I had the pleasure of being in the audience when author Richard Price was interviewed onstage by journalist and TV producer David Simon at New York’s 92nd Street Y. The creator of THE WIRE interviewing the author of CLOCKERS, FREEDOMLAND, LUSH LIFE, THE WANDERERS, episodes of THE WIRE from Season Three on, and most recently, using the pen name Harry Brandt, author of the crime novel THE WHITES? It took me three hours of trains back and forth to see them talk for 90 minutes, and it was worth the time. They will be reading again in Philadelphia, introduced by author Dennis Tafoya, so you’ll have another chance. (Check out Price’s page for appearances for more details).
Price caused a bit of a kerfuffle among the online crime fiction kaffee klatch this month in his interview with the New Yorker, about why he used a pen name for his latest novel. And that’s the question that David Simon—who also happens to be married to bestselling mystery author Laura Lippmann—decided to open with. “Is genre so bad that you had to change your name?”
I’ll be paraphrasing throughout; recording was verboten, and my pen only goes so fast. Any lack of clarity here is purely mine.-TP
The pen name is a homage to Price’s first agent, Carl Brandt. THE WHITES was envisioned as purely a genre book, an “urban thriller,” and thrillers “rarely thrill,” just like horror stories are “rarely horrifying.” The idea came quick, and he expected to write it fast, but it ended up taking four years. “I know how to dress down, but not how to write down.” He later clarified this to mean “stripping down,” not that he was stooping to write genre.
That was good enough for me. I side with Jay Stringer, who finds that those of us who both write and read crime fiction tend to have thin skins, and we should dislodge the chip on our shoulder, because all it does is give credence to the concept that these books are “guilty pleasures,” whether they be puzzling mysteries, page-turning thrillers, or dark walks down alleys we’d never dare tread in reality. The ghetto here is mental, and while there are plenty of literary snobs out there, the term “literary” is a category, not a mark of quality. There are great, good, middling, and formulaic stories of all kinds. THE WHITES is both a very good crime novel and a very good novel, and it’s pulpy nod to genre is its high concept—someone is killing the “white whales” who got away from a group of hard-nosed, mostly retired police.
(In my “Fresh Meat” article I went into more depth of what Price does with the premise, and you can read me review of THE WHITES here.)
Now that we’re past that, here’s what they talked about.
David Simon was amazed by CLOCKERS, where Price “got to it [the story of street corner drug dealing kids] before the journalists did. How did he do it?
Price responded that his first four novels were more personal, and unlike his current work. The fourth book was tough and unsatisfying, and he quit writing novels for eight years to write screenplays instead. He got the job writing THE COLOR OF MONEY, and Martin Scorsese told him he had immerse himself in pool hall culture to get it right. He headed South to learn. He’d never researched a novel before, he “wrote what he knew,” and once he found that research could be turned into art, he was hooked on writing again.
For SEA OF LOVE he did ride-alongs with Jersey City police, which eventually would lead to CLOCKERS. In the early ‘80s he had a cocaine addiction, and he grew up in the Bronx projects (which he called “tiger cages,” after the torture chambers from the VietNam War) and he did some work in a rehab center with young addicts. “There is no ‘I’ in novel,” he joked. “I learned how to report a book.”
THE WHITES came about from a “backlog of memory,” which he thought would “let him write fast.” But “what caught me by surprise was the family dynamic,” which he’d tried to capture before, but found elusive. The family story in THE WHITES is quite compelling, but the women suffer; Yasmeen the ex-cop feels just like his woman cop from LUSH LIFE and seems plucked from Sonja Sohn’s performance as Kima Greggs in THE WIRE. Carmen, the wife of Harry Graves, is a mystery to us; part of this is required for the mystery of the story to play out, but she feels too much like the inscrutable, emotional woman that men blame their own lack of cognizance upon. Harry is a masterful observer and investigator, and the excuse that “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” and he can’t turn this eye on those close to him, feels cliché.
From here they segued into how much is taken from reality and how much is invented, when Price researches his books so thoroughly. Simon recounted his favorite scene from CLOCKERS, where the junkies are scrapping salvage from the enormous dome of the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, a ziggurat-like edifice built during the New Deal as a thank you to Frank Hague for delivering (or not ransoming) FDR the Democratic vote. Thousands of Jersey City citizens were born there, it was a monument to Hague’s mother, and also his power; the citizenry owed their very births Big Frank Hague and his utterly corrupt system of patronage, and it was symbolic in the allowing greed and power to grind what should be a beautiful riverside city into an ugly pit of crime and graft that is still clawing its way out.
For more on Frank Hague, read American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the American Political Machine by the late Steven Hart.
This arresting image stuck with Simon, and Price went into detail. During his Jersey City ride-alongs, he learned the story of junkies scrapping metal from the enormous medical center that was half-abandoned, with only the ER operational, and throwing radiators and pipe out the windows to pick up later. The police were onto them, and because an ex-cop ran a scrapyard, most of them would let the street people do the work and steal the scrap to salvage themselves. “There was one story I heard of two cops watching the same piece of expensive copper pipe falling, racing to steal it in their cruisers, and crashing and giving themselves both a concussion.”
“What about the Great Dome?” Simon asked.
“I made it up!” Price laughed. “When you do it, you get fired! I get paid!”
Simon laughed, and went on to say that he felt Price’s humor often went unappreciated, on screen and in print.
“Humor, to me, is different than comedy. It’s about evoking recognition in the reader.”
And much of his fiction relies on that well-researched confidence of verisimilitude, that it may have never happened, but it could, and the readers know it.
When asked why police keep giving him access, Price said that he does his best to “Write faithfully. Let them dig their own graves, and build their own monuments. If I have to tell you someone is bad, that’s boring.” He said it was imperative to have the same empathy for the police and the street people, otherwise fiction devolves into caricature—the gritty cop who does evil because that’s the only way to “save us,” and depictions of inner-city people that is no better than “minstrelsy.”
Though apparently his cop friends avoided him after CLOCKERS—he was terrified that they were infuriated, or hated the book—but the truth was, they hadn’t read it! (Fellow writers take note). He also sent a copy to Toni Morrison, who he’d become friends with, and was concerned she would bust him as a “white supremacist,” but she also didn’t read it. “Like Toni Morrison doesn’t have enough shit on her end table already!” His father was a cabbie, a grocer, and a window-dresser for Modell’s Sporting Goods. And he didn’t like THE WANDERERS. Price’s response, which I commend, was “Oh yeah? YOU write a book!”
When George Pelecanos and David Simon approached him to write for THE WIRE, he had to research again. He’d put everything into CLOCKERS. “I hate writing. It’s worse than jogging,” Price said. He compared his procrastination to how a jogger wastes time buying the best shoes, talking techniques and trails with other joggers for hours, before settling down to do thirty minutes of actual exercise. Price wastes time online, including managing his own Facebook page, and researches intensely. He gave a nod to Nicholas Pileggi, who said he knew he was done researching CASINO when he would ask a mobster or a croupier a question, and found himself mouthing the answers.
Simon got things back on track by saying that crime stories, specifically those involving police and the underclass, were so compelling because they fight on the “fault lines of society,” and “where cop and street meet, a city is revealed.”
Price was more interested in talking about the commonalities between police officer patter and hip hop, how they use a life of memories to go off on unexpected tangents, and found it difficult to ask them any philosophical questions. For example, asking “You carry death on your hip! How does that feel?” and getting back, after a long silence, “When you worked with him on NIGHT AND THE CITY, did you call him Bobby, or Mister DeNiro?”
These snippets of realism are often fought over. When researching FREEDOMLAND, David Simon took Price to see some people he knew from his crime beat, including Fat Curt, a heroin addict in rehab, whose hands had “swollen up like catcher’s mitts.” Curt was unimpressed with Price’s credentials, and said “you is some kind of apple scrapple.” Simon cursed himself, because he knew Price would be able to use that in a book before he could use it in the show.
Their final WIRE anecdote involved the joke between the police, as they drank in the bar after shift. A question, or dare of sorts, where Carver asks Herc, “If you could sleep with any three women, of all time, if you slept with ONE guy… who would it be?” (You might as well watch the whole scene).
And Richard Price came up with Gus Triandos, a big hulking catcher, “with legs like a Stegosaur,” who had a tough season of catching Wilhelm’s knuckleballs, and “he’s do it out of compassion.” The thing was, Gus Triandos was still alive, and Simon had to call him, a nearly 80 year old man, for permission to use his name.
He couldn’t explain it over the phone, so he sent the pages, and got called back, expecting a tirade, but Triandos thought it was really funny.
But just in case, Price had to write an alternate scene, with someone they wouldn’t need permission for. So he reached into his past, and found a ‘50s wrestler with acromegaly, a heel named The French Angel. Price said the Angel was his grandmother’s favorite, and using her voice, he explained, “he is so ugly, but I could look into his eyes, and see he was a good man! He goes to leper colonies, to wrestle for them! And the lepers were so thankful, but they couldn’t touch him… so they kissed his shadow!”
And they ended that great story by asking… “If they all had leprosy… who was he wrestling?”
It was an entertaining evening. Richard Price writes some of the best crime fiction out there. He may not embrace the genre, but his novels walk the same territory as Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippmann, Lawrence Block, Dashiell Hammett, and Mo Hayder: using our criminal acts against ourselves to reveal something of our deepest nature.
Watch the full interview here: