DAVID GREENE, HOST:
George Pelecanos is famous for bringing the mean streets of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York to life in both his best-selling novels and in TV shows like "The Wire" and, most recently, "The Deuce," which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a Times Square prostitute.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEUCE")
EMILY MEADE: (As Lori) Who's your man?
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) No man, just me.
MEADE: (As Lori) No man? How's that work?
GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) You've got to work a little harder. You got to be a little more careful.
GREENE: Pelecanos' latest novel is full of the same tough characters and sharp dialogue he is known for. But it also draws on his 20 years of experience as a volunteer for literacy programs in the D.C. Department of Corrections. And the book's unlikely heroine is a librarian. NPR's Lynn Neary met the real woman who inspired this book when she visited the D.C. Jail with Pelecanos.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: George Pelecanos has been wanting to write a book about books for a while. He knows the way books can change lives because they changed his.
GEORGE PELECANOS: I was really rudderless at one point my life. And once I started reading books, then I got the idea that maybe I could become a writer. I had a goal. And every day when I got up, there was a reason.
NEARY: The idea for the book began to take shape when Pelecanos met a young librarian who works at the D.C. jail.
PELECANOS: I saw what she was doing in here every day and how it impacts people. And I just thought it was a great opportunity to write that book finally.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS OPENING)
NEARY: Getting into the D.C. Jail can be intimidating.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS CLOSING)
NEARY: There's a finality about those doors slamming shut, even when you know you won't be inside very long.
DANIELLE ZOLLER: (Laughter) You get used to that.
NEARY: Danielle Zoller has worked at the jail's library since it opened in 2015.
So now we're here in the library?
ZOLLER: Yes, this is our library.
NEARY: It's a well-stocked library, with more than 12,000 titles.
ZOLLER: Up here in the front, these are our popular books in a series. They just get checked out a lot.
NEARY: Can you show me...
NEARY: ...Some of the popular books?
ZOLLER: Yeah. It's "The Hunger Games," the "Percy Jackson" series, "Harry Potter," "Game of Thrones."
NEARY: "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," yeah.
NEARY: Things that are popular everywhere, right?
ZOLLER: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Whatever's popular on the street is popular in here.
NEARY: On this day, Pelecanos is visiting the jail to talk about his new book. Zoller introduces him to the inmates who have gathered for the event.
ZOLLER: So we're going to have a talk today until about 2:30 with George Pelecanos. You all have a copy of his new book, "The Man Who Came Uptown."
NEARY: The inmates just got their copies of the book, so they haven't read it yet. Pelecanos begins by telling them a little about the novel.
PELECANOS: This book is a little different. You know, some of the book is set here in D.C. Jail.
NEARY: After taking questions about everything from how to get a screenplay produced to how to write good dialogue, Pelecanos sits down to sign books. The men seem deferential - almost shy - as they line up to meet him.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you so much for coming.
PELECANOS: Thanks for reading my books, man.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).
PELECANOS: I appreciate it.
NEARY: The main character in "The Man Who Came Uptown" is a young guy named Michael who has recently been released from jail. While inside, he became friends with the young librarian named Anna who encouraged his newly formed interest in reading.
PELECANOS: Anna, she really turns him on to books and talks to him about it. Like, I think you'll like this. And what it does for him is it makes his world bigger.
NEARY: Michael never read much before he went to jail. And that was a storyline that Halim Flowers said he could identify with.
HALIM FLOWERS: Before I came to prison, I wasn't really interested in reading at all, just video games and, you know, hanging in the streets.
NEARY: Flowers was in the D.C. jail awaiting a hearing on his case. Now 38, he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16. He's gotten into writing and has self-published a number of books. Flowers says reading has given him a different perspective on life.
FLOWERS: Through reading, I've learned about, you know, different time periods and medieval times, different geography, different cultures, different languages. So reading just broadened my frame of reference through giving me a frame of reference that was more than the devastation of the crack era that was given to me as a subculture in America at that time.
NEARY: Another inmate, Michael Woody, says he did read before coming to jail but not as much as he does now.
MICHAEL WOODY: You know, whenever you take in new information, it helps your mind expand. But reading is therapeutic as well. I think - I really believe that.
NEARY: How long have you been here?
WOODY: A year.
NEARY: A year. And how much longer do you have here?
WOODY: Hopefully not long.
NEARY: (Laughter) So that year, does it help the time go a bit?
WOODY: Yes. Reading allows you to preoccupy yourself and spend your time constructively. You know, time passes by when you reading, especially when it's something that you are really interested in.
NEARY: After the inmates leave, Pelecanos and Zoller sit down to talk about the book. One plotline that's not supposed to happen in real life is the attraction that develops between Anna and Michael. That, says Zoller, is strictly forbidden.
ZOLLER: Oh, absolutely.
PELECANOS: It's fiction. And it doesn't go in the direction that a lot of people think it's going to go in. It's a friendship.
NEARY: Were you surprised that there was that element of the story when you read the book?
ZOLLER: No. I don't think I was, actually.
PELECANOS: I think I might've warned you.
NEARY: Yeah. How did it come about? Did you approach her and say, I want to write a book, and I want to create a character that's sort of based on you? I mean, how did that work?
PELECANOS: She knew from Day 1 that that's what I was doing. And I always told her that, you know, you're going to recognize yourself in the day to day of the jail and what you do here and as a librarian and so on. But when you get out of the jail in the book, it's not you. Is that accurate?
NEARY: Pelecanos and Zoller have known each other for a couple of years. Pelecanos observed her working with inmates, finding books they might like, discussing their reading with them. He was impressed by her commitment to the job.
PELECANOS: It's fair to say that if Danielle wanted to do something else in life, she could do it. But she does this every day. And I'm fascinated by people who make it their life's work to do good things for other people. And I don't mean to embarrass you, but I just - I thought it was somebody that was really worth writing about.
NEARY: Well, how does that make you feel?
ZOLLER: I mean, it makes me feel good. I think that working in a jail is a very underlooked profession. So it's always nice to get some acknowledgement for it.
NEARY: In the book, Anna and Michael's friendship continues after he's released. As he struggles to avoid getting pulled back into crime, the reading habit he picked up in jail helps him to gain his footing on the outside. Zoller likes thinking her work really could lead to such an outcome.
ZOLLER: Obviously, once the individual goes home, that's the end of your contact with them. So you never really know what the follow through of the work that you did was. So it's nice to read a positive story for that and, you know, kind of fantasize - oh, well I hope that people continue to bring that love of reading with them.
NEARY: Pelecanos may have written a work of fiction, but both he and Zoller are firm believers in the transformative power of reading.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF NIHONI'S "AFTER SUN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.