Creator of The Wire on drugs, journalism and what's wrong with America today
It is David Simon's first time in Belfast and he seems to be enjoying it. The weather is good, plenty of people have bought tickets for his evening talk and he's got a nice hotel room in the Merchant. Life is sweet, but that won't stop the Baltimore writer from putting the world to rights.
Like many of The Wire's central characters, the balding, middle-aged Simon never shies away from life's less palatable side. It was such unswerving commitment to veracity that made his critically acclaimed series, a dazzling, almost Dostoyevskian tale of lore 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's rare appearance in Northern Ireland (he's in town for a speaking gig at the Hay festival) coincides with 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.'
Reading The Corner 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 getting high on his own supply.
It is a work 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 with trademark alacrity.
Tour de forces of investigative journalism, somewhat ironically Homicide and The Corner also spelt 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.'
US journalism's obsession with winning Pulitzers, what he calls the 'prize culture', clearly still aggrieves. Discussing The Baltimore Sun's decline Simon sits bolt upright, for the first time looking anything less than relaxed in his well-worn combats, unbranded walking boots and a black t-shirt that hugs his stout frame a little too snugly.
'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 remarks ruefully.
Journalism's loss was television's gain, with the former reporter drawing 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 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. Generation Kill, his latest HBO series, 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.'
Such praise for politicians coming from David Simon is rare. The Wire, in part, charts the rise of a self-serving Democrat, Tommy Carcetti (played by Irish actor Aidan Gillen), from councillor to Mayor of Baltimore.
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,' laughs Simon's cynical inner hack.
Although he admits to volunteering for the Democrats in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign, knocking on doors for Barack has not changed the writer's trenchant pessimism: '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.
The Corner is out now published by Canongate.