George Pelecanos feeling upbeat in lockdown
The hero of “The Man Who Came Uptown,” Michael Hudson, is an ex-con who returns to a changed Washington, DC, after being released from prison. Despite the city’s hipster makeover, what hasn’t changed is Hudson’s dilemma between being drawn back into a life of crime and doing the right thing, as he struggles to find his place in this new world.
The dilemma posed in his latest book is one author George Pelecanos is very familiar with. Working at his father’s Washington diner from the age of 11 and in the neighborhoods where he grew up, he came across people trying to stand out, outsiders with no access to education, unemployed people with no health benefits and corrupt police officers. Before publishing his first book in 1992, he worked as dishwasher, cook, shoe salesman and bartender. Much of his work explores the two sides of the American Dream.
Kathimerini reached out to the Greek-American best-selling crime writer, producer and screenwriter ahead of the Greek launch of “The Man Who Came Uptown” by Patakis at the end of May, for a discussion on the pandemic, on his influences and motivations, and on his “Greek side.”
How is the situation with the coronavirus crisis in the US now?
The infection rate seems to have leveled off, but that is because for the most part people have self-quarantined. This is going to be with us for a long time, certainly the rest of this year. Moving too quickly in order to get people back to work would be very dangerous. Yet there are those who are advocating for just that.
Did you ever think that we would experience a pandemic like this?
I’ve always suspected that the world would end with a mosquito bite rather than an atomic bomb. This will not be the end of the world, but we will lose many loved ones and friends. Two people I knew died this week from the virus. It’s not fiction, it’s real.
Powers like the USA that would usually be at the forefront of a global response against a global crisis like a pandemic have not been responding in the way that had been expected of them. Do you think that leadership and ideologies are being tested? And in what way?
It’s obvious that the current administration here has failed in every conceivable way to control the pandemic and to speak to us with honesty and candor. The citizenry for the most part are controlling it themselves by staying at home. Those who want government out of their lives are now rethinking their libertarian ideology.
Are you afraid of Covid-19?
I respect it. I’m taking every precaution while trying to get through my day-to-day life.
Many people are afraid for their lives. The economy is collapsing. Is democracy in danger?
The Republic is in danger because Trump’s administration is politicizing the pandemic. Politicians want to get re-elected and they know that a collapsed economy will put their ambitions in peril. So some of them are advocating opening up the country again – a very dangerous proposition – [prioritizing it] over the health of the people.
How are you coping with quarantine?
I have my daily routine. I hike in the woods every day, several miles. I work out in my basement. I am reading quite a lot of books. I drink a couple glasses of wine at night and watch film noirs and Westerns. And, yes, food. A friend brought over some pastitsio at Easter and left it on my doorstep. It was delicious.
They say that pandemics have been like rivers in world history: They have shaped countries and nations. What do you think our world will be like after this pandemic? Are you optimistic?
Always optimistic. I’m hoping that people will come away from this with a greater appreciation of their existence.
Tell us about the Greek part of you – as far as your habits, language and religion are concerned?
As you know, my father was born in Sparta and my mother’s people were from Sparta. I grew up in an extended family, many of whom started out in Greece. Rituals, the importance of family, my work ethic, the love of food, all of that was shaped by my Greek heritage. I grew up in St Sophia, where my mother taught Sunday school for 25 years, and many of my lifelong friendships were forged around the church. I don’t pretend to be more Greek than I am – after all I was born here and I am an American. But I was raised as a Greek American, and I’m proud of that.
Could you give us any hints about your next novel?
I would tell you if I knew.
What is the mysterious process writers go through to get an idea on to the page? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
It takes me a while to think of an idea for a book. That’s the hard part for me. Once I get going, after I do the research and sit down to write, that’s just work. I treat it like a job that I report to every day. Honestly, I’ve never had writer’s block. There’s no such thing if you put something down on the page. It doesn’t have to be great at first. You can come back to it and shape it, but you have to have something to work with. In other words, do the work.
Just like James Ellroy with Los Angeles and Ian Rankin with Edinburgh, you’re painting a portrait of a city. What do you love most about Washington?
It’s my lifelong home and that makes me predisposed to like it. I have history here and my so did my parents and grandparents. In the midst of this pandemic I walk around the empty streets of the city and see my mother and father as children, walking those same streets. It’s haunting in a way, but uplifting too. I’ve lived in other places while I was shooting film. New York has better restaurants, the music is better in New Orleans. But there is something to be said for staying in one place.
Are there other hidden influences in your work (other than Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck) that are not talked about so much?
Movies. I was as influenced by film and directors as much as I was by books and novelists. Many writers won’t admit that, but I have no problem saying so. There was no book in my youth that made me want to be a writer. The light bulb went off when I watched “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Once Upon a Time in The West,” and “The Godfather.” I came to reading later in life, and it sparked me further.
How do you feed your imagination and creativity?
I feed my creativity by staying engaged with the world. Walking, taking public transportation, reading, sitting on a barstool having a quiet drink, working on film crews… I actually don’t have a vivid imagination. I need to get out and experience life before I can write.
“The Man Who Came Uptown” will be published in Greek soon by Patakis. Does your hero, Michael Hudson, resemble you?
In a way he does. Michael’s discovery of books sets him on a different and better path than the one he was on. That’s a pretty good description of me when I was in my 20s. Reading changed my life. I’ll leave it at that.
Do you have any tips for newcomers to the creative industry?
It’s a long-distance race, not a sprint. Don’t try to do too much too soon. If you want to be a director, get the lowest job on a film set. You will learn and advance. If you want to write, read everything you can get your hands on and live a full life.
What’s the first thing you are going to do on the first day of your “freedom,” when the pandemic is over?
It won’t be like walking out of prison. It’s going to be a gradual re-entry. I love good bars and restaurants. I’m looking forward to a night out on the town.
Your anti-hero Spero Lucas’ adoptive father told him to always think of what kind of person he wanted to be. What kind of person do you want to be?
I always wanted to be like my father and my mother, and I hope I’ve inherited their best traits. I was blessed, you see, to grow up with such role models.