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Talking tough with Wire writer George Pelecanos
While working at his father’s D.C. diner as a teenager during the ‘70s, writer George Pelecanos had already identified a physical line of segregation between urban city dwellers. Referring to the diner’s counter as a tangible barrier between the working class—the immigrants and minorities—and the paying customers who were mostly white professionals, Pelecanos could see a microcosm of society within the confines of an unassuming small business.
It’s no surprise that the observations he made growing up in this environment would come to color the tremendous social commentary of his later works, including a host of crime novels and HBO’s The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed television shows of all time.
Speaking to an audience at Gaston Hall on Tuesday night as part of the Lannan Center’s Reading and Talks Series, Pelecanos answered questions about everything from advice for an aspiring filmmaker to the secret behind his prolific writing habits. In addition to providing an extended Q&A session, organizers played the Emmy-nominated episode of “Middle Ground,” which Pelecanos co-wrote with the show’s creator, David Simon. Providing a glimpse into the urban landscape of Baltimore that Pelecanos and the other writers of The Wire set out to portray, the episode explored the tension between city institutions, a subject which serves as a major theme of the show.
Speaking about the writers’ aim for the show and the source of their material, Pelecanos pointed to the realities of the Baltimore streets and the social commentary they provide. “The atmosphere we presented as completely accurate – the scenes weren’t sets, but locations,” he said about the filming of the series.
This realistic approach extended to the material. “We tried to tackle the drug war in Baltimore,” he said, adding, “collectively in the writers’ room, we feel it’s one of the major blunders in terms of policy in this country.”
Tackling this kind of gritty subject matter required an exhaustive writing process and extensive research, as Pelecanos and the other writers were “always in the room, trying to work out what to do next.” As with Pelecanos’ own works of crime fiction, research involved “going out onto the streets” and picking up information before hunkering down to write.
Responding to questions about the beginning of The Wire, Pelecanos pointed to the collective experience of the group of writers. With his own background as a crime fiction writer and others’ experiences in crime reporting and police work, he noted that they were “experienced writers writing about the urban condition, so there was a lot to bring to the table.” This extensive knowledge about the world they wanted to portray gave them an undeniable advantage, but so did the amount of breathing space that their lack of fame provided.
“When we were starting out on the show for the first two seasons, we didn’t know The Wire was The Wire,” Pelecanos said of the show’s beginning. “We just had our heads down and were trying to make something good.”
Rather than being bitter about their early lack of acclaim, Pelecanos emphasized that the writers used this as an opportunity to grow. “I feel like we caught lightning in a bottle,” he noted of the series’ genesis. “We weren’t getting a lot of praise in the beginning, so we just did our thing and learned a lot from that trial-and-error process,” he said. “It was a perfect way to start, really.”
Ten years after the show’s end, and decades after he first started work at his father’s diner, Pelecanos continues to learn both from that initial work on The Wire and from his own personal experience. Whether it’s on shows like Treme or his own fiction, a strong work ethic motivates him to keep writing. “My dad turned the key on his diner everyday at the same time, and I open the door to my office everyday at the same time and go to work,” he said. “I’m not going to retire, so I just want to keep getting better.”