Author Richard Price is a lifelong New Yorker, and the city's grittier side is often the backdrop for his novels. In fact, the city is almost like another character — like the Bronx in his first book “The Wanderers” and the Lower East Side in his latest book “Lush Life.” Price is the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
If you're a young aspiring writer working at home, Richard Price has some advice for you.
“Do not do the crossword puzzle,” says Price. “In the Times, especially if it's Thursday, Friday or Saturday. You'll never get anything done."
After all that Price has gotten done, the commercial success and the critical praise, he says he still struggles with the process.
“I hate writing,” he admits. “You sit there and you are rearranging the alphabet for decades. It's a very anxiety provoking thing."
How about working on a book for years, as Richard Price did with his latest “Lush Life," and then, on the advice of your editor, ditching 200 pages.
“It was six months of teary farewells to this scene and that scene,” says Price of the experience. “Even if you know they’re right, it would be a better book without it, you don't go OK, and push the delete button. You fight with yourself over every time you push the delete button."
Price has long been known for his distinct style in writing dialogue.
He has a facility for it, even though it's not easily explained.
"With dialogue it's pretty much all there, the first shot at it,” says Price. “I have much more difficult time with the King's English, you know, descriptive paragraphs. I torture them to death to get them to work."
Once his dialogue actually helped create a word: clockers. It was one of Price's most well-known novels, which was made into a movie by Spike Lee. Price says police and street hustlers who were interviewed didn't know the term. While researching the book in Jersey City, he says he heard the word once.
“I don't know where I heard it, but within a year the word Îclocker’ was going around Hudson County and everyone was calling himself a clocker,” says Price. “Then the Oxford English Dictionary wrote me, saying, is this right?”
While researching “Clockers,” one night a local drug dealer was going to show him around the projects, but there was one problem. The drug dealer disappeared, and a gang approached, thinking Price was a cop.
"I don't know how I got out of it,” said Price. “I think I had a copy of my book and I said, ÎI'm a writer, I’m a writer.’ And one of these guys, the guy that was running the show, this 400-pound kid. He took the book. He said, ÎYou a writer?’ And he opened the book and looked at last page and he announced the page number, 286, then he looked at me and he said, ÎWhat do you know for 286 pages?’”
The research for “Lush Life,” set in the Lower East Side, wasn't quite so dangerous. The neighborhood, with its mix of blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, old hippies, Orthodox Jews and newcomers, is essentially the book's main character.
“I had no idea what I was going to find when I went down there,” says Price. “I knew the young kids coming in, the la Bohemers. We're all in ÎRent’ except we have credit cards. The Lower East Side belongs to either one of two groups. It either belongs to my kids in their 20s, who for them it's a creative playground, Montparnasse, and it belongs to the ghosts. But if you're over 30 and under dead, it's not for you.”
Price has fond memories of growing up in the Bronx and of his years at Bronx Science High School — for the most part.
"Here’s how the Dewitt Clinton football team practiced: They'd suit up and jog from Clinton to Science. They'd come to Science and beat the crap out of everybody standing outside and then they'd jog back to Clinton,” says Price.
His grandfather's poetry in a journal encouraged him to write. A childhood case of Polio limited the use of price's right hand, so he types with his left hand, only.
He grew up in the Parkside Projects in the Bronx, which in the Î50s and Î60s was a mixture of working class blacks, Jews and Italians.
Price says it was not the hub of drugs and violence associated with the projects in the Î70's when his first books were published.
“When I started writing ÎThe Wanderers,’ nobody had written about housing project life in a while and that was the selling angle, you know, from the dark side of the American Dream,” says Price. “It didn't feel particularly dark to me. All my friends went away to bungalow colonies in the summer."
He went off to Cornell his first time out of the city. The biggest adjustment? The subway no longer rolling right past his window.
"The train was maybe 25 yards away right at eye level 24 hours a day, for 18 years and I thought that was normal,” says Price. “The only problem was sometimes you couldn't hear the verdict on ÎPerry Mason.’ When I was in a dorm in Ithaca, I'd hear a cricket and hit the ceiling. What the hell was that?"
Price says his folks were shaped by the Depression. So it wasn't so easy when he passed on a Blue Cross management trainee program for a creative writing Master’s degree at Columbia.
“I think it freaked them out,” says Price. “ÎLet me get this straight, you're going to drive a cab and write poetry? Is that why we sent you to Cornell for four years?’”
It didn't hurt that he first published at age 24 and that book, “The Wanders,” was a hit.
“I was 24. I knew everything in the world there was to know,” says Price. “It's amazing what you don't know at 58 that you knew at 24."
“The Wanderers” was turned into a movie — the first of many Price novels to end up on the big screen. Price even appeared in the movie.
He says when he ran out of things to write about, he turned to screenplays, like “Sea of Love” and “The Color of Money,” for which he received an Oscar nomination and he says that's why he wrote screenplays — for the money.
"Some of the movies turned out good, but none of them were me,” says Price. “I was not an artist on any of them. I was a craftsman on all of them.”
Before the screenplays in the early Î80s, Price says he had a drug problem for three years, effectively shutting down his writing.
“I couldn't string three successive thoughts together,” says Price. “Every day I could write a great page, and after a hundred days I’d have a hundred great pages. Unfortunately they are for a hundred different books.”
He quit and started volunteer teaching at a rehab center in the Bronx. Those experiences, plus his desire to return to the projects to see how they'd changed since he'd left, gave him something to write about again. The result was “Clockers.” Needing reassurance, he read much of the book to his editor over the phone.
“You do yourself a disservice by abusing your editor that way, because if they are being fed things in process they can never get the objective eye they need when it's all done, because you made them too close to everything,” says Price.
“Clockers” is credited as the inspiration for the HBO series “The Wire,” for which Price has written several episodes.
He's 58, married with two grown kids. It's been 34 years since “The Wanderers,” the first of his eight novels and yet he still contends with doubt. But he says that's a good thing.
"When you're scared you bring everything to the table,” says Price. “You bring all your artillery, because you think you're going to need it and then some and you’re not even sure if that's enough. When you feel like something's going to be easy, that's dangerous. Terror keeps you slender."
— Budd Mishkin