A lot of your books are set in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, when you were a teenager. How did that city become such a big part of your writing?
My dad had a diner in Washington, and I worked for him from a very early age. When I was 11, I was out there delivering food on foot. I fell in love with the city, and I’m talking about everything—the people, the music, the culture and what was going on at the time. This was right in the wake of the riots, and D.C. was a black city. When I was a kid, D.C. was, like, 80 percent black. For a young guy, it doesn’t matter what color you are. That’s very exciting, you know? Couple that with the music, with the funk and soul movement of the 1970s and everything, and I just loved it. At the same time, I noticed that nobody was really writing fiction about the city. All the books and movies about Washington are always about the government and never about the people who actually live there.
You published your debut novel, A Firing Offense, when you were 35. You’ve written a total of 19 crime novels. How did you develop the inside knowledge to write about police officers?
I feel these kinds of books should take readers where they’re either unwilling or unable to go. To do that, you have to go there yourself and experience a lot of shit. So in the beginning, I used to do what any citizen can do: I’d walk into a police station and say, “I want to ride with a police officer tonight.” Then you just sign a form that’s like an insurance waiver, and you get in the car and ride with these guys at night. I saw a lot of cool stuff, and I would go to trials too, which is also a citizen’s right. I would walk into a murder trial and sit there for a week and listen to the language. I didn’t care about the procedural stuff. I wanted to hear the people up on the stand. I wanted to hear the language, because there’s poetry in that. When I got involved with The Wire, it opened a lot of doors for me. Before I wrote The Night Gardener, I wanted to write a big novel about homicide police in D.C., but homicide is traditionally a very closed family.
Why is that?
They don’t trust writers for the simple reason that journalists often write things about them that aren’t accurate or true, and that extends to novelists. They don’t give a shit. They’re not impressed. If you’re Michael Connelly, you’ve got complete access to the LAPD. I was just a guy writing these little books in D.C. But when The Wire came out, they opened their arms to me. The police like The Wire because we always shit on the brass.
Your books often deal with race relations. Is that hard to navigate as a white writer?
It is endlessly fascinating to me having grown up the way I did and in that era. I also have two black sons. I’ve watched them grow up in the world and seen them shaken down many, many times because of the color of their skin. So I’ve sort of experienced that side of it too as a white guy, which is an odd thing. Fifteen years ago I wrote a book called Right As Rain, which is about the police shooting a guy because he’s black. The victim is a black police officer who isn’t in uniform and wanders onto a crime scene, and he’s shot by a white police officer. I had walkouts when I was on that book tour. I had people walking out when I started talking about this stuff, as if it wasn’t true. And look where we are today. It took a black president to show people how much racism there is still in this country. That was supposed to be solved, right? Everybody thought that was over until we had a black president. So I think it’s still worth talking about.
You and I deal with that on the show we’re shooting, The Deuce, which is also set in the 1970s. How do you depict both the period and the behavior of people accurately but not come across as though you support the prejudice of the characters?
I feel strongly that you have to let the characters speak as they would speak in their time and trust the viewer or the reader to know that you’re writing honestly. When your character, Vincent, talks about the character Paul, he talks about “fag bars” and “fairies,” but he’s not a bad guy. He’s a guy of his time who means no malice, but he was brought up a certain way in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That’s what he would say. I can’t worry if a viewer sees that and is offended or thinks that Vincent is homophobic, because I know those are the words Vincent would use in 1971. And the same thing goes with dropping the N word. If somebody’s going to do it, if a character would do it, I have no problem with writing it, because it’s honest. Doing the opposite is the death of art, man. That’s what tarnishes your work, giving up the honesty. To placate people or make them less uncomfortable is always the wrong thing to do.