Listening to Richard Price talking about writing

At the top of the list of attributes contributing to his reputation as an author, RPriceRichard Price (right) is known for the way he makes his characters talk. Perhaps not surprisingly, Price himself is a unique talker, never more so than when he’s talking about fiction writing. For example:

“Writers have it the worst of all the creative artists. All you do is sit on your backside and rearrange the 26 letters of the alphabet. . . .”

That quote, a Fairfield Writer’s Blog favorite, comes from Chuck Leddy’s interview with Price in the November 2008 issue of The Writer. In his introduction to the Q & A, Leddy crystallized the appeal of Price’s fiction—beginning with his smash 1974 debut, The Wanderers, published when he was 24—with this sentence:

“Readers and critics alike immediately saw Price’s breathtaking ability to capture urban landscapes and craft dialogue that mixes grab-you-by-the-throat realism with streetwise humor and unspoken yearning.”

Price, now 65, grew up in a working-class housing project in the Bronx. He graduated from Cornell and earned an MFA in creative writing at Columbia, as well as spent time at Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing.Whites

Turn to almost any page in The Whites—Price’s latest bestselling novel, about the interwoven professional and personal lives of a group of New York City police detectives—and you’ll hear those distinct, idiomatic voices that reveal story, character and more. You hear them in his other eight novels, from his sophomore effort Bloodbrothers (1976) to Clockers (1992—a National Book Critics Circle best fiction finalist) to Lush Life (2008—a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist).

You hear them in his many screenplays, beginning with “first time out of the box” Oscar nominee for Best Screenplay “The Color of Money” (1986), as well as “Sea of Love,” “Night and the City,” “Mad Dog and Glory,” “Kiss of Death,” “Ransom” et al. And you hear them in his TV scripts for “The Wire,” winner of the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series for Price’s work in the fifth season of the HBO show.

The February 2015 publication of The Whites—“by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt,” (while it is not the whole story, “there are contractual reasons why I needed to use the pen name to duck out of obligations I had to another publisher,” Price told Interview magazine)—was accompanied by a flood of new interviews with Price. The FWB Blog has mined those pieces as well as several classic Price Q&As (including Leddy’s) to compile this post of Price’s instructive thoughts about many elements of writing fiction, including, of course, dialogue.

Breaking through. “I wrote The Wanderers when I was still in [graduate] school. The book started out basically as assignments for my creative-writing classes at Columbia. Being published almost felt like the prize for handing in the best term paper. I didn’t even know I was working on a book. I was just writing: It’s time to write another one of these stories about these guys, the Wanderers. In class I read what turned out to be the first story of The Wanderers, and everybody hated it. Then Dan Halpern, who had started the literary magazine Antaeus and was a student in class with me, said, ‘Well, I like it. I’d like to publish it. Can I have it?’ I’d never been published. It took a year for it to come out. Meanwhile, I had gone off to Stanford on a fellowship in their creative-writing program. Out there in Palo Alto, I felt so isolated from my past life that a great need came over me to crystallize my memories of the Bronx, my adolescence, the textures of a life to which I knew I’d never return. So my need to write about these mooks kicked into high gear—it was all tied into homesickness and disorientation. I was writing in the same manner and for the same reason that someone would whistle a tune as they navigated a dark and creepy forest.

“When it was published in Antaeus, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote me a letter saying, I’d like to see more stuff like this if you have it. By the time I got that letter I had ten stories, about two-hundred pages. Houghton Mifflin bought the book for like four thousand bucks. My editor straightened out the grammar. I didn’t even know I was doing what I was doing. I was twenty-four when it was published.”—The Paris Review “Richard Price, The Art of Fiction No. 144” Spring 1996. Interviewer=James Linville

Attitude adjustment. While an undergrad. . .and a grad student. . .“I had been coming on with twice as heavy a Bronx accent as I ever had back home, I acted twice as streety.. . .I was a middle-class Jewish kid who went to three colleges. . . .In the end, it took a middle-aged construction worker to straighten me out. After hearing me do a reading [of The Wanderers] and field questions for an hour at the New School one evening, the guy waited for everybody to leave, stepped up and started to talk. He was a World War II vet, lived in the Bronx all his life, had three grown kids, and at the age of 50 was proud to be in his first year of college. . . .He shook his head in amused sadness and tilted his chin at me. ‘You really went to Cornell and Columbia and wrote a goddamn novel? Yeah? Cause that’s amazing. My daughter went to Bronx Community, and she speaks better English than you.’ ” —“The Fonzie of Literature,” The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1981. Bylined article

Autobiographical fiction. “Whatever you write is autobiography, because every kind of character hits a crossroads and has to make a choice in life, and that choice is informed by your sensibilities and you sensibilities evolved out of your life. So it’s sort of writing about yourself without the self-consciousness.”—The Believer May 2008. Interviewer=Alec Michod

“After the fourth book, I ran out of me.”—Conversation on stage at New York’s 92nd Street Y with David Simon, creator of “The Wire” February 23, 2015

“Part of the jam that I was in as a novelist [after his fourth novel, The Breaks], was that I kept going back to my autobiography for material. . . .Life is hard enough without it having to be perpetual material, too. I felt like a cannibal eating his own foot. Once I became a hired pen out there [in Hollywood], for the first time in my life I was forced to leave my own autobiography to research my characters’ lives, and I learned, with great gratification, that talent travels. If you have enough imagination and empathy, you can write about anybody. That was probably the only good thing, tangible good thing, that came to my writing through screenwriting; knowing that I could go anywhere and learn and bring it back home and turn it into art.”“An Angle of Special Vision: An Interview with Richard Price by Neal Gabler” in 3 Screenplays: The Color of Money; Sea of Love; Night and the City by Richard Price, 1993

“The scripts forced me to write about things that were not my life, which is the opposite of what I had been doing as a novelist.”—Cineaste April 1996. Interviewers=Albert Auster and Leonard Quart

Research. Price has become celebrated for his research methods, going on ride-alongs with police and hanging out in the urban locales where he sets his stories. Unlike a reporter who asks a list of specific questions, Price says he gathers information by “osmosis,” which he records in notebooks. “You come back and you have stenographers’ notebooks and they’re piled as high as your chin. That’s just a bunch of notebooks. The challenge is to take all that material and to forge a shapely allegory for what you saw. That was Clockers.”— 92nd Street Y

“Just because you saw something doesn’t automatically make it art. You have to do something with that. And it has to be in harmony with all the billion other things you saw. These are the little building blocks. It goes back to that giant jumble of stenographers’ notebooks. What are you going to do with all this stuff?”— 92nd Street Y

“I just want to know the parameters of plausibility, and then I want to lie responsibly. All the notebooks? I don’t know that I ever opened any of them once I got home.”—The Washington Post March 2, 2015. Interviewer=Neely Tucker

“Whatever was important to me, I don’t need to look up in my notes.”—PBS NewsHour March 2, 2015. Interviewer=Jeffrey Brown

[And for The Whites?] “I did zero research for that book.”—The Washington Post

“I have so much in my head from going out since the ’80s and having absorbed things from people on both sides of the law. . . .It is fiction, so you’re supposed to use your imagination. But I had such a reservoir of incident.”— New York Magazine, February 13, 2015. Interviewer=Boris Kachka

Starting. “The most difficult thing is making the transition between hanging out and writing the first sentence of the novel.”—The Believer

After continuing to regale his editor with anecdotes from his lengthy research for Clockers, finally the editor asked Price, “ ‘What’s the first sentence of the book?’ It was like being talked off a ledge. I did so not want to hear that.”— 92nd Street Y

“I was simply afraid.”—The Paris Review

“I’ll do anything not to write. It’s so hard to get to the place of writing, because when you start writing, it’s like you leave your own body and have to inhabit these characters. . . .It’s worse than jogging. It feels so excruciating before you do it. You’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it. And all of a sudden you start doing it. You go, ‘Oh.’ I’ve always use the example of people who jog and hate to jog, so they’ll mess around for four hours getting new sneaker laces, saying, ‘Wait, I want to watch this thing on ESPN,’ then you go out and jog for half an hour and then you’re done. You spend four hours getting to the half hour of the jog. If I could just eliminate [that] factor. But after a number of years you just accept that’s who you are, that’s how I roll. And once I get started, I’m in.”—92nd Street Y

Process. Once he’s at his desk, Price said he is writing “about half of the time. Typically, what I’ll do is write a page, reread it, edit it, write half a page more, and then I’ll go back to the very first thing I wrote that morning. It’s like the nursery rhyme ‘The House That Jack Built,’ where you go back to the first line of the poem and go all the way through, adding a line each time, and then back to the first. So, I don’t know whether I’m editing, reediting, or writing something new, but it’s kind of a creeping, incremental style of writing. I always sort of half-know where I’m going.”—The Paris Review

Structure. “ ‘He just gets so engrossed in the mental mystical algebra of what writing a novel is,’ ” said his wife, novelist Lorraine Adams. “The process involves months of making lists, taking notes, writing character sketches and possible scenes, and mapping out the story on pieces of paper that he shifts around the dining room table, as if trying to put together a puzzle.”—The New York Times February 11, 2015. Interviewer/reporter=Alexandra Alter

“I’m terrible at structure. I know what I want to write about. I know my characters. . . .The most difficult part for me is, ‘What’s the story and how does the story get laid out?’ I’m so much more interested in my characters and situation, but I’m not so hot on, ‘This happens and then this happens.’ That’s why I gravitate toward police investigation. . . .If you follow the orderly procedure of a police investigation, you get a spine to your story. I’ve been leaning to the procedural thing to help me lay a skeleton that I can lay muscles and veins and a skin on.”—Interview, February 17, 2015. Interviewer=Jeff Vasishta

“[Narrative structure] grows from incident. . . .[A] particular incident pulls everything together out of this complex landscape. . . .Before I start writing anything, I have to be able to sit down and verbally tell someone the story in a couple of minutes. I start out with the crudest of outlines, but there are big gaps between particular incidents. I start filling in this outline as I go on. But it seems that the minute you think you know where you’re going, the physical act of writing complicates everything. . . .All these nuances and surprises begin coming up that you’d not anticipated.”—The Writer November 2008. Interviewer=Chuck Leddy

“[My] sections might be tight but I’m a bit of a windbag. If you had Lush Life in one hand and Clockers in the other, and were you on a bench press, you could build up your chest with those doorstops. There’s no sin in writing a long book. The sin is if it reads long. The short scenes provide a rhythm that helps sustain a longer length.”—The Daily Beast February 19, 2015. Interviewer=Dan Slater

“What I’ve been doing in the last several books is alternating perspective. . . .Each alternating perspective is slightly ahead of the other. . . .There’s always something going on that the other person doesn’t know, and this advances the story.”—The Daily Beast

Dialogue. “I love the art of yackety-yak. I love that because what keeps me fresh as a writer is improvisation. . . .— 3 Screenplays

“My affection for and fascination with how people speak started out really early. Before I was a writer I was a mimic. . . .Some kids were into athletics. For me it was always the ability to imitate and mimic. And as I got older, I acquired writing skills, and all of a sudden I could do that on paper. . . .— 3 Screenplays

“[I]t just hit me that you can make the ear work for you on the page. Good dialogue is not somebody’s ability to write authentic speech as heard in real life. If that was all there was to it you could just push a button on a tape recorder, go get a sandwich and when the guy’s finished speaking, push Off, and then go collect an Oscar or a book award. Good dialogue on the page is the illusion of reality. It is the essentialization of how people talk. You’ve got to know how to edit what people say without losing any of the spirit.”— 3 Screenplays

“Street people, cops, urban people, I know how to make them crackle.”—Interview

“The plan [to use only the Harry Brandt pseudonym] failed once the words came out of anybody’s mouth. Once I’m writing, I’m writing. I can’t be Richard Price Lite.”— New York Magazine

Details. “I’m always looking for details. It’s like you’re watching an orchestra, and all of a sudden you’re drawn to the fact that the French horn player is blowing spit out of the valve. That’s life. The spit coming out. I look for these small, small things that resonate into bigger things. I don’t write about social ills as much as I write about the details.” —The Daily Beast

“I’m constantly over-stuffing. . . .You do get emotionally attached to everything you see. My first instinct is to overstuff because I can’t bear throwing anything away. And that’s when an editor comes in and says, ‘You know, one or two observations like this one here are probably more potent than twelve. I think you made your point.’ And then you say, ‘No, no, no. But what happened here, on the twelfth time, is different!’ So you need someone to [say], ‘Enough!’ ”—The Daily Beast

Fiction. “I’m allowed [to make it up.] It’s a novel. It’s not a documentary.”— 92nd Street Y

“I think it was Norman Mailer who said that the fact that something really happened is the defense of the bad novelist. At some point I got so hooked on research that after a while it seemed out of the question to make things up. Ultimately, everything in Clockers was pure fiction, but in the beginning I had to learn enough about the texture of truth out there in order to have the confidence to make up lies, responsible lies.”—The Paris Review

Readers. “I want to present people and let you decide what it’s about.”— 92nd Street Y

Reading. “I’m very protective of myself. I once made the mistake of reading Sophie’s Choice while I was trying to write The Breaks. It was like trying to sing while somebody else is singing another song in the background. I just got completely off course, not that I had much of a course to begin with.”—The Paris Review

Writers workshops. “I’d rather kill myself than subject myself to a [writers’] workshop. I used to teach in MFA programs. I have an MFA. You just never know what people are going to say and why they’re going to say it.”—Interview

Editors. “I work closely with my editor [John Sterling, Editor-at-Large at Macmillan]. . . .The most important thing is not who’s publishing you, but who is your editor. If you have a great editor at a lesser house it’s better than being at a high prestige house but with an editor you’re not clicking with. To me it’s all about the editor.”—Interview

“This [The Whites with the Harry Brandt co-byline] isn’t 100 percent Price,” editor John Sterling said. “It’s maybe 90 percent.”—The Washington Post

Revision. Asked how much revising he did on Clockers, Price answered: “About a year and a half’s worth. I had an endless, interminable draft, well over one thousand pages, with no ending in sight. I gave it to John Sterling, my editor, and with him I went back and started on page one and attacked the manuscript for a number of things: consistency of tone, a narrowed point of view, filling in all the holes in the plot. I tried to weed out excessive writing and cut down on the personality of the narrative voice. We wound up going back to page one three times and working our way through to page one thousand-plus—eighteen months of rewriting. Sterling would say, You have too many speakers, too many points of view, and your narrative voice is too florid. There are still some big-time problems with consistency of tone. Let’s start on page one again. It was like wrestling a zeppelin.”—The Paris Review

“When I revise, I look at my story’s structure and my sentences. Sometimes I shuffle my structure, move my scenes around. I want my sentences to be taut and rhythmic. But the hardest words for me, or any writer, to put down are “The End.”—The Writer

Finishing. “With this book [Lush Life], I saved the editor for the end, but when I had to turn it in, it wasn’t a submission, it was an intervention. He had to come to the house and it was there on my computer and he had to sit next to me and talk very softly, like, ‘Come on, just push the Send button,’ and I’m like, ‘But I don’t understand the transition between the cop and the synagogue. . . .’ ‘Oh, that’s OK, we’ll work on it, come on, just push the Send button.’ ” —The Believer

Final words. “[A]t a writers conference in Tampa. . .I gave the keynote speech. . . .I told them three things: First, you have to keep writing. Don’t talk about it. Just write. Second, you need to figure out what your story is. If you haven’t figured out what you story is, the writing will never amount to much of anything. Third, you have to be really patient and also be kind to yourself. Because nobody really cares if you haven’t been published yet. . . .You have to become your own support group.”—The Writer

“Whatever I’m doing, I’d rather be writing a novel.”— Grantland February 17, 2015. Interviewer=Amos Barshad

—Alex McNab

 

 

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Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 1:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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