a conversation with Richard Price      
photograph of richard price


Bold Type: What inspired you to write Samaritan?

Richard Price: I was doing a lot of pro bono teaching, like Ray. At some point I started wondering what it means to teach for free in an inner-city school—what's in it for me? I realized that a good part of it was the rush I got out of saying that I am doing this. It didn't feel very altruistic. I started thinking about my relationship with my students; I'm this guy who comes in from book—and movie—land and descends on angel wings into their classroom. I started wondering how much I know these kids and how much I was there just for myself. I'd developed these relationships with people in the Bronx and Jersey City in the course of doing research for earlier books, the type of relationships where you find yourself hanging out with people whose lives are not second nature to you. You spend a lot of time with them and part of the exchange in doing so is that you set up a certain amount of expectation in them; you're being friendly, you're asking about their lives, and then the book is done and you move on, and you leave a lot of people feeling seduced and abandoned. Samaritan is sort of about trying to find the fine line between being a good person and how much of it is an opportunity for vanity, and what effect it has on the people you leave behind.

BT: At the time that you started your pro bono teaching work, why did you think you were doing it in the first place?

RP: I was going into these communities and extracting books, and I felt that I wanted to do something in return that wasn't just giving the people money for their time; instead I wanted to say, "You've given me a lot, this is the best way I know to return the favor." I was trying to balance the books a little bit in my head.

BT: Is Ray the most autobiographical of all your characters?

RP:: Definitely. This book falls under the category of "stuff I know," as opposed to "stuff I need to learn" My life is not this guy's life, but emotionally it's a pretty good representation of where I've been, both good and bad, over the years.

BT: Yours is one of the first works I've fiction I've read that references September 11, and you manage to touch on it without letting it dominate the story. How did you decide to what degree to include it?

RP: If you're writing a book that takes place in New York in the moment, you can't not write about 9-11; you can't not integrate it. My main character's view is the Statue of Liberty and the Trade Center. It doesn't have to take over, but it has to be acknowledged. The other thing is that you can't lose sight of what you were writing before 9-11; you don't want to surrender everything to it, but you do want to integrate that reality.

BT: How would you define the narrator in Samaritan—is it your voice?

RP: People say that it's a voiceless book, that there's no point of view. It is my voice, but I didn't think about it while I wrote. The only structural strategy I had was alternating chapters, writing about Ray then writing about Nerese, and alternating the past and the future. Beyond that I tried to write in as conversational a tone as possible, to tell the story as if I'm talking it out, with a little more structure than normal conversation would have.

BT: What purpose does the structure you employ-alternating between past and present and between different characters' points of view-serve you as the writer?

RP: In my last three books I found that a police procedural, the investigation into a crime from the moment it occurs through all of the interviews and legwork to whatever conclusion is arrived upon, is a great spine to investigate anything you want to about human nature. I wanted Ray to tell his story as a counterpoint, so that it doesn't feel too self-indulgent, like he's just singing his song; I wanted a police investigation going against the grain of what he was talking about, showing that his story is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what really happened. Other writers have done this before. I'm not a mystery writer and I certainly don't see myself in any genre, but I do feel that crime and punishment and crime and investigation provide a great skeleton.

BT: Did you know when you started writing what was going to happen by the end of the book?

RP: If I can tell you the story from beginning to end in five minutes, I'm ready to start writing. Then it's a constant spreading out of that five minutes. But if I know who the main characters are, what the problem is, and the subtleties of this problem, I don't care as much about how I'm going to resolve it. If I understand my characters and the dilemma they're going to get into, the solution to this dilemma will suggest itself in the actual writing. I don't need all that much—I just need to know who my characters are and what kind of jam they're going to get into, and I'll write myself out of their jam.

BT: Are you happy with how Samaritan turned out?

RP: I think so. It's hard to tell because when you write something your nose is so close to the canvas. I can never read this book, just like I can never see a movie that I wrote a screenplay for. I can read it and see it physically, but I can't accurately judge it. I'm too close to it. If I read it ten times I'll have ten different reactions.

BT: At what point do you know that you're done with a project?

RP: I keep hoping I'm done before I actually am, and that's where an editor come in for me. That's the one person who's objective. If they feel something's missing, it is. If they feel that stuff is being overwritten, than I'm overwriting. It's a leap of faith; I have a new editor for this book, and this is the first time we're working together. All I really want is one outside opinion. They say, "He who has two watches never knows what time it is"-you have to pick one person and decide to trust them.

BT: One of the questions Samaritanraises is whether there is such thing as a truly selfless deed. What do you think?

RP: I'm sure there is, but I never pondered it too philosophically. I feel like narcissism always sneaks in when you're trying to "help out." But the book is also about the responsibilities that come with introducing yourself into people's lives in a way that will make people think well of you. There's a dangerous thrill—a rush—in goodness. If you don't keep your wits about you, if you don't have a very sober take on what you're doing and who you're doing it too, you can inadvertently set little fires. The very people you are helping can wind up, emotionally, in worse shape than they were before. So Samaritan is about the dangerous thrill of being good, and the stuff that you can accidentally unleash inside people.

BT: I read that you grew up in an environment similar to the one where Ray grew up, yet another similarity between you two.

RP: Yes, I grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. Like Ray I spent time in Hollywood and went back to the Bronx as a writer. I got into relationships like he did. They didn't have disastrous results, but I know that I left people feeling burnt. Not to get too grandiose about it, but I have been in sobering situations where I realized that I can't just enter people's lives and say, "Here I am" and then two months later move onto another project and say, "There I go." It left me with a creepy feeling.

BT: Was writing this book a way to get past those feelings?

RP: The thing that was scary about this book is that I had left myself as a character behind in writing twenty years ago. By the time I went off to write screenplays, I'd written so much about myself that even I was bored-so in neither Clockers nor Freedomland was I a character. Then I found that you can learn about others' lives, and if you have enough empathy you can create fully realized characters without being self-referential. With Samaritan enough time had passed where I could take a look at some issues that were bothering me, some big factors in my life-not all negative. I felt that I could go back into my life and write about it without being self-indulgent.

BT: Would you like to see Samaritan made into a film?

RP: I'm supposed to write the screenplay, so yes.

BT: Would you ever feel comfortable turning one of your novels over to another screenwriter?

RP: It would make me so happy if I didn't have to write the scripts of my own books. What happens is that sometimes studios won't buy the book unless I come along as a screenwriter, because the material that I write is not usual studio fare. It's an all or nothing deal, so I get pulled in. I'd much prefer for somebody else to do it.

BT: What do you not enjoy about the screenwriting process?

RP: I don't enjoy doing my own books-I've just finished the book and presented my take on it, and now I have to take a 400-600 page book and turn it into a 115-page singing telegram. That's not a lot of fun if you feel like you own every word of the book. Not only that, but once you're the screenwriter you go from being the biological parent to the babysitter, and you're being paid by the hour. It started out as your child but now you're just an employee on it. If you start going places with it that they don't want you to go, you can get fired off your own child. I prefer to bypass that whole aspect of it.

BT: You worked with Spike Lee on Clockers—how did you feel about his take on your work?

RP: That was a Spike Lee production—the book was me, but the movie wasn't. He has a very strong sense of what he wants to do and it's his right; that's his job. I would probably have done a lot of things differently, but I'm not a director.

They once asked James Cain, who wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, what he thought about what Hollywood had done to his books and his answer was, "They didn't do anything to my books; they're right up on the shelf." That's the attitude that I've defensively developed: the movie is the movie and I hope it's a good one, but if it's not, the book is always the book.

BT: Have you ever considered acting in one of your films?

RP: I do small cameos here and there but nothing that requires more than a paragraph of talking, because I'm just an amateur. The movie is a whole different reality. While I'm writing I don't think, "Boy, this would make a good movie" or "I hope I sell this as a movie." Sometimes people assume I write with that in mind because I sell a lot of screenplays, but writing novels is my freedom from screenplays. This is where I get to throw in everything. It's where I get to not think in marketing terms.

BT: Why do you write?

RP: I write because I write—as anyone in the arts does. You're a painter because you feel you have no choice but to paint. You're a writer because this is what you do. I think the definition of an artist is not necessarily tied into excellence or talent; an artist is somebody who, if you took away their freedom to make art, would lose their mind. This can be unfortunate if you're not talented, of course, but being an artist is really a mental state more than anything else. I write because I can't imagine not writing.

BT: Where and when do you write?

RP: I have offices all over the place and I avoid work everywhere. I don't like to write—I like to be finished. The process of writing makes me feel like I have A.D.D. It's the most tense art form because there's no physical outlet. Painters get physically involved, as do actors and singers. Any other art form involves either other people or something physical in the act of making it. Writers spend three years rearranging 26 letters of the alphabet. It's enough to make you lose your mind day by day.

BT: What's the greatest validation you've received as a writer?

RP: Not to sound corny, but my youngest daughter is not a big reader-she's reading Samaritan now, and she said, "I didn't know this about you before but you're really good!" She just turned sixteen. Of course I want The New York Times to sing my praises, but she's my kid.

BT: Is Ruby based on her?

RP: Kind of. She's no more Ruby than I'm Ray, but I did borrow a lot of her physicality and speech patterns. Twenty years ago I wasn't a parent; my oldest daughter is eighteen. That's the biggest change in my life thus far. Until you're a parent you're still a child. Not that I think people are better for being parents, but you are a different person, you learn different things, you see the world differently. If you haven't written about yourself in a long time you have something very new to say. It might not be new to anyone else, but it sure is for you.

BT: If you could be given any talent besides writing what would it be?

RP: I'd love to be a saxophonist. I don't know why, but I pretend I'm the saxophonist when I listen to music. I have about as much chance playing the sax as I do learning how to fly. With writing you're very removed from the actual performance; you're not there when people read your book. The thing I envy about any of the performing arts is that your body's on the line; you're there when it's happening and you're interacting. Writing is so solitary and there's no real catharsis there. If I had an art form, like playing the sax, that really involved other people, I think that would be a much more satisfying day-to-day life.

BT: Are there public moments in your writing life that you enjoy?

RP: I like doing readings, and I teach—not just the junior highschools in Jersey City, but I taught at Cornell two years ago and I'll be teaching at Princeton next year. The thing about writing is that because it's such a solitary activity, at least for me, I need to find projects that involve a little bit of social interaction or I'd go nuts. That's the only good thing about screenwriting other than the money — it involves other people, which is also the bad thing about screenwriting. But you're certainly not lonely. I crave that, coming off a book.

BT: How do you teach writing?

RP: This question's been asked a lot over the millennium. You can do two things. You can point out to people how to make what they do better, but you can't teach somebody how to be a great writer, just like you can't teach somebody how to be a fast runner. You can work on their technique, but either they're fast or they're not; either they can write or they can't. But if they have a certain modicum of talent you can help them see things in their work, just like an editor does for me. You can help them see things that they can't see because they're too close to the material. You can point out some of the errors of the ways or validate the things that they do well. The given is that you're working with people who are talented. If you are working with talented and committed people, you can help them find their subject. Often young writers don't know what the hell to write about, but that doesn't stop them from writing. It becomes all about style over substance, so they're just spinning their wheels, doing parlor tricks and showing what little wordsmiths they are. But if there's no substance it's like meringue. I found out from talking to students that I've had—students of all ages—that if I can help them find the story they want to tell, the writing will take care of itself.

BT: How do you help them find their stories?

RP: I talk to them, find out what's going on in their lives, where they're coming from. It's not like being a shrink, but it's like what police say to suspects, "Help me help you." In fact, it's true-where are you coming from, what's important to you, who do you love, who do you hate? You just ask a couple of simple questions and then you wonder, "Well, then why don't you write about that; why are you writing this shit?" the reason is that it might be emotionally dangerous or they don't want to delve. But that's where the stories are. I'm basically working with people who are trying to tell a story.

BT: So for people who do want to tell a story but don't have the confidence to delve into emotional materials, are there exercises that you recommend? Can one practice writing?

RP: If you have a story, you say "I really want to write about my parents and about life in Philadelphia in the '50s when I was growing up and some heavy things happened in my family" the hardest thing to do is start. There's the old joke that first dates are so hard we should just start on the second date—you can start on the second date with writing. Don't start at the beginning, pick something you want to write and don't worry about the sequence, the structure, whether this is a short story, a novel, a novella, a trilogy, whatever. Don't think about this—you've got to break the ice. Just think of something or some incident that you're going to want to get to at some point, and do that first. Pick one scene and don't worry about where it fits into the grand scheme of things. The odds are you're not going to go all the way with it anyway; you're just trying to find your sea legs. Pick something you feel the hottest about and the most optimistic about writing and just write that scene anywhere—it doesn't make a difference. Write four pages about these people. It doesn't matter if this will ultimately be the keystone of your story or will ultimately be nothing. You've got to break the ice. Somebody once said, "Researching isn't writing, talking isn't writing, outlining isn't writing, writing is writing." Just write something—you'll be in so much better shape if you just start than if you cringe and hang around the edges and thinking, "Oh wait—I'm almost ready—I have to go buy a pencil." Just pick something that you want to write about, don't care where it fits in, just go.

BT: What kind of books do you read?

RP: I'm all over the place. I read everything from contemporary work to historical work to genre. I read so much I can't tell you what I read on Wednesday. I just read a big book on the history of the Crusades. I like most of the stuff that gets critically praised, because there's probably a reason for it. I liked The Corrections a lot—but that was 74 books ago. I go back and fill in the gaps in my reading. I never studied literature in college—I have a degree in industrial and labor relations—so I never sat down and read Joseph Conrad in a seminar. Now is my time to read Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, a lot of eastern European writers that I never even knew existed. I always read whatever Philip Roth is coming out with. Some people, too, who are slightly more obscure, like this Austro-Hungarian writer named Joseph Roth, who wrote this great book about the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, The Radetzky March. I'm just trying to fill in the gaps.

BT: What are you working on now?

RP: I'm working with Jonathan Demme on an original screenplay and then I'm either supposed to do the script for Samaritan or for something else. Now I have to make money—screenwriting finances book writing. The most important thing you can buy if you're a writer is time. I need to do screenplays to tide me over so that I can take a year or two to write my next novel.

BT: Do you have any idea what your next novel will entail?

RP: No. You tend to go back to the same things. The places don't change but you change so you can write about the same places. Faulkner never left that little county in Mississippi and I tend to always wind up in some mid-sized urban center. I don't think you need to go from here to Transylvania, or the moon, or Prague. You can stay in the same place—what changes is your perspective. You can spend your whole life fine-tuning a vision and that's basically what I think I've been doing and will continue to do.

--Interview conducted by Laura Buchwald

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    Photo credit: Laura Buchwald