Posted on May 27, 2009
Originally published in The Believer, May 2008.
Richard Price published his first novel, The Wanderers, in 1974, when he was just twenty-four years old. With his youth, his floppy, Pacino-esque mane, and his schizoid deadpan dialogue, Price was an instant lit “it” boy. Price continued to publish novels (Bloodbrothers;Ladies’ Man; The Breaks), but for the most part he stuck with screenplays, writing The Color of Money (“The ball rolls funny for everyone, kiddo”) and Sea of Love (“Come the wet ass hour, I’m everybody’s daddy!”). He even scripted the Scorsese-directed Michael Jackson video for “Bad.”
In 1992, Price published Clockers, a massive, self-conscious, and wry page-turner set in the fictional slums of Dempsy, New Jersey. Here was something new: a novel about life in the projects, told from the perspective of both sides of the law, written by an Ivy League–educated Jew from the Bronx. Clockers landed Price on a memorable two-part special edition of Nightline in which the writer escorted Ted Koppel to the Jersey City projects where, as research for the novel, Price had hung out with cops and coke dealers—a dangerous endeavor for any writer, even one who cut his teeth on the streets. “I got out of the car and I heard, ‘He’s a cop!’” Price said of that time. “I thought, Oh, oh. This is it. I have two daughters and I’ve finally gone too far.”
Price followed Clockers with two more massive books, Freedomland and Samaritan—a kind of straight-from-the-streets trilogy totaling 1,673 pages, set almost entirely in Dempsy. Since then, aside from writing a few teleplays for The Wire, Price has kept busy researching a new novel. Lush Life, out earlier this year, contains some of Price’s most poetic and emotional writing to date. Now fifty-eight, he says the book caused him to look in the mirror and see what’s what as he slips deeper into middle age. “There’s nothing worse than an aging enfant terrible,” he told me.
I met with Price at noon on a winter day, in his spacious townhouse located on a noisy street near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. When he opened the bright red front door, he poked his head out, looked right, looked left, scoping out the street scene before chinning me inside.
We talked for two and a half hours straight, sitting side by side on a lumpy sofa in his office, near a wall-to-wall filing cabinet. When I asked after the contents of the drawers, Richard rolled his eyes. “Just some crap,” he said.
ALEC MICHOD: I’ve heard you call place a third character.
RICHARD PRICE: It depends. For me—for this book—the Lower East Side is the main character. The whole point was: how do I write about the Lower East Side in a way that hasn’t been done before? I mean, you can’t write about it historically. It’s probably the most well-documented literary-historical neighborhood in the world. Guys got off the boat, the first thing they did was write a novel about getting off the boat. You can’t top Henry Roth. And half the pulpy gangster movies from the ’40s and ’50s were based on these “shocking” Lower East Side novels about tough Jews, tough Italians from Essex Street or Delancey or Mulberry. I mean, that place has been stomped on. But the way it is now—it’s like nobody really has written about the whole phenomenon of the last ten years or so.
AM: Did you run around with a lot of cops for Lush Life?
RP: I always run around with a lot of cops, but I run around with everybody. I hung out with a lot of restaurant people, a lot of people in the housing projects, a lot of community-outreach people. Basically I did what I usually do—I just hung out with whoever would hang out with me.
I mean, I don’t like or dislike cops. I’m not pro–law and order. I’m not Republican. I’m not a gun buff. I’m not any of that shit. What I like is what I can see when I’m with cops, which is something you’d never be able to see if you weren’t with cops. It’s kind of like a backstage pass for the greatest show on earth.
AM: So you just go down there, to the Lower East Side?
RP: Yeah, without agenda. I don’t have a list of questions. I don’t have a goal. I just go down there and trust in osmosis. I don’t even know what questions to ask, I don’t even know what I don’t know until I see this, and then I go, Wow, I didn’t know that. What’s that about?
Go to Ludlow Street. Go to Rivington Street. This is where clubs are. This is where you’ll go into a coffee shop and you’ll see people just like you pounding on their laptops, working on their maverick entrepreneur proposal or their short story. This is the place for “us.” And then the “us” keeps moving farther out, because the real estate catches on to the “us”-ness. You know, you moved to Williamsburg ten years ago, now you can’t afford Williamsburg so you go to Red Hook, and then you can’t afford Red Hook—pretty soon you’re going to be in the ocean. It’s like the artists go in there first because it’s a beat-down neighborhood and you can get dirt-cheap housing. Then the artist community starts to grow. All of a sudden there’s a few places where you can get health food or a cappuccino or swap your paintings for a bar tab. More people come. More business comes. And then here come the developers. Real estate shadows art.
AM: Is that what you always do when you’re between novels, hang out somewhere in the hopes of discovering a story?
RP: Well, I write scripts too. I write The Wire. But right now I’m not writing anything, ’cause of the strike. But yeah, that’s what I do. Basically, I like hanging out and I don’t like writing, and by hanging out I don’t mean socially hanging out. I like to soak stuff up. My first four novels were sort of autobiographical, and I was so fucking bored. I mean, what am I going to write about next? What I had for breakfast? I can’t write this, I can’t read this.
And then I ran into screenplay work, and screenplay work forced me to get out of myself, because now you’re writing about pool hustlers. That’s what the story demands. I don’t know about pool hustlers. Well, go out and learn about it. And I had to go down to Kentucky and Alabama and places where pool tournaments were, and I discovered that I could learn about the world, and that talent and personal experience are not Siamese twins. You can take your talent and go off and learn something, and then you can write about it as well as if not better than the stuff you know from personal experience. So, I got kind of hooked on going out. Going out. Going out. Whatever you write is autobiography, because every kind of character hits a crossroad and has to make a choice in life, and that choice is informed by your sensibilities and your sensibilities evolved out of your life. So it’s sort of writing about yourself without the self-consciousness.
I have to be a little intimidated by what I’m writing about. I have to feel a little bit like I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can master this, I don’t think I can get under the skin of this, because when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table because you’re not sure you can do it unless you bust your balls and really, really get into it. Terror keeps you slender. I need a sense of awe. Oh, shit! I can’t believe I just saw that! But then what do you do with what you saw? That’s the bottom line. That’s the novel.
AM: You mentioned that you don’t like writing.
RP: I find it incredibly anxiety-producing, and I get incredibly antsy. I get ADD, like,instantly. If I can, I’ll put off starting for months. If I’m hanging out on the Lower East Side, I convince myself I don’t know enough yet, whereas all I’m really saying is I don’t want to start. The most difficult thing is making the transition between hanging out and writing the first sentence of the novel.
II. “THE NATURE OF DEAD-ON-NESS”
AM: Writing both novels and screenplays like you do, I imagine it can leave you a little scatterbrained.
RP: Oh, well, I only do one at a time. They’re like different rhythms, different ways of thinking. With screenplays, there’s no writing, there’s no author—it’s just dialogue and stage direction—a big memo. Writing novels is four-dimensional. And if you do both at the same time, they’re both going to get fucked up. I think the best novelists make the worst screenwriters, and the best screenwriters make the worst novelists, because the requirements are so different. I try to write a screenplay like a screenwriter, not a novelist. But the problem is my instincts are novelistic, so my screenplays always go on too long, and they’re all, like, dialogue-heavy. I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a writer. I always go overboard in screenplays.
AM: You’ve mentioned the Lower East Side as being a ghost town, and you talked about all the history there, the ghosts. Were you ever tempted to write a historical novel?
RP: It’s just too much work. I mean, how did they hold their knives on Rivington Street a hundred years ago? How did they fold their napkins? What was the etiquette in communal toilets? It’s just too much stuff. I’d have to learn everything—like a baby has to learn everything. It would never get done.
AM: Do you see your work as particularly urban, written in the shadow of the great urban writers?
RP: All I can tell you is the writers, the two or three urban writers who inspired me. Hubert Selby, Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’s a book that’s totally stylized. People were so overwhelmed by the material, what was lost was that book was written in a bebop style. It’s written like a jazz riff. That thing was crackling! It’s like John Coltrane wrote that book. Then I’d say Richard Wright, Native Son, and James Baldwin. I responded to a lot of the earlier African American literature because it was grounded in social realism. But also Henry Miller. You don’t normally think about him as an urban writer.
AM: Well, he was hanging out in Paris every day.
RP: Yeah, sometimes people who influence you are not people who are obvious, because you don’t really write like them, but there was something they did that made you crazy and you can’t forget it. Henry Miller had that effect on me, being this great adman for himself—like, “I have the most enviable life, I don’t have a pot to piss in but I’m fucking everything that moves. I don’t have to answer to anybody.” That’s very seductive to a young writer living at home… and when I was just coming out of college, and I was working in the post office, which is just the most droning world of all worlds—you’re just sitting there in this giant Dickensian… you want to die and it’s like the bureaucracy from hell—and I was just readingTropic of Cancer, just sitting on the main steps of the main post office right there on Thirty-fourth Street, and in the book there was a passage in which Miller had to deliver a package to Brooklyn, and he was thinking two things: I can either go to Brooklyn and deliver the package, or I can screw it, go to Paris. I mean, sign me up.
AM: What are you reading now? You’re a busy guy, you write screenplays, you write forThe Wire, and your novels take up years of your life—do you still have experiences like that when you’re reading?
RP: Yeah. Now it’s more like I’ll read stuff and it’s like, Wow, man, if I’d read that when I was younger, this would’ve flipped me out. Now all I do is enjoy it. But I’m past the part of being formed. I’m already formed. I think timing is really important. If you read a book at the right time in your life, it’s the book of Revelation. But if you read a book at the wrong time, it’s like… so what. Like, if you read Catcher in the Rye when you’re twenty-five, it’s whatever. But if you read it when you’re fourteen, it’s like Jesus came down and slapped you. You know, having gone to public schools in the Bronx, the problem—which I’m sure is endemic of public schools everywhere—is the canon, the public-school canon. You read what you expect to read, but a lot of times you’re reading stuff and you’re not ready for it. I had to read Pride and Prejudice when I was thirteen, and it was, like, the most boring thing in my life. But on my own I read Last Exit to Brooklyn and it was like, Oh my God! Or I read transcripts of Lenny Bruce’s comedy routines, and it was like the sun coming through. It all depends when you read it.
AM: When you’re writing, I imagine you pacing around, talking to yourself, acting out your dialogue.…
RP: Yeah, that’s very funny. Basically I do improv with myself—that’s how I get my dialogue. Sometimes I’ll do it quietly, other times I’ll be mouthing it. And I used to have a loft on Great Jones and Broadway, right next to Tower Records. We got that loft a month before Tower Records opened, so we got it for a song, and then it blew up, that whole NoHo thing. But it was, like, a pretty deserted area. Anyway, so we had that loft, and I rigged myself up this office, and my daughter was four years old, five years old, and you know how they have playdates? Well, I was in my office—I think I was writing Clockers—so I’m sitting there going, “Fuck you, motherfucker, I’ll fuck you up, I’m-a fuck your ass shut.” And I look up and there’s my daughter with her little playdate, this other five-year-old girl, and they’re holding hands, they’re gripping each other’s hands, with their mouths like [mouth in O], and I’m like, “Hi there…” The next day, I got an office in the Flatiron Building. Can you imagine a five-year-old girl going home and going, “Mommy, what does ‘fuck your ass shut’ mean?”
AM: Wow. Yeah. That’s one thing about your dialogue which isn’t always pointed out—it’s really fucking funny.
RP: I think that all good dialogue is funny. And it’s not funny by design, it’s just funny because anything that’s dead-on is funny—it’s in the nature of dead-on-ness to contain wit. You look at The Wire, and some of that shit is just like grindingly, monotonously detailed, but when you nail shoptalk, there’s a certain singing quality that borders—it’s not comedy, it’s not humor as such, but there’s a certain joy in just, like, bang!
Did you read Tree of Smoke? I thought that book had the best dialogue. I didn’t think there was one uninteresting line of dialogue in that book. It was so sardonic. Now, I don’t particularly think of that book as a funny book, but that dialogue was a scream. And it was a scream just by virtue of having that dead-on quality.
AM: How do you know if you’re just talking to yourself or actually, like, channeling a character?
RP: I’ll tell you another book I just read that I thought was really good was Then We Came to the End. I never read a book that so captured the American office culture. The book was about generic middle-class work. Somehow he made it riveting—these long-winded bull sessions they had, the stuff they talked about. It was great dialogue. And it was funny without being funny. It was just how people talk. How they kill time. The art of verbal thumb twiddling.
AM: A lot of people read it, I think, in the shadow of The Office, that TV show?
RP: Yeah, but The Office is different. The Office is mannered hyperrealism. It’s sculpted. It’s using all the gimmicks of documentary to make something that’s very scripted look very “captured.”
AM: Do you watch a lot of TV?
RP: I’m actually supposed to do a pilot for FX, but obviously I can’t do it now because of the strike. But it’s in the hopper. So, I mean, just writing a pilot’s nothing—it’s sixty pages, they might or might not do it, and you don’t get as much money as a screenplay, but you don’t work as hard. And TV is structured in steps, so it’s not like you kill yourself on a script—seventeen drafts, and then they don’t do it. You do a pilot, you do a second pass, and then they say we’re going to shoot it or we’re not going to shoot it. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. Because with a big-ticket film director, they have fifteen projects they’re cultivating, and they can only do one at a time and each one takes two years of their life, so you got to know going in, OK, I’m going to spend a year of my life writing something that odds are won’t get made. That’s a freaky thing, and it gets freakier the older you get.
III. RICHARD YATES, THE TEACHER
AM: How do you pick your non-novel projects?
RP: The allure of screenwriting is that it’s the antithesis of writing a novel. When you’re at your desk, it’s just you all day. Whereas screenwriting, there’s a bunch of people, and you have to go and you actually have to say good morning to people and you actually have to make sure your dick is inside your pants. The thing about Lush Life is—thank God it’s finally done, I mean, four years of banging my head against the wall, I was really miserable—but every word is mine, it’s all mine—all the praise, all the blame.
AM: Do you continue to write novels out of some kind of moral propulsion?
RP: I write novels because it’s what I do. I’m a novelist. I always consider myself a novelist. And finding my story is like finding love, falling in love. That’s why it takes me forever to find the story I want to write, ’cause it’s a little bit like, OK, I need to be in love.
AM: Do you wake up every morning and write right away?
RP: It depends. It depends if there’s anybody waiting for it. If there’s not anybody waiting for it, I can get slack. That’s also the good thing about screenwriting, is that there are other people involved. If you’re writing a novel, once you sign a contract and have a couple years to write it, that’s it. You’re on your own. You can have cobwebs, you can look like Miss Haversham’s wedding cake before anybody gives a shit.
AM: Yeah, your editor on Clockers—you used to call him every day, right?
RP: Every day. I was shameless. I had been out of fiction writing for eight years because I was doing screenplays, and the problem was I had an editor that would put up with that shit. He was extremely dedicated. He would leave his house at four in the morning, get into Grand Central station at six in the morning, and sit there, surrounded by sleeping homeless people, to work on Clockers so he could have a chapter at nine o’clock to give me to rewrite. Then at nine o’clock he could do what he also did, which was be editor in chief of a publishing company. He was just insanely dedicated. And he made me feel like, well, if he’s breaking his balls doing this, the least I can do is break my balls, too. And I did. But I don’t know why he put up with this. I would read to him, every day. Basically, what an editor does with a writer is handle them. Whatever they think it’s going to take for this writer to come to the wordsThe End of a draft so that they, the editor, can actually do what they get paid for, which is edit. So in order for them to get to the point where they can do their job they will tell you everything you want to hear if they think it will keep you moving forward, because all this reading to them on the phone, stuff like that? It was just psychiatric nursing. “Ah, that’s great, that’s great, yeah, keep going with that.” I was like a lunatic, while he’s running five different things from his office.
I mean, with Clockers, I spent a year hanging out, a year working on the first draft, until I had 1,100 pages but no ending, then he took it, then he said, Well, we need to go through this on a whole bunch of different levels. First of all, sentence structure, then character development, then the shape of the story. It wasn’t like I was Raymond Carver and he was Gordon Lish or anything. It was like, All right, man, let’s get the machete. Let’s tear it down. Then let’s build it back up. Let’s go.
AM: Is that what happened with your new book? You just got it out and then worked with it?
RP: With this book, I saved the editor for the end, but when I had to turn it in, it wasn’t a submission, it was an intervention. He had to come to the house and it was there on my computer and he had to sit next to me and talk very softly, like, “Come on, just push the send button, just push the send button,” and I’m like, “But I don’t understand the transition between the cop and the synagogue….” “Oh, that’s OK, we’ll work on it, come on, just push the send button.”
I mean, I remember when I was young, in my twenties, I had Richard Yates as a teacher. He’d published Revolutionary Road in 1960 or something like that, and this was 1974. And he was living out on Staten Island—and, um, we started out, we had pretty rough encounters, because I had just published The Wanderers, and I was the flavor of the month, and I was also twenty-four to his forty-eight and he did not like that. But we straightened things out and became really good friends after that.
AM: How did that happen?
RP: I just went up to him after one class where he was really going after me, “Oh, so you’re our billion-dollar bonus baby.” He says, “Well, I’d like to do a writing exercise. You’ll probably think this is Mickey Mouse, Price.” And I said, “What?” And then he did his thing, and he looked at me and he said, “Pretty Mickey Mouse, right, Price?” And I said, “No, not at all.” And he said, “Oh, good, thank you.” And after class I said, “Look, I think you got a problem with me. I don’t know you. I think you’re taking stuff out of me and I’m coming in here, I’m paying, and if you want, I’ll transfer to another class.” And he completely backpedaled, because he was an incredibly kind and generous man, at heart—and then we started going to the West End bar after every class. It was 1974, I was twenty-four years old, and I had never even heard of Revolutionary Road, and then he left Columbia and publishedDisturbing the Peace the next year, and I was like, Wow, this is really good. And then they reissued Revolutionary Road, and I finally read it and I was mortified. I couldn’t believe I knew this guy, had him as a teacher, and I wasn’t even curious enough to read his stuff.
But I do remember one thing he said to me, he said, “You doing a lot of movie stuff, you doing a lot of Hollywood stuff?” And I said, “Well, actually, yeah, I got offers.” He said, “Yeah, I had offers once, too. Now I just feel like at this point in my life I don’t have time for that.” When he said that, I was like, What the fuck are you talking about? But that’s the way I feel now. I’m fifty-eight. I don’t want to waste time, I don’t want to waste a whole year. I don’t care how much they pay me, I’m not spending a whole life working on something nobody’s going to see. I’m not going to spend my time coming up with this guy said this thing and that guy said that thing then this happens…. And none of it ever sees the light of day. You can do that in your twenties and thirties because you can get your payday and you’re happy, but the older you get, the more careful you want to be with what you commit to. You want to make sure it’s something that’s going to go all the way.