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 Life?
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 gratifying.
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
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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