Richard Price, a master of dialogue, talks about his own life and work
A conversation with Richard Price, author of "Clockers," "Lush Life" and — among other things — several episodes of HBO's "The Wire." Price appears in Seattle Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Seattle Times book editor
The author will discuss his work in a Seattle Arts & Lectures talk titled "True Bones," 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $10-$70 (206-621-2230 or www.lectures.org). He will also discuss "The Wire" in a sold-out Monday-night appearance at Seattle Art Museum.
Those of us who are disciples of Richard Price share the conviction that he is one of America's greatest living novelists. There aren't nearly enough of us, but we are a fervent bunch. Here's what writer Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River") had to say about Price's breakthrough 1993 novel, "Clockers":
"It just rattled me to my core. Reading it, I remember feeling, This — this, right here — is literature. This is what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to go out into a part of the world or a part of the heart where few dare venture and return with a testament."
Price has written eight novels, including "Clockers" and 2008's "Lush Life," a crime novel set in Manhattan's Lower East Side. His work pierces the veil between the affluent, educated reading public and the American underclass — his novels combine humor, tragedy and an eerily authentic recreation of American urban language. Price also writes screenplays ("The Color of Money"); he penned several episodes for the groundbreaking HBO series, "The Wire." (David Simon has said he was inspired to create "The Wire" by Price's "Clockers.")
Price comes to Seattle Tuesday for a talk at Seattle Arts & Lectures and will give a talk on "The Wire" Monday at a sold-out event at the Seattle Art Museum. Price grew up in the Bronx, lives in Manhattan and talks in the pithy, telegraphic manner of a native New Yorker.
In a recent phone interview he answered questions about researching, writing and teaching.
Q: What are you going to talk about in Seattle?
A: I forgot what fancy title I gave it. Basically, about the experience of going out and reporting novels — leaving the house, immersing yourself in the world, converting that into art. The opposite of the autobiographical narrative.
Q: I'd like to read you a quote from Larry Mullane, the New Jersey cop you observed who was the basis for the character Rocco Klein in "Clockers": "Here's a guy, standing there with a notebook, asking no questions. ... He would notice such intricate things, and the crazy speech patterns of some of these people, and the jargon that they used. He'd show me his notes for the next day, and I'd be scratching my head. 'How did you write this down? Shorthand or something? How did you remember this?' He just does."
How do you accomplish this fly-on-the-wall technique?
A: I make myself a witness. I'm a sponge. I might or might not scribble something down to myself. It's really more the experience than the note taking ... no matter what I see, and what happens, it still has to be molded and made into fiction.
Q: You're considered one of the best writers working today in the area of dialogue. Do you have a special gift for remembering what people say?
A: It's not being a tape recorder. I make up everything I write. It's not just "He said that, and therefore ... " it's art. What happens in life is so chaotic and unshapely. The job is cheating — to nudge it into a shape it doesn't really have, a cohesiveness and a coherence that real life is not so generous in offering. I just want to get the gist of the interaction, but I'll go home and reinvent ... all you need to do is keep to the spirit of the thing.
Q: You've done a lot of teaching. A lot of writers view teaching pretty much as a way to put bread on the table. Are you trying to stay in touch with young people as part of your work?
A: The people I write about don't go to creative-writing classes. Usually, I'm teaching because there's a personal connection with the school ... The last time I taught was at Yale; my daughter was going to Yale. Next year I'm teaching at City College of New York. I'm teaching there because the kids are a mad, ethnic mix — every kind of ethnic group in New York City.
Q: Do you think young people today are interested in writing novels?
A: I think there's a great interest in making money. People want to make art ... but it's all about landing a job and making money. That might be unfair to some kids, but I noticed that a couple of years ago [before the recession]. People had anxiety about landing business internships. [When I was young], people had anxiety about being drafted.
Q: You said a year or so ago on the Charlie Rose program that you would really like to write a play. Are you going to get to do that?
A: I'm supposed to, but I can't afford to. Plays and books don't pay the bills. Right now I'm working on the screenplay of "Lush Life," and I'll probably need to pick up another screenplay job. So I can buy myself the time.
Q: What is the first piece of your own writing that you thought was worthwhile?
A: Well, someone would have to tell me it was good. The first piece I remember getting attention for was in the sixth-grade. We had to make up our own journalistic stories. I wrote about the Pueblo (the U.S. research ship that was captured by the North Koreans in 1968), the big crisis, the standoff. It was a big fictionalized account. I remember the teacher looking at me and the class looking at me, and I realized I was not just a black hole in a room.