Part II of the conversation with George Pelecanos celebrating the publication of THE CUT, which the Chicago Sun Times recommends, “Soak it up.” The Washington Post praises Pelecanos’s ability to “maintain a remarkably high level of intelligence and style” and the Los Angeles Times appreciates that “Pelecanos has made Washington his literary stomping grounds, and he gets granular in THE CUT…as clear as if he’d drawn you a map.” If you missed Part I, start reading here.
WALLACE STROBY: I think, for a certain generation of writers, a lot of our work has been influenced by films we saw during our formative years in the 1970s. What are your five favorite crime films of the ‘70s, and why?
GEORGE PELECANOS: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Not just a film wrapped around a car chase, but an evocative time capsule of ‘70s New York, and an unflinching look at an obsessive cop. Like the up-on-coke sequence of GOODFELLAS, Friedkin’s kinetic style puts us directly into the fevered mind of Popeye Doyle. And there’s that chase.
THE GETAWAY (1972). Peckinpah directs the Walter Hill adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel with signature style. Steve McQueen is believable as a tough guy who just got out of prison and wants his due. With a flawless supporting cast and a bang-up climax involving shotguns, an old hotel, gunmen arriving in a big convertible, and Al Lettieri, the screen’s greatest vulgarian. I know all about Thompson’s ending versus Peckinpah’s, but no one should bitch about the film’s last scene; it’s damn near perfect.
ROLLING THUNDER (1977). Vietnam vet William Devane returns home to a world he no longer understands and gets his hand shoved down a garbage disposal by home invaders. Devane sharpens the hook on the end of his arm, cuts down a shotgun, and goes to work. John Flynn, directing from a Paul Schrader script, crafts a slow-building actioner and elicits ace performances from all concerned, most notably blaxploitation veteran Linda Haynes, Luke Askew as Automatic Slim, and Tommy Lee Jones as Devane’s damaged, loyal war buddy. Watch Devane and Jones blow the shit out of their enemies in a whorehouse at the film’s climax. “I’ll just get my gear.”
CHARLEY VARRICK (1973). Don Siegel’s thief-unwittingly-steals-from-the-mob movie is first-rate entertainment featuring the director’s crackerjack stock troupe of character actors. Walter Matthau plays the title role with understated cool, and Joe Don Baker is memorable as a killer named Molly. I proudly own a T-shirt that reads, “The Last of the Independents.” It’s written on Charley’s flight suit, which figures prominently in the film’s last shot.
DIRTY HARRY (1971). Siegel again, directing Eastwood. Yeah, it was popular, but there was a reason it hit a public nerve. A studio film with this kind of lead character was truly anarchic and would never be greenlit today. Pauline Kael trashed it, which made me want to see it twice. She hated STRAW DOGS, too.
WS: Five favorite Westerns? Any era.
GP: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)
THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)
THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976)
RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962) I know, you said 5.
WS: These days, what do you listen to while writing, and has that changed over the years? Any favorites that really get the cylinders firing when you’re working?
GP: Depends on the book. With THE CUT I was listening to a lot of reggae and dub, and rock with guitars and smarts: The Hold Steady, Drive-By Truckers, Slobberbone, The Silver Jews. It’s what I imagined Spero Lucas would be into. It was no chore because I like that stuff, too. [Editor’s note: check out Pelecanos’s “Tour Music” on George-Pelecanos.com and Spotify]
WS: When it comes to writing, what’s the worst advice someone ever gave you? What’s the best?
GP: Generally the bad advice I’ve gotten had to with wanting it to happen right away. I was told I had to move to New York if I wanted to make it as a novelist, and I was told that I had to move to L.A. if I wanted to write movies and television. Well, I stayed in my city and I’ve done fine. In fact, some of the TV work I’ve done was different and quality because we stayed away from all the noise, and shot under the radar. I still live a couple of miles from the neighborhood I grew up in. I quietly write my books here, and my hometown is my inspiration.
The best advice came from my agent. He told me to put my head down and get behind my desk, and not worry about anything outside of doing the work. That to focus on big advances, or to go for big advances before I could earn them out, would be the death of my career, as it has been for many who have been over-published. I make a comfortable living now, and I’m still here. And my agent is still my agent.
Pelecanos was also a staff writer and producer on all five seasons of the acclaimed HBO series THE WIRE, a writer/producer on HBO’s miniseries THE PACIFIC, and is now a staff writer/producer on the network’s New Orleans-based series TREME, helmed by WIRE co-creator David Simon. A father of three, Pelecanos continues to work with troubled youths at juvenile correction facilities in the D.C. area.
Wallace Stroby is a New Jersey writer whose latest novel is COLD SHOT TO THE HEART. His fifth novel, KINGS OF MIDNIGHT, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in April 2012.