2008 Texas Book Festival

Lit Life: Richard Price

2008 Texas Book Festival

Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price is New York to his very marrow, and thank the crime fictioneers' gods – Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald – for that. But for the geographical twist of fate, he might well be rocking his bruisey, bare-knuckled brand of cop procedural meets social criticism in, say, Detroit, like his only living literary rival, Elmore Leonard. But nah, the big, shiny, Giuliani-scrubbed apple and its surrounding environs – both past (as in The Wanderers) and present (as in his newest, greatest, Lush Life) – are his permanent beat. Price writes it and talks it like he walks it, every day, the ghosts of old New Amsterdam sidling up alongside, pushing pushcarts and forever forging that dingy American dream out of iron and rust and tenpenny immigrant-nightmare nails. Unlike the East Village, Price will never be gentrified. He prose-punches harder than any wrecking ball ever could.

Lush Life is Price's masterpiece, one of the best American crime novels of at least the past two decades; his fervent but un-self-conscious use of street slang achieves a kind of festering lyricism that shouts skyscraper high and croons gutter low. If everyone else (or anyone else) wrote dialogue this terrifically crackling, we wouldn't read books; we'd argue with them. It's that good.

Austin Chronicle: Lush Life feels like it's got a lot of NYC history, both old and new, churning around beneath the main story. How much time did you spend doing research and getting a feel for the overall vibe?

Richard Price: It's sort of amorphous. At some point I'm hanging out more than I'm writing, and at some point I'm writing more than I'm hanging out. When it gets to "What's the first sentence of the book?" that's the hardest thing to write. Sometimes I just need to hang out, though, to get a sense of what the story's going to be. I don't know enough about the world I want to write about. And that's every bit as important as laying down lines.

AC: You've lived in New York all your life. How far back can you trace your familial roots?

RP: Most of the family immigrated before 1900, and we were all here by 1915. [Lush Life is informed by] the neighborhood. I'm walking the streets that they walked, you know? And my children are walking the streets that their great-grandparents walked. And what I was trying to write about was the disconnect between what [my ancestors'] lives were like on the Lower East Side, which were incredibly dire, with nothing good about it, and now it's a playland, you know? That's how the country works. Each generation is supposedly doing better than the generation previous. But for me, I'm kind of stuck in the middle, because I'm old enough to have talked to them about what it was like 60, 70 years ago. My kids can't do that. They barely know their grandparents.

There are two Lower East Sides. There's the one I was writing about, which is the housing projects and the Dominicans and the Chinese and the Blacks and the Puerto Ricans, and then there's the white Lower East Side. There are kids laptopping down there right now that have no idea that for the price of that gelato they're licking, their own great-grandparents could have paid a month's rent. And I think that's important to know, that history and what came before.

The Paris Review With Richard Price
Saturday, Nov. 1, 8-9:30pm
The Continental Club

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