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.

Richard Price photographed by Ralph Gibson

Richard Price photographed by Ralph Gibson

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)


  1. Good job, John.

    Priceless interview, if you allow me playing upon words. I think you enhanced it properly by including parts of RP previous interviews.

    I enjoyed particularly the answer: “I write with no one in mind but the characters.”

    By the way, your blog is an extraordinary window for the literature made in British today. Thanks to it I´ve been able to get in touch with unknown authors I wouldn´t be able to discover myself so easily by this side of the ocean.

  2. Short but sweet q&a! Lush Life is such an achievement, makes me terribly curious about those three novels set in the Jersey ‘burbs. And even more excited to read his future work!

  3. I was working in a book store when Clockers first came out in Oz. I remember it flying off the shelves!

    Good to see he lives by the Orwellian principle of “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”.

  4. Great job JS – Enjoyed hearing directly from the main man even if he did opt for the ‘let’s get straight to the point’ approach – the conversation is enhanced wonderfully by your additional research.Thanks!

  5. Thanks everyone (and thanks for the kind comments too Paulo!). I was just pleased to have the opportunity to ask my own questions (even if most of them did turn out to be ones others had asked him before), and thoroughly enjoyed looking up the earlier interviews. I recommend clicking on the links provided. Price is also interviewed in great detail in the Paris Review Interviews Vol 1 and that volume is essential reading.

    Kimbofo, a copy of Clockers is on its way to me – said by some to be not only Price’s masterpiece, but one of the Great American Novels – and I also have Samaritan at home to look forward to. Lush Life was such a joyous experience (er, despite the presence of death, frustration and grief) that I am going to savour the back catalogue.

  6. A most interesting and worthwhile interview — thanks John.

    Those of us who read books tend to put down screenwriters, so I’d like to put it in a plug for some of Price’s screenwriting. The Wire is one of the best pieces of television ever done and if, like my wife and myself, sometimes you like to have your own “festival”, by all means consider it — in many ways, it is an example of books moved to the screen.

    We do have a discipline about it. Like a good book, The Wire develops storylines and characters over time. So what you want to do is rent a whole season (I’d say start at season one and move on, but each one does stand on its own) and set yourself up for a weekend or two of watching. Some novelists do do exceptional work for the screen — Price is definitely one of them. And for those who start visually and work back to books, he is a very good example.

    Great work, John.

  7. I’ll second Kevin’s comment about The Wire. Essential viewing. My wife and I went through all 5 seasons in a surprisingly short time, becoming addicted, as we had with The Sopranos, to the characters. My thoughts are here
    Nice interview too John. He knows his answers doesn’t he! There was an equally interesting interview with The Wire’s other writer Ed Burns on The Culture Show recently. It’s iPlayer time, John

  8. Good stuff, cheers John. Shame he couldn’t be a wee bit more effusive but it’s great to hear from him and that’s the second time ‘The Hunter’ has been plugged by an exceptional writer. Strangely, I remember ‘Clockers’ getting a bit of a sniffy response in some quarters, and one reviewer seemed to take issue with it feeling like it was written to be filmed and so on. No pleasing some…I can say that Samaritan is brilliant. When I got it a few years back there was some daft disclaimer suggesting reimbursement should the book fail to impress…how many took it back? Surely no-one…

  9. Thanks guys. Yes, The Wire in box set form may be one way of whiling away those long hours of feeding and nappy-changing. It may be hard to hear it over the crying, but I expect I’ll stop that eventually.

  10. I don’t have children, but I do suspect The Wire may be quite appropriate for “rocking” time — which is about to have a different meaning for you. You won’t have to turn pages, it gives you a lot to think about and if you can hit the button to turn it back a scene or two you can review relevant themes. I can’t see gifting it to you as a baby shower present, but have taken that under advisement and will offer conclusions later.

  11. The Wire is superb. I went through all five seasons in the space of about six weeks at the end of last year. (I don’t actually own a TV, so I get to pick and choose series to watch on the MacBook instead, which is a much better way to enjoy the good stuff without ever even having to hear about the rest.) I’ve been wondering whether to investigate Homicide: Life on the Street next, as I missed this the first time around.

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