Richard Price Has a Big Appetite for the Grey Areas Where Good Stories Live
The author of ‘The Whites’ and ‘Clockers’ talks about genre fiction, about hitting the street for research, and about the details that can bring a story alive.
If authenticity comes from an author’s commitment, over many books, to a genuinely-felt concern rather than the pieties of the day, then Richard Price is one of the most authentic writers of our time. Like many novelists, he does research. But the authenticity of his fiction is about more than reportorial accuracy. It’s about nailing the sense of a place; its institutions and people; their relationships and conflicts; and of course the dialogue, for which Price is peerless.
His eighth novel, a New York cop story called The Whites, is being published under a transparent pen name: “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.” The reason for this awkwardness depends on who you ask. It’s either about Price wanting to make more money by speeding up production and dividing his career into two tracks – serious stuff and genre novels—or it’s about a contractual solution ironed out between his two publishers, or both.
Either way, fans need not worry: The Whites took four years to write, and is very much a Price novel. The head fake, however, seemed like a good time to ask Price how crime writing can transcend genre. We spoke recently in his Harlem brownstone.
When James Wood reviewed your last novel, Lush Life, he wrote that you have greater ambitions than your genre can accommodate. Are you a genre writer?
No. I think what he’s saying, and what I feel myself, is that I slightly ghettoize myself by continuously writing about cops. But I feel like a literary writer. Not to be grandiose, but would you call Theodore Dreiser, after An American Tragedy, a crime writer? Would you call Dostoyevsky a crime writer?
When you’re looking at a huge phenomenon—such as the crack epidemic and relationships between black kids and cops; or the the amorphousness of the Lower East Side—how do you write about that? It’s a panorama. But where’s your story? A crime, and the investigation that follows, gives you a spine for your panorama, a way into the world. The nature of investigation pulls in so many disparate people: lawyers, witnesses, families, victims, killers. It’s a beautifully built-in way to show all the things you’re fascinated by, but in a pertinent way to the story.
What’s a great crime-centric novel that’s not a genre book?
George V. Higgins’s first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins was a former prosecutor in Boston. The novel was about the Boston underworld. It was a small story about small people. But it was so dead-on. The guy had an astounding ear for dialogue. And yeah, it was considered one of the great pieces of crime fiction, but I wouldn’t call it a genre book by any means.
You’ve spent a great deal of time hanging out with cops and criminals. What first inspired you to hit the streets for your fiction?
Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman. When I was writing movies in the ’80s, they hired me for The Color of Money. It was a road movie, a pool movie. I knew nothing about that world. So I hung out at pool halls in the South. A few years later, I wrote Sea of Love for Pacino and Ellen Barkin. I had to create a cop character. That was when I first went out with cops. When I returned to novels in the ’90s, I started hanging out with homicide detectives in New Jersey and I was hooked. If you live in a place for a while, you find that central incident or encounter or observation that brings you your story in the place. I became an experience junkie.
Why is going out so addictive?
Because every time you go out there’s something fresh, something that triggers some insight you never had before. Or you see something new that seems to epitomize something bigger. Once you go out, it’s like the crack pipe. Try not going for another hit.
So, after a year of research, you’ve got notebooks stacked to the ceiling. All these things you’ve seen. Scenarios. Characters. Priceless bits of street-talk. And you have an emotional connection to the material because you saw it and heard it. You met these people; sat in their living rooms, rode in their cars. Is there a temptation to include everything?
I’m constantly over-stuffing.
Do you ever feel like you’re sacrificing story to reporting?
How do you prevent research from becoming the enemy of story?
I feel like a reporter when I’m preparing a book. But it’s still fiction. A story that I make up. It might be inspired by a tiny bit of starter’s yeast. Like when I was researching Clockers, I was sitting at a McDonald’s in Jersey City, looking at this kid behind the counter making minimum wage. Then, outside, on the corner, I’m looking at another kid who’s making a thousand a day selling crack. I’m thinking, how does the kid behind the counter not throw off his uniform and walk outside?
So that’s the notion that led to two brothers. One’s a crack dealer. The other’s a fast-food manager and security guard trying to do right by his family.
Right. It begins with some small notion. I’ve still got to build a story from that central observation in McDonald’s. And if you become too addicted to experience, then at the end of the day you’re like a lunatic with all these fucking notepads. The pads are just stuff. What’s your story? What’s appropriate to your story?
Yes, you do get emotionally attached to everything you see. My first instinct is to overstuff because I can’t bear throwing anything away. And that’s where an editor comes in and says, “You know, one or two observations like this one here are probably more potent than twelve. I think you made your point.” And then you say, “No, no, no. But what happened here, on the twelfth time, is different!” So you need someone to talk you off the ledge. “Enough!”
For the new novel, you didn’t do research. How was The Whites affected by not going out?
Not much. I had a warehouse of experiences in my head, from the crack days onwards. And then you make shit up.
But a book like Lush Life was so more evocative of place than The Whites. Wasn’t that a function of research?
Not really. Lush Life was set in a small place, the Lower East Side. So I concentrated my focus on painting an extremely detailed mega-picture of that particular mental geography. In The Whites, “place” is all of Manhattan. Because that was the characters’ job.
So the job determined your approach to style in The Whites, versus the setting in Lush Life.
Absolutely. For The Whites I loved the idea of this NYPD night-watch squad being responsible for all of Manhattan. From eleven at night to seven in the morning, there are eight people responding to all the felonies from Fort Tryon Park to South Ferry. Anything that comes in during the wee hours is theirs. I loved the idea that you go from high to low to disaster to stupid to comical to tragic, and then you go home. In this book I was thinking, okay, he’s going to go to these crime scenes. So I wanted to take very detailed portraits of those scenes. Or encounters in a hospital. Or responding to calls. But other than that, I was more concerned with characters and action than with the field.
Your scenes and sections are often short and punchy. What are the advantages of writing that way?
The sections might be tight but I’m a bit of a windbag. If you had Lush Life in one hand and Clockers in the other, and you were on a bench press, you could build up your chest with those door-stops. There’s no sin in writing a long book. The sin is if it reads long. The short scenes provide a rhythm that helps sustain a longer length.
But it’s not just about short scenes. Dan Brown does short chapters. James Patterson does one-sentence chapters.
In Savages, Don Winslow does a chapter in two words: “Fuck you.”
So then it’s a gimmick. But how are short scenes about more than just quick pacing?
What I’ve been doing in the last several books is alternating perspective. Clockers was told from the cops’ point-of-view, then from Strike’s point-of-view, back and forth. Each alternating section is slightly ahead of the other. So it’s like a Rashomon. There’s always something going on that the other person doesn’t know, and this advances the story.
When you’re building stories about bleak stuff—murders, poverty, addiction—do you feel like you need to lighten it somehow?
No. Because I have a lightness when I’m writing about this stuff. I’m exhilarated. I feel like I’m showing something that people haven’t seen. I don’t feel depressed. I don’t feel dark. I might be writing about dark sociology. But to me it’s just life. I have enough of that shit in Hollywood, where people say, “Too dark,” or, “Can you lighten this?” Somebody once said, “Can you tone down the subtleties?”
Humor brightens your books. Can you talk about where humor comes from in your work?
I think humor in a book comes out of dead-on accuracy and nailing something. Nailing how people talk. Nailing an observation. It’s not comedy. It’s humor. It’s a different thing. And humor comes out of recognition: Even if you haven’t been there before, the reader can say, “This conversation, yeah, it’s sardonic and funny, but I know that it’s dead-on.” And that’s really the limit of my humor. I can’t tell jokes. I can’t be Henny Youngman in there.
People peg your work as social realism. But that doesn’t seem to contain all that you do in your books.
Social realism is inspired by the desire to shine a light on a social ill. And to that extent, yes, I write about disenfranchised people. But my style is not social realism. It’s not Native Son. It’s not Studs Lonigan. It’s not Down These Mean Streets or Manchild in the Promised Land.
I owe as much to social realism as I do to bebop and Hubert Selby. When I read Last Exit to Brooklyn, it gave me a shpritz. Part Two begins: “Georgette was a hip queer.” When you see that in a book published in 1964, you know you’re not going to be reading some communist-affiliated social realist trying to describe the woes of the tenements. Selby was a beatnik. He hung around in the Village with an awful lot of poets at a very exciting time. And he took this heavy, dark stuff and wrote it with such … not lyricism ... just bebop. Rhythm lightens the dark. I picked that up from him.
When I think of social realism I think of Stephen Crane. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. The Red Badge of Courage. Did you get anything from Crane?
When I was doing Lush Life I tried to read Maggie because it was a novel about the Lower East Side. I put it down. But I liked The Red Badge of Courage. It zeroed something in for me about what I’m about as a writer. There’s a scene where the Union pickets – the advance sentries guarding the camp of the Union soldiers – are right across the river from the Confederate pickets. These guys are out there all night with just a river between them. They’re bored. So they start talking. “What do you got for dinner tonight?” Then at the end of the night, they say something like, “Okay, you watch your head tomorrow, Johnny.” “You too, Bill.” It was cordial. The next day they’re probably going to kill each other. But that conversation, nobody thinks of war like that. It’s the grey area. Most of social realism doesn’t respect the grey areas of life. It’s all black and white.
Labor versus Capital.
Exactly. These people here are saints and sufferers, and these people over here are oppressors. I wanted to write about the conversation between the bored pickets who are divided by a river during a bloody battle and talking about what they’re eating. That was a revelation.
What’s the most memorable character you’ve created?
Strike from Clockers. No one had taken the time to do a portrait of a kid like that. A project-housing kid who’s a 19-year-old crack dealer. He also has a family. And then you go up the ladder, from Strike to his boss, and it’s a nightmare. And then you go down the ladder, from Strike to the other dealers, and it’s a nightmare. He’s got to control these people who are controlling him.
What’s the “grey area” for a drug dealer?
A drug dealer doesn’t have a job ID card that says “drug dealer.” He’s selling drugs. But maybe also he’s got a candy store. And maybe he’s married. Or maybe he’s going out with a girl, or he’s hung up on a girl. Maybe his car’s a piece of shit. Maybe he jammed a portable television between the floor hump and the dashboard and plugged it into the lighter and he’s watching soap operas as he drives around. It’s not as if “drug dealer” is the human. “Policeman” is not the utter human either.
So I’m always looking for the details. It’s like you’re watching an orchestra, and all the sudden you’re drawn to the fact that the French horn player is blowing spit out of the valve. That’s life. The spit coming out. I look for these small, small things that resonate into the bigger things. I don’t write about social ills as much as I write about the details. See, in the tabloids, you read “Drug Kingpin” and “Lavish Home.” But it’s bullshit. These guys are like boxers. When I was doing Night in the City, for De Niro and Jessica Lange, I went to weigh-ins at the state athletic board. They have doctors review your medical. You’re given a piss test. These guys come in with their loud three-piece suits in burnt orange; black shiny shirts and dagger collars; and gold chains with a boxing glove hanging down. Then they strip for the weigh in. And they’ve got holes in their underwear. They put all their money into this cheap flash to make them look successful. But the reality is holes in your underwear. I’m always looking for the inner slob in a character. The sloppy human heart. That’s the grey. That’s what I’m writing about.
Everyone knows Sugar Ray Leonard. But nobody knows the other 99 percent—the guys who take the Greyhound from Virginia to New York to fight on a preliminary card in the Garden. Once they get here they find out they can’t fight because they were knocked out in their last fight, and you need at least six weeks between fights for concussion clearance. So they get back on the bus and go home. And their manager’s yelling at the medical board, saying, “He’s got no concussion! He moved his head in the scan! Give it to him again. I’ll make sure he stays still.” Meanwhile the guy’s got a cracked skull.