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Crime Novelist George P. Pelecanos

Pelecacnos is the author of "Sweet Forever" (Little, Brown) He has been called "one of 1990's rising stars in crime fiction." His other works include "King Suckerman," "The Big Blowdown," "Down By the River Where Dead Men Go," "Shoedog," "Nick's Trip," and "A Firing Offense."


Other segments from the episode on August 25, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 25, 1998: Interview with George P. Pelecanos; Interview with Bill Plympton.


Date: AUGUST 25, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082501np.217
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest George Pelecanos is a crime writer with a cult following. His characters are steeped in pop culture. His private eyes see the world through music, movies and TV shows. Pelecanos sold audio and tended bar before becoming a writer. He's now a partner in Circle Films, the company that produced "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," and the current film "Whatever."

Pelecanos' novels are set in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. His latest, "The Sweet Forever," takes place in the mid-80s after crack has transformed Washington. The main character, Dimitri Carras (ph), who's Greek-American, manages a small chain of record stores owned by his African-American friend Marcus Clay.

Dimitri is always trying to cover up his increasingly heavy consumption of cocaine and alcohol. The plot is set in motion after a car carrying drug money crashes in front of one of their stores.

Here's the scene in which Dimitri, with a girl friend Donna, goes to check in on the Georgetown store he manages.


"They kept walking. They passed Commander Salamander, where rich kids from Potomac and McLean came downtown to get their hair dyed pink and buy their bondage punk look from the middle-aged proprietors. "Well," thought Carras, "at least the kids are having fun. Everyone these days is having big fun.

"Carras could deal with Georgetown -- the lack of parking; the panhandlers; the gimmick bars serving lousy draft beer to Northern Virginia kids on weekend nights; the suburbanites and the crowds; the Iranian and the Iraqi merchants selling off-brand clothing and shoes; the jewelers pushing gold chains to the drug kids driving in from across town.

"Marcus Clay couldn't deal with Georgetown, so this had become Carras' turf by default. You needed a record store in this part of town if you wanted to be in the business in D.C. The demand for music was big down here. Two years earlier, a monstrous crowd had pushed through the plate glass window of Kemp-Mill Records during an in-store appearance of "Frankie Goes To Hollywood." That same year, when a rumor surfaced that Prince had been seen window shopping on M Street, scores of purple-clad kids had descended on Georgetown in hopes of spotting his royal badness.

Yeah, Marcus hated G-town, but Carras never tired of reminding him that Wisconsin and O was his top-volume store. Carras went into the store. Donna Morgan stayed out front and lit up a smoke. The store was narrow and deep, generally unclean and dimly lit. The new Falco, "Rock Me Amadeus", boomed from the stereo and pumped the house. The manager, Scott, greeted Carras right away with a handshake and smile. "Hey, Dimitri, what's the word?"


Scott was on the heavy side, his face acned from junk food. He wore his shoe-polish black hair short except for the thick lock that fell in front of his face. Marcus had complained about the look and Carras had shrugged it off saying, "It was a flock of seagulls thing."

Marcus had said, "A flock of douche bags maybe. Tell him to get his hair on out of his face."

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. And that's a reading from George Pelecanos' new book "The Sweet Forever."

Do you feel that there are ways that you are departing from the traditions within the crime novel and the private eye novel?

PELECANOS: Yeah, I -- the main thing is that I -- I write about working class people who get into some situations with crime. But their particular stories are small. It's not -- these are not Washington novels about the general putting his crazy finger on the red button. They're about the guys that work in the bars and kitchens and the warehouses around town.

GROSS: And the record stores and the audio stores.

PELECANOS: That's right. Yeah. And I try and see it through their eyes, and my books have a wide palette -- a whole bunch of characters, different points of view; and, you know, different races and classes -- all that. And I feel like I'm just writing social documents that have crime elements.

GROSS: As we could hear from the reading, you know, your characters are always making reference to what they're listening to or what movies they've seeing. There's always a musical backdrop to what's going on in the story. Tell me why that's so important to you to put that in.

PELECANOS: It was vital in my life. Music was just one of the pop culture elements that got me motivated to do what I'm doing now. And I think in these people's lives, it's also vital. The settings that I put them in, whether it's a sales floor or a kitchen, for example, or just driving around in a car, there always would be the radio on. And what they're listening to in many cases defines their characters.

GROSS: Do you mostly choose records you like for your characters to be listening to?

PELECANOS: I try not to. I think maybe in the beginning I did, and now I'm getting away from that. There was the danger of putting a -- having a list of things that I'm listening to at the time in my books. And I think I've gotten away from that, although you know in a book like "King Suckerman," it's a way to celebrate my love of '70s funk, which I think is -- the funk and soul movement of the '70s is the most glorious American music movement, in my opinion, you know, in this post-war period.

GROSS: You have two different series'. One is your serious about Nick Stefanos, an appliance store salesman -- you know, a stereo salesman turned private eye, who is also a bartender. And the other is your "King Suckerman" series. Would you tell us some of the differences between those two?

PELECANOS: The Nick Stefanos books were -- are first-person, hard-boiled detective novels. And Nick Stefanos started out being a character -- there's no denying there was very much autobiographical. I was a guy who worked those sales force, for example, and I burned all that down in the attempt to change my life and become a writer.

He burns it behind him, as well, and becomes a private detective. Where he differs from me is that -- and what interested me about the series was that I was trying to create a character that changed in every book. And I was tired of having the reformed alcoholic private detective. And I thought: well, what about a guy who gets worse in every book?


Who has problems -- right?

GROSS: That's right. He does. Yeah.

PELECANOS: Yeah. I mean, he's going towards this -- he's slipping towards this private hell further and further in every book. And he's, you know, the idea is that he is not able to help himself. However, he's very much able to help the community that he lives in.

GROSS: And the "King Suckerman" series?

PELECANOS: Right. That started actually with "The Big Blowdown" which is my book set in the '40s in DC. It's about Greek immigrants and other immigrants in the city. And it starts in the Depression and goes through the post -- the war and into the post-war years. And when I finished that, I started wondering: well, what happens to the kid? The baby in that book, who's the son of the protagonist Peter Carras

And I thought: you know, what's really interesting is that these guys in "The Big Blowdown"' wouldn't even leave the house without a fedora, a tight Windsor knot, an overcoat. What about the son? You know, 1976 -- what would he look like?

Well, of course, I knew because I was there, and what he would look like is a guy wearing ripped jeans, having, you know, shoulder-length hair, and selling dope. And the cultural -- the radical cultural shift was what interested me and that's how I got onto "King Suckerman."

GROSS: Your book "King Suckerman" was set in the '70s and your new book "The Sweet Forever" is set in the '80s. And I'm wondering if part of the reason why you wanted to go back to those decades -- is those are the decades when you were young and probably listening to music even more than you have a chance to listen to it now.

PELECANOS: That's right. I -- well, I already said about the '70s what it meant to me -- the music then. And I was -- in '76 when that book is set, "King Suckerman," I was out there on the street. I was 19 years old. It was my summer, as every man has a summer that he remembers more than any other. I barely did any research for that book. I can still remember what we were wearing. I can remember this -- like a city smell -- of what was coming from the radios -- all of that.

'86. I set the book in '86 -- "The Sweet Forever" -- because it was a pivotal summer in Washington history. And by that I mean several things happened. Crack came to town and changed the landscape as we know it. The crime accelerated 10-fold. It was also the summer that we in Washington -- citizens began to get a pretty good idea of the level of corruption in our public government there -- the local government.

GROSS: In what ways was the summer that you turned 19 "your" summer?

PELECANOS: I was becoming a man and I was -- and I was, you know, jumping out of the nest. I ran my dad's carry-out shop downtown for half the year because my father had gotten sick and I had dropped out of college actually to do that. When you're in business like my parents were, and you have your own business, there's no insurance, so I had to step in and do that for my family.

GROSS: This is like a diner that sold take-out food?

PELECANOS: Yeah, I mean it was a lunch counter -- 27 seats, a couple of booths. And then after the bicentennial, which I was down there like everybody else, I took off in my '70 Camaro with my buddy Steve Radus (ph) and we went all over the South. We did that, you know, that Huck Finn thing. And I came back and for the rest of the year I sold televisions and stereos in a place called Landover in -- outside of Washington, which was an all-black neighborhood. And it was just a very memorable year for me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is crime writer George Pelecanos. And his new book is called "The Sweet Forever."

"King Suckerman" -- the title of your previous book -- is the name that you've given to a "blaxploitation" film that you created for the novel. And it stars Ron St. John. And it has a theme with the lyric -- you want to recite the lyric?

PELECANOS: "King Suckerman, running down the master plan, taking it right to the man."

GROSS: Right. Now, what did the black exploitation film -- the black action films -- what effect did they have on you in the '70s?

PELECANOS: Oh, it was huge. I saw "Shaft" at the Town Theater down at 13th and New York. My dad took me to it when I was 13 years old, and from then on I went to every movie I could. I'd go into -- I'd go into the inner city. I'd take a bus downtown. Or I'd go to the drive-ins when we were old enough to drive.

And it was my looking glass into another world. I knew that it wasn't realistic, and everybody was having fun, but it was cool for me and also, especially for black people to see a black protagonist who wins for a change, and who has an attitude to boot.

GROSS: Now, your novel "King Suckerman" opens at a drive-in which is showing "Black Caesar," which is ...

PELECANOS: That's right.

GROSS: ... one of the black action films of the '70s.


GROSS: And there is a shooting at the drive-in that is timed to coincide with a shooting in the movie, so that no one will hear the real gunshots because what they'll be -- it'll be covered by the gunshots on screen.

PELECANOS: That's right.

GROSS: What are some of the differences you would like to show between movie violence and real violence in your books?

PELECANOS: Yeah, I think that's the whole inner-section of "King Suckerman" where they go to the movie theater to see this film that they've been anticipating for weeks. All the characters -- the bad and the good guys -- go down there. And what's on screen is a lot different than what they thought they were going to see.

What they actually see is what happens -- what happens to a real pimp, and the guy ends up in jail dying of tertiary syphilis at the end of the scene. And they're -- when the lights go up, they're stunned. What I was trying to say is that -- and, of course, as the book progresses from there on in, the violence of the street -- the real violence -- intrudes upon their lives in a very real way.

So I was trying to show that it's not real there up on screen, and every time somebody dies in one of my books, yes, it's very graphic. It's graphic for a reason. I want to show people how horrible it is. I want to shake them up. And I want to remind them that it's not a quip, you know, those James Bonds quips: "bon appetit" -- when the guy falls in the shark tank. Well, that's a real person that fell in that shark tank, and I want to show what it looks like because it's a very horrible thing.

GROSS: I think one of the ways you know about real violence is from an experience you wish you never had, an accidental shooting when you were younger. Would it be OK to talk about what happened?

PELECANOS: It was -- there's actually nothing extraordinary about it. You read these stories in the paper every week. It was -- a gun was in the house. I was 16 years old. I was screwing around with a friend and I shot my friend. The only thing that I do want to say about that is -- because I won't talk about it because I don't -- specifically don't want to exploit it -- but I do want to say that to anybody that's listening, especially young people, this is not a case of Pelecanos shot some dude. He's a hard-core guy. He's hard-boiled or whatever. I was just a stupid kid.

And anybody can pull the trigger on a gun. It doesn't take a tough guy. That's not me, you know. It was a very -- you're right. It informs everything that I write, I would say. And it changed the way I look at things. I think that the guns have to come off the street.

That's why it is -- it is, in a way, why everything is so real in my books. Everything's informed by that one experience I had, and then on.

GROSS: Did your friend survive?


GROSS: Did you stay friends?

PELECANOS: I baptized his child. I just saw him last week. He's got a beautiful family; very successful man. Yeah, we're still best friends.

GROSS: You're very anti-gun now. Did your father get rid of his gun after your accidental shooting?

PELECANOS: Yes, he did.

GROSS: Where was your friend shot?

PELECANOS: I shot him in the face.

GROSS: You don't want people to think: oh, he's cool. He's tough. He shot someone. He's a bad guy."

PELECANOS: That's right.

GROSS: What -- what impact did it have on you? I mean, it didn't make you feel tough, I imagine. What did it make you feel like when this happened? How -- did it -- what effect did it have on you emotionally?

PELECANOS: It rocked my world. I mean, it was a horrible -- first of all, it was a horrible thing to see. I blew the whole side of this kid's face off, at point-blank range. And if you had just -- if your whole experience with guns had been through the movies and television images, you have no idea what it looks like to do something like that. The amount of blood that was in the house was splattered all over the walls; was shooting out of his neck.

When my dad came home with the groceries in his arms, and he walked -- I'll never forget, he walked in the foyer and he just dropped the bags right out of his hand. Tears came to his eyes. You know, so -- but I wasn't smart enough to totally clean up my act. I'll tell you that. I was still 16 years old, so I was still -- you know, did all the stupid things that kids do. I was out there, you know, driving around with too much beer inside of me and all that -- and all the stupid things that kids do. It took me a long time to wake up.

GROSS: George Pelecanos is my guest, and he's a crime novelist. His new book is called "The Sweet Forever."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: My guest is George Pelecanos. He writes crime novels. He's also a film producer. His new novel is called "A Firing Offense" and it's a sequel to his previous book "King Suckerman."

I'd like you to read a scene from your first novel, "A Firing Offense." And this is a kind of violent climax of the novel. I would imagine it's the first scene like it that you wrote, or at least the first violent scene of yours that was published.


GROSS: Maybe you could read this for us and then tell us a little more about what you think about when you write these violent eruptions.


"He began to raise his gun from his side. He must have crouched down into a shooting position just as I squeezed the trigger. The slug tore into him above his shirt collar, on the Adam's apple. A small puff of white smoke and some fluid shot away from his neck as he was blown back to the floor.

"Wayne squeezed a round off into the head of the South Carolinian. His scalp lifted and his forehead came apart like an August peach. Then Wayne moved his gun to the face of the man's startled partner and shot him twice at close range. As he fell back, I saw a nickel-sized spot steaming above the bridge of his nose. His mouth was moving as he went down, but he was dead before he hit the ground.

"Malone had shot the albino twice in the chest. The tall man stumbled and still standing, pumped off two loads in succession from a shotgun. Malone screamed. In my side vision, I saw him falling backward in a "V" -- still firing. The albino was tripping forward. I emptied two more rounds into his long torso. The dreadlock buyer was spinning slowly from the rapid fire of Wayne's automatic. The second buyer raised his gun in my direction. I screamed Tony's name.

"I saw fire spitting down from above. I covered my face with my arms. There was a sound of ripping cardboard, splintering wood and concrete ricochet. Glass exploded around me and I went to my knees."

GROSS: Is there anything in this scene that came directly from memories that you couldn't get out of your mind?

PELECANOS: I think you only have to see it once to remember it always. And people like emergency room technicians I'm sure are haunted by this their entire lives. And I would say that it's never going to leave my subconscious, and it finds its way into my -- into these scenes consistently. It was pointed out to me that a lot of the people that get shot in my books get shot in the face. And I didn't realize I was doing it, to tell you the truth. But yeah, it's there.

GROSS: Do you think it's possible to write crime novels or make crime movies that don't, in the long run, glamorize crime in some way?

PELECANOS: Yes, I do, by showing -- making it as emotionally powerful as you can. And by showing that every life -- every life lost has an impact, not just on the loss of that particular life, it reverberates into the -- all the people around that person.

And to draw the characters as people, not as types. So that when they do die, the reader has lost something, as well.

GROSS: Where do you have to go, both emotionally and technically, as a writer in order to write these scenes and write them well?

PELECANOS: Technically, I go up into a little office in the loft of my bungalow at home. And my sons sleep up there. And I have three children and there's a lot of -- there's a lot of noise around the house and confusion. I've actually -- for some reason, it helps me. I've been able to write several books like that.

But when I'm sitting in that room, it's -- and I'm in the -- looking into that computer terminal, it's like being in a tunnel. You know, there's nothing going on around it. It's just me connected to that and playing out all these scenes in my head. And I can hear the characters speaking.

GROSS: Do you think that your writing of violent scenes has changed in the years that you've been writing novels?

PELECANOS: I don't think so. I mean, in "The Sweet Forever" ends in an almost apocalyptic descent into hell, in the drug house where the two cops walk into -- the firelight is strobing into the room and the faces are distorted. In fact, the head guy looks -- looks like a gargoyle almost in that light. It's a frightening -- it's a frightening scene. It's almost -- veers into the horror novel genre.

And I wanted to give it that nightmarish quality. I always do. The one thing you'll never see in my books is anybody making any kind of humorous reference to violence or death.

GROSS: George Pelecanos will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "The Sweet Forever."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with crime novelist George Pelecanos.

His private eyes have worked in audio and record stores, and his characters see the world through music, movies, TV shows and books. Pelecanos has a new novel called "The Sweet Forever." It's a sequel to last year's novel "King Suckerman," which has just come out in paperback. An earlier Pelecanos novel, "Nick's Trip," has also just come out in paper.

Now you used to work in an audio store selling stereo components and other things. How did you get from there into becoming a writer. Now, I know you also tended bar. I'm not exactly sure what the sequence is. But was there, you know, a straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, and got you from that kind of nine-to-five life into being a writer?

PELECANOS: Well, you have to go back to college.

GROSS: Let me correct myself. No bartender is probably a nine-to-five guy, but ...


PELECANOS: That's right. I -- I actually did a variety of things. I worked in kitchens and bars and a lot of sales floors. I put myself through college selling shoes on straight commission. I drove a truck for a while. But when I got into college, I was turned on to the genre by a professor named Charles Misch (ph). And I wasn't even a reader, really. I hadn't read a book since I was a kid, probably, except for the ones that were pushed on me in high school.

But I saw this guy standing up here -- this very tough man that was -- and very smart man, literate, who was holding these books up lovingly and kind of stalking the aisles. And I just -- I just fell in love with the genre.

So for a while, I was doing these jobs, for the next 10 years, I was reading two or three books a week -- everything I could get my hands on. And like everybody else in the '80s, I was promoted very quickly and by the time I was 30 years old, I was running a $30 million retail company in Washington. And I hated it. And so I sat down with my wife -- we didn't have kids at the time -- and I said: "Emily, look, I want to try -- I want to try this thing. I think I can write a book." And she bit down hard and she said: "Well go ahead, if that's what you want to do."

So I tried it. And literally I did not know what I was doing. I'd never had a writing class. It was all based on books that I had read. I thought: well, maybe I can do this thing. So I wrote the book in long-hand in some notebooks in the back of my house, and wrote it three times like that. And I sent it off to St. Martin's Press because I thought that they did mysteries -- they did a lot of mysteries, it looked like.

And I sent it to one publisher. I was very naive. I said: well I'm going to wait and see what this guy says up there. In the meantime, I started another book. Well, it took them a year to get back to me. They picked it up off the slush pile, and the guy called me, Gordon van Gelder (ph), a young editor there. And he said that they wanted to buy the book.

I was -- I was walking on air, man. It was, you know, it was the greatest day of my life except for the day my first son was born. That's -- I was on my way then.

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your father had a take-out shop -- a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. And you worked in that for a while.


GROSS: Did that seem to you like a neat thing to have? Was it like a meeting place for people?

PELECANOS: Definitely. It was right in the -- it was next to The Palm restaurant, which is a famous restaurant in Washington, and right in the district of the law firms. And I started out working for my dad when I was 10 years old. I'd take the bus downtown, transfer to a cross-town bus, and then I delivered food out on the streets for him. I delivered to offices.

And it was the first time that I really started falling in love with the city and the people in it, 'cause I was out there all day long running around. And I was very proud of my dad. My dad loved what he was doing. It's very important, I think, for a man to enjoy what he does every day. And I got that from him, and I also got his work ethic. I saw my father getting up at 4:30 every morning. I'd wake up and I'd hear him walking down the stairs, and he'd get home at seven at night. And, you know, the man worked a full day and he loved doing what he was doing.

I'm doing that now. I work two jobs to this day. I run a film company during the day -- a film production company. And I write at night. So I'm putting in my 14 hours a day just like my dad did and digging it. You know, I can't wait to get to both of my jobs. And I think you can't be any more fortunate than that.

GROSS: One of the things you are often writing about now is race, and you often team up an African-American and a white character. In your new novel, there's two cops, one black, one white, and then two guys at the record store. The African-American owns the store and the worker who he's close to is white.


GROSS: What are some of the issues you'd like to address about race in your novels?

PELECANOS: Well, the thing about the friendship between the two guys was that in '76, it was much more possible to have that kind of friendship. I think it's harder these days. It seems like it is.

GROSS: Why does it seem that way to you?

PELECANOS: Well, first of all, the reason it was easier then is because we were all coming out of the civil rights thing as young people, and it was like a rain had cleared the street. And we were all very interested in checking the other guy out, checking out his music, going to the parties. We all thought that things were going to get better then, for everybody. Well, they didn't get better for everybody. And the fact that people have realized that has made it a lot harder to be interested in exploring those friendships today.

As the father of two mixed-race sons, I'm very concerned with where we're going race-wise in this country.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is George Pelecanos. And he's the author of several crime novels, including "A Firing Offense," "King Suckerman," and his new novel "The Sweet Forever."

In addition to writing, you also run a film production company called "Circle Films." The films you've released include the first four Coen Brother films, including "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," and "Barton Fink." You are one of the producers of the new movie "Whatever." What else have you done?

PELECANOS: We've got a picture called "Blackmail" that we just completed, that I'm going to sell shortly to a distributor.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

PELECANOS: We did a film called "Caught" directed by Robert M. Young. And Bob Young is one of the fathers of independent film. That came out a couple of years ago. And we're just doing small films out of Washington, in a very quiet way. I'm partnered with Jim and Ted Pettis in Washington, and these guys are legends in DC. They started The Circle Theater, which was kind of where everybody in Washington got their film education. So you know, we're just trying to make good films in a low-key way and hopefully stay afloat like that.

GROSS: When I was reading your new novel, I kept thinking: oh, this is going to be a movie."



GROSS: Is it going to be a movie?

PELECANOS: Actually, "King Suckerman" just sold to Dimension, which is a division of Miramax.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

PELECANOS: And I have just turned in the second draft of the screenplay, so I'm writing it. And I think, you know, that one should be out. If they do it right, it's going to be out July Fourth of next year 'cause it's set during the bicentennial. It's a good way to market it, right?

GROSS: How -- what was the transition like from the novel to the screenplay?

PELECANOS: It was difficult because you have to throw out all the internal dialogue. And you have to create more movie moments, but ...

GROSS: What's a "movie moment"?

PELECANOS: Well, I think more explosions, let's just say, in the metaphorical sense.

GROSS: Well, stop right there, because it's probably also in the literal sense. And for a guy who truly doesn't want to glamorize violence, how do you make that transition to more explosive things on screen without glamorizing violence?

PELECANOS: Again, to show it as a very horrible thing, first of all. And to get away from the showdown kind of aspects of things. You know, in other words, when people meet and something's going to happen, it happens very quickly and there's a lot of blood. There's no talking. There is no romanticism or anything like that.

And there is a way to do it. Yeah, there is a way to do it. I wouldn't -- I wouldn't exploit that. I just wouldn't do it.

GROSS: You mention you have two sons who are of mixed-race, so I assume that means that your wife is African-American.



PELECANOS: My kids are -- I have three children that are adopted -- two boys ...

GROSS: Oh, I see. OK

PELECANOS: ... yeah, I have two sons from Brazil and they're mixed race. And I have a beautiful baby girl from Guatemala, who's a native Guatemalan. And I have a -- this really beautiful, happy family that I'm very proud of. And I'm here to tell you that this -- you know, you hear all about these people that don't want parents of one color to adopt children of another color, and they ought to come to my house because I dare anyone to find a place that's more full of love than my house.

You know, when I look at my kids, I don't see anything but my kids. And they don't see a Greek dad or a blond mom. You know, they just see their mom and dad. So it works.

GROSS: I think it's kind of interesting that you've decided to have such a large family, only in the sense that we think of, you know, the hard-boiled writer as being, you know, the loner, not as the family man who, you know, has birth children and adopted children ...


GROSS: ... and goes out of his way to have more kids.

PELECANOS: Yeah. We -- the second time I went down to Brazil for my son Peter, we saw a lot of hungry children all over the place. I mean, you know, you're sitting there in a restaurant and they have these dividers up, and all you see is these thin little arms reaching under the dividers. And I could say in a way that it radicalized me.

I mean, I -- at the time, I was reading in the American newspapers about this so-called "revolution" that was going to take welfare away. And people don't realize what happens when you take away that safety net in a society, because they really haven't seen hungry people. And when you see it, it changes the way you look at life.

So my wife and I decided as long as we could do this, we would do it. And so far it's really working out. Believe me, we're getting the bulk of the benefit because I have great kids.

GROSS: In an earlier novel of yours, one of the novels about Nick Stefanos, the private eye, he's investigating a teenager whose been killed. And he's going through the teenager's drawers. And everything is kind of neatly arranged. There's just kind of clothes in there. And there's actually no clues to the true identity of who this person was.


GROSS: And Nick Stefanos, the private eye, is thinking as a teenager, he always kept a shoebox in his dresser filled with those things that were most important to him. I figure you probably did that, too, and I'm wondering if so, what you kept in your shoebox?

PELECANOS: I still have that shoebox. It's still on my dresser.

GROSS: Really?


GROSS: What do you have in it?

PELECANOS: Oh God, I've got a baseball. You know, the baseball I had when I was a kid, the whole time. I've got a badge that, you know, with my name in there, and address where I grew up. That -- it's a -- like a policeman's badge. You know, it's a fake. It's a toy. I've got all sorts of little things that my grandparents had given me when they'd go on a -- you know, they took a boat to Greece and came back and they gave me a pencil -- big pencil that said "Olympia" on it. And it's -- I don't know why I keep that stuff. It kind of haunts you in a way, but it's also a connection.

I've actually got a review that I wrote of my first book, which I wrote when I was seven years old or eight years old. It was called "The Two Wars of Lieutenant Jeremy." And the book is gone now, of course. It was just a -- it was a war novel, you know, based on my experiences in World War II.


But I still have the reviews, which I wrote myself.


That's -- you know: "This kid can really write" -- "TIME" magazine. You know?


I'm not kidding.

GROSS: So in some ways, although you had no clue that you wanted to write or that you could be a writer until you started writing after holding all these other jobs, you did have a clue.

PELECANOS: Yeah. I, you know, there was a seed of that. I -- you know, the whole thing with me was -- about writing -- is I never thought that it was something that, you know, a Greek boy from Washington, D.C. ever did. You know, I thought it was always WASPy guys with suede patches on their elbows and smoking a pipe -- that kind of thing.

I just didn't think it was -- you know, something that I could do or that I was allowed to do. And then I said: well, why not write about my life, you know? I didn't -- it hadn't been done before. I mean, all the Washington books are about something else.

So I explore those people's lives and I was there, you know, and I think that's my niche.

GROSS: One last question: is it exciting for you to be making a movie now, after producing movies for several years?

PELECANOS: Yeah, it's a different experience. And I would -- I would be a liar to deny that it's a dream, you know, to see my name up there on the screen: "written by" -- you know. So it's a gas, man. Everything -- look, I'm having a lot of fun.

GROSS: George Pelecanos, thank you very much for talking with us.

PELECANOS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: George Pelecanos' new book is called "The Sweet Forever." It's a sequel to "King Suckerman" which has just been published in paperback. Also in paper are his novels in his earlier private eye series, including "A Firing Offense," "Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go," and "Nick's Trip."

Coming up, animator Bill Plympton on his new feature "I Married A Strange Person."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: George P. Pelecanos
High: Crime novelist George P. Pelecanos is the author of "Sweet Forever" (Little, Brown). He has been called "one of the 1990s rising stars in crime fiction." His other works include "King Suckerman," "The Big Blowdown," "Down By The River Where Dead Men Go," "Shoedog," "Nick's Trip," and "A Firing Offense."
Spec: Media; George P. Pelecanos; Literature
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.

Date: AUGUST 25, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082502NP.217
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:36

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "The Exciting Life of a Tree," "How to Kiss" and "Twenty-Five Ways to Stop Smoking" are some of Bill Plympton's comic animated shorts. He's also done a lot of animation for MTV. In fact, he has a new animated sitcom that he's piloting for MTV.

The American Museum of the Moving Image in New York just honored him with a film retrospective, which also previewed his new feature-length animation, "I Married a Strange Person." It opens theatrically this week in New York and L.A. and opens in other cities in September.

Like several of his animated shorts, "I Married a Strange Person" is a bit sexually obsessed. The story focuses on a couple of newlyweds. The wife discovers that her husband isn't the man she thought he was. He has developed strange and disturbing powers.

BILL PLYMPTON, ANIMATOR: Through the weird act of two birds having sex, falling out of the sky and bumping into his radar dish, these radiation beams get directed into his brain and it hits his imagination lobe, and it grows to huge proportions. And consequently, whenever he thinks of something, whenever he imagines something, it becomes reality.

So he -- he'll be daydreaming about something and all of a sudden it becomes a reality and real life is suddenly a whole different ball game for him.

GROSS: Let's give an example, like there's one scene in which his new mother-in-law scolds him for getting a crumb on her kitchen table.


GROSS: And she says: "oh, we must be neat and clean or else we get bugs." And then what happens?

PLYMPTON: Well, then he starts imagining bugs coming out of all of her orifices, and that's exactly what happens.

GROSS: Actually, I think they're climbing into all of her orifices.

PLYMPTON: They're climbing in, and then she spits them out. You're right.

GROSS: Pretty grisly. Would you want to live in a world in which your thoughts could come to life?

PLYMPTON: Absolutely not. I think it would be scary. And you know what's really scary is the thought of someone seeing into my head. That's what really scares me, and I think everybody has that fear. So that's sort of the double -- the double-whammy of this film, is not only does his brain create things, but also people can see what he's thinking through his weird thoughts coming to life.

And that's one of the major themes of the -- one of the major scenes of the film is when they are in bed together. How should I say this, "having sensual fun?"


Is that possible to say?

GROSS: That sounds clean enough. Yeah.

PLYMPTON: And he has these racy thoughts -- these sexy thoughts. And they all become reality. And then his bride -- his wife Carrie, sees his thoughts; sees what he's thinking. And she gets totally angry.

GROSS: Give us an example that you could describe on the radio of what he's thinking.


PLYMPTON: OK. Well, first of all, he imagines, as they are doing it, he imagines her being other females, or not even females, just other characters, like she becomes a pom-pom girl, a rally girl. She becomes a nun. She becomes a bunny rabbit. She becomes Carmen Miranda.

And she becomes really angry at him changing her into all these characters. She says: "just make love to me and nobody else."

And then all these inanimate objects around the room start doing it, like the wall sockets and the light bulb and the shoes and the soap dish and all these weird, bizarre things you find around your house start getting sexually active. Can I say that?

GROSS: Yes, and you've had to figure out how to -- ways to make like electrical outlets copulate.

PLYMPTON: Yes. Yes. And that's the fun part of the film, was seeing common-day objects turn into raving sex maniacs.


GROSS: Early on in your animated film when the new wife is trying to seduce her new husband, who keeps putting her off because he has work to do, she tries all the seductress cliches: putting her hand in her stockings and rubbing her thighs; sucking on her finger. Did -- and then, of course, she takes it to absurd extremes, but ...


GROSS: ... do you enjoy working with cliches in a funny way and then turning them on their ears?

PLYMPTON: Well, that's, I think the basis of almost all the humor that you see, is you've got to take something that is a cliche or something that's trite or something that's stereotypical, something that's actually even kind of boring, and you twist it around; you reverse it; or you flop it; or you exaggerate it. And then all of a sudden it becomes something new. It becomes a new vision -- something that you've never seen before.

And that is always -- that surprise is always what people laugh at. And it's sort of like a -- it's almost a formula. I hate to say it, but for anybody out there who does do films or comics, that's a really easy way to get gags.

As an example, this isn't in the film, but this is just an example, take something, a cliche like a guy climbing a mountain. What you do is flop that around: have a mountain climbing a guy. So you're just standing there and you see this little mountain climbing up your hip and up your chest. And it's funny. You know, it could be wearing little boots and clip-on spikes and ropes and a little, you know, Swiss hat. And it becomes a gag.

And that's sort of the foundation for a lot of my humor, is taking a cliche and just switching it around or looking at it in a totally different direction or a different way. And it -- all of a sudden, it's a surprise and you start laughing at it.

GROSS: I think you also work with a lot of stock cartoon images that have become cliches over the years. For example, when the two birds are involved in the act of sex at the beginning of your film ...


GROSS: ... the male bird is so kind of excited, he opens up his mouth and then all we see of his head are his teeth. His teeth just kind of grow up to a larger proportion than his head is. And then in his -- in his ecstasy, the teeth just kind of shatter and split.

PLYMPTON: Right, right.

GROSS: But there's so many cartoons that I remember from childhood in which, you know, a character smiles and then the teeth just take over the face.

PLYMPTON: Right, right. But then I carried it another step further. He's so involved in this act that he starts chewing on his tongue and he starts biting his tongue off like it's a side of salami.

GROSS: Right.

PLYMPTON: And then -- and then the bird -- the female bird, her eyes get so big with excitement that they become a video game and they start playing this "Pong" game. So I try to keep the ideas fresh and keep carrying it into new frontiers of animation fantasy.

GROSS: My guest is animator Bill Plympton. His new feature is called "I Married a Strange Person." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


Animationist Bill Plympton is my guest, and his new animated feature film is called "I Married a Strange Person."

Now, you did all the drawings yourself...


GROSS: ... for this new feature film. So that was, I understand, about 30,000 drawings?

PLYMPTON: Thirty-thousand drawings, yeah, and they're all in my apartment.

GROSS: How do you pace yourself when you know you're doing a project that requires 30,000 drawings?

PLYMPTON: Well, you know, it's funny. I don't think of it that way. I just -- I can't think of anything more fun. Well, maybe one of two things more fun than getting up in the morning, going straight to my drawing board and animating. 'Cause you do -- it's sort of God-like creative kind of experience. You're having fun with these characters. You're making them -- you know, their heads fly off or they fly through the air or their bodies implode or -- you know, it's just such a gas to play around with these characters.

And I get in this Zen thing, and if I don't get a lot of phone calls or people asking me questions, I can work, you know, 14 hours a day and I can do a minute of animation, which is really -- it's really unheard of before. I don't know why it's -- other people don't do it. But the common Disney formula for animation is basically half a second a day. And I can do a minute a day, which means theoretically, I can do a feature film in three months, which is kind of scary.

But I don't -- I think that's normal. I don't know why other people can't do that. I really don't understand that.

GROSS: Well, what you're doing is very low-tech. You're not using, for instance, any kind of computer graphics.

PLYMPTON: That's true. It's very traditionally, actually. It's similar to the "Thousand and One Dalmatians" -- it's basically, I do the drawings on pencil. I test it on a pencil-test machine. And then I hand it to my assistant who Xeroxes it onto cells, copies it onto sells, and then they paint the backs of the cells and then they shoot it with a camera.

So it's a very old, traditional style. It's just me drawing in my apartment and three or four people painting the backs of the cells. And that's it.

GROSS: How do you test the drawings on pencil-test machines?

PLYMPTON: It's a video camera hooked up to a VCR that's actually one of those time-lapse VCRs that they use in stores to take time-lapse photography of people robbing the store. And they've fixed it so you can shoot single frames on it with animation. And it's just a very simple process. It's black and white and we -- I test the motion and the movement of the drawings, and see if the character looks good. And once that's OK, then we go on to painting the cells and shooting it on a regular .35 millimeter film camera.

GROSS: What were your favorite cartoons as a kid?

PLYMPTON: Well, definitely Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. I thought they were just hilarious. And I was four or five-years-old when I first saw their films. And you know, it's amazing even today, almost 60 years later, those films -- they show them on television and they're fresh as ever. And they look like they were just done last week. And that's, again, something that animation is fantastic at. You take a movie from then or a radio show from the '30s, and it just looks so dated.

But that animation just looks unbelievably cool. It just -- the humor and the wit is there because it's visual and because visual humor is timeless. And I don't know why that is -- something more -- something universal about visual humor; any country or any language or any time -- really laughs at it. They really enjoy it. And that's what I want to do. I want to do -- this animation is timeless and it's universal and someone in, you know, Saigon will laugh at it or someone in Africa will laugh at it because it is a universal humor.

GROSS: I have to say, with Daffy Duck you don't have to worry that his hairdo or his lapels will look out-of-date.

PLYMPTON: That's true.


GROSS: Are there images from the old Looney Tunes that particularly stick in your mind?

PLYMPTON: Well, I especially like Bob Clampett and Tex Avery. Tex Avery did this one film -- you've probably seen it -- called "Kingsize Canary" and it's a dog, a cat and a canary. And they find a bottle of growth pills for, you know, you put on your lawn. And they started eating this bottle and each one -- they take a few bottles of pills, or take a few pills and they grow huge. And the other one takes some more pills, and he gets bigger and bigger. And eventually by the end of the film, they're larger than the Earth itself.

And it's that kind of wacky surrealism that is the basis for my humor, and that's what I think is hilarious. And that's why I want to sort of keep using that kind of surreal humor.

GROSS: Do you think the surrealism of the cartoons you grew up with affected your dream life or your fantasy life?

PLYMPTON: Oh, that's a wonderful question. I never thought of that before. I don't think so. I really don't. I look at my dreams and they're fairly mundane compared to other people's dreams. I think they're the same as anybody else's. The only difference between me and other people is that I put my fantasies on the screen and these are fantasies or dreams that are in the deepest, darkest pit of my brain. And I think everybody has -- has weird, bizarre, trippy fantasies, and I'm just putting them up on paper.

GROSS: Bill Plympton -- his new animated feature "I Married a Strange Person," opens theatrically Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and opens in other cities in September.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Bill Blympton
High: Animator Bill Plympton, whose work is seen on MTV, has a new feature length film, "I Married a Strange Person." Unlike computer animators, Plympton draws every frame of his films by hand. Each feature-length film has 30,000 individual drawings. Simpson's creator Matt Groening calls Plympton a god. The American Museum of the Moving Image in New York presented a retrospective of his work this month.
Spec: Movie Industry; Entertainment; Art
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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