Richard Price Trains Sober Pen on 'Lush Life'

Richard Price

hide captionRichard Price is a novelist and screenwriter. He has written for HBO's The Wire, which ends a five-year run on Sunday.

Ralph Gibson

The author of the gritty Clockers takes a look at Manhattan's Lower East Side. Lush Life portrays a place where hipsters and glass towers are replacing longtime residents and crumbling tenements.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Eric Cash is the main character of "Lush Life," the new novel by author Richard Price. But I don't know if you would necessarily call him the book's hero. Eric is the manger of a restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, after being a failed actor and a failed writer, and at the age where he's about to be a failed hipster.

In a gentrified part of the city where hipness is almost more important than breathing, Eric finds himself tangled in the murder investigation of his restaurant's new bartender. At one point, he's even a suspect. "Lush Life" is set in a part of Manhattan that is in a real state of change, where crumbling buildings are next to sleek new hotels, and old housing projects, all sharing a tightly-confined space.

The events that set off Eric Cash's personal spiral bring together an equally broad range of characters, aging Chinese men living dozens to a single apartment, Yemeni brothers who run a local convenience store, wealthy landlords, young stick-up artists, and what seems like dozens of police officers. Richard Price, yes, Richard Price, author of "Clockers," "Freedom Land," and "Samaritan," wrote the book "Lush Life" and he's in our studio. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD PRICE (Author, "Lush Life"): Thanks for having me.

STEWART: Fans have been waiting five years for a new novel from you. Were you working on this particular novel? Or were all these other projects that you had going on, "The Wire," et cetera, taking your attention from sitting down to write a book?

Mr. PRICE: Well, the other projects were kind of excuses not to write, since I don't particularly like to write. But in this time, I was hanging out on the Lower East Side, which is what I usually do to prepare for a book, just try to soak things up by osmosis.

At some point in the hanging out process, I started taking notes. At some point, the notes had punctuation. Started hanging out a little less, writing a little more, more punctuation. But you know, it was a gradual coming together of the book over about three years.

STEWART: So it wasn't a case of, you know, I've got to sit down right now, I've got this idea for a 455-page novel in my head, and I have to get it out?

Mr. PRICE: No, the novels always feel like I fell down a flight of stairs with a bunch of paper and a pen. And by the time I hit the landing, I wrote something.

STEWART: And I'm not going to let it go that you just said, I don't really like to write. How does that work out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRICE: Well, I mean, I feel like writing is - of all the different art forms, writing is the most antsy because all you do is sit there and rearrange the letters of the alphabet. You know, a painter can - there's a physical component. There's hand-eye coordination.

There's, you know - there's standing on your feet, literally, you know, be it acting, directing. I don't like writing if - I don't know if I have ADD, but I think it might have given it to me. So I'd much rather hang out with the people I'm writing about, and a lot of that is legitimate and some of that is avoiding work.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So you really have to be disciplined to create a novel for you.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah, I mean, at some point, I've got to buckle under. But it's kind of like jogging, people who hate to jog. You spend four hours puttering around to avoid jogging for 20 minutes.

STEWART: One of the things I really like about the book is there's these two layers going on, in "Lush Life." There's the murder mystery, the plot, and this neighborhood as an analogy for all the different characters we meet. I'm going to ask you to read page 40 because I think that both of them are in play on page 40.

Mr. PRICE: Uh, OK. The person whose point of view this scene is, his name is Matty Clark, and he's the detective that's in charge of this robbery-turned-homicide. And he's just coming on the scene and it's about 4:15 in the morning.

Mr. PRICE: (Reading) Matty continued to scan the streets for security cameras, didn't think he'd find any. Eyed the tenement windows, wondering how much of a canvas, if any, he could manage before the squad came in at eight.

Despite the limbo hour, the block was alive with an intersection of two parties, the last of the young kids still on their way home from the lounges and music bars, just like the homicide and his friends. And the pre-land-rush old-timers, the Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Bangladeshi, just starting their day, either leaning out those weathered stone windowsills or going off to work.

Many of the homebound kids lingered behind the crime scene tape, but the scene barely seemed to register on the ethnics, especially the undocumenteds, heading off for the market terminals, restaurants and sweatshops around town. The sky continued to almost imperceptibly lighten, the birds coming on in earnest now, dozens of them barreling low from tree to tree over the crime scene, as if they were stringing beads.

STEWART: When - you've got the procedural part of this, the detective on the scene checking on what's going on around, looking around, when you're going through and you're writing a crime novel, did the setting come first? Or did the plot come first, in this particular case?

Mr. PRICE: OK. Well, first of all, I don't consider this a crime novel. I think it's a novel with a crime in it, you know, just like "American Tragedy" was a novel with a crime in it. With this book, what came first was the Lower East Side. I just wanted to write about the Lower East Side. I was down there and I was racking my brains for a way to get in.

There's about six different subcultures down there. It's chaos. And I couldn't figure out how to write about this place without is sounding like a travelogue. And then I realized, which is something I've done before, is when you have a very Byzantine landscape, a crime, if you follow the progression of an investigation , it's sort of a lazy man's way to a plot.

You just follow the orderliness of an investigation, because everything you do is related to that and it makes everything relative and it comes in at natural point while you're following these guys to figure out who did it and why they did it.

STEWART: What part of the Lower East Side helped you develop characters? Eric, at one point, when the detectives are questioning him about this stick-up mugging, whether it is or not. And they talk about - he and this other guy harassing a local guy who had a Virgin Mary who had appeared on the wall.

And I thought, wow, this is very clever, because you get to know more about Eric and this guy by the way they interacted with the locals. Are there other examples where the city, this area, the Lower East Side, really helps inform us, the reader, about the characters?

Mr. PRICE: Basically, what I tried to do is show people occupying the same physical space but being oblivious to each other. I mean, they're not even ships passing in the night. They're rowboats passing in the night. People don't see any but their own kind.

STEWART: Are there things in the novel - are their episodes in the novel which are things you saw directly off the street from times you were hanging out in the Lower East Side?

Mr. PRICE: There probably is, but you know, the danger is just because it happens, it doesn't make it art. The trick is to seem something and then think, is the relevant? Or is it just cool? You know, if it's just cool, forget it. One of the things that didn't make it is I saw a car stop, a bike stop actually.

These two guys are in the roving quality of life squad see a black guy riding a bicycle with a nine-year-old white kid on the crossbars at midnight. And they call a stop to it. This just doesn't look right to them. And they basically separate the kid and the guy and basically the kid has a nervous breakdown because the cops are trying to provoke him to just tell them anything and the kid gets it.

They don't like the fact that this guy is black and the kid's white. I saw something like that. I wrote it and it just didn't make the cut. Not because it wasn't good writing or wasn't an important encounter, because it just didn't fit into the flow. It would have been like trying to stuff something into a bag that would therefore not be able to go into the overhead rack.

STEWART: I also really like the title of the book, "Lush Life." How did the various definitions of "lush" play into this novel?

Mr. PRICE: Well, I only had one notion. I knew the Billy Strayhorn song title but I never looked at the lyrics, and for me, I meant lush as in abundance. I mean, because you have the Hispanics, the Chinese, the Black, the new-wave, middle-class white kids, the Orthodox Jews, the cops. I mean, you had a riot of cultures down there.

And also I like the irony of the fact that the book centers around a death. So I thought "Lush Life" would be, you know, pretty good. Then, after I gave it to the printer, I finally looked at the lyrics and realized it was about a bunch of old ladies getting hammered at a bar on Third Avenue in the middle of the day. So I kind of blew it on that end, but...

STEWART: You have one of my favorite verbs to describe hammered, "zotzed." I'd never heard that before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRICE: I like "boxed."

STEWART: You've read this in every review. I'm not breaking news here. The dialogue is really a hallmark of your work and...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah, I don't think I'm ever going to write dialogue again.

STEWART: Is really praised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, do you hear it in your head? Or do you know the character's voices?

Mr. PRICE: I know the character's voices, because by they time I'm writing dialogue for them, I've committed them to paper in some ways. But the way I do it is basically, you know, I sit down and improve. It's like scat singing, you know, coherent scat singing. It's like I know where I want the conversation to end and I know where it begins and the whole middle is an improv. You know, and I just sort of trust myself to like, you know, riff it out.

STEWART: You wrote your first novel when you were 24, right?

Mr. PRICE: Well, I published it when I was 24, so I wrote it when I was like 12 or 11 or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Have you ever taken out "The Wanderers" and read it again recently?

Mr. PRICE: I can't.

STEWART: You can't? Why not?

Mr. PRICE: I look back at my old stuff. All I can see is what I got away with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I've never read that book. If I read that book after I finish reading "Lush Life," will I recognize the writing style of Richard Price?

Mr. PRICE: I don't know. That's - people who have done that, read it after "Lush Life," they said yup, it's you. But it's sort of like seeing a picture of yourself as a teenager when you're middle aged and being shocked that you recognize yourself.

STEWART: Before I let you go, you're on book tour, which can be grueling and great and obnoxious and horrible. What are people asking you during your book tour?

Mr. PRICE: Well, they - hm. I think the most common question that comes up, and I'm grateful that it hasn't been asked here, is the difference between screenwriting and writing a novel. I mean, the problem with a book - and you know, like, you do a book tour, and OK, so I did 18 cities.

The problem is you look at a book and there's just so many questions to ask, and they're all kind of obvious. So you'll hear the same questions over and over again. If I didn't write that book and I was an interviewer, I'd probably ask the same questions. You know, the trick is to come up with new answers that aren't lies, so you don't lose your mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You haven't lied to me today, have you?

Mr. PRICE: Sure, I haven't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Richard Price, the name of the book is "Lush Life." Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. PRICE: You're welcome.

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