Since he was a mere twenty-four, writer Richard Price has been greatly admired for his amazing ear for dialogue, his seemingly seamless writing style and his compelling urban plots.
His new novel, Lush Life (Farar, Strauss and Giroux), about worlds colliding on New York’s contemporary Lower East Side, is just the right Price: a living and breathing thing in your hands. It’s not often that a new Richard Price novel is born, and when you have one, you really have something there.
This new one, like all of Price’s priceless novels (Clockers, Freedomland, Samaritan, The Wanderers, Ladies’ Man,The Breaks and Bloodbrothers) not only doesn’t disappoint, but feeds your Price addiction for stories that only he can tell. There is so much truth, humor and just plain real, that anything else you read afterward feels somewhat artificial and lame.
He is also well-known for his sharp screenplays (The Color of Money, Sea of Love) and has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (quick! Name anybody else who scored this honor.). He also shared an Edgar Award as a co-writer of the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, which is getting huge buzz of late.
Price graciously sat down with me in his not-too-shabby Manhattan brownstone (it’s a long way from his humble, unlikely beginnings in a Bronx housing project, but he earned every square foot of it).
We talk about his eagerly anticipated new book, and we discuss this master writer’s writing process. As he is – and always has been, since I was fourteen-years-old — my major influence as a writer, I try not to get too Kathy Bates on him. Just the same, I’ll consider our conversation one of the highlight moments of my writing life.
What attracted you to writing a book about the Lower East Side?
Just about everybody I know with an immigrant background started out there a hundred years ago. For about 25 years, I wanted to write about that. First, I thought about it in a historical mode, but then I realized that it’s the most written-about historical neighborhood in the world.
I would go down there with my kids when they were teenagers. They knew it better than I did, not because of the history but for what it became, with all the clubs. They really didn’t have any notion of the fact that they were the fifth generation and that they are now back where everybody started. So that got me going.
I had no idea what to expect when I went down there. I was still thinking ‘historical.’ And then I just saw all the chaos. And I said, ‘I want to write about this now.’ And not even now, because now is over. It’s like an institution, the new Lower East Side. The new Lower East Side is pretty old. But pump it back a decade, when it was first catching fire.
You said you contemplated setting something in the past, but ultimately dismissed it. Have you ever seriously considered a plot set in the past, other than The Wanderers?
Not really. I’m so obsessive in terms of getting things right, not that there ever is a real right. That’s kind of elusive. It would be too much work for somebody with my kind of brain. It’s very good that I found what was going on now was more than plenty.
I would say that perhaps you are not a person who takes an interest in writing non-fiction.
I’ve done a lot of journalism, but not recently. It doesn’t pay very well and it’s a lot of hard work. I prefer fiction because facts are facts, and they’re facts. In journalism, I did more ‘cultural profiles;’ it wasn’t like real investigative journalism. It was more like interviewing people or taking on a social or cultural phenomenon. That’s not deep journalism. But I prefer to be free-range in my imagination and to see things and to do with them what I want as opposed to be beholden to setting them forth.
Have you ever had the urge to write something that is absolutely out of your realm of understanding?
I’m doing that now. I’m writing a screenplay adaptation of a novel that’s placed in Russia in 1953. It’s called Child 44. It’s a Ridley Scott property. I think the book is going to be coming out in a few months. That’s completely out of my experience. And that’s pretty much why I took it.
How was that for you?
I don’t have the same sort of confidence. But you can’t be beholden to writing fiction and feeling like anything is off-limits. It’s about making things up. I just want to know enough to be able to make things up in a plausible way.
Do you have any career fears?
Well, there are things I haven’t done yet that I probably won’t ever do. It feels like everybody who has ever written a screenplay has directed a movie at some point. I never have and I probably never will. I want to write plays. I did a little bit in the seventies. It’s not like a fear; it’s a regret. I’ll never take on a director role because, in all honesty, I’m not all that interested in that type of job. I would do it simply because it’s the bigger fish up the chain and that it’s the next logical step. But I feel like I’m a writer, and that’s what I do is write.
Are you computer literate? Do you write on a computer now?
Well, this is the first book I haven’t hand written. I’ve never typed anything.
Can you make a living writing books?
I can’t personally. I think there are very few fiction writers who can truly live off fiction without having to either do screenplays or teach or do something. I don’t know that many writers who just sit there and write books, and the ones who Ido are pretty much franchises. They’re best-sellers. It’s a done deal before it’s even written. There are very few serious literary writers, I think. It also depends on where you live and how you live.
You started out in a Bronx housing project and now here you are. Do you think about it a lot, or has it become cliché by now in your head?
No, I feel like because of what I write about, I’m supposed to be living in some walk up or something. I’m not giving it away. I earned it. But I also feel that the worth is in the work, not in the lifestyle of the writer. If the work looks earned, it’s earned.
Now that you live near Gramercy Park, do you obsess on which fork to use and things like that?
No. Listen, the Bronx is where I’m from, and the Bronx is always where I tend to gravitate back towards, when I’m looking for something to grab me in terms of writing. That’s emotionally and literarily where I’ll always be from. But I don’t have to live there. I’ve been living in Manhattan all of my adult life.
I know you are concerned about doing research for your novels. When doing research, when do you feel like enough is enough?
Here is the thing about research. I read this quote, some writer being pithy about the nature of writing: researching isn’t writing, outlining isn’t writing, talking about it isn’t writing; writing is writing. And I feel like that’s true. A lot of this researching and hanging out or being in the field or whatever you want to call it is just procrastination. It’s a hell of a lot more fun for me to be out there soaking things up then me sitting here rearranging the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and feeling like I’m jumping out of my skin all the time. I’d much rather be out there. The isolation, the lack of physicality, and the act of writing where you sit there for a century – I have a hard time with it. I know I have to get to it. I know I’ll invariably spend a lot more time ‘out there’ than I really need to.
But it’s also necessary, isn’t it? To make your novel the best that it can be?
Nick Pileggi [author of Goodfellas] once said when researching his book, Casino: when you get to the point when you ask somebody in the world you’re writing about a question, and in your head, word for word, you say what they’re going to say before they say it, then you know you’re wasting your time and you really need to be writing now. I relate to that very much.
When you travel around with cops and such, do you feel like you’re a pain in the ass to them?
No, the cop thing gets a lot of play, but I hang out with everybody. This book is about a homicide on the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side at this point is six worlds, and the only thing anybody knows about is the historical, Yiddish boomtown and the new bohemian playground. The fact of the matter is, there are heavy housing projects, a lot of tenements, and the realtors haven’t gotten to a lot of the tenements yet. There’s still Hispanic, Dominican. There is a huge Chinese immigrant population, probably the second biggest population down there. Then you have the new bohemians down there who are sort of playing.
I’m trying to take in that world, and it’s like taking in Byzantium. I’ll go with cops because when you go with cops you see things that you would not normally see. It’s sort of like dipping your head below the surface of the water with a snorkel mask on. It’s a whole different experience than if you’re just staring at the water from the sand. Being with the cops is like putting a snorkel mask on.
One of my main characters is a restaurant manager, so I’ll hang out in these restaurants and I’ll go to restaurant managers’ meetings. Another character is a kid in the projects, and here I am again, in the projects. And I’ll go to Community Outreach, guys who work with the Chinese community. There is a lot of illegal housing situations, no documentation. They’re living cheek and jowl, just like the Jews from a hundred years ago.
Everybody thinks the Lower East Side is this yuppy-buppy-schmuppy playground, and it is to some extent, and the prices have gone through the roof, but it’s also black and Dominican and Chinese and Orthodox Jewish. And everybody’s talking about this rehabilitation like it’s this done deal.
Real estate is violence. It’s physical violence, but it’s also uprooting, it’s clashing, it’s tectonic plates. All that stuff is still going on. Everybody thinks it’s rebirth, but it looks more like afterbirth. It’s chaos down there. It’s not a done deal. It’s not like this new Disney Times Square, by any stretch of the imagination.
Are you exhausted from it, now that you’ve completed the novel?
If I go down with journalists, it’s a little bit like you develop a dog-and-pony show after a while. But I’m not going to be doing that.
When I’m working on something, and I know that there is going to be a book at the end of it, there is going to be a lot of anxiety. I’m trying to get at something, so when I’m down there, there is this edge to me, this feeling in my stomach. I’m there to get something and I’m not sure what. So once the book is done, when I go down there now, it’s like a relief. It’s like a done deal. It’s out. Now I’ll go down there, and I’m just like a human being. I’m not like a maniac on a mission.
When you give birth to a book, is there like a post-partum depression?
Yeah. Well, it’s like people who think of themselves as productive always think of themselves as sloths. You keep fantasizing that, ‘man, it’s going to be so different when this thing is done.’
But you give yourself a one-day grace period, and you’re back to breaking your own balls. It’s like ‘what have you done for me lately?’ It’s like, ‘hey, your screenplay’s late.’ Nobody’s saying that to me, but I’m saying that to me. It’s like, if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.
What is your writing schedule like?
It depends what stage of the process I’m in. The time when I plunge into it first thing in the morning is usually when I’m in a bad place and I’m in a panic.
Does that help you write?
Being in a panic? Not productively, but I’ll put in a lot of sweat. Sometimes when you write, and you go off on a dog leg, and you don’t want to admit to yourself that you’re going off on a dog leg, so you go further out. But some part of you knows that you’re wasting your time; you’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole and you’re wasting all this energy, but you won’t give up.
It’s like you’re running a marathon and you break your ankle, and your response to a broken ankle is to run faster and get it over with. Instead of just saying, ‘stop,’ I’ll spend months going off on a tangent. There are a couple of hundred pages of this book that I cut.
Do you read your books after they’re published?
I’ll read sections. For [public] readings, I’ll use sections that I feel will go over best. It may not be necessarily the best writing, but the best stuff to listen to, because it has the most dialogue or the most momentum.
I just picked up Clockers because they just reissued it a couple of days ago. I’m reading it, and I don’t remember writing it. I don’t remember what happened next. On one hand, I’m reading this and I’m going, ‘how the hell did I know all this stuff?’ On the other hand, I kind of had a red pen in my hand, thinking, ‘cut, cut, cut, cut.’
How about The Wanderers or Ladies’ Man?
I cannot bring myself to read anything from the seventies. Usually, if you get ten reviews, and one of them is bad, that’s the one you remember. That’s the one your mom wrote. The other nine are a blur.
With the early stuff in the seventies, I was in my twenties. I don’t even remember that person, let alone what that person wrote. I was a kid. It didn’t mean that the books didn’t have a certain charisma, that despite the sort of rough writing, it didn’t mean it didn’t have electricity. But I can’t see it. All I can see is, ‘how did I get away with that? How did people fall for that?’
Do you ever feel like you’ve accomplished what you set out to do? Did you “get there?”
I always feel like I’ve never learned how to write a book, because what worked the last time might not necessarily apply to this type of story. And if you try what you did the last time, it might turn out to be a disaster. Every book has its own way of being written. And you get amnesia. You forget that for every book there was a lot of anxiety. There were a lot of revisions. There was a lot of agonizing over ‘is this bullshit or not?’
Somehow, the book wound up in the bookstore and it was okay, but all you wind up remembering is the book in the bookstore. You don’t remember what you were going through yet again. I don’t know how old I have to be before I start remembering that. But I guarantee you that when I write my next book, I’m going to forget how hard this book was.
Do you ever feel like time is going to run out before all your ideas are realized?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely, the older you get. That’s the problem with screenwriting. It’s lucrative and it pays for a lot of my life, but the problem is whether something gets made or not is beyond your control. The older you get, the less patience you have with writing something that might or might not ever see the light of day. You’ll get a lot of dough, much more dough than you would for writing a really good book, but either two writers will jump on after you, or it will never get done, or it will get done despite some cockeyed thing. I want everything to count. I want everything to be the way I wanted it to be.
The minute you finish a book, you can’t ever imagine having an idea for another one. It’s like trying to get pregnant when you are already pregnant. Let the baby come out.
How about The Wire? You’re getting some rave reviews on that.
I feel like I’m just copping a ride on that. I wrote a number of episodes and I love it and I love everybody involved. But it’s really David Simon’s show. It’s based on Clockers, he told me, but he’s taken it way past Clockers. I never got above the streets. He goes all the way to the state assembly. He really gets the big picture.
I knew him from ’92 when Clockers and Homicide were published at the same time. We both had the same editor. We went out together on the night of the Rodney King verdict and they were rioting in Jersey City. We went over to Jersey City to watch the riots.
It was two years into The Wire, which I thought was great and way beyond me, that he approached me to come on board. I didn’t really want to do it because it was too intimidating. I felt the level, the depth and the nuance of The Wire was way past my own natural understanding of things. I thought these guys thought I knew a hell of a lot more than I did.
I had put everything I had into Clockers, and this was way beyond Clockers in terms of panoramic and the real politic of the world. It was like on-the-job training.
Does your mind have to be wired a certain way to write a screenplay?
You have to be geared for brevity and momentum. It’s about speed. You never want to get flaccid in whatever you’re writing. You always want to have some kind of tension, a taunt quality. But it’s imperative in a screenplay, whereas it’s not imperative in a novel.
You can have twenty pages of two people talking on a bench, which is fine in a novel, as long as what they’re talking about is worth reading. That conversation will be about half a page in a script. It’s only so long that somebody is going to fix a camera on two heads talking without any other kind of visual shenanigans.
You have such an amazing ear for dialogue. Do you ever watch something on TV or in film and say, “oh, brother, this is so phony.”
The antithesis of The Wire is Law and Order. Within an hour, you have crime and punishment. What’s good about Law and Order is that it’s plausible, and the good aren’t always rewarded and the bad aren’t always punished, which is great, just like real life. It’s like you get a whole meal in one sitting. There’s a crime, you go right to the trial, even though there must be a nine-month gap in there somewhere that they’re not talking about.
But people have these theatrical breakdowns in the box and lawyers don’t object and people are easily tricked into confessing that they’re secret lovers and this and that. At the same time, the show works. But it’s a different type of meal.
The Wire is like this fifty-course meal, and you get to eat this one piece of sushi every seven days. On Law and Order, they bring it out on one platter, and you can just eat until you’re done.
But every once in a while on Law and Order, every rich person is bad; they’re snooty and rich, but Law and Order is great. The Wire, though, is sort of like anti-television. And that’s David Simon’s doing. He’s more obsessive than I am, because he’s trained as a journalist. He really is obsessed with the pace of how things unfold.
In a way, before the DVD phenomenon when The Wire caught on, the show shot itself in the foot like that, because things would happen on Episode Two of Year One that wouldn’t pay off until Episode Seven of Year Two. Who the hell’s around to go, ‘oh, yeah!’? But he had a vision and he stuck to it and The Wire’s The Wire.
Did you watch The Sopranos?
I love The Sopranos. Some of the episodes were better than others, but that was a happy medium between Law and Order and The Wire. Everything was not that hard to get. The characters were completely vivid and compelling. It was like a slow-motion Godfather.
If you weren’t where you are today, did you ever wonder about where you might be?
Like if I didn’t make it as a writer?
I think about that. The main character in Lush Life is me if it didn’t happen. A guy who was in his thirties, who came to the Lower East Side in his early twenties. Like everybody who is there now, he feels like he is going to live forever and he’s going to be an artist and he’s going to make it. And it’s cool to be a bartender because I’m really an actor and it’s cool to be a maitre d’ because I’m really a playwright.
Then, all of the sudden, ten years later, the hyphens start to fall away and he’s just a bartender.
There before the grace of God go I. I don’t know if I would have been a bartender, but I probably would have been one of a trillion lawyers.
This article originally ran in Popentertainment.com