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interview    
 
an interview with richard price      
 

photo of richard price


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  Larry Weissman: What inspired you to be a writer?

Richard Price: My grandfather, a Russian immigrant, was a factory worker and wrote poetry in his spare time. It would get published in a Brooklyn YMHA mimeograph, before xerox, and I would see these poems in print in this little bound thing with my grandfather's name on it and it would flip me out.

LW: And when did you first begin identifying yourself as a writer?

RP: Pretty early, actually, when I was ten or eleven. It was the one thing where I felt I could be very precocious.

LW: How do you think your upbringing in the Bronx has influenced your writing?

RP: Well, it's where I'm from and that tends to dictate where you gravitate towards. You always tend to look back instead of looking forward.

LW: What attracts you to the novel as an art form?

RP: What attracts me to the novel is the space, the sense of no limits. The only requirement is that whatever you write must be readable and, hopefully, compelling. That's the exact opposite of the screenplay, in which you've got to get this things over and out in 110 pages, with no descriptions. They're very different, one is a wide open range, the other is a sort of cramped space. I prefer to write novels because, well, I'm a novelist. I feel like an artist when I'm writing a novel, when I'm working on a screenplay I feel like a craftsman.

LW: I know that you do an incredible amount of research before you begin each novel, can you describe your writing process?

RP: Basically, if I have a rough idea of what I want to do, I go and hang out in the place, and with the people similar to the people I want to write about. I take notes, but I don't ever look at my notes. It's a lot more fun for me to go out and soak up experience than it is to sit down at a desk and hammer out a novel.

LW: So the research is the part you enjoy most?

RP: Well, they call it research, but it's not exactly like I go out with a clipboard and a pith helmet. It's just basically hanging out and seeing what strikes me.

LW: So there are two opposite modes to your creative process, one being a very social...

RP: Yeah, one is a delay tactic and the other one is what counts.

LW: You are about to go into the process of writing the screenplay of your own novel, and you wrote the screenplay for your last novel, Clockers...

RP: Well, it's not a lot of fun. I write sort of bulky books, and you have to take that book and truly tear it apart. You're working with a time limitation, it can't be more than two hours, which means 110 or 115 pages. Number two, it's yours. What are you going to throw away, what can you do without.

LW: Sort of like dismembering your baby?

RP: Yes, exactly. It's very difficult to be objective and to say, "This character goes, this has to go." Because if I wrote it, I like it. The impulse is to film everything in the book, but I can't do that. The only advantage is that I have an intuitive understanding of what the book's about, that might be hard for someone coming in from the outside. But, by and large, a writer doing their own screenplay adaptation is not a great idea.

LW: When you are writing, what comes first, character or plot?

RP: Well, it's different. When I'm writing screenplays it's always plot, because it's a premise, a situation. When I'm writing novels it's always character, because the plot evolves out of the personality.

LW: You have an amazing ear for dialogue, do you spend a lot of time listening to people and conversation?

RP: No, it's just something like a knack, it's not something you can cultivate.

LW: What inspires you to write about the inner-city?

RP: It's where I'm from, where I grew up and spent my formative years. It's kind of a blue collar outer-borough background. And the issue of race. Race is something that'sa perpetual sore spot.

LW: And was it daunting to approach a subject like that?

RP: Not really. Of course, you're always anxious not to do something stereotypical. Maybe that's why I do all the hang time, too. The only thing that is problematic for me is if I feel like I can't do an honorable job of creating characters. They're obviously not me.

LW: Are your characters the vehicles for the questions you want to ask, or are the questions an organic outgrowth of the characters?

RP: I don't think of it that way. You have to understand, when you're writing, it's often not until you've finished that you can step back and look at it and say, in a more objective way, this is what I was driving at. In the process of writing, I'm just basically absorbed by the story I want to tell.

LW: How was the Susan Smith case an inspiration for Freedomland?

RP: There were three elements of the story that were pivotal to me, although I was not particularly interested in writing about Susan Smith per se, and I didn't. The racial hoax, "The black guy did it." The second thing was the media, the impact of the media upon the event and how she used the media until they were able to eat her up. And the third was the mystery of the woman herself. People lead lives and they're kind of powerless, and what they do is very small, and then it culminates in one act that creates a chain reaction of world class headlines. What stayed with me was the intersection of racial paranoia, media frenzy, and personal tragedy. I was really interested in what type of woman could get into a jam like this, a woman that is not a sociopath, that is not evil. It's just, life has done this and she moved left when she should have moved right. I was very interested in trying to set up a balance between the small, intimate things of a person's life, and the gargantuan chain reaction that affects the world.

LW: What would you like the reader to come away with after reading Freedomland, other than being thoroughly entertained.

RP: A receipt from the bookstore. No, it's sort of a portrait of race in America right now, in the sense that people are on either side of the big racial divide. They basically look at each other in a very bald way, as the enemy. They each feel victimized by the other. I tried to set up a situation where that is the case, where the races are divided, but there's a woman in the middle and whoever gets close to her tends to feel, unexpectedly, sympathy, empathy, pity, affection. And it screws everyone up and makes them into all-around human beings as opposed to advocates for their race. I wanted to set up a model for the politics of decency, to show people acting like human beings towards each other, regardless of race.

LW: Who are some of the people who have influenced your writing?

RP: From literature there's Hubert Selby, Richard Wright, and James C. Farrell. Also, the early films of Martin Scorcese. Lenny Bruce. Weegee, the photographer.

LW: What are you looking forward to working on next?

RP: I have to wait and see what hits me, I don't want to force it. I don't have a clue as to what I want to do next.

LW: You've reached a level of success that most writers can only dream of. What challenges would you like to tackle in the future?

RP: I'd really like to do a play. I did one in the seventies as part of a theater group, but I can't even remember it.
 
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