Richard Price is the author of seven novels—the latest of which, Lush Life, comes out in March. He’s also a screenwriter and a contributor to the writing staff of The Wire. This interview was conducted at Price’s home in Manhattan in September 2007, shortly after the fifth season wrapped. The main topic of the interview was his novel Clockers, a central inspiration for The Wire, though the conversation also touches on the show, his friendship with David Simon, fiction versus nonfiction, and the role of media. —Mark Athitakis

Washington City Paper: I know a little about what you were doing in the mid-’80s. You were teaching in the Bronx and had gone through your own history of addiction. Was there a moment where it crystallized for you and you thought, I need to write a novel about this?

Richard Price: I discovered what you see of the world when you have a police escort, and that seemed…different. I don’t want to use the word “refreshing,” but it was so different than what I had been writing about previously, which was my navel. I just became obsessed with seeing human behavior in extremis. And that was because I was writing a script for Sea of Love, this police movie. I knew nothing about police.

The second thing was that I had gone through my own period of a sort of pedestrian, ’80s-style cocaine habit, which had been five years gone—no, more—but still, it was kind of haunting. And I had been teaching at this rehab center in the Bronx, teaching writing to these kids who had been falling down on crack, which was not around when I was doing coke, thank God. And I started seeing the devastation that was taking place. And it also brought me back to the Bronx to teach there, where I started writing. I had been wanting to write another book, but screenwriting is its own crack. It involves other people, which is very seductive to an isolated novelist. There’s a lot of money. I became seduced by that, and the worst thing you could do is get good at it.

When this all came together, I didn’t have a story. But there was one experience when I was in Jersey City, and I was with Hudson County homicide detectives. A kid was killed at some kind of burger franchise—not a McDonald’s, but something like that. And another kid had surrendered—came in with a minister and a politician, so it was a very smart surrender. The kid had no criminal record whatsoever. I went with the cops to interview the arrested kid’s family, because the cops didn’t want to get in a situation where they find out later on that there was a motive that justified it or made it less of a guaranteed win for the prosecutor. So what they do is talk to whoever they can, do research on the guy they just arrested, because they don’t want to make their boss look like a horse’s ass in court a year from now. So I went with them to the parents’ house.

To make a long story short, the parents were very—they would barely turn their head from the TV, they’re very unresponsive. And their kid had just been arrested and had never been arrested. The homicide detective saw a photo of him in a cap and gown, he said, “Can I borrow this picture?” He wanted to do more research on this kid, but he wanted to have the picture so he could show it around. You never want to show somebody’s friends a mug shot and ask them more burying questions. So, this is a user-friendly picture.

“Can I borrow this?”

“Well, that’s not him.”

“What do you mean that’s not him? That’s his brother. Jesus, they look like twins.”

“They are.”

So just on a whim, they guy looks up the twin, and the kid had a huge, long record. And right there it’s a Dickensian moment—The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask, “Which Twin Has the Toni?” So all of a sudden I had my story—two brothers. In real life what happened was the kid who actually surrendered did do it. And he was a thug just like his brother, he was just smarter so he never got caught. And he was also smart enough to blue-ribbon his own surrender. That’s the moment where it all came together for me, because I had been spending a year in Jersey City primarily going out with these cops, absorbing the world and thinking about writing stuff. I had everything but a story. I knew the world I wanted to write about, I knew the neighborhood, I just didn’t have the building address. That night I got the address. From there I was off to the races.

Were you still researching Sea of Love when this happened?

Sea of Love was done by a few years. The thing is, it’s addicting, because you never know what you’re gonna learn tonight. And the danger is that you can get so addicted to learning stuff, seeing stuff—and avoiding writing, by the way—that you never want to give it up. And then you wind up with way too much information, and you get sort of paralyzed by real things. “Wait, this is fiction, I’m supposed to make things up.” “But, no, no, no, by me knowing more about this.…” Sometimes you can screw yourself by falling in love with the research.

In one interview you mentioned you had a 2-foot-high stack of notebooks of research.

Yeah, something like that.

So why not do a nonfiction book?

Because nonfiction is nonfiction. There’s nothing for me to do there except report. I ask journalists the same question: “Don’t you want to just make this stuff up?” And they’ll say to me, “You can’t top this stuff.” Their attitude is, you know, “I’m very good at summarizing what’s out there. And what’s out there is: God’s a first-rate novelist.” My attitude is like, if it’s already out there, to me, that’s like clerical work. Although it’s not—I know that. But to me, I want to take all that stuff and fashion a metaphor from it. Because oftentimes, the way life unfolds, it’s very random and chaotic. It’s only in the history books where you look back, everything seemed like it all happened in seven streamlined paragraphs. But daily life is much more meandering, and what a novel can do is condense and essentialize and highlight. That’s what I like.

If you’re writing about the crack epidemic, you could have written about it from the angle of addiction, or written about it from the angle of family, which I know you did to an extent. But you chose to make it a crime story. Did you tinker with different approaches, or was it always a crime story?

I didn’t want to write about the crack epidemic purely as the crack epidemic. I didn’t have the sophistication to fashion it on a world level, where all this stuff comes in on airplanes and it starts between diplomats and warlords, there’s a lot of white people in expensive suits that make a lot of money before it gets down to the street. I didn’t have that sophistication. And my affection and my focus has always been working-class, welfare-class life in the urban trenches. So in my mind, I just wanted to write about life—life at that level. I got as high as the police and the policed.

Was there a large preconception that got destroyed while you were working on the book?

The big one is—it’s not about, “police are corrupt” or anything like that. It’s the leeway that the drug world has with the police world. Cops basically know that people are gonna live, and people are gonna do what they’re gonna do. And if you go after everybody like they’re Al Capone, you’re gonna burn out. So you learn to negotiate. Not to be vague, but it’s the whole notion of, everybody sees everybody every day, and everybody knows everything about everybody else and people are basically civil to each other, even if they’re arresting somebody, or eluding arrest, or whatever it is. That’s the stuff I found fascinating. It’s like, “Listen, we’re all in this sewer together. You don’t start splashing around, and I won’t start splashing around, and neither of us will drown. I gotta do my job, and you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do. I’m not gonna talk you out of it.” The casualness of the contact between the people.

Is there a reason why you went to Jersey City for the research?

I originally wanted to do New York. I’m a New Yorker, and I’ve always written about New York previously, but the red tape was so impossible with the police department. I knew a guy through Sea of Love, who was a detective in Jersey City, who was an aspiring actor who said, “I’ll bring you around, I’ll hook you up with people, and if this Sea of Love ever gets to be made”—or this other project I was working on, which was a boxing movie—“just get me in the door for an audition, I’ll take care of myself.” So it was chain reaction of meeting people. I went to Jersey City, I met this homicide detective, Larry Mullane, and we just hit it off. Through him, people pass you around. All you have to do is be civil and be interesting to be with, and it’s fun. It’s fun for them. What helped was that I had written some films that people knew. The average American’s mind-boggled obsession with movies. The fact that I actually met movie actors and had written movies that they’d seen was, to say the least, intriguing to them. On my end of it, I’m thinking, you guys go out every night, you’ve got death on your hip and all this? And in they’re mind, they’re, “We’re just civil servants, this is our job.” You get used to whatever you do. I don’t know what’s under “under-impressed” with screenwriting. But if I didn’t do it, I’d probably be like, “Wow!” And same for them. So it was a mutual-admiration-slash-boredom-with-my-own-thing.

Are there large distinctions between then New York in The Wanderers [Price’s first novel] in 1962 and Clockers in ’85 and now?

They’re three distinct worlds. 1962 is pre-Vietnam, pre-drugs, pre-Reaganomics, pre-total racial polarization. It was a much more naive time. When I was growing up, the projects were still functional. They were there because they were trying to give working-class people decent, affordable housing so they could concentrate on getting their family up to the next generation. When I was growing up it was never more than working class—a little rough-and-tumble, but nothing more than a punch in the nose. Occasionally somebody had heroin or something. It was about as working-class as you could get. Divorce was still scandalous. Drugs were still scandalous. Everybody had a father if he hadn’t died; nobody’s father just took off. Myself and 90 percent of my friends either went on to college or the Army or some functional job in the work force. Nobody just fell off the earth. Vietnam was coming up, the hippie thing was coming up, so people went a little bughouse. In that way, the world changed, but by and large it was a very, very functional world.

But around the time of Clockers, it was like the end of days. With crack, the projects had become terminals. In the projects, generations always moved on from the generation that was born in the projects. Now you had generations stacked up in the same apartment. Drugs were devastating that world—completely ghettoized. All the white people had fled. Jobs weren’t there, and drugs were the only viable alternative. So either people were dealing drugs—but that’s not true. There were people doing drugs, there were people dealing drugs—that’s the way that people made money, and that’s what you saw. But there were probably just as many kids who were going to school, but those kids didn’t make the papers. You don’t wind up in the newspaper for graduating from high school with a B- average and going to a community college. It’s just not newsworthy. That was the great invisible in there—all these kids that weren’t succumbing. I tried to capture that too in Clockers. But the drama and the nihilism of that era was the ascension of crack, and the devastation.

Now I’m trying to write about an area in Lush Life. The projects are still rough places—and some of them are still bad, real bad. But the ones I’m writing about on the Lower East Side, it’s still rough, but it’s nowhere near as rough. I don’t know if it’s because the economy has changed or what. What I’m trying to write now—the irony of a place that was Hell’s Hundred Acres in 1988, and you got whatever passes for yuppies, the hipperatti living there now. The great crime-fighter is real estate—it was a combination of Giuliani and real estate.

You mentioned the word Dickensian before, and I’ve been thinking about the fact that that’s not a word that gets around a lot with American writers. You’ve talked about Last Exit to Brooklyn and City of Night, but are there models for either of these two books, or what you’ve done since Clockers?

No. I feel that my models came to me pretty early on, and it was who you mentioned—the early 20th century urban writers, like Richard Wright and Hubert Selby and Lenny Bruce—the language of Lenny Bruce. I like that rhythm, that high-speed, free-floating synaptic, anything comes out of your mouth, the acculturation, free-firing cultural riffs. Since then I sort of made my own way and made my own voice. I’ve read books that I admire, but nothing that made me, that taught me how to write.

To get into the obvious thing that came up when the novel came out—you being a white writer covering a predominantly black environment, I wanted to read you a couple of reviews that were published at the time. The first is from Eli Quinn in Emerge: “Since the crack epidemic poses a unique threat to the black community, our writings about crack are necessarily urgent, impassioned and deep from the heart. A white writer, on the other hand, cannot have as intimate a sense of the destructiveness from a safe and enviable distance. Nothing is at stake for Richard Price when he writes about the crack epidemic in the black and brown South Bronx. It merely provides the setting for a story. But for black folks, the story is one that destroys so many lives that it may threaten our existence as a people.”

And this is from a review Jess Mowry’s novel Six Out Seven in the Washington Post. “Richard Price, in Clockers, his novel about a small-time New Jersey crack dealer accused of murder, did this much better. One reason, perhaps, that Price was able to write honestly about his subject is that he is white and thus able to see his characters as people, instead of oppressed victims who needed to be protected from the rounded portrayals that would have revealed them as flawed, but human.”

Look, what can I say? Your ethnicity or you minority-ness, whether it be religious, sexual, racial, does not automatically make you an artist. Just because you suffer, doesn’t make you an artist. Jess Mowry, was that the book being written about? You don’t have to be a crack addict to write about it. Anybody can bear witness. I never for a second ever presumed to think I know what it’s like to be black. At the same time I also feel like, is everything between black and white so exotic that a white writer dare not write about being black? Because we have no human traits in common? In a way it’s like, the human heart is the human heart. I don’t sit down and think, “Now I’m gonna write a black character.” I’m gonna write a character. And this character happens to be black. And I feel like I don’t have to be black to write about a black character anymore than a writer has to be white to write about a white character, or a writer has to be gay to write about a gay character.

I always say this: You can’t get into this vicious game where you have to be the thing that you write. That’s deadly. Because if I can’t write about being black, or if I don’t want to see any black people write about being white, and if I can’t write about being gay, I don’t want to see any gay writers writing about straight people, because you don’t know what it’s like to be straight. You don’t know what it’s like to be white, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim.” The job of the novelist—or any creative writer—is to imagine lives that are not your own. And nothing is off-limits. If you’re writing about a group of people, and you do a clichéd job, you deserve whatever’s coming to you. If you’re just contributing to a stereotype.

Believe me, I was so aware of this while I was writing. I was scared to death about the whole charge of cultural piracy. It was a very hard thing to convince myself I had a right to do. But once you get a roll going, it’s like, this guy’s a human being.

Was this a private back-and-forth, or was it something you discussed with others?

Nothing pointed with other people. But with myself, every night and every day, I’d be thinking, do I have a right to do this? And I decided, yes, I have an absolute right to do this. I don’t hear anything about it now, by the way. I don’t hear people saying, “You can’t write it.”

You did a two-part documentary about the crack epidemic for Nightline. Can you tell me a little about that?

They approached me and said they were reaching out to nonjournalists to fashion a documentary for them. And one guy they reached out to was the guy who did Field of Dreams, Phil Alden Robinson, to do something, and they asked me if I wanted to do something on the real-life counterparts of the characters in Clockers. Because there was a very big thing where people were responding to the novel as if it were journalism, which it was. But I made no secret of the fact that I’d put in my man hours. I spent time. Jimmy Breslin wrote a biography of Damon Runyon saying that he did what all good journalists do—he hung out. I’m not a journalist, but I really did my homework. And not in a library. They said, “We want to make a documentary about Jersey City.”

I went back, and I tracked down all these people that I had spent a couple of years with. And some of the people I was still in contact with—weekly, monthly—so it was no big deal. Some of the people had just gotten out of jail. And I tracked them all down to do interviews, and ridealongs, went to their apartments with cameras.

One of the guys that I interviewed was a young guy, 21, who was around, lived in the projects and was involved in hustling, this and that. And I got him to sit down—now he’s like 25, he’d been banged around an awful lot the last four years, and he was pretty damaged. And I sat down with him, with cameras. In a housing project, everybody knows what’s going on—if you belch on the seventh floor, somebody on the first floor knows what you had for breakfast. So I’m talking to this kid, and he’s still part of that culture there, the hustler culture. He’s having a hard time, and at some point he just broke down and started crying. And they hated that, because it was like, humiliating him. So his friends were all mad at me. But when he started crying, I wanted to pull back, and the producer’s like, “What, are you crazy? This is what journalism is!”

What do you think those photos of families grieving, those intimate family photos—somebody just shoved a camera in their face. You eat the hamburger, but you don’t think about how they butchered the cow. You see the photo, but you don’t think about the vile intrusiveness. I’m pulling back, and they’re like, “Are you nuts?” They’re getting the camera closer and closer. This guy winds up on national TV breaking down and crying. In that culture—that young-man street culture—he got punked. He got bitched. They had a bad local reaction to that.

Did you lobby to not have that included?

No. But it wasn’t my choice. They just said, “Keep talking to him.” There are five professionals around—a director, cameraman—and they’re all going, “Look at this!” And it was very poignant because he was being very candid, it was a raw moment. But in that world, man, they thought that was really intrusive.

You were approached by Tina Brown at the New Yorker to do some writing for them. Did anything ever come of that?

The only thing that came up, and it was kind of funny, was that [editors] Tina Brown and Chip McGrath were looking for a basketball writer. I don’t know shit about basketball. Maybe they thought I did because I write about cities so much, playgrounds and streets and stuff. But the only thing I know about basketball is that when my girls play for their high schools, I’m the lunatic parent. But that was it.

When you finished Clockers, you wrote two more Dempsy novels. So clearly you hadn’t exhausted it.

The main reason I created the city was by default, because I couldn’t get access to New York. But the other reason was that I realized that I was writing about the generic America mid-size city, and I’d rather make up my own city than call it Jersey City because otherwise it’s like Valley of the Dolls—who’s that? Is that Judy Garland? Where’s Waldo? You get caught up in guessing who’s who, and it’s a roman á clef. And I didn’t want to be journalistically beholden to Jersey City. Because I think what goes on at any city at that level is more or less interchangeable with what goes on in any other city.

For example: I’ve been writing for The Wire, and David Simon told me The Wire was based on Clockers. That was his starting point, and he took it way beyond that. But he finally asked me if I want to write with them, I was so intimidated by the nuance that he had in The Wire—I don’t know that shit. But I went down to Baltimore to spend some time on the streets, and I realized I know this stuff. It travels. The difference is that there’ll be a different glossary in a different city. Boston’s topography has a lot of alleys, New York has no alleys. But the family dynamic is the family dynamic, the economic dynamic is the economic dynamic, the schools are the schools. It’s the same. Some cities are better run than others, but what’s true for New York is true for Baltimore is true for Oakland is true for Akron is true for East Saint Louis. It’s just a matter of degree of direness.

How did you and David Simon meet?

We had the same editor, John Sterling, at Broadway Books—his book Homicide came out the same year Clockers came out. John Sterling brought him over to my house, and it was like the mother bringing over your cousins: “You boys should know each other!” That night was the night of the Rodney King verdict, and they were rioting everywhere, so our first play-date was to go to Jersey City to check out the riots. Me and David were there with Larry Mullane, the cop who was godfathering me through
Clockers. We looked at each other, and we said, let’s go. He’s a police reporter, and I’m obsessed with witnessing. That’s how we became friends.

You weren’t one of the first writers on the show.

No, the show was on for two years before they asked me to write. And he made some passing overtures—”You should be on the show”—but honestly, when he made a serious offer, I didn’t think I could write with the depth or nuance he was doing on the show. Because he assumed that because I did this I knew an awful lot more. So, I thought, no—this show, journalistically and in terms of realpolitik, has gone so far beyond what I knew to do Clockers, I didn’t want to embarrass myself. “This guy wrote Clockers?” But it was so damn good, and I wanted to be part of it.

Writing for The Wire is different from writing from anything, even the other cable shows. First of all, David Simon is some kind of socialist, pinko, Red—he really believes in democracy. So what he did was collect people he liked and respected like [Dennis] Lehane and [George] Pelecanos, and it was just this mutual admiration-respect society. Which is not to say he didn’t take tremendous liberties with everybody’s submissions, but every show creator will do that. They’re gonna look at what you wrote, whether it’s for Law & Order, Deadwood, whatever, and it’s not about how good it is. It’s about, “I gotta give this the identical tone to everything else. And I’ve discovered stuff about the upcoming episodes that is going to make this stuff irrelevant.” It’s what happens. David was the boss, but usually when you’re involved with these things there’s all this skullduggery and power games and behind-the-scenes this and that, and it’s tension—who’s fucking who, everybody’s going like this [looks out of the corners of his eyes] all the time. And with The Wire it was just a bunch of assholes in a treehouse. It was great, I loved it.

What do you think is Clockers‘ legacy?

There are a lot of books about the urban world where Clockers will come up in the blurbs. “Not since Clockers.…” Or something like that. The only thing I don’t like is that because I stay with writing about the cities, and use the police for access to a world that otherwise I would not be privy to, I don’t like crime books, and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized. But at the same time, all I can write about is what I want to write about. I don’t want to write about the fall of the Spanish Armada just to show I can write about other things. The older you get, you don’t write in response to any criticism. Write what you want to write.

I don’t particularly like or dislike cops. I’m grateful for anybody who let me in to the life, but it’s not like I’m a cop buff or groupie or anything. I’m not—politically, certainly not. There was a thing where, there first time I went out with cops for Sea of Love, it was like staring at the ocean and all you see is the surface of the water and you think you know the ocean. Being with police is like putting a snorkel mask on: You stick your head in and, “Whoa! What the fuck? That’s been down there all this time?” And that just opened up access to the world that I thought I knew.

It’s interesting that you describe your reaction in terms of surprise. Not shock, outrage, anger.

Anger at what? Injustice?

Injustice, crime….

You know what it is? You get so involved at trying to capture some metaphorized version of the truth of what you’re seeing. You get so caught up in your own discovery of what you’re seeing, and your own thoughts about, “How do I communicate this?” You get so caught up in the act of bearing witness that…the outrage will take care of itself. And if you try to write with outrage, it’s not gonna be as good. It’s not gonna be as telling. You don’t want to nudge people and say, “You should think this.” You don’t want to manipulate people into saying, “Can you believe…?” Just be faithful, and all the outrage will be there.

Related: What Happened to Our Show? by Mark Athitakis