Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Richard Price

Why do Jews fixate on IDing other Jews? I saw Richard Price standing behind the lecturn, and here's the pressing question that came to mind, the question every Jew asks: Is he, or isn't he? It wasn't long before Price answered this essential question. I asked him to describe his path in becoming a writer, and he mentioned the legacy of his grandfather, who wrote Yiddish poetry. Richard Price: MOT (Member of the Tribe, for those who aren't.)

Price, who now lives in Harlem, filled us in on his background. He was the first in his family to attend college. He almost succumbed to family pressure to get a professional degree (M.D. or J.D.), but took creative writing courses instead, and despite feeling guilty about wanting to write, enrolled in an MFA in creative writing program.

Now that the vital mystery of Price's ethnicity was solved I could use my considerable brain power for literary purposes. What I learned at the Q&A/lunch with Price (by the way, thanks for the pizza, Butler), is that at 74, he has written several novels (set in gritty, urban landscapes that tell stories where drugs and race relations play a big part), and has screenplays and TV scripts to his credit. He has written for the HBO series "The Wire." He is known for his authentic use of dialogue.

I can learn something from anyone as long as there is an honest exchange, and Price didn't disappoint: He's a good guy -- engaging, entertaining and shockingly candid. He began by bemoaning the fact that whatever project he is working on quickly becomes a drag, and that he always wishes he could go back to whatever he was working on before -- even though he wasn't any happier working on that project.

Price spoke of writing for TV and movies. Despite the bigger audience and heftier paycheck that comes with working in TV and movies, he loses control of his work. Novel writing is where he maintains artistic control. Price noted that his novels are what's ultimately important, his prize.

About books and movies. Price said that great novels can be made into terrible movies, that the people involved with the adaptation tiptoe around the prose, giving the literature too much respect. The result can be that the movie is solemn. Doesn't do well. Conversely, B-novels can make great movies.

About dialogue -- Price's strong suit -- he said that there are moments in the TV series "The Wire," that are so authentic, people are convinced they are unscripted. That's not the case. Price also emphasized the importance of the visual: if there is a choice between giving a great actor fantastic lines, or simply allowing the actor's face to communicate, it is best to short-shrift the dialogue and let the visual "speak." In a related comment Price said it's a mistake to write a role with a specific actor in mind. His advice is to build the most interesting character and the right actor will come.

Speaking about his novels, Price claims he's not interested in "whodunit," but "why-dunit." He doesn't aim to write genre -- nothing as transparent as good versus bad -- but a layered, realistic portrayal of life where the good guys are always a little bad, and the bad always a little good. His most recent novel, "Lush Life," is an exploration of the Lower East Side, where many worlds encapsulate, but never meld; people only have eyes for those like themselves. One-hundred-years ago Price's great-grandparents were arrested for stealing fifty cents in order to make rent. Now gentrifying, Price found it ironic and amusing to see five-dollar dishes of gelato for sale there. Today, in the way things often come full-circle, his daughters spend time in the Lower East Side.

In researching "Lush Life" Price said the first thing he did was find a cop to shadow. Price said he "tried not to be a jerk," so he could meet as many people as possible while on patrol. Price said that the draw of "Lush Life" was that, in telling the story of a killing that occurred during a robbery, it brought many of the Lower East Side's worlds together.

Richard Price must have accumulated boatloads of great stories during his lifetime, in researching his novels, and in his work in Hollywood. If only we had more time together. Come back soon, Richard Price.

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