George Pelecanos Inspires Future Writers

The writer known for D.C. crime novels and ‘The Wire’ visits GW through Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series.

George Pelecanos
Emmy-nominated writer George Pelecanos discusses writing techniques and career advice with GW students.
January 27, 2014
George Pelecanos’ foray into writing was a little unexpected. The D.C. native had taken a crime writing class at the University of Maryland, and after voraciously reading all the crime novels he could find, he decided to try his own hand at writing a book. He sent a manuscript to New York, and promptly forgot about it—until he got a call from a publisher a year later.
That first novel launched his prolific career as an author who has published more than 20 fictional books focusing on crime and mystery in Washington, D.C. Mr. Pelecanos is also well known for his writing on “The Wire,” a hit HBO show about inner-city Baltimore that earned him an Emmy nomination.
On Thursday he joined the George Washington University community for the first time during the Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series, organized by the English Department and the creative writing program. The series has brought poets, screenwriters, novelists and nonfiction writers to GW for more than 20 years. 
“I chose George Pelecanos because I knew his work as a novelist and screenwriter would speak to our students, especially his D.C.-based crime novels and his work on ‘The Wire,’” said Lisa Page, acting director of creative writing. She added that Mr. Pelecanos is committed to young people and has worked with the New Beginnings Correctional Facility and the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program.
The author read the first chapter from his 2006 novel, “The Night Gardener,” based on the true story of several young girls who were murdered in Washington, D.C. A homicide officer who was unable to track down the culprit inspired Mr. Pelecanos’ protagonist in the book.
Mr. Pelecanos loves to research his novels and explained he would frequently go on police ride-alongs in D.C. He had been trying to get permission to visit a homicide unit, but wasn’t granted access until he started working on “The Wire.” He witnessed everything from early investigations to a murderer’s confession to a trip to the morgue.
“I’m not that interested in the forms and the procedures—you can see that on ‘Law & Order.’ When I got into the homicide squad, what I wanted to do was look at the desks and see what kinds of things they had,” Mr. Pelecanos said. “You get a tremendous amount of information just watching and listening to people.”
While discussing “The Wire,” Mr. Pelecanos revealed the importance of collaborating with actors. He shared that cast members were never told when they were going to be killed off the show, and that some series regulars, including Felicia Pearson, had more developed roles because writers were impressed with their performances.
“If you get to work on a show like that, the way you become a better writer is by being on set all the time and getting to know the actors and what they’re good at,” he said. “Then you can write to their strengths and avoid the pitfalls that end up ruining a script from its translation to the screen.”
He also urged aspiring screenwriters to try to find jobs—even low-paying ones—in T.V. writing offices instead of in production roles. A former assistant on “The Wire” would take script notes for little money, but he worked diligently, often until late hours of the night. Mr. Pelecanos once asked him to try and pen a few scenes, and later, the young writer wrote an entire script for season four, Mr. Pelecanos’ favorite season. 
“He was in the trenches for five years,” Mr. Pelecanos said. “Now this guy is the executive producer on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and just sold a show to HBO that [Martin] Scorsese will produce. That’s the path—get into the writer’s office somehow, even if it’s for no money.” 
Mr. Pelecanos also said that his life’s work is about D.C. and that he’s never written a novel that doesn’t take place in the city. He encouraged students who want to have a similar career in fiction to be avid readers and to power through writer’s block by drafting something every day. 
“I have many days when I don’t want to work, but I still try to write. You can’t fix a blank sheet of paper, but you can work on something with words on it,” he said.
Ms. Page said students were impressed with Mr. Pelecanos’s flair for writing, including his use of dialogue and setting in “The Night Gardener.”
“They felt he placed them in the center of the action from the very start; that the characters came alive for them. They raved about the subject matter—the real D.C. serial killer—and how the information was fictionalized,” she said.
Sophomore Katie McGowan, who is studying international affairs but is considering an English major, said she found Mr. Pelecanos’s advice especially helpful, because it helped her envision a future career.
“I’ve always been interested in screenwriting, and hearing him speak made it seem really possible. I thought it was inspiring to listen to his backstory, his novel and his experience,” she said.