David Simon was born in 1961 (approx) in Silver Spring, Maryland. He graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1983 with a degree in Undergraduate Studies, and was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, during his matriculation. After graduation, he went to work for The Baltimore Sun, working the overnight police beat.
Simon spent the entire year of 1988 as a "police intern" with the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department, accompanying homicide detectives to all aspects of their job. Returning to The Sun afterwards, he attempted to write based on what he had seen over the last year, but felt limited by the standard journalistic voice required by newspaper work. Instead, he spent the next two years writing a six hundred page book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was later used as the source material for the TV series, Homicide: Life on the Street.
During his internship with the Baltimore Police Department, Simon met Detective Edward Burns, a twenty year veteran of the police force who would subsequently retire to become a teacher in the Baltimore public school system. In 1993, the two men teamed up for another research project, in the same Baltimore environment they were so familiar with, but from the polar opposite of perspective: a street-level view of life in a West Baltimore open-air drug market. Simon and Burns spent a year in the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Monroe and Fayette Streets, ingratiating themselves with the residents of the area, and the participants in the local drug trade. The result was the 1997 book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, which was filmed as an HBO miniseries (The Corner) in 2000.
In 1995, Simon left his job at The Sun after thirteen years, finding himself increasingly at odds with the editors of the paper, and the journalistic restrictions inherent in a newspaper context. He moved into television work, writing for Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue, before taking a lead role in bringing The Corner to the small screen. In 2002, Simon created another miniseries for HBO, The Wire, based on two investigations Edward Burns had worked on in Baltimore during the 1980s.
David Simon is married to Kayle Simon; they have one child.
Why David Simon Matters
I believe that David Simon is one of the best investigative journalists working in America today. His technique of completely immersing himself for an extended period of time in the environment he is studying, provides the necessary perspective and detail to create a true, complete, survey of his subjects, which is increasingly rare in today's journalism. He is cognizant of the problems with writing from the standard journalistic objective viewpoint, and addresses those concerns by letting the perspective of his subjects drive the narrative and the flow of his work. In addition to being a quality researcher, he's an excellent writer; he creates vivid portraits of various urban environments, situations, and confrontations, and his portrayals of actual people and conversations ring true. He possesses a gift for expertly interweaving the timeline of actual events with treatises on related topics, until it all falls into place, like a jigsaw puzzle of a triptych.
Above everything else, you can tell Simon cares passionately about and is interested in his subjects, which is the only way to create truly quality writing. By way of comparison, I would have to associate him with Mark Bowden's account of the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down, and Studs Terkel's work, especially Working.
In His Own Words
On newspapers, objectivity, and why you didn't read Homicide in newsprint:
On how to tell a story:
It was always my belief that I would have a career, probably with one newspaper in one urban area, die at my desk—probably the copy desk—while bumming a cigarette from somebody else, and my body would go out with the double-dot edition, mixed in with the ink. That would be my life. You'd read my obit as you held my remains. It didn't happen that way, I like to think through no fault of my own. I ended up leaving The Sun, which is the newspaper I grew up at, a couple years ago in 1995. I did it primarily over a growing sense of frustration about what my idea of truth, what a true story was.
I covered crime for years and years in Baltimore and I had some good stories and some good bylines, but they were all of a kind. They were all the newspaper's view of the story.
The great disease there is that our points of view are decidedly similar: middle class, maybe a little less white middle class than they were. It's the point of view of the collective consciousness of that centrist point of the country that we're writing for in all of our demographic surveys. We're looking where circulation grows, and it's always that guy with the 2.4-car garage and the 3.2 kids, and he has an information-sector job. We're all really sort of writing for that guy. The horrible thing about that is that after a while, the stories don't capture anything but our own sense of what the story should be.
When I wrote Homicide, I came to the conclusion—and I only came to this conclusion after struggling around, trying to write it in pure journalistic perspective—that this story would be best told if the narrator, rather than adopting the communal voice of the newspaper, adopted the communal voice of the city homicide detective. Homicide was written very consciously. It's not me slipping out of my own subjectivity. It's me consciously embracing the subjectivity of my source material, saying, "The world doesn't care what David Simon thinks. There's plenty of David Simons filling up newspapers all over the country.
They would like to know what Richard Garvey thinks about the world or Donald Worden or Tom Pellegrini or any of these other detectives who are living this extraordinary event year in and year out."
On leaving The Sun:
I tried to do the same thing with the second book. I'm not just talking about the quotes or letting the color of the person come through in their own performance on the page. I'm talking about even the narrative force of the book. There is the language of the corner consciously embraced. My argument here is that it's more interesting for people to feel what Gary McCullough or DeAndre McCullough feels on the streets of West Baltimore than what David Simon feels. This idea, I've found, scares the living shit out of editors because, in a sense, what we're doing is allowing for diversity of experience and existence that is very risky and won't always gratify our readers in the way we intend. It won't always lead to heightened circulation.
What it will lead to is great storytelling.
It will lead to a sense of the world that is much more rounded and has much more truth in it than the mere transmission of facts and quotes and clever anecdotal ledes ever can. One of those methods is going to yield a great story that's going to be a factual story - beginning, middle and end - in pure narrative. You're going to walk with the character, feel what the character feels. The other is going to produce a news story masquerading as a narrative and that is a little bit false. To get real true narrative, it takes time. To do a magazine article of 10,000 or 8,000 words in a culture I don't know, it's going to take me two or three months of being with those people. For Homicide, it was three years of knowing the detectives: one year of following them every day, two years of staying with them. Same thing with the drug corner. So it's really time-consuming stuff. But I'd like to argue that we all know from our own lives that the moments of highest truth, in a way, often don't involve dates and times and meetings. That's not the framework in which truth occurs. Truth is often something that quietly happens between two people in a kitchen. If you're not there to capture it and see it and know what it means and have total context with these people, you can't possibly bring it home.
On ingratiating yourself:
Stories got to the top editors and they said, "We're not comfortable there. These people are committing crimes and you're ennobling them."
"No," I said, "I'm humanizing them. It is what it is, and they have a point of view. Are we to say there's no place in The Baltimore Sun for people with that point of view?"
On working the corner:
We're all selling ourselves like insurance salesmen. My hero in this is a guy named Frederick Weisman, a famous documentary filmmaker in the '60s, '70s and '80s. He had one famous technique of putting the camera in the room and not putting film in it for four months. What he was saying there was, I know you'll be conscious of the camera and you'll be performing and I won't get anything that resembles truth until you forget the camera is there. Essentially, since you're the camera, you're doing the same thing. I think you need to be omnipresent in the beginning, sitting there becoming furniture. When you go down to the environment you're going to and they say, "Oh, the reporter's here," then you're not going to get your best stuff.
In the homicide unit, I got farcical performances by detectives conscious of a reporter for the first six weeks, and on the drug corner for about the same. Eventually, people just get on with their lives.
If somebody were to follow me around, I would give them three days showing them the David Simon I really want to be. Then I'd be picking fights with people and double parking cars...
It was pretty benign during the day, and 95 percent of the people we met were absolutely non-violent. It got to the point toward the end of the year where other people who were new on that corner and start to cop drugs would say, "Who are those guys?" The regulars would say, "Those are the writers." It was really funny. Some people went, "The writers?" and questioned it, but I would say 75 percent said, "Hmmm, well that's it," like that: lamp post, white boy journalist, cop.