David Simon - Man on Wire
With his true crime books and epoch-forming TV shows, David Simon has painted a bleak picture of modern America. Miles Fielder hears him pray that it all turns out OK
The Baltimore-set cops 'n' drug dealers show The Wire is widely regarded to be the best television drama ever made. It's another indication of the small screen revolution led by American cable TV company HBO, which also produced Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, the other drama often hailed as number one. Wherever you'd place it, The Wire, with its complex plotting, gritty authenticity and overarching narrative tackling street crime, white collar corruption and everything in between has certainly made TV history.
The man behind the show is David Simon, a 48-year-old former journalist who began his career as a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun, where he worked for a decade before a general lowering in journalistic standards prompted him to quit. During his tenure there Simon took a leave of absence to write a book based on his experiences shadowing a Baltimore PD's homicide unit, and following the 1991 publication of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, it was used as the basis for NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets, on which Simon served as writer and producer. The success of the show led to an HBO mini-series adapted from a book Simon co-authored with ex-cop Ed Burns, entitled The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood, and that in turn led to The Wire.
On the back of the extraordinary success of Simon's true crime writing, Canongate is re-publishing both of his books, Homicide this month and The Corner next April and is hosting a personal appearance by the man himself at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Speaking down the wire from Baltimore, where he still lives, Simon says he's fought to maintain authenticity throughout his career. 'My impulses are journalistic even though I'm not a journalist anymore,' he says. 'My work's always rooted in the fear that someone who's engaged with what I'm writing about - cops or drug dealers - will say: "that's bullshit".'
Writing the first book was a turning point in Simon's career. 'I'd been a pretty good reporter on smaller stories, and I thought I'd be able to ingratiate myself with the cops despite their gruff attitude. Sitting down to write the thing, I thought, "how do I start a book?" But finishing it gave me the confidence to think outside the newspaper box. Doing TV gave me another whole new set of storytelling skills. Homicide was rooted in real worlds, but it required an element of creativity.'
By the time he got down to The Wire, Simon, alongside Ed Burns, knew he needed to inject the kind of drama and entertainment that real life lacked. 'So, there are various things in The Wire that represent what we wanted to speak to rather than what is,' Simon says. 'There's something systemically wrong with America's national priorities but it goes deeper than George W Bush. This is no longer a country that prides itself on solving problems. There's a pathology that The Wire and my other work is trying to grapple with, but I hope ten years from now you pull a DVD off the shelf and you laugh and think it's quaint because things turned out so much better.'
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is published by Canongate on Thu 4 Sep; David Simon appears at the GFT, Thu 18 Sep.