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Posted: May 3, 2004.
If Richard Price's life story were
made into a movie, you would accuse the joint of being too far-fetched.
as the old cliché goes, truth is stranger than
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.
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
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
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.
published very young. Do you think that influenced your writing style in any
What happens is that with the first
book, youre a writer, and with the second book, youre an author. That
makes all the difference in the world, because with the first book, youre
just having fun. You dont have any track record. You dont have any
audience. Youre just doing what you want to do. With your second book, its
kind of like youre in competition with yourself; its like youre 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
What moved you to write
The Wanderers? How did that come
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 didnt 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 didnt
have a lot of competition as if I had come out of the suburbs, which
everybody comes out of.
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 dont care if you write science fiction, its always
How autobiographical can you get?
Even if you want to go there, is there ever a time that you simply cant go
there or you wont let yourself go there?
You have to know the difference
between whats of interest to you and whats 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 cant
really tell whats creative construction and whats 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, Ive always been able
to run fast.
Is dialogue different when youre
writing a screenplay?
No, the dialogue in a screenplay is
the same. The thing that people dont understand about screenwriting is that
dialogue is not as important as you think. Whats more important about
screenwriting is the ability to construct a story that is all momentum. Its
nice to have a great ear, but its 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
It takes me equally as long to figure
out what I want to write as it does to actually write it. Ill find the area
that I want to be and Ill start hanging out with people who do the things
that Im interested in, but I wont 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 dont wake up in the morning saying, boy, I hope I find my novel
today. Stuff happens.
Do you write novels with movies in
Never. You need every ounce of
concentration to get the novel right. But if youre 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 doesnt, it doesnt, but one thing at a time.
Do you need total silence when you
write? Do you use a computer?
I dont like writing very much. I have
an office in Manhattan and I have an office in my house and its 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 Ill do more work in two or three days then Ill do in two or three
weeks in the city.
And youll feel better once its
done not while youre working. You wont feel good while youre actually
Yes. Ill freak out and fret over
every syllable of the thing. But when it works, its working and Im 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. Its definitely a more engaging pain in the ass
now. When I started writing my first few books, the idea of having kids was
like, "Whats 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 theyre reading The Wanderers. Theyre like five or six
years younger than I was when I wrote it, and now theyre reading this
stuff. Im looking over their shoulder for the first time, and Im seeing
all this stuff about blowjobs. And Im like, "No, no, no, dont read that!"
And theyre 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. Its 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
No, but I think they would find it
corny. This is really a different time and place.
Youre at a different station in
life now and youve done well for yourself. Your kids are enjoying things
that you probably never would have dreamed of. That must blow your mind.
Its fun to watch their lives.
Theyre 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 theyve 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. Thats 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 didnt know two books ago. You always use yourself
as a frame of reference.
You have such great taste in
music, and its 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. Shell give me Nelly and Ill give her Americas
What is your opinion of the
current state of pop music, particularly Eminem and rap and hip hop?
I love Eminem. I just think hes 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. Its all about: you
disrespect me. Its 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. Its a gift.
He makes it look easy.
Well, thats the trick. You read
somebody like Kurt Vonnegut and it looks so
simple. Its 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 whats it like to teach writing?
The thing is that youre not
teaching. When youre with kids, youre not so much trying to teach them
writing as you are trying to get them to express themselves on paper. Its
a virgin area for them. When youre 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. Thats 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 Im teaching in Jersey
City and I have ninth graders, Im just trying to get them to speak on
paper. I dont care what they write. I dont care if they write science
fiction. I dont care if they write MAD magazine stuff. When Im 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
If somebody approaches you to do a
screenplay, do you jump at the chance or is it something you have to think
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. Im over fifty, so I have to stretch first.
Click on this link to see what Richard
Price has to say to us in 2008!