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The TNR Q&A: Richard Price

The Bronx-born Richard Price has walked a steady beat for over 30 years--combing the streets of New York and New Jersey for authentic American stories. His eighth novel, Lush Life, unfolds on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a place Price has called “the most important slum in American history.” A longtime haven for waves of European and Asian immigrants, the neighborhood today is flush with old- and new-world conflicts--on which Price reports with polished instinct. The New Republic’s Dayo Olopade sat down with him recently to discuss cops, grieving parents, and writing for HBO’s The Wire.

Right from the opening sequence of your new book--“bling shop, barber shop, car service, corner ... sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner”--mapping the neighborhood seems important. What’s your history with the Lower East Side? 

It’s not a normal place, I’ll say. This one time, I'm at Piano's, barhopping with this guy, this detective I became friends with. And it just got way too late and it was about 1:30 in the morning and I’m sitting at the bar with him and I look across the room and there's two really attractive young women, like, looking back over at us. One is, like, blonde and one is black and it’s like Betty and Veronica, and I'm looking at them, they keep looking at me and I’m not used to women, like, looking at me, let alone younger women. So I kind of reared back in my chair, because they’re looking at him--they can't be looking at me. Then they get up and start walkin’ over and I say, “Kenny, I think you're going to have to handle this, I don't know what's goin’ on.” And they come up and they go, “Heeey Mr. Price, how's A--?” And they're kids from my daughter’s elementary school who are now, like, 21. And that to me is like--I don't belong on the Lower East Side. You've either got to be a ghost or a young person.

Much of the reception for Lush Life focuses on the “urban crime drama” aspect. James Wood, for example, wrote in the New Yorker that that you should push beyond crime fiction. Do you feel more comfortable with police at the center of your novels, seeing everything?

I find the police not personally interesting, but in terms of, like, a job, it’s like having a backstage pass to the greatest show on earth. I mean, all you do is you go to things in which behavior is so extreme a police presence is required. If you’re a writer and you’re just trying to soak up a world, how can you top that?

Politically, I'm not law and order, I never talk politics with these guys, because, you know, these guys are--“conservative” is a nice word. They have no problem with Bush. They live in the outer boroughs. There's very few places for a working class or middle class person to live in Manhattan anymore.

This book, like some of your other work, tends to divide the crime from its broader sociological context, making it singular and personal. And at the same time, your characters are forever catching crap from the higher-ups. What's your perception of who is actually running the streets?

Good question. You know, who’s in charge of an office, the president of a company or the office manager? The president of the company. So 99 percent of the time [cops] are doing stuff, there's nobody there. You’re the guy. It's a lot of, like, judgment calls. A lot of little mini-decisions. I think the only time that the higher-up gets really involved is when the newspapers get involved. It's all about appearance. I'm not saying that they don’t care, I’m not saying that at all, but boy do they care a hell of a lot more when there are news reporters at the scene of something.

I was surprised [when I was tailing cops] because I thought--you know, they wouldn’t do a lot of stuff in front of me. But here’s how they think: They don’t think there's anything wrong in what they’re doing. It's not like, “Oh, we're going to do one of our bullshit things now, let's wait ’til Rich goes home.” This is what they do, this is what they’re used to.

In one passage, a character confronts the “lush life” led by his dead son Ike. The hipster crowd thinks he’s the second coming of cool, but to the father, "It's just Ike." How do you write both sides of that story?

That was the problem--the book takes [place over] two weeks. Somebody’s just lost their child to violence. We’re dealing with a deeply mentally ill person, who is in a fever state, and they’re not going to calm down for a very, very long time. For me to show him evolving in two weeks--that’s science fiction. I mean an autistic child has a better chance of being cured of autism by getting a big hug. That was one of the daunting things; I have to have a guy who is completely insane from beginning to end of this book. There’s no comfort for him, there’s no anything.

As I’m an OCD writer, I hung out with the Parents of Murdered Children, it’s a national organization. I hung out with the Queens chapter and the Brooklyn chapter and the Nassau country chapter, then I went to Kansas City where they had their national convention. And it’s like you can get some kind of injuries that never heal, all you can do is re-dress the wound. They never close up. I mean that’s what their lives are like. Their brains are, like, blown.

So what comes next for this book? It has been five years between your last novel and this one; will you take another break to do more film work? You have pages and pages of written dialogue--does Lush Life slide easily into a screenplay?

People have the false notion that if it’s visual and it has, like, good dialogue, it’s a natural for a movie. But movies are about entirely different things than books. Movies are about architecture. It’s about a pyramid. You have four characters and you have two hours, and they all have to converge at the apex of the thing. And they have to keep moving. Now I got a 450-page book there that I have to turn into a 120-page singing telegram. So no.

In terms of narrative, did you find television more accommodating, especially on a show with a plot as byzantine as The Wire?

The Wire is, like, off the charts. Working for The Wire, it’s very constraining, because there you’re really tight--you really just have an hour and you can’t go over, so you’re writing episodic stuff. You could be writing a flawless chapter five or episode five, but the guy before you who wrote four or three or two, they overwrote--and they had important stuff in there. So everything gets bumped up. So a lot of five has to go into six and you have to take on stuff from three and four. So you might be looking at stuff you didn’t write with your name on it. And the next guy’s looking at stuff you wrote with his name on it. Otherwise known as check your ego at the door.

See, The Wire isn’t really television, I mean writing like Law and Order, stuff like that; that is really tough, because you’ve got a formula and you have commercials. So you have to come, like, every ten pages or so. You’re going to cut to something about Cialis. Literally--you have to come to some kind of mini-climax every ten pages to get people to not flip channels. I’ve never done that type of writing. But you know, it’s like the dumber the writing, the more it pays.

Dayo Olopade is a researcher-reporter at The New Republic.