Price Richard

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)

Richard Price: Lush Life

I seem to have a last-come, first-served approach to my reading. Despite the giddy piles of unread books littering my home, the arrival of a new title always brings with it a sense of urgency and importance. Indeed, I already had a Richard Price novel in those piles – his last, 2003’s Samaritan – and had been aware of lavish praise for his books for some years (Clockers, his 1992 novel, is seemingly the granddaddy of them all). Nonetheless, when I received this handsome hefty new hardback (the US edition, pictured further down, is as beautiful in its way), I knew I was lost.

Lush Life is roughly structured as a police procedural – don’t click away, give me a minute here – set in Manhattan, and it opens with Price showing us what to expect from the next 450 pages. The police ‘Quality of Life taxi’ (four officers, “their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime”) is scouring the streets, “misery lights revolving,” for crimes and misdemeanours:

Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the streets for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner…

It’s a risky and showy opening; but it’s a showy city. New York is showing itself to us all the time, perpetually being shown to us on TV and film, so that even someone who has never been there has plenty of pictures and expectations in mind. Price’s task is to give us a New York which is both consistent and surprising. He succeeds, but more than that, he creates an internally consistent world which is so immersive and engrossing that for once – and I had always dismissed such claims – I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.

Price is perhaps better known as a screenwriter than as a novelist: he’s been Oscar nominated for film work, won an award for his writing on the more-talked-about-
TV series The Wire, and has the thankless task of translating Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 into English for the film version (perhaps they held a gigantic cheque over his eyes so he didn’t know what he was agreeing to).

From all this you might expect – and you would be right – that Price’s forte is dialogue. Speech is at the heart of Lush Life, and a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the book is taken up with it. This is dialogue which is rich in street patois and old-cop wisecracks, and which – like Alan Bennett’s in an entirely different way – appears realistic through its use of idioms and neologisms but which is far too artificed and compact to be naturalistic. But even if the lines of dialogue themselves are artificial, their purpose is entirely authentic. Price’s people talk over one another, trail off in the middle of sentences or start to say one thing and then change to another.

More importantly, almost every exchange of dialogue in the book conveys not just what is being said, but the psychology of the character speaking and their history, relationship of power and motivations toward their interlocutor. It’s there when the restaurant manager speaks to his employees; when the cop and the victim’s father talk; and during a magnificent, protracted interrogation which stretches over dozens of pages. Given that so much dialogue in fiction is underfed and dysfunctional – providing characters with a chance to explain what they already know for the benefit of the reader, clumsily foreshadowing, or just treading water – Price’s rich exchanges are a wonder, and a treat, to eavesdrop on: comic, laconic, poetic. You might wonder then why I haven’t quoted any of it, and the answer is that I’m not convinced it would work out of context. You’re going to have to trust me – and Price – on this one.

(Or alternatively, see here for James Wood’s take on the use of dialogue in Lush Life, which provides examples in spades, and nabs most of the best quotes I would have wanted to use, including a cop who, when asked why his request can only be accommodated on Sunday night, is told by his superior, “Tomorrow’s too soon, Monday I can’t promise, Tuesday’s unpredictable to the point of science fiction.”)

The rhythms of speech even extend into the narrative voice, partly I suppose through ‘free indirect style’ – where the narrative adopts the sentiments of the character – and partly through a furious act of control on Price’s part, to insist that the prose will be read as he intended. The use of commas toward the end of this passage is a good example.

…if the driver says one thing, goes one word over some invisible line, then without any change of expression, without any warning signs except maybe a slow straightening up, a sad/disgusted looking off, he steps back, reaches for the door handle, and the world as they knew it, is no more.

This also gives an idea of one possible criticism of Lush Life: there’s a neatness, or slickness, in the dialogue which can seem too polished, too screenplay. However this is an unworthy complaint: I would never complain about every line of a poem being too perfect, so to say the same of dialogue reflects on the level of my own expectations rather than the level of Price’s achievement. On top of the dialogue, Price is no slouch at calling up a great image in the main narrative when he wants to (Lower East Side has “canyonlike streets with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes”).

In all this I have said nothing about the plot, which is best discovered page by page, but concerns Eric Cash, a 35-year-old restaurant worker with “no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill” and whose “unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall.” There is a murder, at which Eric appears to be a witness, and then he becomes central to the police case; and the police are central to everything else. They serve as a nexus for the web of social groups which make up the Manhattan of the book, the overlapping – if not unifying – factor in the fields of humanity all pulling in different directions. Price’s presentation of the city in this way reminded me of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

The story then takes off in different directions, and at every stage the motivations and actions of characters seem thoroughly backed up by their psychology. Highlights of this include Eric’s transformation in the eyes of his colleagues at the restaurant, the splintering of the relationship between the murder victim’s father and his wife (the portrayal of Billy Marcus is masterly), and investigating officer Sergeant Matty Clark, who has his own problems with his sons. Power – father-son, police-suspect, media-public – is a theme throughout Lush Life. Clark reflects at one point:

He had known cops who had on occasion slept with witnesses, slept with suspected perps, confirmed perps, slept with the wives, sisters, and mothers of victims, and had even slept with the victims themselves if they recovered. You walk into lives abruptly turned inside out by the arbitrary malice of the world, and you, in your suit and tie, your heavy black shoes, your decent haircut, and your air of seriousness, you become the knight, the father, the protector…

A murder story has an inbuilt structure to it, which might seem like an easy way for a writer to get himself a book done: here’s the bones, just add meat. There is no doubt that Richard Price makes it look easy – that immersive world, the killer dialogue – but given that he took five years to write Lush Life, we can conclude that it was not the result of any easy cheat but of long hard work. Near the beginning of the book, and the beginning of the investigation, we have this:

Every cop was on the scene, every Night Watch, every plainclothes and uniform, was either on a cell phone calling in, calling out, calling up, or else feeding each other’s steno pad; Matty always taken by that, how you could literally see the narrative building right before your eyes in a cross-chorus of data: names, times, actions, quotes, addresses, phone number, run numbers, shield numbers.

That is Price’s gift: he lets us see how it all happens, line by line and scene by scene, “building right before your eyes,” but the achievement at the end, the view from the top, still seems entirely miraculous.