True grit

In Lush Life, Richard Price captures the Lower East Side in all its grimy glory.

DOWNTOWN BEAT Price did research south of Houston Street.

DOWNTOWN BEAT Price did research south of Houston Street. Photograph: John Gransky

Richard Price is one hell of a raconteur. Whether it’s the 1992 drug-dealing opera Clockers or the new Lush Life, a polyphonic murder tale set on the Lower East Side, opening any of his books means getting hooked—you turn the first page on the commute back from work and next thing you know, it’s 4am and you’ve polished off both the novel and an entire bag of Milanos. (No wonder he’s written episodes for The Wire, one of the most addictive—pun not intended—TV series ever aired.) Talking to Price, 58, in his comfy and very lived-in home office near Gramercy Park feels pretty much the same way, minus the cookies: The guy likes telling stories.

The first way Price’s books lure you in is through the particular cadence of their dialogue. He’s often praised for having a great ear, though few of his reviewers (myself included) could vouch firsthand for the authenticity of his cops-and-robbers slang. “If you’re paying attention to glossary—if you’re putting on your pith helmet like Margaret Meade—by the time the book is out, that stuff is going to be like Run-D.M.C.,” he says. “A great ear for dialogue has nothing to do with being a human tape recorder. If you truly wrote down how people speak, it would be like a bad Andy Warhol movie. The thing to good dialogue is the illusion of how people speak. You try to squeeze things together a little bit when nobody’s looking.”

Things do get squeezed—and shots are squeezed off—in Lush Life. A young white hipster named Ike is gunned down in a botched mugging on Eldridge Street, and the book registers the aftershocks of his death. The focus ricochets from the investigating cop, Matty, to the main witness and potential suspect, Eric, and to Tristan, a kid from the local projects. Price’s control of a conversation’s flow is in full display in an elaborate interrogation—one of the writer’s specialties, as fans of Clockers well know—that goes on uninterrupted for 29 pages. “A lot of long dialogue scenes are a little bit like scat singing for me,” Price explains. “It’s like improv: I just know I have to get from A to B, and I’m going to bebop my way over there. I just have confidence in my own bullshit, you know?”

But Price’s self-deprecation only goes so far: His improvisational approach is so gripping because it’s built on documentation and field trips. Asked if he walked around below Houston Street a lot to soak up the atmosphere, Price replies, “There’s walking around and then there’s walking around with somebody who knows more than you do, and all you do is walk in their shadow and keep a conversation going. That’s become my M.O.; it’s a sort of an OCD-type thing.”

Setting the new book in a real-life neighborhood (novels such as Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan took place in the fictional Jersey town of Dempsy) didn’t simplify matters for Price, now confronting a more personal subject. “Eric obviously was the most autobiographical for me,” he says. “I was just imagining what I would be like if I didn’t luck out.”

Eric and his Losaida friends and neighbors belong to a particular group Price hadn’t really written about so far: the young, white, urban bohemian. The eye he casts on them is both affectionate and resolutely unsentimental—the eulogy for Ike by his narcissistic buddies has got to be one of the cruelest indictments of hipsterdom committed to page. But what gives that scene a larger resonance is its matter-of-fact juxtaposition with snapshots from project life. “At one point, Eric starts thinking about the difference between the kids who did the shooting and the young white kids who are floating around, and what they have in common is self-centeredness,” Price says. “The kids in the projects are focused on what they want and what they need in the moment—there’s no center to their self-centeredness. The other kids have a center because they’ve been loved all their lives. They think they’re grieving but the center of the grieving is ‘me, me, me, me.’ They’re not monsters, they’re babies.”

In Lush Life, the procedural structure allows Price to portray people from vastly different backgrounds—a much wider cast of characters than can be found in most literary fiction. At the same time, he is prompt to undermine some of the expectations linked to genre. “I’m not ever interested in who did it but rather in why they did it,” Price specifies. “I don’t like when the good get rewarded and the bad get punished—that makes it a genre book. I don’t want any rules.”

Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) is out now.

Check out our extended, web exclusive interview with Richard Price

Richard Price extended interview

Is there a trick to writing good dialogue?
People speak in a very chaotic way, but they still understand each other—you can’t do that on paper. John Gotti’s Ravenite Social Club was bugged by the FBI. The transcript looks like gibberish, but that’s how people really talk. So you try to squeeze things together a little bit when nobody’s looking. Basically you try to make everybody’s personality distinct, and it comes through in the way they string their thoughts together verbally. It’s not a conscious thing I do. Can you learn how to run fast? No, either you do or you don’t. Either you have a good ear or not, and I guess I have one. I have an affection for just letting people go on. It’s instinct. There’s no conscious strategy on my part.

You write particularly good interrogation scenes—there’s a couple of them in Clockers and a particularly long one in Lush Life.
I have no idea if a cop would read that interrogation scene in Lush Life and think, Boy, that’s exactly how I’d do it. More often than not, interrogations are easy conversations in which you know certain things and you’re setting up that person to lie about the things you do know, so then when they’re exhausted halfway down the line, you confront them with the lie and then you crank it up. The first half of an interrogation is the accumulation of door openers: You let it accumulate, and then you hit him with everything he lied about.

There’s a particular flow to those scenes. Do you say the lines aloud as you write them??
Yeah—well, I sort of mutter them. Actually I got in trouble doing that once when I was writing Clockers. I have two daughters; when they were little, we were living in a loft, and I had an office there. One of my daughters was four years old and I was sitting there writing dialogue. Every other word was motherfucker this and cocksucker that. I looked up and my daughter and her playdate were standing in my doorway, looking shell-shocked. The next day I got an office outside. [Laughs]

It’s not that surprising you wrote for The Wire; as a novelist you often deal with larger institutional problems, which is what the show is really about. Would you consider your writing political?
If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. The whole point is, How do you get this across without people feeling like they’re getting a lecture? You create pawns on a chessboard that people fall in love with, and you watch them get knocked over. For [The Wire creator] David Simon, it’s about institutions that break down or never worked to begin with. But you do it through creating people that you care about, and whom other shows would give a pass. It’s almost like the subtitle for The Wire is “When good things happen to bad people.” It makes no compromises. David’s insane. His whole thing is that as soon as a character got too popular, he just killed him. He’s nuts. When Stringer Bell was killed, the next day on all the federal wiretaps and all the Baltimore narcotics taps on drug dealers, all the dealers talked about was, “They killed Stringer! What’s wrong with those people? That’s some cold people!” They were so upset.

Many of the references in Lush Life are closely linked to the actual Lower East Side—Berkmann’s, where Eric works as a manager, sounds like Schiller’s.
Oh it is. I mean, Schiller’s is where I was given access to hang out with the managers.

What about the whole bit where Eric steals from the tip pool?I was coached. The managers at Schiller’s taught me how to do that, with Keith McNally’s permission. The managers really got into the hypothetical…and then a couple of hours later I got a call from Keith McNally saying, “I understand you’ve been having some interesting conversations with my staff.” [Laughs]

You said in an interview that you didn’t want to be filed in crime books—which is where people who write about cops or criminals usually end up, whereas writing about victims or the grieving process can get you in the literary section.
I’ve always had a hard time with plot, and I feel to follow a criminal investigation is a lazy man’s way of having a plot. So I sort of discovered that if I have a very complex landscape such as the Lower East Side and with so many subdivisions of worlds, following the natural progression of how a crime is investigated is a very easy and linear way of taking in the whole world, because of six degrees of separation. If this man was murdered, what you do is examine similar crimes in that area and look for a pattern: It didn’t look like an intentional murder, but like a robbery gone wrong, so you got your elements—black or black and Hispanic, robbing victim, certain time of night with certain type of gun, said certain type of things. And it gives me a perfect excuse if you look at the pattern robberies: Well, you got two Chinese guys who were robbed like that, you got this Israeli who was robbed like that. Voilà: You get your access into the Chinese world and the world of the European middle-class immigrant, the hustler trying to make it in New York, etc. It feels effortless because this is naturally who a cop would talk to right now. I tend to let the procedural do the plot for me.

You’ve written for film as well. Do you feel you’ve done something in that medium that you’re happy with?
I feel there are parts of movies that I like. But it’s in the nature of being just a screenwriter: When I write a book, I’m the author; when I write a screenplay, I’m not the author—the director is, and I’m the writer who serves the author. It’s an entirely different circumstance. You do it because you hope, you hope, you hope that one day you’re going to write a movie and it’s going to be Raging Bull because all the stars are aligned and everything came together. The basic frustration of screenwriting is the constant surrendering of the work for others to execute. It’s as if you were a novelist but nobody got to read the novel: Some actor got up there and synopsized the novel. On the other hand, it pays for this, [Opens arms to embrace office] so… What can I tell you?

Are you working on more TV projects now that The Wire is over?
I’m writing a pilot for FX. It’s about this thing in the city that I’ve been involved with as a witness. There are no active detective squads between 1 and 8am, but there is a pool called the Night Watch. There’s a probably a full-time staff of four guys and a volunteer complement of maybe five or six others coming from any precinct. The full-time guys look like vampires, they never see the sun. Even the black guys have that pallor. Then the rest are guys that can be from anywhere, from the Central Park precinct to Lower East Side to Washington Heights. They want to make some overtime, so they volunteer for Night Watch. Basically what they do is they go to sleep with their cell phone and if it rings they’ve got to respond. So they’re there with their cell phone like a Teddy bear, going “Please don’t ring, please don’t ring.” Because they get paid either way. What I loved about that is you have to respond to anything from the Cloisters to Wall Street, from Tudor City to Port Authority. Anything that’s a potential felony, the call goes to Night Watch: “We have a shooting,” or “We have a break-in.” Anything that looks like a felony, you got to haul your ass out of bed and you gotta respond.

Did you just stumble into this?
I heard about it in conversation. It’s fascinating: “You respond to anything in Manhattan? Where do I sign up?” [Laughs] I went out with them on what I thought were the three most interesting nights of the year: St. Patrick’s, New Year’s eve and Halloween. You go from a drunk trying to mug a cop on the subway to a shoot-out to three drunk girls in front of NYU, where the report that came in said there were girls swinging axes at each other. You run to it and it’s three drunken coeds, all dressed up like Xena Warrior Princess having a catfight with foam axes. All you do is yell at them: “Get on the subway—now! You, upstairs!” But then next thing you know, you’re in Harlem and there’s a body, then you’re in midtown and there’s a tiny jewelry store in the atrium of a Park Avenue place and somebody grabbed everything. You have a person called “the Wheel” who’s the dispatcher. All calls from uniformed cops come through the Wheel, and he gives them to the guys in charge at Night Watch. He’s like a hockey goalie, fending off everything. I heard a conversation like this, where the guy said: “Okay, so you just found a dead woman in a bathtub. How old? Ninety-seven? Anything suspicious like strangulation marks around her neck? Sarge, do me a favor: It’s 6 o’clock—can you rediscover her at 8:30?” I love that. It’s about the grades, about the nuances.”

It feels really plugged in to a particular locale as well. Is this part of a current trend for you, since you moved away from the fictional Dempsy of your previous books to a real setting in Lush Life?
This is the first time where the place was the main character. When you make up your own city, it needs to be a stand-in for whatever city is nearest the reader. After spending so much time in New York and Jersey City, I had to go down to Baltimore [for The Wire] just to get a feel for it, and I realized with crime-and-punishment dynamics, power and economic dynamics, there’s so much more in common than there are disparities. You look for something singular, but sometimes it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. So I ran around with Baltimore cops. It’s a more primitively violent city. The one thing that struck me about Baltimore is the typography: It’s a city where alleys are very important, there’s alleys everywhere. Frankly that to me was the difference between Baltimore and New York. At some point I was doing a script for Tom Hanks that involved Cleveland and I told David Simon I was going to ride around with the Cleveland police. He looked at me and said, “Why?” I told him it had already been decided; what I didn’t say to him is, “It’s because I like to!” He’s right though: What am I going to find in Cleveland? That they have a lake?