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10 Questions with David Simon
David Simon is a native of the DC area and worked for many years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He’s the author (with Ed Burns) of The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, and of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, reissued this fall. Both books served as the basis for TV series, including the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire.
Virginia Harabin asks David Simon about the politics of crime, the drug war, the Baltimore police, and his portrait of the contemporary American city.
Virginia Harabin: Homicide was originally published in 1991 and has just been reissued with a new forward and afterward. The show based on the book was a great success, and you produce and write for the brilliant HBO series, The Wire. How do you understand our appetite for stories about law enforcement?
David Simon: Given that the American frontier is now a mere trace memory in our national consciousness, the inner city has become the dominant stage on which we perform our morality plays, the new, untamed wilderness in which men and women are challenged and judged. And for many Americans who have secluded themselves in suburbs or planned communities, many of them exclusive of racial or class diversity, the urban landscape has become – in their minds, at least – a rare and intimidating place.
VH: You were a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for many years. Homicide reads like a novel: its complex structure is carefully crafted, and its characters are drawn using some of the tools of fiction, but it is also meticulously documented investigative journalism. How did you move from reporting to writing nonfiction as detailed and ambitious as Homicide?
DS: I read. A lot. Structurally, Homicide owes a great deal to the following works of narrative non-fiction, some of which will strike people as unlikely points of comparison. But the manner in which these authors engaged in stand-around-and-watch reporting, then chronicled what they had witnessed and absorbed, was, for me, influential:
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton and Irwin Schecter.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee
VH: You did your research for Homicide by working with the Baltimore police. How long did you spend embedded (if that’s an acceptable term) with the police?
DS: I spent the year of 1988 as a “police intern” in the Baltimore Homicide unit, reporting full time on one shift of detectives. I spent the following two years following their casework through the courthouse and remaining in contact with the detectives whose lives I was chronicling. The book was published in spring 1991.
VH: Fictional detectives work hard to discover the motive for a crime – but a lot of crime seems more circumstantial than motivated. In his introduction, Richard Price refers to “the breathtaking stupidity that propels most homicidal actions.” It’s a fine phrase – do you think he’s right about that? Do your experiences contradict the way crime is portrayed in fiction, on the evening news, or by politicians?
DS: Yes, Richard is quite correct about a significant share of violence, which has its origins in bar arguments, “disrespect” shootings, drug rip-offs and robberies that involve relatively small gain, etc. What veteran detectives are saying when they note that motive rarely matters in solving a murder is that many, many investigations proceed on the basis of witness interviews, physical evidence and suspect statements in which killers are implicated more by circumstance than by motive. Motive is often the last element discovered in many investigations and on some occasions, cases proceed to the grand jury without any motive at all having been determined.
VH: War metaphors have a way of creeping into cop stories. We had a lot of Vietnam echoes in the police stories of the eighties and nineties, and the occupation of Iraq suggests further comparisons. Do the cops see themselves as a kind of army? Is Homicide a war story?
DS: I thought Homicide represented a view of the American culture of violence at its logical end. In many places in this country, violence is one of the last things being mass produced. And the act of addressing that violence – of punishing it – is no longer an extraordinary act. It is an assembly line, with flow charts writ on case boards in different color ink, like sales figures in Glengarry, Glenross. In our culture, murder and its solution are decidedly, terrifyingly, ordinary – particularly if you happen to have black or brown skin and be a part of that “other” America that we’ve been building for generations.
VH:Homicide is full of humor, excellent comic timing, well-told anecdotes, and crisp dialog. Is that the creative writer at work, imposing all this artfulness onto the scene, or are cops really such self-conscious performers?
DS: I have a good ear. But the quotes are the quotes. I didn’t cook the funny parts if that’s what you’re asking. I came to this project as a trained reporter and I applied the same rigor to depicting these detectives and these events that I applied to writing newspaper accounts. That said, some of these guys – Terry McLarney, Jay Landsman, Rich Garvey, Donald Worden – are wonderful characters and genuine wits.
VH: Did working with the police and writing from their point of view change you?
DS: It changed the way I looked at my role as a journalist. I came to believe less in the feigned “objectivity” of most newspaper writing, or the nodding, analytical tone of pretend omniscience with which most reporters address the world. The world is less interested in how David Simon views these events than how Donald Worden or Tom Pellegrini views them. And so I consciously adopted the voice of a “communal” Baltimore detective for certain parts of the book’s narration. That was subjective of course, but in truth no more subjective than other narrative devices that pretend to be otherwise.
Tellingly, a few critics accused me of “going native” in the initial reviews of the book. But when The Corner came out six years later, no one accused me of wanting to be a drug dealer or drug addict – though I utilized the same communal voice of the corner, in the same way,
VH: Although Homicide takes up the point of view of the Baltimore police (as opposed to that of an objective observer, or that of a critic) there are moments when you also reflect sympathetically on the position of those being policed. You say… “the presence of the city’s finest was for generations merely another plague to endure: poverty, ignorance, despair, police.” What do you think about this stark contrast in points of view?
DS: It represents a conscious acknowledgment that the point of view being embraced for purpose of this narrative is not the only legitimate point of view. But every narrative has to be somewhere, and if a single narrative attempts to tell a story from all sides – like some sort of exercise in point-counter point – the story itself will disappear. You make your choices about where to stand and whom to follow and you write and report from there. That’s not to say that other books can’t be written from a variety of points-of-view about a variety of different people. Six years later I wrote a book about the people being policed by the American drug war. It was decidedly not the point of view of any Baltimore police and it was as valid, journalistically, as Homicide, I believe
VH: What does the police code “number one” mean? You quote the cops describing a suspect as a “number one male.”
DS: Number one is police code, in Baltimore at least, for black. Number two is white. It is radio short-hand for describing an individual’s race, and it is done that way, I believe, so as to make the reference to race in police descriptions as clinical and dispassionate as possible. In fact, I believe the code has African-American as No. 1 so that no one hearing such a radio call and realizing the relevance of the phrase would think that it suggested any second-class status for African-Americans. That’s what I was told by many Baltimore cops when I first asked about, upon being obliged to listen to the police radio night after night as a crime reporter.
VH: Do you see your work as having political implications? Is it possible to write extensively about the police without thinking about power, inequality, the distribution of wealth? Are you interested in, or troubled by such questions?
DS: My work is extremely political, but Homicide – being my first book and being limited to the point of view of a cadre of Baltimore detectives – is more an act of documentarism than it is a political tract. I think it reads as straight ethnography of the modern police culture, but a subtle theme throughout speaks to the fact that this is all happening in post-industrial, rust-belt America, where thousands have been left behind in neighborhoods where the only economic engine still operating is the drug trade. It speaks, I hope, to the America that we have bought and paid for, and the America that all of us deserve, sadly enough.
The Corner is no polemic, I hope. But it is a dry, careful argument that the war on drugs is destructive, wasteful, crippling to both urban communities and to the police departments charged with enforcing an untenable prohibition in those communities. What drugs have not destroyed, the war against them has. And the drug war itself is now merely a crude, brutal and shameful war on the underclass.
The Wire, though fiction, is, I hope, extremely political. It argues that at the millennium, the American empire is ending, and the rot is from within. Notably, the agents of our decline are our own calcified, self-preserving and increasingly authoritarian institutions, as well as our naïve belief that raw, unencumbered capitalism, absent a framework that protects our weakest and most vulnerable citizens, can somehow stand for social policy. I believe America is going to be a colder, more brutish place, and human beings – be they working cops, or corner boys, or unemployed longshoreman, or school children – are going to be worth less with every passing moment.
So yes, I think my work is political, though Homicide was probably not the place for the work to exhibit much in the way of politics.
VH: Reading Homicide makes one aware of a kind of universal mendacity. Are all institutions pervaded by a culture of lies?
DS: All institutions tend toward self-preservation and the aggrandizement of those at the top of the institutions, in my opinion. All institutions, unless carefully monitored by an empowered, active democracy, tend toward the betrayal of their original missions, the people they are supposed to serve and the people who serve those institutions. And ours is no longer a particularly empowered, active democracy. Maybe it never was. But no longer is it possible to have much in the way of illusion, I’m afraid.
VH: Can we look forward to a Wire episode with a cameo by Bill Cosby? A Christmas special called “God is Tired of You” would be nice. Do I have any hope of seeing something like this?
DS: I don’t think we can afford Mr. Cosby on our budget. Perhaps Mr. Cheney being hunted like quail in West Baltimore, provided he soon lacks for public service work and has any interest in thespian pursuits.