BETTER THAN FICTION
BY RONALD SKLAR
If Richard Price’s life story were made into a movie, you would accuse the joint of being too far-fetched. But, as the old cliché goes, truth is stranger than fiction.
Price came up in a Bronx housing project, but his gift for writing gained him entrance into the some of the nation’s top colleges. He thrived at Cornell, Columbia and Stanford, despite his feeling like a fish out of water. His first novel, The Wanderers, was published when he was twenty-four. Incredible in itself, and yet the book became critically acclaimed and was later turned into a film that gained a loyal cult following. A string of semi-autobiographical books followed, including Bloodbrothers, Ladies’ Man and The Breaks, which cemented Price’s reputation for dead-on dialogue and an unblinking eye.
Soon, Hollywood called. He penned the screenplays for The Color of Money, Sea of Love and Ransom (all blockbusters). He worked closely with the Who’s Who of Hollywood Shoo-Be-Doo: Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Spike Lee, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, and even Michael Jackson (he was hired to write the dialogue for the eighteen-minute mini-movie adjoining the “Bad” video.).
He returned to to the novel form in the nineties, producing such best sellers as Clockers and Freedomland. He currently lives in Manhattan with his wife (the painter Judith Hudson) and two teenage daughters.
His latest novel, Samaritan, concerns one Ray Mitchell, a former television writer who returns to his roots, a New Jersey housing project, to reunite with his daughter and spread the love. In being a good samaritan, however, he gets more than he bargained for.
Price was nice enough to hook up with us and chat about his latest novel and his incredible but true life.
You were published very young. Do you think that influenced your writing style in any way?
What happens is that with the first book, you’re a writer, and with the second book, you’re an author. That makes all the difference in the world, because with the first book, you’re just having fun. You don’t have any track record. You don’t have any audience. You’re just doing what you want to do. With your second book, it’s kind of like you’re in competition with yourself; it’s like you’re haunted by the reviews you got on your first book and you try to live up to that. You quickly forget that the book you have in the bookstore went through eight nightmare drafts just like the second book is doing, but you somehow get the illusion that [the first book] came right out of your pen and into the bookstore.
What moved you to write The Wanderers? How did that come to you?
I grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, pre-Vietnam, pre-Beatles. My life changed so drastically after high school. I had gone to Cornell, then I went to Columbia and Stanford, and I knew I was never going to go back to the Bronx. It was as if I was writing about a time and a place that was on the other side of the galaxy. I had instant history and instant mythology. Especially when I was at Stanford: I was never out of New York before, and I got homesick. What happens to some people when they get homesick is that they come on twice as ‘down-home’ as when they were home. My persona got all intensified about being Bronxian. But I also realized that I was never going back there, so if I didn’t write it, I would lose it completely.
Do you think it was an advantage to come from your background?
Only to the extent that nobody else was writing about the people that I was writing about at the time. I didn’t have a lot of competition as if I had come out of the suburbs, which everybody comes out of.
Samaritan is semi-autobiographical. Are all your novels semi-autobiographical?
No matter what you write, autobiography kind of creeps in there. Your characters are just extensions of you. I don’t care if you write science fiction, it’s always semi-autobiographical.
How autobiographical can you get? Even if you want to go there, is there ever a time that you simply can’t go there or you won’t let yourself go there?
You have to know the difference between what’s of interest to you and what’s of interest to the world. You can get hit by a bus crossing the street staring at your navel. When the character is you, your nose is pressed so close to the canvas, you can’t really tell what’s creative construction and what’s obsession.
Does your gift for dialogue really come naturally or do you really work at it?
It comes naturally. If you ask somebody who is an incredible sprinter if it comes naturally, the answer is: yes, there is some technique involved, but basically, I’ve always been able to run fast.
Is dialogue different when you’re writing a screenplay?
No, the dialogue in a screenplay is the same. The thing that people don’t understand about screenwriting is that dialogue is not as important as you think. What’s more important about screenwriting is the ability to construct a story that is all momentum. It’s nice to have a great ear, but it’s not vital. If you write bad dialogue and you have a good story, the actor will come up with something better.
How disciplined are you when you write?
It takes me equally as long to figure out what I want to write as it does to actually write it. I’ll find the area that I want to be and I’ll start hanging out with people who do the things that I’m interested in, but I won’t have my story at all. You just have to have faith in osmosis, like something will happen while you are out there that will tell you what the story is.
Is your antenna always up? Are you always looking around for a good story idea?
Not consciously. But unconsciously, yes. I don’t wake up in the morning saying, boy, I hope I find my novel today. Stuff happens.
Do you write novels with movies in mind?
Never. You need every ounce of concentration to get the novel right. But if you’re distracted by thinking about the transition to some other form, which could be another source of income, then all that concentration takes away from whatever concentration you need to tell your story in the novel form. If something happens, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but one thing at a time.
Do you need total silence when you write? Do you use a computer?
I don’t like writing very much. I have an office in Manhattan and I have an office in my house and it’s like how many other places can I have to avoid writing? I tend to go out to Long Island where we have a house for two or three days every couple of weeks where there is no distraction and there is no other reason to be out there and I’ll do more work in two or three days then I’ll do in two or three weeks in the city.
And you’ll feel better once it’s done – not while you’re working. You won’t feel good while you’re actually writing.
Yes. I’ll freak out and fret over every syllable of the thing. But when it works, it’s working and I’m glad I did it. The only thing worse than writing is not writing.
Your life is very different now than it was back in the 70s and early 80s. Do you feel more settled? Is life a little rosier for you now?
Yes and no. Life is always like a big, giant pain in the ass. It’s definitely a more engaging pain in the ass now. When I started writing my first few books, the idea of having kids was like, “What’s kids? Something to eat?” I would have a kid just as easily as I would have a third eye. When you have kids, your whole life and your whole identity changes. It changes everything.
Do your kids read your novels?
Yeah! Now this is the funny thing: when I wrote The Wanderers, I was twenty-three. My daughters are sixteen and eighteen now and they’re reading The Wanderers. They’re like five or six years younger than I was when I wrote it, and now they’re reading this stuff. I’m looking over their shoulder for the first time, and I’m seeing all this stuff about blowjobs. And I’m like, “No, no, no, don’t read that!” And they’re like, “Dad, I am not going to read the book until you leave the room,” So then I leave the room and they go back to reading the book and I sort of sneak the door open and crawl on my belly across the room and crawl up behind their back and give them a heart attack. It’s kind of a kick that they are reading my stuff. Kids were like science fiction to me when I was not much older than they are.
Have they read Ladies’ Man?
No, but I think they would find it corny. This is really a different time and place.
You’re at a different station in life now and you’ve done well for yourself. Your kids are enjoying things that you probably never would have dreamed of. That must blow your mind.
It’s fun to watch their lives. They’re Manhattan kids. I was like a Beverly Hillbilly: I was from the Bronx. Their world is like…The World. The things they take for granted are the things they’ve been exposed to. It makes them a lot more sophisticated, yet at the same time…you know, they may have a lot more information and they may take a lot more for granted, but sixteen is still sixteen, so sometimes they may not know what to do with all that stuff. But I would so much rather be them than me at sixteen. That’s for sure.
Do your characters from your old novels stay with you?
The character who is always me always stays with me and sort of sneaks into the books. The guy who started out in The Wanderers is in Samaritan. As I grow older, they grow older, because the stuff I know now I didn’t know two books ago. You always use yourself as a frame of reference.
You have such great taste in music, and it’s always evident in your novels.
The funny thing now is that my younger daughter swaps music with me. She is breaking me in to hip hop. The stuff I was listening to in the early 90s when she was a baby was early Ice Cube. So we sort of trade. She’ll give me Nelly and I’ll give her America’s Most Wanted.
What is your opinion of the current state of pop music, particularly Eminem and rap and hip hop?
I love Eminem. I just think he’s very funny and smart. All these rap guys are a little like country and western [singers] in the sense that they do a lot of whining. It’s all about: you disrespect me. It’s sort of like Eminem is connected to Hank Williams. I think Eminem is incredibly funny. He is able to make that intersection between catchy music and intelligence and humor. It’s a gift.
He makes it look easy.
Well, that’s the trick. You read somebody like Kurt Vonnegut and it looks so simple. It’s so hard to be simple.
The character in your novel Samaritan teaches writing to students who are not necessarily natural writers. Have you had this experience teaching writing and what’s it like to teach writing?
The thing is that you’re not teaching. When you’re with kids, you’re not so much trying to teach them writing as you are trying to get them to express themselves on paper. It’s a virgin area for them. When you’re dealing with college students or even MFA students in writing programs, the given is that these kids are committed to writing. They want to be writers. That’s not the issue anymore. The issue is: are they writing about what they should be writing about? Are they telling a story that is the story they were born to tell? So you have two different priorities depending on your students. When I’m teaching in Jersey City and I have ninth graders, I’m just trying to get them to speak on paper. I don’t care what they write. I don’t care if they write science fiction. I don’t care if they write MAD magazine stuff. When I’m dealing with MFA stuff, now these guys are serious. What are they writing about? Are they writing about the right thing? Is there any urgency in what they have to say?
If somebody approaches you to do a screenplay, do you jump at the chance or is it something you have to think about?
No, I never jump at a screenplay. If I hear something is out there and the timing is right I might jump at it, but I try not to jump as a rule. I’m over fifty, so I have to stretch first.
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 3, 2004.