George Pelecanos is a busy man. The writer is likely best known to pop-culture fans for his collaborations with David Simon: He served as a writer alongside him on the series Treme and The Wire, having a hand in many of the latter series’ most memorable installments. For his latest TV project, Pelecanos partnered up with Simon as co-creator and co-writer of HBO’s The Deuce, an ambitious exploration of the sex industry in ’70s New York. (Season 2 premiered to strong reviews Sunday.)
In between all that, however, Pelecanos has remained a prolific and acclaimed crime novelist. This month he published his 20th novel, the frequently gripping, surprisingly soulful The Man Who Came Uptown, which traces an incarcerated man’s path to redemption after he’s abruptly released from prison. The book gradually introduces new perspectives and comes together as another satisfying page-turner from Pelecanos.
EW caught up with the author to discuss his many projects, why it was this story that convinced him to return to books, and how writing for TV has (or hasn’t) changed his approach to novels. Read on for more, and purchase your copy of The Man Who Came Uptown here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your first standalone novel in a while, the story of a prisoner forced to adjust to life on the outside. What was the inspiration for it?
GEORGE PELECANOS: I’ve been doing reading and writing programs in prisons and jails for many years, so I had plenty of material to draw from in what is, at bottom, a story about personal redemption. I like writing about people who spend their time trying to help others for the greater good. That’s what Americans are supposed to be about, right? Also, this is a pretty hot crime novel. So there’s that.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
My usual street research. I spend my days wandering around the city, talking to people on both sides of the law. Or just hanging out, listening. I try to figure out what’s going on out there. People like to talk to me. I don’t know why.
A love of reading is a key theme in the book. Why did you want to explore that in this particular novel, at this particular time?
Reading opens your mind and helps you understand and empathize with people who are unlike you and outside your breadth of experience. In the book, I quote Steinbeck: “In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love. Try to understand each other.” We could all take a moment to reclaim that kind of humanity now. I’ve seen firsthand how books can change people’s lives. It happened to me.
You’re running a TV show now, of course. How do you balance novel writing with the demands of scripted TV?
I compartmentalize my various jobs. When I’m running a TV series, that’s all I do. When I write a book, I’m on it seven days a week. I had a window between television seasons, so I used that time to write a novel. I’m very busy, and it’s a blessing. I like to work.
As you’ve worked more in TV, have you found your approach to novels change at all?
The prose has gotten leaner and more economical, I suppose. But you should see my scripts. They’re dense, written like paragraphs in a novel, and very detailed. So I’d say it goes both ways.
What’s the significance of this title for you?
In my neck of the woods, when a prisoner is about to re-enter the world, he says he’s about to “go uptown.” It doesn’t mean that he is going to a high-end neighborhood. But it’s home, and it’s a much better place than where he’s been. It’s a hopeful title. The protagonist in my book, Michael Hudson, means to stay in that better place.