with. They're very serious because they know the import of their situation. And some of them are really good writers.
So this really has become a thing of mine and also writing about it, which is that the juveniles, particularly boys, go through a period where their minds are kind of messed up. They're scrambled. You know what I mean? It's like the tilt on a pinball machine. And when they're in their teens, the bulk of their brain is given over to impulse and adrenaline. But then when they get in their 20s, they've taken pictures of the brain, and it's actually dominated by conscious and reasoning. So there's a science to this.
People change, and, you know, I went through it, too. So I know. I mean, I had my brushes with the law and so on, and actually it took me longer. You know I was - the last time I got arrested, I was 28 years old, for a number of things in one night.
DAVIES: What were you arrested for when you were 28?
PELECANOS: That was just a long night of - I had been to a wedding in the daytime, which is always a bad idea...
PELECANOS: ...Especially for, you know,, my group of guys and so I was - ended up in - I got into a little accident, fender bender in a parking lot. And it escalated into - it was more than one guy and me. And it was shoving and stuff like that, and then somebody called the police. And one of those guys blocked my car from behind so I couldn't leave. And I saw the police pull into the parking lot, and I - I don't know. I was all jacked up on adrenaline and so on. I just got in my car, and I took off. And I had to drive down the sidewalk to do it. So a high-speed chase ensued - let's put it that way. And I lost them because it was in my neighborhood where I grew up. I knew all the alleys and side streets. But it was very dangerous what happened because I was blowing red lights, and, you know, cars were spinning doing 360s. You know, it was exactly what you think it is.
Anyway, the next day they called me at my apartment and said would you like to come in, or would you like us to come arrest you? Because they had my license plate numbers.
PELECANOS: So I went by my parents' house. I was getting married in four months. Like I said, I was 28 years old. I mean, I wasn't a kid. I went my parents' house. I told them, mom and dad,,, I'm about to go turn myself in this and that. Anyway I got charged with a bunch of stuff, including driving on the sidewalk, which is my favorite charge of that checkered night.
And so I ended up having to do - go to this class at night for six weeks, and I was looking around at the people in the classroom. And I saw a bunch of guys who, to me, they were losers. You know what I mean? And then I came to the realization that I was one of them, and so I sort of grew up. You know, and that's what happens. I got married shortly thereafter. Two or three years later, I wrote my first novel, started a family. People do change. I believe in that.
DAVIES: Well George Pelecanos, thanks so much for speaking with us.
PELECANOS: Thank you.
GROSS: George Pelecanos has a new book called "The Martini Shot" that collects several short stories along with a novella. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior news reporter. You can read an excerpt of "The Martini Shot" on our website fresh air.npr.org.
Coming up our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a 1969 reissue of an album by pianist Horace Tapscott called "The Giant Is Awakened," a title that referred to newly mobilized African-Americans. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.