David Simon: Journalism's Loss, Television's Gain

Interview with the multi-talented Wire writer from this month’s issue of the Scottish mag The Skinny.

America does not have, and never has had, a fair system – or so says David Simon, daylight illuminating his swanky hotel room: “So much of what ails the US is systemic. It has been engrained from the very beginning, from the constitution.”

david simonLike many of The Wire’s central characters, Simon never shies away from life’s less palatable side. It was this commitment to veracity that made his critically acclaimed series a dazzling, almost Dostoyevskian tale of law and disorder on the streets of his native Baltimore, one of the most compelling dramas in television history. That a show about police and thieves in a relatively peripheral American city has garnered a significant cult following on this side of the Atlantic is testament to the realism of Simon’s writing, much of it based on personal experience.

On graduating from the University of Maryland, where he edited the college’s daily paper, Simon became a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering the crime beat with almost religious zeal for over a decade. While still a reporter, he spent an entire year with the police department’s murders unit. The result was Simon’s first book, Homicide, published in 1991. Two years later he took a second sabbatical to research The Corner, a forensic dissection of one year in the inner city, written in collaboration with former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns and told through the prism of a single street corner, and the addicts and dealers struggling to survive on it.

Simon is currently promoting The Corner’s release in the UK and Ireland – some twelve years after it first appeared in the States. “Homicide didn’t sell well at all over here. Then when it came to The Corner I just couldn’t get it published.” It is hard to understand why it wanted for a backer. The book is a remarkably in-depth account of the lives of rich, complex characters such as Gary McCullough, a once prosperous businessman lost to heroin addiction, and his son DeAndre, a dealer who starts taking drugs himself. It’s almost academic in its rigour and attention to detail but written with a novelist’s eye for scene and characterisation. “I was interested in telling a story, in narrative as a journalistic tool,” Simon explains.

Irnoically, Homicide and The Corner spelled the end of his career as a reporter. “I imagined that I would write books and work for the paper. I imagined one thing informing the other, not writing myself off the paper. But by the time I came back from doing The Corner bad things were happening. The paper had been taken over and the things I valued as a newspaper man the newspaper stopped valuing. So I knew my time there was over.” What he calls the ‘prize culture’, clearly still aggrieves him. Discussing The Baltimore Sun’s decline Simon sits bolt upright, looking less than relaxed for the first time: “These guys came in from another city. They were going to be in Baltimore for three, four, maybe five years. They were going to try and win a couple of prizes and then get to a better newspaper. It was all a pyramid of ambition but it totally lost the community. If you really love journalism that’s pretty disappointing.” he says.

But journalism’s loss was television’s gain, as Simon could draw on his extensive research to create The Wire’s intricate, absorbing world. “The power of The Wire is that you get to tell a story with a proper beginning, middle and end. But while The Wire is drama it is also rooted in a journalist’s impulse,” he says of the relationship between the two. “The writers working on [The Wire] were more interested in issues than in sustaining a television drama.” Certainly Simon has never shied away from the day’s big political issues. His last HBO series Generation Kill was based on a Rolling Stone journalist’s account of being embedded with the US marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq; currently he is working on a television show about a group of musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans entitled Treme.

The Wire and The Corner both make compelling cases for drug legalisation, a cause Simon firmly supports. “The war on drugs has been a total failure,” he replies without hesitation when asked about US narcotics policy. “But there are some positive changes happening now. The new drugs czar appointed by Obama [Gil Kerlikowske] has just come out and said we need to lose the title war – well that’s the first intelligent thing that’s been said about drugs in more than 30 years.”

Praise for politicians coming from David Simon is rare. So is the 44th President of America just another deceitful public representative? “No, Obama is a great man who I’ve a lot of respect for. But all he will do is slow down things getting worse,” he laughs. And although he admits to volunteering for the Democrats in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign, knocking on doors for Barack has not made him an optimist: “The great man theory of history says you elect the right guy and all the systemic forces arrayed against progress somehow fold their cards. Well, that doesn’t happen.”

Nothing, it seems, surprises Simon – except, perhaps, the sudden interest in his books and their rather stark message. “It’s really funny. When I was an expert and I did all the reporting no-one took any notice. But when I’m not an expert and the books’ material is over 15 years old, people are sitting up and paying attention.” The world is certainly listening to David Simon now – when it comes to laying bare the uncomfortable reality of modern America, he remains the authority.

Read more from the Skinny at www.theskinny.co.uk