SCOTT SIMON, host:
George Pelecanos' new novel, "The Turnaround," opens with a modern urban nightmare of a generation ago. Alex Pappas wants to be a writer and is working at his father's diner in 1972 when he and two friends decide to go joy riding on a summer night. They wind up, out of mischievousness, ignorance, and, yes, boorishness, shouting racial epithets and throwing a cherry pie through the window of their car as they pass through a working-class, black suburb in Montgomery County, Maryland. The street turns into a dead end, the boys have to confront some of the people they slurred, one escapes, one is beaten, the third dies.
"The Turnaround" moves into present times. Alex Pappas is running his family's diner. His son has been killed in Iraq. He brings pies to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One of the therapists there, Raymond Monroe, turns out to be one of the boys he taunted in 1972. Two of them try to reconcile and then become unlikely allies, as someone else from their boyhood plots revenge.
George Pelecanos is simply one of America's most honored crime writers. He joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. GEORGE PELECANOS (Author, "The Turnaround"): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: There was a real incident that was in your mind, I gather.
Mr. PELECANOS: Yeah, it was something that I remembered from my youth. It was - I was about 15 years old and it occurred just two or three miles from my house. And I remember that there was a shooting and the police had locked down the neighborhood, and it wasn't a neighborhood that we went into much. And what I wanted to do was find out a little bit about it, but not too much because I decided that I wanted to use it as a skeleton for my fiction. Basically, the thing that interested me about the whole event was - and what I was going to hang this book on - was what happened to those boys when they grew up?
SIMON: At the heart of your book seems to be the idea that we never somehow outlive responsibility for what we do.
Mr. PELECANOS: Yes. It's true. I mean, as you get older, you definitely feel that. You know, the people that are - seem to be successful are the ones that can leave it behind, especially the dumb things they did and the dumb things that they felt, too, the bad ideas that they had. And the ones that don't are the ones who just keep hanging onto that and can't grow.
SIMON: Raymond Monroe and Alex Paterson, we're able to meet them as adults as well as youngsters. And I wonder how you write a character when there are so many years that separate them?
Mr. PELECANOS: They're constructed from childhood, so it's actually - once I get to know them as kids, I can pretty much go with them as adults and fine tune it. My books don't follow really a traditional crime fiction or mystery path. There's often not a murder in the first chapter as there is many of these books. And I think this event that we're talking about doesn't happen in the book until the 60s or the 70s, in pages.
SIMON: Yeah, you build up the lives first.
Mr. PELECANOS: So what I'm really doing is I'm discovering the characters as I write them, and I'm letting the readership get to know these people because once something does happen, the impact is that much greater. The readers have already gone into the homes of all these kids, including the black guys and their families.
SIMON: The Monroes.
Mr. PELECANOS: And they know them and they know that - what kind of people they are, but the only thing that these boys can see in this car going in is a bunch of black guys. And it's the unknown, it's the other, and that's what has separated us and has always separated us.
SIMON: Do you mean when you sit down to write a mystery you - it's sometimes a mystery to you?
Mr. PELECANOS: I don't think I'm alone. Elmore Leonard writes that way, too. He says he likes to find out what's going to happen as he writes it. You know, I don't know how to do this. I was never taught, and so I'm going on history and from the very first time I wrote a book, I just figured it out as I went along. And that is probably why character is more important to me because once I find out who the characters are, then the book really starts to write itself. I know it sounds mystical, but it's not at all. It's just that these people start acting in ways, talking in ways that they would as you've created them, and it becomes easy at that point for me to get into the narrative flow.
SIMON: I have to ask, then, while we're on that part of your writing life, how do you write then for characters that someone else establishes? Because you famously have been one of the great writers contributing to David Simon's "The Wire." And I guess I've also read you're working on "The Pacific" for Steven Spielberg.
Mr. PELECANOS: Yes. When I got on "The Wire," I was - I considered it to be in the service of Simon because he had created all these characters and their voices was in the pilot script. Anything that I do in the film side of things, it's required - they don't let you just say, well, I'll come back in a couple of months and I'll show you what I've got. They want you to outline it because they don't want any surprises.
Mr. PELECANOS: So I've been forced to do that. After a while, you learn to write for production. And so you don't have the cavalry coming over the hill and that sort of thing against Monument Valley. It's more like a guy enters a room and you're thinking about, well, do I really want to have this scene at night? Because that means the crew is going to be out at four in the morning on the streets of Baltimore, and they're not going to like you for that.
SIMON: How many - how many books do you have going at the same time?
Mr. PELECANOS: Just one. I work seven days a week when I'm writing a book. Especially in the beginning when I'm writing a book, it's always very difficult. You don't - you always think, well, this is going to be the one that I'm not going to be able to do.
SIMON: Going over some biographical information about you, I note the fact that you have been a cook, a dishwasher, a bar tender, and a women's shoe salesman?
Mr. PELECANOS: Mm hmm. Well, that was my best job.
SIMON: I can imagine why, but why don't I ask you?
Mr. PELECANOS: Well, there was store in D.C. called The Bootlegger and it had the hippest shoes, most up-to-date shoes, designer shoes, that sort of thing. And so it attracted the best-looking women in town. They stocked the floor with young guys, for obvious reasons, young guys who could - who were talkers and were very energetic and motivated. So there was so much to like about this job besides the obvious. There was the fact that I loved the competition. I loved going in there every morning with the idea that I was going to win.
We were all on the same pay basis. It was a straight seven percent commission on what you sold. And I worked with a guy named Sam, who was the best shoe salesman in the city, and my goal was to beat him and I rarely did. And when I did, he would come in the next day and destroy me. For a young guy to have this job where you could play music, you brought your own records in, you could talk to women, you could touch their feet and their calves.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Well, I was going to ask, as a novelist, what do you learn for all that? But I think you've told the most interesting part of the story. That sounds a lot more interesting than having - than being a dishwasher.
Mr. PELECANOS: Actually, I didn't know I was going to be a writer. You know, I started kind of late for a writer. I was 31 years old.
SIMON: So you weren't like Alex Pappas, who wants to be a writer and winds up running the diner.
Mr. PELECANOS: That part of the book is very autobiographical. The diner is exactly like my dad's place. I worked there from the time I was 11 years old. And when I was 19, in my first semester of college, my dad got real sick and he couldn't work. And I had to drop out of college and run the place because back then you didn't have insurance or anything like that. We would have - my family would have lost everything. You know, I didn't really want to be in college anyway. I really loved these jobs. I actually kept dropping in and out of college to do these things.
So it wasn't like I was wearing a pith helmet or something going in there as an archaeologist. I was going in there because A, I liked that kind of work, and B, I had to pay the bills. I had to do something to, you know, keep the roof over our heads. And it was just fortuitous that I had all this life experience when I decided it was time for me to try this thing out.
SIMON: You have a number of vignettes here set at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Raises the question of - if you spend much time there, yourself.
Mr. PELECANOS: I did. I had a friend in the Wounded Warriors program who got me in, and a gentleman who was a sergeant and he is a Vietnam veteran who came back to do just this work with the veterans. But I had pretty much free reign there and nobody knew who I was. So the soldiers that I would just - I'd just go sit next to people wherever, in the therapy room or in the Malone House. And I'd just start talking to people, and you never heard anybody say, well, you know, we were there to bring democracy to the Middle East or anything of that nature. It was always - almost to a man and a woman, it was the same thing. I went to Iraq to protect my sisters and my brothers. The vignettes you see in the book are almost verbatim conversations I had with people.
SIMON: What will those people who read your book as some kind of meditation on race relations get out of it?
Mr. PELECANOS: You know, one thing with "The Turnaround" is that, you know, the Monroe brothers, you go home with them and you see that they have very loving parents, stable family. The father is a bus mechanic for D.C. Transit. Mom is a domestic. Then you go to Alex's house and his dad is also a blue-collar guy. He's got a diner. And they're mirror images. They don't know it. The boys don't know that. They don't know that they're the same people.
You know, when I wrote a book like "Right as Rain," which was the first book that I really tackled race head on, what I really didn't want was people to read that book and say, boy, those people that have a problem with race are really messed up. What I wanted them to do is point the finger back at themselves and say, wait a minute, you know, we all have a little bit of a problem with this. What am I going to do about it?
SIMON: George Pelecanos. His new book, "The Turnaround." And you can go to our Web site, npr.org, and hear George Pelecanos read a section from his new book. Mr. Pelecanos, thanks very much.
Mr. PELECANO: Thanks a lot.