Thursday, February 7, 2008

Richard Price

Mark Athitakis interviewed Richard Price, author of seven novels including the forthcoming Lush Life, for Washington City Paper.

The opening exchange:

Washington City Paper: I know a little about what you were doing in the mid-’80s. You were teaching in the Bronx and had gone through your own history of addiction. Was there a moment where it crystallized for you and you thought, I need to write a novel about this?

Richard Price: I discovered what you see of the world when you have a police escort, and that seemed…different. I don't want to use the word "refreshing," but it was so different than what I had been writing about previously, which was my navel. I just became obsessed with seeing human behavior in extremis. And that was because I was writing a script for Sea of Love, this police movie. I knew nothing about police.

The second thing was that I had gone through my own period of a sort of pedestrian, ’80s-style cocaine habit, which had been five years gone—no, more—but still, it was kind of haunting. And I had been teaching at this rehab center in the Bronx, teaching writing to these kids who had been falling down on crack, which was not around when I was doing coke, thank God. And I started seeing the devastation that was taking place. And it also brought me back to the Bronx to teach there, where I started writing. I had been wanting to write another book, but screenwriting is its own crack. It involves other people, which is very seductive to an isolated novelist. There's a lot of money. I became seduced by that, and the worst thing you could do is get good at it.

When this all came together, I didn't have a story. But there was one experience when I was in Jersey City, and I was with Hudson County homicide detectives. A kid was killed at some kind of burger franchise—not a McDonald's, but something like that. And another kid had surrendered—came in with a minister and a politician, so it was a very smart surrender. The kid had no criminal record whatsoever. I went with the cops to interview the arrested kid's family, because the cops didn't want to get in a situation where they find out later on that there was a motive that justified it or made it less of a guaranteed win for the prosecutor. So what they do is talk to whoever they can, do research on the guy they just arrested, because they don't want to make their boss look like a horse's ass in court a year from now. So I went with them to the parents' house.

To make a long story short, the parents were very—they would barely turn their head from the TV, they're very unresponsive. And their kid had just been arrested and had never been arrested. The homicide detective saw a photo of him in a cap and gown, he said, “Can I borrow this picture?” He wanted to do more research on this kid, but he wanted to have the picture so he could show it around. You never want to show somebody's friends a mug shot and ask them more burying questions. So, this is a user-friendly picture.

"Can I borrow this?"

"Well, that's not him."

"What do you mean that's not him? That's his brother. Jesus, they look like twins."

"They are."

So just on a whim, they guy looks up the twin, and the kid had a huge, long record. And right there it's a Dickensian moment—The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask, "Which Twin Has the Toni?" So all of a sudden I had my story—two brothers. In real life what happened was the kid who actually surrendered did do it. And he was a thug just like his brother, he was just smarter so he never got caught. And he was also smart enough to blue-ribbon his own surrender. That's the moment where it all came together for me, because I had been spending a year in Jersey City primarily going out with these cops, absorbing the world and thinking about writing stuff. I had everything but a story. I knew the world I wanted to write about, I knew the neighborhood, I just didn't have the building address. That night I got the address. From there I was off to the races.

Read the full interview.

See my 2006 post, "A novel for fans of HBO's The Wire."

--Marshal Zeringue