A Q&A with Richard Price
Reprinted, with permission, from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Has anyone in recent memory written such complex, insightful and entertaining
novels about urban life in America as Richard Price? Those who have their doubts
should read Lush Life, Price's most recent novel - now out in paperback.
Like Clockers (1992) and his two other books set in fictional Dempsey,
N.J. - Freedomland (1998) and Samaritan (2002) - Lush Life
paints a richly textured portrait of city dwellers that would make Balzac and
Dickens proud: The novel is populated with quick-witted cops, underprivileged
teenage criminals, ethically challenged officials, and overworked and
long-suffering average joes.
After the Dempsey novels, Lush Life marks a return to New York City, as
it were, for Price, a 59-year-old native of the Bronx whose first novel, The
Wanderers (1974), portrayed gang life in that borough. Lush Life is
set on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the old, largely Jewish immigrant
neighborhood where Price's grandparents lived - and which today is a popular
slumming spot for a young, mostly white crowd.
The novel centers on a late-night homicide in the neighborhood, and the police
investigation into the crime. But the story goes far beyond a standard police
procedural, breathing life into an array of characters made more authentic by
Price's justly celebrated, often hilarious, dialogue.
Price, a no-nonsense but gracious guy, spoke to The Chronicle over coffee during
a recent visit to San Francisco.
Q: Eric Cash, who's at the heart of Lush Life, is described as having
"those dour baggy eyes like Serge Gainsbourg or Lou Reed." That seems like a
pretty accurate description of the man who wrote this book.
A: Eric Cash would be me if I hadn't lucked out and gotten published,
because when he was 24, he'd be like me when I was 24 - "We're going to set the
world on fire, we're going to write," da da, da da, da da. I don't know if I
could have hung in for 10 years of driving taxis or bartending to keep this
thing alive, and that every year you're increasingly becoming convinced that
it's a mirage, it's never going to happen. So Eric Cash is like, There but for
the grace of God go I.
Q: You're known for spending a lot of time with cops to help you create
characters, get a feel for their world. How much of that did you do for Lush
A: A lot. I like going around with cops to understand a place because they
go to the points of greatest tension. It's sort of like you can see under the
sidewalk when you're with them. But that doesn't make them the end all, be all.
But it's a great introduction into a neighborhood.
Q: You've written many scripts over the years. Is there anything you prefer
about writing them over novels?
A: The amount of money involved. At this point, I write good scripts, but
I'm sort of steeled to what's going to happen to them once I'm done, and that
includes other writers coming on, actors changing everything, terrible
directors, all of which is out of your control. Every once in a while, something
really good happens. But it's more often than not a disappointment.
Q: Are there any plans to adapt Lush Life?
A: I'm in the middle of writing the script, allegedly.
A: Well, I'm writing it, but it's really hard to write your own script of
your own book. Because the book could be 400 pages, the script is 120 - it's not
even prose pages, it's dialogue and little stage directions. And what you have
to do to a book to boil it down like that - I mean, you have to be really
ruthless. I mean, you gotta say, "This whole subplot goes, this whole character
goes, this whole beautiful speech goes."
Q: You're famous for your dialogue. Does it come out as spontaneously as it
seems? How much do you have to work at it?
A: Not too much. I'm pretty good at it. And sometimes it's improv. I know
where the conversation needs to go, I know what has to happen in this
conversation, but I don't know how I'm going to get there until I start these
two characters talking.
Q: Do you ever read lines out loud as you write them?
A: This woman I live with tells me that when I'm writing dialogue I
gesticulate a lot, like I'm acting it out. I'm not verbalizing the lines, but
I'm being the characters in the physical and emotional state that they're in. I
didn't realize that I did that.
Q: Your involvement with the HBO series The Wire has an interesting
history. The first season of the show was inspired by your novel Clockers,
and you were later hired as a writer for the show. That must have been
A: I could see the elements of Clockers in the first year especially,
and that was fine with me, you know, it was flattering. But (David Simon, the
show's creator) was taking it to so many different places and on so many
different planes. And then about halfway through the second year, I did a
reading in D.C. and he came with George Pelicanos and he said, "Do you want to
write for the third season?" And my first thought was no, because I don't know
anything more than Clockers. I think they thought that I knew so much
more than I wrote. But it was such a good show and I really wanted to be a part
of it, so I did it.
Q: Are you working on another novel?
A: Yeah, I just signed a contract to write a novel, which I haven't written
a word of yet because I don't know what the story is yet. But I moved to Harlem
in October, and Harlem was great for me because I just feel like I've lived in
Manhattan all my adult life and I've managed to make it new all over again.
Q: So you might set your next novel in Harlem?
A: I would love to. But right now, I'm in the learning process, just like I
was with the Lower East Side - I didn't know anything about the Lower East Side.
At least I live right in the middle of my book. I can walk to work.
John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle March 22, 2009