Richard Price

richard price2 Richard PriceRichard Price has written seven novels: The Wanderers, Blood Brothers, Ladies’ Man, The Breaks, Clockers, Freedomland and most recently, Samaritan. His writing has won numerous awards and appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Esquire and The Village Voice. Price has also written the screenplays for Sea of Love, The Color of Money, Night and the City [the remake], Kiss of Death, Clockers, Mad Dog and Glory and Ransom. Richard Price lives in New York City with his family.

Robert Birnbaum: Anything to say about Random House having Mark Winegardner continue the Godfather saga?

Richard Price: I couldn’t care less one way or another. I’m worried about my books.

RB: (laughs)

RP: They had that lady write that sequel to Gone with the Wind a couple of years ago. Everything is so cheesy now.

RB: So when you pass away in fifty years, will you mind if someone continues to write under your name?

RP: Well, if I’ve passed away, I doubt I’ll give a crap one way or another.

RB: You’ve been quoted as saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough write screenplays." Are you still writing for movies?

RP: In fact, I’m late with one right now.

RB: Because you are on this tour talking about Samaritan?

RP: Yeah, but it’s how I make my money. Otherwise I couldn’t afford to write books.

RB: (laughs)

RP: Really.

RB: That’s terrible.

RP: Yeah, if I were living by myself in Kansas, I probably wouldn’t need to write screenplays. But I live in New York with a wife and two kids.

RB: But you can’t stop writing books.

RP: Naw, that’s what I do. I mean I would like to think that I could stop writing screenplays.

RB: Didn’t you stop for a while?

RP: I can’t write books and screenplays at the same time. You get hurt that way. But, it’s a definite separation of Church and State. Robert Graves said—he used to write poems—he talked about his novels, it sounds a little precious, but he used to say, "My novels are my show dogs that I raise to feed my kittens."

RB: What did you say about getting hurt by writing both?

RP: If you try to do both simultaneously—you are going to bring bad habits with you. So it’s like trying to play baseball and softball. It seems deceptively dissimilar. You are going to break something.

I don’t consider myself a mystery writer. It’s just a convenience to follow a police investigation. It is a built-in structure, and I’m kind of spacey when it comes to running a tight ship.

RB: Like squash and tennis?

RP: Right.

RB: You said something else that I think marks your ambivalence as a screenwriter, "The sin wasn’t to write the screenplays, the sin was to write them well."

RP: It wasn’t the sin. It’s that once you get good at it, it’s really hard to walk away because the offers will always be there. And it’s one thing if you have been writing scripts and getting away with getting stuff un-produced. But the writing is still good. Once you click on something and you taste success, there is such a social factor involved—which is unlike novels in which you are in complete isolation—and money is big and there’s a lot of temptation to stay with it. And you can always find another excuse to do just one more.

RB: Freedomland was published in 1998. Have you been working on Samaritan all this time?

RP: I’ve been working on Samaritan for two, two and half years. I was doing some script doctoring.

RB: Do you get credit for script doctoring?

RP: Not if you are lucky. I script doctored Shaft. And I wanted to take my name off it. They threatened to sue me because…my feeling was I don’t want my name on it. And their feeling was well, word gets around that the writer insisted on taking his name off, it’s a bad rumor, bad press, bad publicity, bad everything and ultimately deleterious to the word of mouth. It’s not that the picture is of great literary merit. It’s just like bad gossip. So I wound up with my name on it. But nothing that I would ever be proud of.

RB: Samaritan is the third novel set in the fictitious city of Dempsy, New Jersey. Tell me why the title doesn’t have the normal adjective attached? Why just Samaritan?

RP: The Good Samaritan is kind of prosy. And it wasn’t like I was thinking of a long-winded title and then decided to do a one-word title. The word is ironic in the context of the book. The guy is not a particularly good Samaritan.

RB: He is on the surface.

RP: Yeah, although what the book’s about is the danger of starting something and not finishing it that involves other people. It’s about a guy who comes back to the town that he grew up in and housing project he had grown up in, after he makes a little too much money writing some stupid TV show and he’s middle-aged and kind of lost. He impulsively starts helping out people he grew up with, who are now like forty-seven-year-old grandmothers and ex-students who had just gotten out of jail and he doesn’t even know why he is doing it. It’s just like he wants to feel good about himself. He’s lost, a little bit.

RB: You keep saying he is lost a little bit. It strikes me that he is more than a little lost.

RP: He’s lost a lot. He doesn’t know what he is going to do next. He’s at a certain age where it feels very weird not to know what you are going to do next in your life. He finds that in doing these grand gestures, like helping people bury their children by writing the check for the whole funeral, or giving a student money for a start-up business, teaching pro bono in his old high school—that through these grand gestures he feels good about himself, and at the same time he is doing good, but he is oblivious to what’s really going on with the people that are on the receiving end of his largesse. And he’s oblivious to the fires that he starts in people. Fires of hope. If that doesn’t sound too hokey. But he is playing with fire. You just can’t do something for somebody and walk away. You can’t get emotionally involved, even for a short time with very needy people, and then just bail on them, even though you are oblivious to the fact that you are bailing on them because you are really thinking more about yourself than them, and you are just like a big Thanksgiving float. You just float into view, "Oooh, Ahh." And then the wind shifts and you are gone. And one of these "ungrateful" people goes upside his head with a vase and almost kills him. The detective who catches the case knows this guy from when they were both kids. And she has a double mystery on her hands. One, which one of these recipients did this to the guy and number two, it’s obvious that this guy knows who did it to him, and he refuses to say and why won’t he say? What type of victim is more fearful of the truth coming out than concerned about payback and justice for himself?

RB: I read a fair number of mysteries and rarely care about whatever the purported mystery is. In this story you did a great job of keeping me guessing about who the perpetrator is.

RP: I think that was on purpose.

RB: (Laughs) Right, but many times writers aren’t successful.

price1 Richard PriceRP: I don’t consider myself a mystery writer. It’s just a convenience, following a police investigation. It is a built-in structure and I’m kind of spacey when it comes to running a tight ship. So, I found that by following an investigation it gives you an automatic framework upon which you can drape anything you want to explore in human nature. Plus, I write about life at the urban, entrenched level.

RB: So-called "urban realism."

RP: I don’t know what it’s called. Kitchen-sink realism. Or magic social realism. Or social magic realism. But anyway, on one level it’s a mystery and one level I have to keep you guessing. But it’s not really the thing I am, primarily. It’s more like a "why dunnit" than a "who dunnnit." Somebody said about mystery books, it’s the only genre in which the reader is trying very hard to make the writer fail. By getting there before the writer wants them to. It’s good that you didn’t know, I guess. Some people said they knew, but I don’t believe them.

RB: One of the effective things about this story is the juxtaposition of Ray Mitchell—who is drifting but who has a hefty bank account—with this career woman cop that he grew up with. She is the admirable character in this book. And you manage to amplify who she is with these two little stories. One when her mother picks her up after she gets caught defacing some property and the white cop gives her neck a squeeze in some gesture of sympathy. Not a big moment in the novel’s narrative.

RP: But it’s a big moment in her life. It’s about the enormity of small things. And it’s about the obliviousness of some people to the impact they are having on other people, young people or needy people that we don’t know—we can say something or we can do something or we can make some gesture and there’s no external reaction in the other person, but you just tore their life open. Maybe in a good way, maybe in a bad away. You’ve just taught them something, or you have just given them some epiphany or some hope or some terminal despair. And that’s what the book is about. The obliviousness of this alleged Samaritan to what he is provoking in the people he is working out his "I’ll do this and then I’ll feel good type" activity with.

RB: And then you reprise the same feeling later in the book when Nerese watches another cop give a young pregnant girl a dirty look.

RP: That’s the negative example. The first example is when she is arrested for vandalizing, writing some racial epithet on the housing project wall and she is grabbed up by the housing cops and she has to sit in the housing office next to the cop that arrested her waiting for her mother to come pick her up. And the woman shows up in the middle of the day wearing a housecoat, curlers and cigarettes and flip-flops and she is totally mortified and totally ashamed. And the cop’s gut reaction on seeing the mother is just to put his hand on this kid’s back. But it’s just like a touch of sympathy. Like, "I see what you see, poor kid." And he never thinks about it again. Like she says, "I’m sure by the time dinner came around he couldn’t even remember he did it. If he could remember he did it to begin with." But it changed her life. Twenty-nine years later she is a cop on the verge of retirement. The negative example of that is something that I witnessed. You have police doing a drug raid on a ground-floor apartment in a housing project and it’s a fruitless raid. There’s no dope there. And the tenants collect outside the projects waiting for the cops to come out so they can jeer at them—they know the raid was a failure. One of the cops, when he came out—it was the middle of the summer—hot August heat and these cops are fed up. They had to wear Kevlar vests in an unventilated apartment, in the dead of summer. They are drenched in sweat and they are coming out with no dope and six junkies that are going to be revolved instantly. And people are laughing at them.

RB: ‘Revolved’ meaning they will be in and out of lockup quickly?

RP: Yeah. They’ll be booked and be released instantly. And one of the cops I was with as he was walking out—they are kind of biting the bullet—they know this part of the game. You screw up and these people are going to make catcalls and stuff. You just ignore it. Except this one cop as they were walking out, took a look at this pregnant teenager. He just looked at her stomach. She must have easily been nine months [pregnant] and he just looked at her stomach and shook his head, made this hissing sound, like,"Great, here comes another one. Just what we need." And this kid caught the cop looking at her stomach like that and it was like somebody punched her in the face. She was stunned. He just basically condemned, judged and juried her unborn child. And I saw the look on this kid’s face, and I know that the cop was not necessarily a bad guy or good guy, he was just fed up at that moment, going, "Christ get me out of here." But if someone were to confront him an hour later, "Why did you look at that girl’s stomach?" He’d probably say, "What are you talking about? What girl?" He would have no memory of it. But it’s the enormity of small things. It’s like a butterfly flaps its wings one place and it’s a tidal wave across the world.

RB: Ray Mitchell [the novel's protagonist] isn’t aware of the consequences of his actions, but he has a kind of sensitivity.

RP: Look, he’s not an unintelligent person.

RB: That aside, what is at issue is his sensitivity.

It’s about the enormity of small things. And it’s about the obliviousness of some people to the impact they are having on other people…we can say something or we can do something or we can make some gesture, and there’s no external reaction in the other person, but you just tore their life open.

RP: He’s a fairly empathetic person. But his problem is not his inability to empathize or his lack of humanity. The problem is that he has this need to be admired, this need to be validated all the time, which sweeps all of his good qualities away. It’s stronger than anything else in him. And undermines all the goodness in him. Like I said, he is not a bad guy. He’s not a stupid guy. He messes up where he will do something, he’ll catch himself instantly afterwards but it will always be afterwards. He is not able to have that thought one second before he does it and restrain from doing it. It’s always, "I shouldn’t have done that." As opposed to,"I’m not about to do what I am about to do." It’s always in the past tense.

RB: Are you a Curtis Mayfield fan?

RP: Oh yeah.

RB: Ray Mitchell commits this major faux pas…

RP: Yeah. He works on this show. He’s one of the few white writers on this show that’s like an inner-city high school show. Sort of based on a Boston Public type thing. And he’s been working at this show for two years, and they have a birthday party for an actor on this show who is black. The guy had started out his career in blacksploitation flicks, so they were going to have a ’70s theme party. Ray, who is white, rather than showing up like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever decides that he is going to show up as Curtis Mayfield.

RB: As he was then.

RP: Yeah. To show up as a white guy posing as a black guy is bad enough because he also has the Afro wig. But Mayfield at that point was a quadriplegic. So he shows up in a wheel chair. It’s phenomenal bad taste and bad judgement, if not downright racist. It’s like he gets caught up in "I know this is dicey, but if people go for it what a coup."

RB: High risk and high reward.

RP: Right. It’s almost like he loses his sobriety when he thinks about the high reward. It’s like playing roulette and instead of putting all your money on black or red you put it on a damn number. Because you think, "Boy! If I win it’s gonna be thirty six times what I have here as opposed to twice what I have here." So then, of course, when he is busted for it instantly and retroactively,"What the hell was I thinking?"

RB: I have been told by writers that a story has carried them away because they love their characters. What are your feelings about Ray Mitchell?

RP: It’s very complicated. Because it’s pretty much me. Except that I am writing him, so I know more than him, and so I am looking at his life hopefully from a bigger vantage point. Well, it’s tricky. I don’t like or dislike him, but the trickiness is because it’s so close to my own life. So close to things that I have weaknesses regarding. When you create a character like that there is always a danger that you are going on ad nauseum and you don’t know when enough is enough because everything is personal to you. So it’s hard to get that aesthetic distance compared to a character like Nerese, the black detective. She was pretty much made out of whole cloth even though there was somebody I knew sort of like her. And there was no problem, I knew exactly when to get in and exactly when to get out. But with Ray, because it’s me—not only do you have to be on your guard for like "blah, blah, blah,"—but you have to be vigilant about the fact, "Did you leave anything important in your head instead of on paper?" Because you know it so well you assume everybody knows it.

RB: Do you depend on editors to work with you?

RP: I have an editor.

RB: Who is your editor at Knopf?

price3 Richard PriceRP: Robin Desser. I make editors earn their money because I really need editing. I need a lot of psychiatric nursing when I am writing…a lot of stroking. I’m high maintenance. I need to be told three times a day, "You’re good. Keep going. Keep going." It’s embarrassing. I’m better than I used to be, but it’s not like, "I’ll see you when the book is done." I’m going to constantly be looking for mini feedback, mini support.

RB: So you are talking with Robin Desser as you are working?

RP: I used to be a lot worse. My editor before this, John Sterling, I read all of Clockers and Freedomland over the phone. Everyday he would have to listen for forty minutes. It’s not like he had anything else to do, just run a publishing company. This guy is on the phone, listening to this oral reading. It was like the Amos and Andy Show. Now I look back on it, I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe he let me do that. I didn’t do it with this editor. I finally got embarrassed.

RB: Do you need to read things aloud?

RP: Reading stuff out loud can be misleading. Sometimes what you are reading out loud, it’s not that interesting. Some things are better with the eye than with the ear. Books are for the eye. You are reading it on the page. That’s the problem I have with audio books, they [books] are not meant to be listened to.

RB: I listened to Freedomland after I read it.

RP: Utterly unlistenable. The guy who does Samaritan—I can’t listen to a page. I don’t know who directs these things but it’s not an actor-friendly director. It’s just like, get the book down and get out of here. When I do readings, what I choose to read is not necessarily the best writing in the book. But what sounds, what’s best to listen to. So I’ll always pick stuff that’s very heavy on dialogue. Because it’s more like a drama. Even the best descriptive prose is more for the eye, and you can’t have people sitting there for thirty-five minutes listening to you describe a tree…

RB: The piss scent of the elevator…

RP: The smell of the meadowland. I’ll always pick something that’s a tight monologue or something that races and has a lot of drama. But like I say, it’s not necessarily the best thing in the book.

RB: I don’t want to dwell on this autobiographical connection to your writing, but are you done bringing yourself into the story?

RP: This was harder than I thought it was going to be. I hadn’t done this for twenty years. I kept myself out of my books since 1983. Clockers and Freedomland—I wasn’t in there, and I was doing screenplays for ten years. I left writing about myself with my first batch of novels because it was getting boring. I wrote about everything but what I had for breakfast. It wasn’t interesting. It smelled of panic a little bit, "What am I going to write about if I don’t know?" So I decided, "Leave yourself. Just go out and learn something. Just hang out and see how good a writer you really are. See if you can imagine lives not your own." Now I figured it’s been twenty years. I’ve become a parent twice over. Married and I have a whole different life and it’s safe to go back and use myself because there is a lot of new stuff. Some of it’s good and some of it was worthwhile, but it was just very hard and always felt to me on the edge of self-indulgence. Navel examining. I think I want to step back again. I don’t think I want to use myself.

RB: Did you mention what you were working on?

RP: Now I’m just doing screenplays. I’m going to have to start making money again. I don’t even know what I am going to do next in terms of novels. It takes me just as long to come up with the idea as to execute it.

RB: I don’t imagine there was much to research here?

RP: I didn’t do a lot of "research." It got a little blown up in sort of what angle the media would approach in terms of…

RB: Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article that seemed primarily about your research methods.

RP: I know. Well, how are we going to flog this book? What’s the selling point?—"Well, this guy hung out in the projects." Like I was in Rwanda and Burundi in the civil war. I hung out. That’s all I did. I hung out. I’m a great believer in osmosis. It’s not like I had a list of things I needed to find out. I wasn’t doing a paper for my anthropology class. I just put myself with people that I wanted to write and just see what happens.

RB: It’s kind of obvious, but perhaps so obvious that most writers don’t do it. You want to know about black drug dealers go where they are…

RP: Then you have to figure out why you want to write about this stuff to begin with. That’s where the autobiography comes in.

RB: Why do you? Why did you?

RP: Well, I grew up in a housing project. I had a drug problem for a while. I wound up teaching in a rehab center at the time when crack was taking over the world. I met kids half my age with ten times the amount of problems I had. And they were doing a drug twice as potent and dangerous as I was doing and almost fell through the earth. It was at the same time I was seeing the world through cops’ eyes because from the mid ’80s when I was doing research to write the Sea of Love, to write the police character, I didn’t know anything about cops, I just needed to hang out with some cops. It was like famous last words. To hang out with cops is to hang out with an entire level of the world that you would never see. The part of the world in which behavior is so dire that a police presence is required. So the cops are the least of it. It’s the people that are being policed. Or living next door to the people that need policing. I didn’t realize it was a real Pandora’s Box once I started walking around with cops. I don’t particularly like cops or dislike them. Cops are like people. In fact, they are people. There are all different types. Some guys are idiots and some guys are like Zen Masters… well, I don’t know about that.

RB: Was there one cop who was a Zen Master type?

I make editors earn their money because I really need editing. I need a lot of psychiatric nursing when I am writing…a lot of stroking. I’m high maintenance. I need to be told three times a day, "You’re good. Keep going. Keep going." It’s embarrassing.

RP: No, no. There are a couple of guys that were fairly reflective and philosophical about the world that they were in, found themselves in. The thing is there are so many things—just seeing the world through cops’ eyes—having grown up in a projects and re-experiencing housing projects and what they’ve become, having my own drug problem, teaching kids that had a crack problem. All this combined to make me want to write about this whole crack epidemic that was going on in the late ’80s that was urban nihilism. It was the al-Qaeda of the ’80s. It was a complete…"here’s the thing that is dedicated to your downfall and the destruction of your infrastructure." So anyway, that’s why I ended up hanging out with who I hung with. Then once you are there, once you are in a world like that…to write one book about what you see is like taking a teaspoon out of the ocean. There is a little bit more left over.

RB: I just read George Pelecanos’ new novel Soul Circus

RP: He introduced me when I was in Washington. He’s a really good writer.

RB: His new novel is almost a crusade about the destructive effects of the urban ghetto.

RP: Yea, well, Pelecanos, I really like him. He’s one of these guys, he writes in a genre but it’s like he is much more than the genre, and he’s the only guy I know who seems to have the same obsession I do in terms of the arena and whatever kind of struggle is going on. I don’t know him all that well. I just met him once. I don’t know how he got to where he got. I barely know how I got there.

RB: (Laughs) There is a reference to you writing essays. You have a piece included in Best American Essays, 2002. That’s a side of your writing I am not aware of.

RP: The New York Times Sunday Magazine asked me if I wanted to contribute to a 9/11 issue. And so I wanted to do a random diary observing New York and New Yorkers. In September and October of 2001. I didn’t plan on this, but I wound up talking to my daughter, who was sixteen at the time and whose school in Manhattan was being evacuated daily, courtesy of bomb threats. She started telling me what it was like to be sixteen years old and bright and know what’s going on. She grabbed a legal pad and wrote it out for me and included it in the article and she got a co-byline. So I wrote it with my daughter.

RB: And she shows up in a piece that you did for the New York Times "Writers on Writing "series.

RP: Yeah and then I stole another story from my other daughter. I just basically stole a story of hers and put it in the end of Samaritan. I believe in the family. Like Coppola, hire everybody that you are related to by blood. It’s a kick to collaborate in any way with my kids.

RB: Beyond the image of the writer sitting in some kind of seclusion working on a draft, it seems that much writing is also going on when you are not at your desk…

RP: I’d say most of it is going on when I am not writing, getting out there and seeing things that trigger things inside me. I find sitting in a room…I don’t write meta-fiction, I don’t write deconstructionist…I’m not into a novel as a philosophical inquiry into language and stuff like that. I’m basically a storyteller and always will be. It’s like the old kitchen sink realism—James Farrell, Richard Wright and people like that.

RB: James T. Farrell.

RP: James T. Farrell, I forgot the ‘T’. That’s the second volume of Studs Lonigan. For the type of writing that seems to get me going I need a little outside stimulus. Basically, because I don’t really want to write. I’d rather be out there. But then there are other writers who never have to leave the room. Jane Austen never left the house. She is a hell of a lot better than Robert Louis Stevenson, who traveled around the world.

RB: What do you do in a particular week?

RP: It’s all procrastination. Usually what happens is that if I can work two or three hours a day, that is a very productive day. Sometimes what I will do is—I have a house out in Long Island and I will go away for two or three days and go out there in the dead of winter and there is nobody there, nobody else around. And I will do more work like that in isolation, than I would just living a normal life for three weeks in Manhattan. It’s not like I am dying to write to begin with. But I also feel like life intrudes. I can’t write, I have to go to a basketball game. My daughter is playing. Or I can’t write, we have to go to this dinner. Or we have a parent-teacher meeting. But the thing is that the stuff of life becomes the stuff of literature. So you can never begrudge the things that stop you from writing because they become the things that you ultimately write about. Although for me, I am not going to write that novel of ideas, I am not Paul Auster. I’m not …I can’t even think of who I’m not.

RB: Jonathan Franzen?

price4 Richard PriceRP: Well, yeah, I don’t know what his story is. He seems to have made a career of his fear of leaving the house. For the type of writing I do, I get in trouble if I just sit there by myself. I start spinning my wheels. Because I can write a handsome page, I can fool myself page by page. I’m writing something because each page looks good. And then when you put them all together they are going nowhere. I feel like I have to have a sense of urgency.

RB: That flies in the face of your self-description as a storyteller. It’s one thing to write a "handsome" page, and it’s another to know what goes together to make the story convincing.

RP: What I am saying is that sometimes if nothing has been happening for a long time I can con myself into feeling I know what to write about when, in fact, I really don’t. And I can actually start writing and have nothing to say, and it still looks good. Now when you put all those pages together, it’s very obvious that this guy is vamping. I feel like I do my best work when there is a sense of urgency behind the thing I want to write about and I am also a little afraid of what I am about to write about. Like it’s a little bit beyond me.

RB: Overreaching?

RP: I don’t know if I can cut this. I don’t know if I can do this. And that was Clockers. I was like scared all the time. But that’s when the best work comes out. Because I am a so on the edge of myself when I am writing. I am so alert because I am so anxious. If I don’t have that fear in me about what I am about to do it means I am vamping. There’s a director that told me he sat down with another director who shall remain nameless and the guy had said to him, "Well I’m starting my movie in three weeks, I’m so excited I can’t wait." And the second director said to me, "When he said that I knew he wasn’t a real director." Because any director worth his weight, three weeks to start date he is puking, he is insomniac. He’s terrified. Anybody who is going, "Goody, I can’t wait," they have no idea what directing is about.

RB: That reminds me of the Nunnally Johnson quote that "only hacks are consistent."

RP: I haven’t heard that name in a long time.

RB: Other than Robin Desser, whom else do you talk to about writing?

RP: As a subject? Nobody. I have writer friends. People I hang out with.

RB: But you don’t talk about writing?

RP: It’s kind of an awkward subject because everybody is trying to do the same thing and you want to be self-effacing and at the same time you want to know what’s going on with them. It’s very self-conscious, I find. Sometimes I like talking about it, but I always feel like I am watching myself talk about writing with another writer as opposed to just really having a conversation.

RB: I had read you are friends with Pete Dexter.

RP: I haven’t heard from him in a decade. I always get depressed because I hear these people being interviewed and they are going, "Well, my dear, dear friend bah bah bah, and bah bah bah." And then I find out what their relationship is with these people are—they see them once or twice a year. It always makes me feel like I have no friends because there is nobody that I can say that about. Then I realize they are full of it. They are talking about acquaintances, but they make them sound like they sleep together.

RB: Who are the writers that you are buddies with?

RP: I don’t see anybody with frequency, but it seems like the writers that I have been hanging out with are Francine Prose, Scott Spencer, Oscar Hijuelos, a little bit. A lot of painters, my wife’s an artist.

RB: Am I correct in saying your life is unplanned?

RP: What’s a planned life?

RB: Oh, you intend to write x number of books or there is a sequence of things that you plan to accomplish…

RP: It’s fallen into a rhythm of, I write a book and then I write a bunch of half-assed screenplays, do some script doctoring. Then I have a great idea for a book and I am out of money, so I have to do some more script doctoring. Then I forget the idea for a book, so I might as well write another screen play, and then I remember the idea for a book, and I finally start writing and try to sell it to the movies so I will have money so I won’t have to go back and do a screenplay.

RB: Is it strange that you are so well respected and seemingly adored by the literary press?

RP: Adored? I’ve been getting some rough reviews on this one.

RB: Was Mark Costello in the New York Times a rough review?

RP: Yeah, the guy spent like three-quarters of the review saying what a great writer I am and used the last part of the review to say, "Well, what’s this about then?" It’s a little bit like a set up. I thought it was extremely patronizing.

I don’t write meta-fiction, I don’t write deconstructionist…I’m not into a novel as a philosophical inquiry into language and stuff like that. I’m basically a story teller and always will be.

RB: Really? He reread all your books. That’s some due diligence.

RP: Yeah but he just used it…it’s like a prancing little whatever it was. It was just a set up to knock the book down at the end. I was fairly offended by it.

RB: What did Michiko Kakatuni say?

RP: I don’t know. I’m not going to go into details. Once again, it’s like you are great; you’re great, you’re great and then "keblaamm!" It’s setting you up and then boom. I got more positive reviews and fairly penetrating positive reviews but I got smacked around on this, something that has never really happened to me.

RB: Well that doesn’t change my sense that you are quite highly regarded.

RP: I’d like to think I was. You know what it is, I’m one of these people that if you give me a good review I’ll read it three times. If you give me a bad review I’ll read it thirty times. You spend five years working on something and it comes out and then it’s judgement day. There are writers that are probably immune to that but…

RB: No there aren’t.

RP: Well they say they are. Usually what happens is, after the first wave of reviews come in and you get the gist of it, I lose interest and I don’t really care that much. I will read them, but it’s not like I am waiting for what the St Louis Post Dispatch is going to say or the LA Times.

RB: What’s been your experience on your book tour?

RP: I never know who is going to show up. It’s like the scariest thing when you go around the country and go to all these readings. You go to this big fancy independent bookstore, it’s legendary. You go, "This is nice." It’s twenty minutes before your reading, and you turn the corner and all you see is this sea of empty folding chairs. And your heart sinks. But, in fifteen minutes, at 7 o’clock when you are supposed to be reading, two thirds of those seats are taken up. These people were hiding? They knew you were in the store, they wanted to freak you out? There was no way they were going to make you feel relaxed about this thing.

RB: (Laughs)

RP: But I keep doing it. I have no idea who is going to show up. You plan, I’m going to read this and I’m going that and going to read this and then you turn the corner and there are like four people there. And it’s like, forget it…

RB: The bookstore in Cambridge is using a hotel instead of the store, which means they expect a greater than normal turn out…

RP: Yeah, but I don’t know where in the hotel. It could be in one of the elevators.

RB: C’mon Richard. (Both laugh)

RP: Nah, you can never tell from city to city. You have no idea what kind of audience is going to show up…

RB: Anything to be learned from going out on book tour?

RP: Do I learn anything? Uh, I learn how to answer questions pretty well. (laughs) Sometimes you don’t realize what your book is about until people ask you questions and then you see just by the consistency of the questions, "There’s that question again. Well I guess this is what struck these people about this book." It’s like a joke saying I always wait for my reviews to come out to see what I wrote about. But honestly, you do fifteen NPR affiliates in twelve cities and everybody is asking the same three and four questions, you realize so, "Oh this is what the book’s about." A lot of times you don’t know what you wrote about until it’s over, and then people force you to think in the abstract about what you did and then you realize. A lot of times, no matter how much you think you have it organized, there is a lot of stuff that you are doing that you really don’t understand. It just intuitively feels like this is what you should be doing, and it’s not until you are completely done and you get the aerial shot and you see the whole chariot in the cornfield there.

RB: That happened in Samaritan?

RP: Yeah, sure. Somebody asked about, is there any connection between this guy being a cocaine addict and being a junkie for people giving him all this praise for his generosity. And of course there is. A cocaine high is the high of self-aggrandizement. It’s this feeling of this big sweeping things are happening, I’m on the brink of something kind of feeling. An ex-cocaine addict, what this guy is doing, making this grand gesture, paying for somebody’s funeral. Somebody he barely knows and everybody is looking at him like, "My hero." That’s like a cocaine high. I wasn’t aware of that. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts, and you don’t have to be able to write your own review as you are writing your own book.

RB: Do you have some lingering story or theme that you are dying to write about when the opportunity presents itself?

RP I think I am writing about it. What I choose to write about is race. American race relations. But this time I tried to marry the more personal experience. Not just race…I am also like, as my life changes I had this burning desire to write about adolescence and I had no desire to write about adolescence because I didn’t have an adolescent. Now I have two of them. And I was in my twenties and writing the Wanderers and Blood Brothers. I didn’t even know what a kid was. "A child? What’s that? Something to eat?" I was my own child. The idea of having a child was like the idea of growing a third eye.

RB: Do you have time to read?

RP: Do you have something you want me to read?

RB: No, I mean for yourself.

RP: Oh I thought you meant right now. Oh yeah, definitely.

RB: How does stuff come to you?

RP: I read reviews. I read the Times book reviews just to see. I am not looking for value judgements. I’m looking for what are people writing about. If it’s a writer I know or a subject that is intriguing to me. Scott Spencer’s new book coming out in March called A Ship Made of Paper is a really good book.

RB: Is he a writer who has always been on the threshold of something.

RP: It seems like it. The worst thing that happened to him is writing that enormous Endless Love. It’s not the worst thing, since he is able to handle it, but you are not going to write Portnoy’s Complaint, big box-office smash, Portnoy’s Complaint, or you are not going to direct Silence of The Lambs and write Endless Love every time out of the box. Every once in a while you are going to write something that is to the heart of you, but there is some commercial click in it that makes it explode and then you keep writing, and your writing is of the same sort of quality or in the same ballpark, but it doesn’t have that ineffable click and all of a sudden it’s like, "Hey, where did everybody go?" Scott is a very productive novelist. I like all his books, but I think this one is the best of his since Endless Love, in terms of something that could have a real visceral impact as a reading experience.

RB: Do you go back to any books for inspiration?

RP: Like to reread? No. Life’s too short. There are writers that I will automatically read when they have a new book because of who the writer is.

RB: Who would be one of those?

RP: Not to sound unoriginal but Don DeLillo for example. There are many others, but I just can’t think of any. It’s like one of those questions people ask you, the minute you leave, all five impressive names come up.

RB: Given your apparent ambivalence about the movies, is there anything you would like to get done in that world? Write an original screenplay and put it together and make it?

RP: That’s what I am doing now.

RB: Producing it?

RP: No. I never want to do more than write it. I haven’t done an original for a really long time and I am working with Jonathan Demme. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it.

RB: Meaning you don’t know if it’s going to get made?

RP: Exactly. Well, no one knows if anything is ever going to get made until it gets made.

RB: Are you of the belief that movies are star-driven these days?

RP: I think if you want a green light on something you better have a gorilla. Because movies are so expensive, and if can’t land a bankable star, it’s too much of a risk for a studio to put out a seventy-five-million-dollar movie starring two very good character actors as opposed to Richard Gere or Tom Hanks or whoever. That’s been the case for a very long time.

RB: So what is independent film?

RP: What do you mean?

RB: Isn’t independent film supposed to be the counterpoint to star-driven blockbuster mentality? Good ideas will find a way of being produced?

RP: That’s the romantic idea of it. The less money involved the more freedom you have. Especially if the money is not yours. For a screenwriter, look, if an independent director did my thing versus a studio director, I’m still in the writer’s dilemma here. Somebody else gets to interpret the work. And there is no guarantee that this guy who hasn’t been approached by the studio yet is going to do a better job than some guy who has been doing studio films for the last twenty-five years. It’s still a writer’s dilemma. You are surrendering your work for somebody else to execute; you might as well be paid a lot of money for it.

RB: Have you been approached by HBO or some TV to write scripts?

RP: Yeah. I wrote a pilot for CBS that didn’t get picked up. It didn’t get made. I just took a stab at that, for a change of pace.

RB: If you had total control of your life, would you just write?

RP: If I had total control of my life, I would just stay in bed the whole time and watch TV. I don’t know. It’s like one of those questions, I don’t know.

RB: Would you really watch TV?

RP: Nah. Beware of what you wish for. I’d like to write in movies and see them get made. Made well. I’d like to write books and see them well received.

RB: So your ambivalence about Hollywood is about the concern of what happens to your good work?

RP: I don’t know if I am necessarily doing good work. You could if they let you, but it’s not your choice. You can’t just write whatever you want. You have to write stuff that they feel okay about financing and as a result…you are going to have to write stuff to make people feel okay about cutting a huge check to green light something. So it’s never going to be that bold or innovative or anything. And it’s always going to have a certain light at the end as opposed to… everything boils down to dark and light. "It’s too dark. Is there anyway to lighten up?" The bad always have to be punished. The good always have to get rewarded. That’s the way it is, and if you don’t like that then don’t do it. But it would be foolish of me to be outraged because they didn’t go for my ending where everybody gets killed in the end because that’s the way life is.

RB: Right. Well, thank you.

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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