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Mystery writers Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz keep the balance of power in check on ‘The Deuce’

Pernell Walker from left, James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal in ithe HBO drama “The Deuce”.
(HBO)

Dedicated to examining the porn industry’s birth in grungy, early ’70s Times Square, HBO’s “The Deuce” can be unrelentingly bleak. But it’s also created by David Simon and his regular collaborator, George Pelecanos, two men shrewd enough to hire a pair of top mystery writers — Megan Abbott (“Dare Me”) and Lisa Lutz (the Spellman Series) — to strengthen the female characters’ perspectives.

Together, the two, already good friends, are responsible for some of the drama’s most memorably funny and/or poignant moments. (Abbott wrote the much-heralded penultimate episode, “Au Reservoir.”) Recently, Lutz and Abbott spoke by phone about their approach to humanizing marginalized characters as well as why they became an unofficial writing team.

Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz
(Drew Reilly / Morgan Dox )

Megan, talk about the day the creator of “The Wire” called to offer you a job.

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Abbott: I was very intimidated. There was no way I was going to say no. So I said, “Sure, sure.” Then when it actually happened, it was very daunting.

Lisa, what’s your story?

Lutz: A media escort who George and I know sent me a text that said: George Pelecanos needs to talk to you. I’d met George once at this writers conference where I’d acted like an idiot the whole time. So I was really confused. But I called him. George didn’t really instruct the guy to have me call him. It was an awkward conversation. Most people would have been, like, ‘Really? Her? Just the idiot I’ve been looking for.’” So I have to give George credit.

Did Simon and Pelecanos articulate what they hoped you’d both bring to “The Deuce”?

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Lutz: I think they’re very aware that they don’t see things from a woman’s point of view. Sometimes it was really simple, just looking at them with incredulous eyes and saying, “Oh, no, no, no.” Sometimes it was more nuanced.

Abbott: Women are trained to watch, read and think about everything from both a male and female point of view. When we started, their impulse was to focus on the victimization of these women instead of giving them agency. So [we’d say], “All prostitutes are not all the same. They don’t all respond to their sex work in the same way.” We were trying to be sure to get a range of experiences among the women and have some of the stories be driven by them instead of them just being the victim in the storyline.

Lutz: That meant showing them as being aggressive — even if that just means being passive-aggressive, sabotaging their pimps in some ways.

Video Q&A’s from this season’s hottest contenders »

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Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Deuce.”
(Paul Schiraldi / HBO )

Like that moment when the prostitutes trick a berating pimp into leaving them alone by talking about their periods?

Lutz: That was one of our first pitches. [laughs] I do feel like it’s so often that I’m listening to men having a conversation about whatever and I’m so disgusted so it was sort of nice to turn the tables.

Abbott: [laughs] We wanted to show how these women knew their powers and limits and they’d have subversive ways of gaining power in the situation.

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Who thought up the strategy of pitching together?

Lutz: That was Megan’s thing from the start: She knew we’d be able to get more things in if we worked together. We never went in without having some preliminary discussions. We even gave our notes on other scripts together. They wouldn’t know whose notes were whose. I think we ended up getting more things changed because both of the women [disagreed with it] even if often it was just one of us. [laughs]

Abbott: We’re novelists. We’re not used to sitting in a room all day with three titans, including [novelist and “Deuce” executive producer] Richard Price, who lived through that era in New York. It was a strategy but also a way of feeling more confident.

Who’s your favorite character to write for?

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Lutz: Ruby. David said to me, “[Pernell Walker] is a really great actress. Don’t be afraid to give her things.” That sort of stuck in my head. I wanted to make sure people saw her more completely.

Abbott: Lisa named her. In the pilot, she was just called “Thunder Thighs.”

Lutz: Day One, Megan said, “You need to give her a real name.”

Abbott: And it changed how we talked about her once she was Ruby. Also I loved writing for Bobby. Chris Bauer does everything so deadpan and he’s so wonderful.

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What’s it like to watch your characters come to life?

Abbott: When you’re a novelist, you make up everything. It’s done. I was so uncomfortable watching them shoot porn scenes that I’d written. As a feminist, that’s odd. I remember David Krumholtz, who plays Harvey, looked at me and said, “Why are you making that face? You wrote it.” [laughs] And I said, [apologetically] “I know. But I had to. It’s my job.”

Lutz: That reminds me, in [my episode], I was on set when Maggie [Gyllenhaal] was doing all this horrible stuff; she even let a rat crawl on her. When I wrote it I never thought, “Oh, somebody’s going to have to do this all day long.” I was horrified by my own insensitivity. Maggie was a pro about it. But I felt like I owed her an apology. A written apology. Like a card.

WATCH: Video Q&A’s from this season’s hottest contenders »

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James Franco portraying twins Vincent and Frankie Martino in, “The Deuce, " a new HBO series about Times Square in the early 1970s.
(HBO via AP )

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