January 24, 2009
Richard Price Q & A
Richard Price is one of those writers people had been recommending to me for years, but I never got around to taking a chance on him until last year when he published a new novel, Lush Life – which quickly ended up in my Best of Year list. He now occupies that rare pedestal, a new favourite writer with a rich back catalogue all waiting for me to get my hands on it.
I was delighted when my low begging to get an interview with him paid off. Sadly, owing to my technological incompetence, I was unable to do it by telephone as planned, and the “shitload of overdue work” Price had on meant a detailed email interview was out. So what follows is a quick Q&A which I hope will nonetheless give answers to some frequently asked – at least by me – questions. I’ve also looked up some older interviews and spliced in some quotes from those where I think they can provide illumination.
And note well the answer to the second question. If more of you bought his books, he could write more of them. It’s a win-win situation.
How did you choose the title of Lush Life? Is it from the song? Are you a jazz lover?
It’s from the song. I liked the suggestion of abundance. The book is peopled with a crazy quilt of nations.
Lush Life came out 5 years after Samaritan. Do you give your books precedence over screenwriting, or alternate between them?
Alternate. I can’t afford to write two novels in a row. Movie writing pays the bills.
The most important thing you can buy if you’re a writer is time. I need to do screenplays to tide me over so that I can take a year or two to write my next novel. … Writing novels is my freedom from screenplays. This is where I get to throw in everything. It’s where I get to not think in marketing terms. (Interview, 2003)
What made you come back to New York in this book? [Price's three previous novels were set in the fictional New Jersey suburb of Dempsy]
I wanted to write about a specific and real neighborhood, not a generic anonymous city.
It’s the most written about place in the world. The first job anyone ever had getting off a boat was as a trouser cutter in a Lower East Side sweatshop. The second job was writing a novel about being a trouser cutter in a Lower East Side sweatshop. The literature could fill a library, but while it was my story, it also wasn’t my story, so I sort of left it alone and it has taken me a long time to come back to it. (Interview, 2008 )
How important is the plot in your books? Do you know where it’s going when you set out?
Plot comes last, character first.
Tom Wolfe sees you as a hero of socially realistic fiction. Is that what you’re trying to do?
Yes and no. I try to write with more style and bebop in my sentences than the average social realist.
Are you happy for your novels to be filed under the Crime genre?
I hate it. Is Cormac McCarthy a “Western” writer?
In my last three books I found that a police procedural, the investigation into a crime from the moment it occurs through all of the interviews and legwork to whatever conclusion is arrived upon, is a great spine to investigate anything you want to about human nature. … I’m not a mystery writer and I certainly don’t see myself in any genre, but I do feel that crime and punishment and crime and investigation provide a great skeleton. (Interview, 2003)
Do you write with the reader, or the market, in mind? Or do you agree with David Simon who likes to throw the reader/viewer in at the deep end? (Simon: “Fuck the average reader”)
I write with no one in mind but the characters.
You stalled after your first four novels, and turned to screenplays. You’ve now written four more novels – do you think of yourself as mainly a novelist again?
I have always thought of myself as a novelist first and last.
I don’t enjoy [screenwriting] my own books-I’ve just finished the book and presented my take on it, and now I have to take a 400-600 page book and turn it into a 115-page singing telegram. That’s not a lot of fun if you feel like you own every word of the book. Not only that, but once you’re the screenwriter you go from being the biological parent to the babysitter, and you’re being paid by the hour. It started out as your child but now you’re just an employee on it. (Interview, 2003)
You said once that Hubert Selby Jr was an early influence – what other writers do you look up to?
In the early days, James Baldwin, John Rechy, John Steinbeck, and the Beats.
Can you recommend an underrated book or author to readers of this blog?
Julia Leigh’s The Hunter.
When I’m writing a book all I read is genre stuff; I’m very careful not to read anything too good, that’s going to make me anxious. I once made the mistake of reading Sophie’s Choice while I was trying to write The Breaks. It was like trying to sing while someone else is singing another song in the background. (Interview, 1996)