In Conversation with George Pelecanos and Richard Lange

It’s a rare pleasure to be a fly on the wall during a conversation between Richard Lange and George Pelecanos, two crime fiction masters. Below is our transcript of their exchange, which ranges widely and rivetingly across such subjects as empathy, prisons, the writing process, and why vets make ideal detectives.

Angel Baby by Richard Lange is available now as a hardcover, eBook, and downloadable audiobook. The Double by George Pelecanos will be available as hardcover, large print book, eBook, and audiobook on October 8th.

Richard Lange: First off, let me say that I’m a huge fan of your work from way back, and it’s a real honor to engage in this kind of dialogue with one of my heroes. I especially want to thank you for all you did to spread the word about Dead Boys, my first book. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they read it because you mentioned it somewhere or recommended it to them. I’m forever in your debt for that.

Now, to the questions. I’ve tried to keep them brief and pertinent but haven’t always succeeded.

The Double by George PelecanosThe Double is the second book featuring Spero Lucas. Why did you choose to start another series, and what are the major differences between this one and your earlier series? Were you looking to explore new kinds of stories and characters in this one?

George Pelecanos: I never plan on a series. When I finished writing The Cut I felt like there was more to explore with the character of Spero Lucas, so I went after it.  Some of the things I only hinted at in the first book come to the forefront in The Double.  Lucas’s war experience in the Middle East has impacted him deeply, and the darker aspects of his psyche have bubbled up to the surface. It’s a harder, more violent, and more sexually explicit book than The Cut.  Also, I liked writing about a young, physical guy who has a young man’s appetites.  I’d been writing about middle-aged guys for awhile, and switching up helped me cut loose.  The Lucas books have a certain kind of drive and energy.

Richard, you made a positive reputation early on with your short story collection, Dead Boys, which you know I enjoyed a great deal. When I read Chapter 6 of your new novel, Angel Baby, I was struck by how complete and polished it was. Detailing the prison life of Jerónimo Cruz, it stands on it own. Is it accurate to say that you craft each chapter in one of your novels with the care and precision that you would in one of your short stories? And which form of fiction do you prefer, both as a reader and writer?

Angel Baby by Richard LangeLange: Maybe because I started as a short-story writer, the individual chapters of the novels sometimes have a self-contained feel to them. They’re almost slices of the characters’ lives. It’s at odds with the narrative demands of the plot, I suppose, but it’s the way I tell my stories, through discrete scenes. I’m a slow, careful writer, even in first drafts, and I spend a lot of time chipping away at things in order to get them to my liking. As you know, what looks simplest is often most difficult to achieve.
As far as what I prefer, short stories or novels, as a reader, I love both equally. When it comes to my own work, stories is where I feel most comfortable, but I’m learning to love the expansiveness of writing novels—which is good, because you can’t make a living writing short stories.

You’ve done a lot of TV work. How has that influenced your fiction, if at all? It’s a different kind of storytelling, isn’t it?

Pelecanos: Working with writers like David Simon, Richard Price, Ed Burns, Eric Overmyer, Bill Zorzi, and many others in TV has made me a better novelist. Just sitting around a table with those guys and talking about the process was invaluable.  It was my graduate school. Screenwriting is a different kind of storytelling in terms of format. But it’s still about the characters and voices.

Love the scene on page 165 of Angel Baby where Thacker shakes down a couple of young women in a Mustang convertible. Thacker’s somewhat of a pig, and yet this reader felt empathetic toward him to a degree. It’s hard to describe anyone as “good” or “bad” in your novel, which makes the characters closer to human than type. You seem to take great, deliberate care in shading your people, is that right?

Lange: Yeah, the black/white, good/evil thing doesn’t work for me in life, so I’m not going to do it in my fiction. I’m all over the map inside my head, and I assume that everyone else is, too, whether they’re aware of it or willing to admit it or not. I try to create “real” people, and then put them through their paces. Of course, they’re not real, they’re fictional beings, but I want them to have all the ambiguity of real people. You may not like them, but I hope you understand their motivations and the forces that shaped them and cause them to do what they do. I’m trying to create empathy. We can use more empathy.

Spero Lucas and a lot of his friends and associates are veterans, primarily of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Was there a reason you chose to have so many characters be ex-military?

Pelecanos: I live near the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of the returning soldiers and marines who’ve been wounded. At the same time I found that criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors often use veterans as private detectives to harvest information before going to trial.  Vets are suited for the work, and the job closely replicates the experience they’ve had overseas. Meaning, in active duty, they wake up everyday and are given a mission. It was an organic way to tell my story. Everyone knows what’s going on with our veterans and how we’ve fallen woefully short in our obligation to them.  Fiction can take it right to the heart.

Lange: I enjoy books set in real cities, and I feel like I could use The Double and many of your other novels as road maps and guides to certain sections of DC. You obviously know the city inside and out, but do you actually visit the locales you write about in order to get them “right”? I only ask because I do a lot of boots-on-the-ground research for my stuff. For example, part of Angel Baby takes place in Compton, an area of L.A. I’d never actually been to, so I drove down and hung out for a couple of days to get enough sensory details about the place to feel confident writing about it. Do you make similar field trips?

Pelecanos: Always. I do a lot of street research before I sit down to write. I researched both Spero Lucas novels from the seat of my 2001 Jeep Cherokee, the saddle of my road bike, and the cockpit of my kayak. I enjoy that part of the process.  I don’t start to “see” the book until I get out there.

On Page 103 of Angel Baby, a description of a neighborhood in Tijuana:

“It’s as bad as prison—worse, because out here they tell you you’re free. Dusty boys with no future kick scuffed soccer balls, a widow in perpetual mourning sells tacos from a grill in front of her house, and gangsters congregate in the shadows with caguamas of Tecate, dreaming of international hit man stardom.”

That’s great writing, man.  How much of that sort of thing comes from your imagination, and how much is straight observance and reporting?

TijuanaLange: It’s a combination. In the case of TJ in Angel Baby, I’ve spent a lot of time there and in other cities and towns in Mexico, so I have a feeling for the place and lots of sense memories to draw on when writing about it. Of course, it’s not straight reportage, because I’m shading things to fit whatever story I’m writing. When it comes to writing about someplace like La Mesa, the prison in Angel Baby, I do research online. It’s a real prison, so I was able to find videos and photos that gave me an idea of what it looks like inside, what the prisoners wear, etc. I used these details to ground me, and then I made up the rest based on prison movies I’ve seen and real prisons I’ve visited in the course of my travels. I’m kind of a prison freak, actually.

Spero does a lot of biking and kayaking in The Double and The Cut, so much that it wore me out just reading about it. Are these activities you enjoy? If so, how do you ever find the time? Do you stick to a pretty strict schedule in your daily life?

Pelecanos: As you know, you can’t write all day long. I do a long morning session at my desk, then get out in the afternoon and do something physical to blow it out of my head and clean house. Then I come home and rewrite at night.  I write seven days a week when I’m working on a book.  It’s a strict schedule, but that’s how I get it done.

Can you tell the readers your road (and roadblocks) to getting published?  I think it’s something that potential writers like to hear, and all of our stories are different.

Lange: I got a scholarship to film school at USC and took fiction writing classes there with T.C. Boyle. I didn’t go to grad school because I was sick of being poor and wanted to get a real job. I ended up in magazine publishing, and that was my career for 20 years. During that time, I wrote as a hobby. I wrote short stories exclusively, sent them out to journals, and got rejected over and over and over. Each time they came back, I’d rework them and send them out again. Through this process, I taught myself the grind of writing. My first story was published when I was 35 years old. Over the course of the next eight years I published a bunch more, all of which are collected in Dead Boys. An agent contacted me. That led to a two-book deal for the stories and the novel This Wicked World.

Manuscript pagesIt was a long, lonely haul. I didn’t do writers groups or retreats or classes. I’m too shy for that kind of thing and wouldn’t have trusted the opinions of anybody else anyway. I knew what good writing was, and I knew when I was doing it. I didn’t sit around, waiting for inspiration. I wrote a little bit every day, good or bad. Writing was and is as much a part of my life as eating and sleeping, and it’s the only thing I let myself be proud about.

Pelecanos: One of the endorsement quotes on the back of Angel Baby includes the line, “Lange stands out as the greatest young crime writer of his generation, precisely because he doesn’t write crime—he writes literature.” Are the two concepts mutually exclusive?

Lange: Those are just marketing terms to me. I’m writing exactly what I want to write, and they can call it whatever they want in order to sell it. People have said I’m too literary for the crime crowd and to crime-y for the literary crowd. Everybody’s taste is different, and I’m not going to chase an audience. I like what I write, and that’s all that matters. I’ll probably have a short, shitty career because of that attitude, but it’ll damn sure be fun while it lasts.