An Interview with Richard Price
INTERVIEWER: Talk about how you came to write Bloodbrothers and the place that inspired this story.
RICHARD PRICE: I came from an outer-borough housing project culture, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a book in which a housing project wasn’t a character unto itself. This goes right up to Lush Life. I don’t do it by design, thinking “I’ve got to have a housing project”. You live many places in life, but you’re always only from one place, and for me it’s the Bloodbrothers environment: working class, housing project, Bronx.
Bloodbrothers was based on the two summers I spent as a construction worker in college, where I worked on Co-Op City, a high-rise in Riverdale, and the Albert Einstein Medical Center. It was sort of a cushy job for the college sons of members of the union. My father was not an electrician, but I did meet Harry van Arsdale, who was a major labor figure in New York from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. He offered me one of the summer jobs that the union had set aside exclusively for their own sons. Your job basically was to walk up twenty flights of stairs with a heavy spool of wire on your shoulder and a hard hat, get everybody’s coffee break and lunch orders, and for that you were paid at the fourth-year apprentice rate, even though you’re basically unskilled. It was a sweet deal for the college boys; went a long way in paying the next year’s tuition.
When I wrote Bloodbrothers I was in my early twenties, and it was a time when I was looking back as opposed to looking forward. I was never going to live in the Bronx again, and the past only exists as long as you can remember it. Out of that realization came a great urge to re-create those times and that place so they wouldn’t disappear on me.
Bloodbrothers was also about the question of how one separates from one’s parents, how do you leave home without destroying home, how do you get away without burning it all down?
INTERVIEWER: Did you know Stony when you were young?
PRICE: Basically everybody I knew growing up was a variation on Stony. In the housing projects in the 50’s and the 60’s, whoever didn’t go directly to college ended up in the police academy or with a good trade union job. It was a very different time. Stony is a stand-in for an entire crew of kids that were born around 1949 into families that were basically blue collar. There’s a lot of me in him, but not all of me.
INTERVIEWER: The family in this book is volatile, and there are many complex exchanges of anger, affection, fear, and frustration among them. Talk about how, as a writer, you bring a family like this to life on the page.
PRICE: It’s almost like an acting exercise: Bring five people to the table and do an improve, and if you’re really aware of who each person is and how their brain works you know exactly what their response is going to be to someone else’s comment. The characters reveal who they are by what they say, and both the family and the scene winds up creating itself right there on the page. Sometimes I knew what I wanted to happen, had it all laid out like a carpet, but mostly I would just unleash everything just to see where it would go.
INTERVIEWER: And yet the family in Bloodbrothers is very different from your own, ethnically and otherwise.
PRICE: Yes, but all fiction is autobiographical; I don’t care if its science fiction or a crossword puzzle, your autobiography gets into everything. My family was not at all as violent as the one in Bloodbrothers, but they had some of the same dynamics. Sometimes you work better when you pick avatars that are at a remove from your own personal experience, and I think I needed the beard of a more operatic family than mine. I just gave people different costumes and vocal registers. It’s all coded.
INTERVIEWER: And why Italian?
PRICE: I don’t know why in my first couple of books the characters were primarily Italian. Maybe I thought of my Italian friends’ families as more externally dramatic than my own.
INTERVIEWER: You were twenty-four when you wrote Bloodbrothers, and it was your second book. What was it like to publish so young?
PRICE: It was both good and bad. Once you’re published the only struggle then is to write another good book. You’re not struggling to become an author anymore, you are an author (before you’re an author you’re just a writer). The bad thing is that once you’re an author there’s the danger of becoming too self-conscious about your writing, you have a track record from the previous book, and if you’re a certain type of person, you develop a habit of constantly looking over your shoulder to see who’s chasing you, when basically who’s chasing you is yourself. When I wrote The Wanderers, my first book, it was a piece of cake, there was no pressure, I was just writing for writing class, but after that I became an author, and writing was never quite as much fun and easy.
INTERVIEWER: You said that everything is autobiographical on some level, but in your later books, research played an important part, particularly research about police work. Talk about the art of turning non-fiction into fiction, and seeing things as an artist versus seeing them as a cop.
PRICE: While writing Clockers, Samaritan, and Lush Life, whenever I would go with the cops into a housing project, I would be radioactively alert to every small detail because every apartment hallway and elevator were so familiar yet alien to me; and my brain turned into a camera. The cops, on the other hand had been going in and out of these places since the day they came on the job and after a few years they just didn’t see it anymore. So when we come out and I say “did you notice this, this, this, and this,” they’re always like “huh?” Somebody once said that the only way to write about Africa is to either go there for ten days or for ten years. With the ten-day approach, your eyes are as big as dishes. If you can communicate the shock and awe of seeing something that way in your fiction, preserve that visceral sense of discovery, then I’d say you’re pretty much good to go.
These days my novels pretty much embrace the current moment, but Bloodbrothers was most definitely written via my rearview mirror.
INTERVIEWER: Screenplays, teleplays, books: how is the approach different from one medium to the next?
PRICE: It’s different in the sense that when you’re writing a book it’s all yours, you’re in charge, you’re in control, and your only requirement is for it to be a good read. If you want two people to sit on a bench and talk for ten pages, the only mandate is to make it an absorbing conversation. Scriptwriting, on the other hand, serves a two-dimensional medium; there’s no authorial voice in a screenplay, no style, no narration, no god,. There’s just description of action and words coming out of peoples’ mouths. It’s like a one-hundred twenty page memo to the actors and directors. Novels are four dimensional, because you have the interior life of the character and God the narrator. You have actual writing. So, if you’re a novelist by trade and you’re writing screenplays, you have to be very aware that you’ve got to move it, move it, move it, less-is-more, less-is-more, you can’t ever have enough “less”, it’s more “less”. It’s like playing speed chess.
TV writing is a different critter altogether because you’re usually part of a team. On a series like The Wire for example, which is the only TV writing I have experience with, no matter how good or bad the finished product, and The Wire is as good as it gets, you’re basically part of an assembly line and you cannot come in and surprise people with these brilliant little quirky inspirations you’ve had, because it screws up. Basically you have to know exactly what the guy writing behind you is setting you up for, and then you’ve got to set up the guy coming after you. I put up with that kind of straight-jacketed writing because I liked and respected all the other people on the assembly line, and because it was The Wire. But I don’t think I could do that on another show, I don’t think I’d enjoy it.
INTERVIEWER: Who are your influences as a writer?
PRICE: Hubert Selby, Jr., Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Henry Miller John Rechy. And Lenny Bruce, who just slayed me. When I was a teenager I read a paperback of his monologues, just straight up transcripts, and I responded to everything; his speech patterns, his rhythms, his free-firing cultural non-sequiturs. But most importantly, I recognized the voice of my future self. We always read to locate our selves, and that guy was my soul-mirror.
INTERVIEWER: Talk about your day-to-day process as a writer.
PRICE: At the time of Bloodbrothers it was simply wake up, have breakfast, sit down, open that vein and write via the rearview mirror: Pieces of cake. That all changed in 1990 with Clockers. For the last 15 years I find that I spend as much time hanging out with the people and in the environment that I want to write about as I do sitting down and putting it all on paper. With Bloodbrothers and the other novels I wrote back in the seventies, the world was all in my head. It was pretty much a matter of parking myself and writing. That well ran dry after about four books.
I agonized very little over Bloodbrothers. Back then, unlike now, I was a great fan of myself. It’s a young person’s book, and there’s a young person’s sensibility behind it. There wasn’t a terrible amount of self-reflection or nuanced thinking involved, which is not a good thing, but neither was there a lot of angsty second-guessing myself, which was great – a state of mind I’d kill to recapture these days.
INTERVIEWER: Bloodbrothers is about young people, Lush Life is about young people. What is it like to write about young people then and now?
PRICE: It was easy to write about young people back then because I was one of them. I was the same age as the waiters or the uniformed cops in Lush Life. Now when I write about young people I’m looking at it from the other side. When I wrote Bloodbrothers, I was writing about my generation, now I’m writing about their generation, and there’s nothing worse than an aging enfant terrible.
But I think we’ve overblown the notion that what it’s like to be young now is different from what it ever was. A lot of the proper nouns and a lot of the venues change, but it’s the same dynamic. When I was writing Bloodbrothers I was at an age when I thought I’d never die, and I had all the time in the world to write a trillion books, and I knew everything in the world. It’s amazing what I knew at twenty-five that I don’t know now at fifty-eight.