You will not read many author interviews or book reviews on this blog unless a book is something special.
Jonathan Abrams’ “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire” is something special.
Abrams, a senior writer who who covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, is a superb sports reporter. In this book, he shows he is an outstanding cultural reporter as well.
While “The Wire” has inspired all sorts of popular and academic critics to try and show how unique and fabulous their analyses of David Simon’s epic series are, Abrams went after the people who created it, listened intently to what they said and then shared some of their best thoughts and words with readers.
There is a humility and wisdom in the kind of oral history he wrote. He delivered an important, rare and engrossing production study on one of the most important series in the history of television.
With all the talk coming out of City Hall these days about Baltimore’s image, I have been champing at the bit to share this take on the city from Andre Royo, aka Bubbles, one of the most richly-drawn characters on “The Wire.”
SUN: Why did you choose to do this as a oral history, letting the people who made the show do almost all the talking?
ABRAMS: To me I just thought it was the most efficient way to tell a really dense and literary story, just like “The Wire” was. I had done oral histories at [defunct sports and pop culture blog] Grantland before, and I really like that format.
A lot of times when we look at something, you think the person alongside you sees it the same way, when a lot of the times it’s different. If we’re talking about the scene where Omar dies, you have Michael K. Williams going through one set of emotions and thoughts, and then you have the director, Anthony Hemingway, going through another set of thoughts. The actor who played Kenard is going through something else. And the writer who wrote the script is going through something else. So, I just thought all those different perspectives add to create a clear portrait of an event.
What percentage of the interviewing made it into the book?
I would say a fraction. I think I wound up with 2,000 pages of transcription, and the book is about 300 pages or so. There was so much good stuff that had to be cut it almost hurt, just because it was getting too long.
Why do you think there is so much sociology, so much intellectual insight in the answers you got?
I think the actors, writers and directors have had a lot of time to think about what “The Wire” has meant to them individually and collectively, and I think that comes through in the pages. I think if I had talked to them in 2008, it would have been different. But they had a lot of time. And “The Wire” has only grown in importance since it’s been off the air.
How did the book come about?
I always knew that I wanted to write another book [In 2016, he published “Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution.”]. We were kicking around ideas, me and my literary agent, and this popped up, and I couldn’t say yes more quickly.
I just thought it would be perfect. The universe is so rich and deep in characters, that I knew going in that if I struck out in not getting to five or six main characters, I would still be good for the most part. At the end of the day, I was really happy to get the group that I did.
There are a couple of people missing. Can you guess who they were?
Hmmmm. You got Dominic West, who is a hard one to get sometimes. I remember talking to him a couple of times about his time in Baltimore with “The Wire.” You got good stuff from him. You got Bunk, Wendell Pierce. Wait, I know, the guy I love: Clark Johnson.
I must have asked for interviews with him probably 15 times. … Even more than (playing) Gus Haynes (city editor at the Sun), I wanted to talk to him about filming the pilot and the finale. [Johnson directed those episodes.]
Obviously, it would have been DOA if Simon hadn’t given the green light. At the very beginning, I wrote like this very heartfelt email about why I wanted to do this and why I thought I would be a good person to try and capture the importance and legacy and meaning and message of the show. It was probably some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. And his response from his assistant was like, “I don’t care. He can do what he wants to do.” That was it. I had never met nor talked to David before. But that was like the biggest green light I could ever get. I was so happy.
With the passion fans still voice for characters from HBO’s “The Wire,” there is undoubtedly a huge audience for a sequel. But Norris Davis, who played Vinson in the series, is learning you run into serious problems when you use names of characters associated with a property someone else created.
What do think makes Simon the figure he is in American television?
He has a great mind for framing the big picture and making it so that people can digest it and understand it. I think both [writers] George Pelecanos and Richard Price said in the book that is something they struggle with. They said they can get into the small picture in their novels and get into their characters’ heads really easily. But blowing it out and looking at this whole world and this whole landscape is complicated for them. And I think it is something David has an innate knack for.
What did you learn about the series that you didn’t know coming in?
I think I had a sense that “The Wire” was sourced a lot from real life, but I didn’t appreciate the depth of how much actually came from the real-life careers of David Simon and (co-executive-producer) Ed Burns. What was interesting to me was learning how deeply every single character came from real life. Whether it was a cop or anybody on the street that had a real-life doppelganger. Or, whether it was Omar, who was a composite of five or six different people. And that was amazing to me.
After talking to David Simon and Ed Burns, I can only imagine those two guys in a room arguing for hours. And I just can’t imagine how they ever got any work done, because those are of two of the most brilliant people I think I’ve ever spoken to.
How long did this book take?
I think I started at the beginning of 2016 and wrapped up at the middle of last year.
Just 18 months? You work fast.
Honestly, this never felt like work. It was just a lot of fun to put together. You know, my background is writing sports. And I love writing sports. But when you do anything for a long time, it becomes a job. But this was a completely different subject and world that I could immerse in. I even finally got my wife to watch “The Wire” for the first time.
Did you take a leave from your job to do the book?
With the sins of some Baltimore police officers in the news, this testimony from actor J.D. Williams about his experience with cops here while filming “The Wire” seems especially relevant. It comes courtesy of an engrossing oral history of the series, "All the Pieces Matter" by Jonathan Abrams.
I hope it will introduce people to “The Wire” for those who haven’t seen it. And for those who have seen it, I hope it will enrich their experience with the show, help them understand the show more and appreciate why the show is still relevant after all these years. The same arguments that David Simon presented back in 2002 are still being replayed today.