Richard Price: Lush Life

"Not tonight, my man." Those are the words that provoke the murder of Ike Marcus, the event that sets in motion the plot of Richard Price's new novel, Lush Life, a fast-paced yet intricately structured narrative that leads readers through the uneasily juxtaposed worlds of Manhattan's Lower East Side. A crime story, a family story, a city story, Lush Life is alive with the urban urgency that has characterized Price's work since his first novel, The Wanderers (1974), while it shares with his later works, such as Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), and Samaritan (2003), a mature novelistic intelligence that is both gritty and, in the exact sense of the word, magnanimous.

 

In addition to his success as a novelist, Richard Price has won acclaim for his work as a screenwriter on films such as The Color of Money, Sea of Love, and Night and the City, and for his contributions to the HBO series The Wire. He lives with his family near New York's Gramercy Park; I interviewed him at his home in January in a room dominated by big windows, a large desk, and a low, wide table crowded with a casually but strikingly arrayed collection of vintage paperbacks and other printed matter (including the Autumn 1927 issue of The Exile, edited by Ezra Pound and containing what I believe to be the only published chapter from Joe Gould's legendary -- and, except for this short excerpt, apocryphal -- Oral History of the World; see Joseph Mitchell's wonderful book, Joe Gould's Secret, or the 2000 film adaptation by Stanley Tucci). What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. --James Mustich

 

 

JAMES MUSTICH: After reading Lush Life, I revisited The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers, your first two novels. Each seems to have been comprehended as a single shape, in one burst of energy, which gives them a lean structural force, a narrative impetus that takes them beyond the "autobiographical" realism for which they've been acclaimed.

 

RICHARD PRICE: The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers were written at a time in my life when the sort of experience they depict was still fresh in my mind. I mean, I wrote them in the 1970s, and basically I was writing about my life ten years earlier. So a lot of it was intuitive in a way that is very hard for me to duplicate now, because I've traveled so far from that time and place. Honestly, back then, I didn't give much thought to structure. I was just sort of writing from my gut -- by that I don't mean spontaneous writing; I just didn't give it much thought. The older I got and the more ambitious the books became, the more I had to step back and say, "Well, now I've got to shape this." Since it's not second nature for me any more -- I can't sort of spontaneously combust on paper now -- I've got to make the books, as they become more complicated, easier to navigate. I've got to pay more attention to the flow of the narrative, otherwise it's just going to be a mess.

 

JM: After your first four books [Editor's note: Ladies' Man and The Breaks followed The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers], you took a hiatus from fiction and did mostly screenplays, before coming back with Clockers. You've often talked about how exhilarating it was to discover, through screenwriting, a way to write that wasn't autobiographical.

 

RP: Right. Writing screenplays sort of forced me to leave my autobiography. I was a hired pen, and they weren't interested in my story. They want you to write about Paul Newman being a pool hustler, say, which means you've got to go out and learn about this stuff, and you've got to write about it in such a way that it looks like you know what you're talking about. You've got to go out and learn about the world, as opposed to sit at home and sort of look in a mirror and write what you see. At first, it was a very intimidating proposition, but I found out I could do it, and it opened up the whole world to me.

 

But I also discovered that you still have to find the story. When you're writing novels, and it's your call what to write about -- not "This is what the market wants right now in terms of big-ticket screenplays" -- you still have to find a subject that rings a bell, that in some way intersects with the things that you care about. It might not be you. I mean, it might be cops and robbers. I'm neither a cop nor a robber, but there's something in that environment that attracts me -- that's connected to The Wanderers and stuff like that. What I got from doing the screenplays is that somebody kicked me off the diving board, and I found out that I could swim, and I haven't stopped swimming since.

 

That's the reason I stopped writing novels to go into screenplays: I was so tied in to feeling like I could only write about what I personally knew that I ran out of things to write about. The screenplays got me past that, but the problem now is that every time I start a new book, it's daunting. So with this new book, which is set on the Lower East Side, as with Clockers, it was very intimidating to try to encompass the material, just know it well enough to fashion a fictional story from it.

 

But I always feel like the best work comes when you're a little scared of what you're about to do, because you don't think you can quite do it, and therefore you have to bring everything you have to pull it off. It's like the saying, "terror keeps you slender." Scared is a good way to be.

 

JM: So mastering that Lower East Side world was the challenge for you in writing Lush Life?

 

RP: Yes. The first thing was the notion of what's happened to the Lower East Side. Because my generation -- I'm 58 -- my generation is the last, I think, with some kind of personal knowledge of the original immigrant generations. I have kids who were in college when I started writing the book, and their take on the Lower East Side is somewhat devoid of history. I mean, to them it's the cutting edge of now. It's not that they're unaware kids, it's that the past has completely faded. That made me feel crazy, because now you've got the fifth generation going back to the Lower East Side, but with no personal connection. They don't get the full-circleness of it. And that -- combined with my own long-time fascination with that area as being the world's most lively ghost town -- pushed me to write about it.

 

Then I look at what's going on there, and it's like Byzantium. I mean, it's enormous. There are about five worlds down there, and they're oblivious of each other. There are these new kids, the Midwestern kids or the suburban kids who are playing as if they're in Rent -- they're down there. They've oblivious to the housing project kids, and the housing project kids are oblivious to them. And the Chinese are living like the Jews did in Jacob Riis's time; they're living jam-packed. You've got the Orthodox Jews down there, a world unto themselves. You've got the housing project culture, and the Hispanic population, the people living in the un-rehabbed areas. And all these people just have nothing to do with each other, but they're all walking the same sidewalks.

 

So I was trying to write about this gigantic, five-pointed world. The trick is, how do you do it so it doesn't turn into a James Michener travelogue? Well, every once in a while these worlds collide, and when they do it is usually on a street corner at four in the morning. The kids from the projects know that the kids inland have money -- put a gun in their face, you can usually score enough cash to buy some Chinese takeout. But the kid whose face you're putting the gun in thinks he's in a movie, he's got his load on, he does the wrong thing -- and BOOM, headlines for five days. Then everybody goes back to normal. That seemed to be like the spine for the kind of book I wanted to write.

 

JM: Are the police the only factors who have their eyes and ears in each of those worlds, in some way?

 

RP: In some way.

 

JM: Certainly not entirely. But in terms of constructing a narrative -- in addition to the structural impetus that a murder investigation gives you -- don't the police give you entree into all those worlds?

 

RP: Well, that's the whole point. If you follow the progression of an investigation, it will, by its very nature, take you everywhere in a very orderly way. When somebody's killed, the first thing they do is say, "Is this a pattern? It looks like a robbery gone awry. It doesn't look like an intentional homicide. Well, let's look at the pattern books and see if we have any other victims in the same kind of set up." All of a sudden, you're interviewing a Chinese man, you're interviewing an Israeli businessman -- you're getting into this world, then you're getting into that world. Then you're getting into the world of the kids who are friends of the victim. Then you get into the world of the kid they're pursuing, the projects. Every voice will take you through the world, but in a way in which you don't ramble. It's a straight line, and it seems almost by accident, but you're getting a non-chaotic take on a chaotic universe.

 

JM: As the detectives move from one world to another, they may be familiar with the surface of things, but they're not really comfortable in all those worlds.

 

RP: Ironically, they're more comfortable in the world of the projects. When I was down there, I would say 90% of the trouble that they had to respond to dealt with the projects, or people in the un-rehabbed walkups. Usually when you're dealing with the more well-to-do kids who live down there now, it's either as victims or assholes -- drunkenness and stuff like that. But those kids aren't thugs. They're playing.

 

JM: In talking about the genesis of Clockers, you once said it began with a question you formulated while sitting in a fast-food restaurant in Washington Heights, observing a teen-age drug dealer on the street outside. Another kid was working behind the counter inside. And, at least as it was reported in a background article in the New York Times, you wondered: "Where does this kid making $4.50 an hour get the strength to come here day after day when he can see another kid making $300 a day selling dope out of his socks?" You discovered that the kid working inside had a sense that his future stretched beyond the next twenty-four hours -- and so could imagine a different story for himself -- whereas the kid on the street is locked in the here-and-now.

 

RP: He knows this is as good as it's going to get.

 

JM: It strikes me that something similar is going on with the characters in Lush Life. Eric Cash, the manager of the Café Berkmann who still thinks of himself as a screenwriter, is so lost in the here-and-now-ness of the neighborhood that he can't even sit through a movie or read a book. And Matty Clark, the detective who sees Eric as the prime suspect in the homicide investigation, is similarly caught up in the ad hoc demands of his police work, spending every night of his "aging gerbil on a training wheel existence": "waiting on that sea of malice and mayhem out there to set [his] chest pocket to trembling." In some way, each of them has come to the dead end of the story he's been telling himself about himself. In Eric's case particularly, the fragility and falsity of his own story about himself, which he's already suspecting, is completely revealed by the interrogation he endures.

 

RP: Yeah.

 

JM: The same thing happens in a much more tragic way to Billy Marcus, the father of the murder victim. His story is just yanked away from him, and he's got to invent a new one, but he is in no shape to do it. All of which brought me back to The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers. In the latter, Stony De Coco is a guy who wants to get out of the neighborhood he's in, out of the grip of family constraints, and he can't quite figure out how to do it, how to connect all the dots of his life into a new picture of himself. In The Wanderers, Eugene is not as conscious of the dilemma as Stony is, but you get the same sense about him: his future depends on discovering he has a future, and imagining a life beyond the confines of the story he is so intimately familiar with, and dependent upon. To me, it's an issue that you deal with strikingly in all your books, but in Lush Life you do it with more than one character.

 

RP: Mmm-hmm. I never thought about it before. Basically, the challenge is to move on. For Matty, he's gone as far as he can go at a certain age by being a free agent. It's about death at this point; nothing is changing except your age. He's stuck, and now he's even getting his kid kicked back to him. Going backwards. But it may be his way out of the trap of himself, too. Who knows?

 

With Eric the whole point is that the neighborhood, the Lower East Side, is not a neighborhood of realization, it's a neighborhood of promise. Not to generalize, but for most of the people down there, it's about the future. It's about what's going to be -- about living forever because we're young, and we can shoot for anything, and why not? It's not about, "Yes, now we've made it, now we're captains of industry, now we're Pulitzer Prize winners" or something like that. It's all about what hasn't happened yet. Eric was like that, but now at 35, he's lost that faith in the future. I mean, how long can you be a bartender or hand out menus, believing it to be a means to an end? At what point do you realize it is the end? At what point does a waitress-performance artist become just a waitress? Eric is hanging on by his fingernails, and the murder is the thing that pushes him over the edge into the next thing, whatever the next thing will be. This neighborhood is over for him. He's got to figure out something more realistic.

 

Billy Marcus, I just left him. He's got this vast void in front of him. I didn't really move him towards resolving it. I just had his son's murder push him off the diving board, but I don't know if there's any water in the pool. He probably will never get over it.

 

For all of them, in a way, it's like they've outstayed their welcome in the fantasies they have in their heads about what their lives are like. They've got to go to the next something.

 

JM: The way you portray their situations is both real and moving. As readers, we're chasing the elements of the thriller -- racing to discover what really happened -- but we're also attuned to the magnanimity of your conception of the characters, despite the bleakness of the circumstances. There's an embrace of the larger humanity of these people that you don't often get in this kind of story. It's interesting that it works so well.

 

RP: I've always resisted my stuff being cubby-holed as "Crime" or "Thriller" or something like that. I certainly use elements of those kinds of books, but for me it's a matter of convenience. I'm just sort of glomming onto the investigation of a crime as the best horse for me to ride through a very complex landscape. The downside of that is that you can get cubby-holed. But I'm not really interested in the genre elements.

 

JM: Without being present as an omniscient narrator -- present in the way, say, George Eliot is in her books -- it's still like your leading us by the hand to teach us something about the ways of the world, to reveal the substance of the heart as well as the surface fascination of the street. You supply a novelistic richness at the same time as you maintain the urgency of turning the page. And you do so much of it through dialogue. While your novels have always been energized by speech rhythms and the voices of people, it seems they've become increasingly dialogue-based.

 

RP: Mmm-hmm.

 

JM: In Lush Life in particular, especially at the beginning, there are suites of conversation that deliver a very detailed picture. From a compositional perspective, that's marvelous: 200 pages into the book, you've created this whole world, doing it mostly with dialogue. It's a cross-chorus of voices akin to the "cross-chorus of data" Matty talks about -- the "names, times, actions, quotes, addresses, phone numbers," etc., in which he can see the narrative of an investigation building right before his eyes.

 

RP: Yeah.

 

JM: Paradoxically, it seems you've moved more heavily towards dialogue as the books have, in fact, gotten richer in emotion and bigger in scope.

 

RP: I just like writing dialogue. Many writers, myself included, often suffer from the malady of feeling like they didn't explain enough, and so write stuff that the reader has already figured out. We're not secure enough to know that it's gotten across. At this time, I really try to will myself to pare down, pare down, pare down, and trust that a lot more is getting communicated through less than I ever allowed myself to believe before. Sometimes I think the older writers get, the more they streamline. It's a little bit like when you get older and you look around the house and say, "I don't need all this junk." You start tossing things away, in life and in art. Because I like dialogue, it's sort of helped me streamline.

 

Before my last novel, Samaritan, the other books were a lot more descriptively dense. I'm just trying to convince myself that I don't need it: "I got it. This exchange took care of that. It's redundant now."

 

JM: Well, it worked fine in this one. You don't notice the lack of anything, and the extent of the world that's in your head, as a reader, by the end of it is pretty impressive.

 

RP: I had an editor who kept writing, "Yeah, we know, we know, we know." I had to recondition my storytelling instincts.

 

JM: So the preponderance of dialogue in this book doesn't come out of your screenwriting or television experience.

 

RP: No, screenwriting has never affected my novel writing. In fact, I think the novel writing has a negative effect on my screenwriting, because I use too much dialogue. Movies are about images, but all I have is words, so I rely too heavily on them.

 

I just saw There Will Be Blood, the Daniel Day-Lewis movie. I watched the beginning, and it's riveting; then all of a sudden I realized there are like maybe three lines of dialogue in the first ten minutes. So I have to ask myself, how the hell would I write that?

 

I'm not a filmmaker. I'm a writer. So if anything, I tend to throw in too much. And I know better, except I'll do it anyhow, and then I'll have to look at it and go, "Oh, I did it again." Then I try to strip it down, strip it down, strip it down, if nothing else to get to a page count where a producer won't have a conniption. The first thing they do when they get a script is to look at the last page, and if it says 140, it's like, "Well, I don't think so." The magic number is 120. It's kind of funny -- like you're doing it ass-backwards.

 

JM: What is the relation between what people really say and what you put on the page?

 

RP: If you really wrote down faithfully what people say, you'd wind up with a bad, really long Andy Warhol movie. You know, those tapes at the Ravenite Club where Gotti and his crew were talking? They go on and on and get nowhere. It's like Beckett with all those half-sentences coming back.

 

The trick to dialogue is compression. Sometimes I'll listen to people talk about something that's really fascinating. My mind may wander, but then I'll start paying attention again, and I'll remember basically a third of what they said, but when I write it it looks like I remembered everything. It's not like you write down what people say. You just get a feel for the tone, and go your own way.

 

JM: So having a great ear is not just a listening process. It's kind of an editing process as well.

 

RP: Yeah. If was just listening, you could just put a tape recorder on and walk away. That's not what it's about. It's making the essence of it seem like all of it. In fact, it's extremely boiled-down and condensed.

 

JM: In writing a book like this, or Clockers or Freedomland, on such a vast canvas, do you proceed from beginning to end? Or do you work in set pieces, saying to yourself, "I know I'm going to have this scene," or "This character has to walk into this situation"?

 

RP: I find that it's not a good idea for me to just go and see where it takes me. That usually is a bad idea. I might not need to have everything, but at least I need to know who are the players, what's the problem, how does the problem get resolved, and what's the lay of the land. Then I can try to build a more elaborate structure. But it's usually enough if I can tell a story verbally, like in about ten minutes. Then I can make a laundry list for myself -- it starts out here and it ends up there and it peaks over here. But I leave a lot of elbow room in there.

 

When you actually get into the physical act of writing, the characters tend to take off, and so does the story, in ways that you couldn't anticipate in outline form. Not to make it seem mystical or anything, but you really don't know what you have until you commit to paper. There's just something about the physical act of writing. Doctorow said: "Outlining isn't writing, researching isn't writing, talking about it isn't writing -- writing is writing." That's pretty much true. I can tell a good story to a publisher and they say, "Wow, that's great; okay, do that." Then -- what's that line? "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Because the story will take off once I start writing. Or maybe it won't: it seemed so moving when I verbally told it, and now I'm writing it and it's flat as a pancake. What happened? I don't know. Maybe it was best told as an oral story, and now I'm too self-conscious. You never know.

 

JM: Does each character have his or her own voice for you? Will a phrase pop into your head that they might say, kicking off what follows?

 

RP: Yes, people's voices are extensions of their personalities. If you have a feckless kid, like the kid who gets killed in the book, it's just intuitive that the kid is going to talk in this cocky way, and be confident and bold, out of naiveté as much as anything else, because he feels like the whole world is his for the asking. Then you've got a guy like Eric, who's freaked-out and bitter all the time, and he's going to have a certain edge to his voice, because on the inside he's in a panic. Then you've got Matty, who hardly speaks at all. He has his jobspeak, a certain professional way of talking to people. But his life is mostly internal; he's not very expressive. Then there's somebody like Yolanda, whose whole thing is to come off like a babbling ditz, when in fact she's the sharpest knife in the kitchen.

 

JM: You said earlier that people living on the Lower East Side today have little connection to the neighborhood's past. There's a wonderful scene in which Matty is in Harry Steele's revamped synagogue, and he sees the ghosts of the earlier inhabitants. You say he saw the dead everywhere because he had "cop's eyes." That's an interesting expression. Is there any similarity between "cop's eyes" and "novelist's eyes"?

 

RP: Novelists live inside their heads. A novelist sees a little bit and then goes off and writes a lot. A cop sees a lot and goes off and writes nothing. But the cop has all the experience, and a writer that spends time with a cop will see a little bit, a tiny bit of it. If you hook your finger to the back belt loop and follow them around, you're going to see stuff. But you don't see stuff to the point where it becomes routine; it remains vivid.

 

André Gide said that the way to write about Africa is either to go there for ten days or ten years. Cops have been there for twenty years; it's like being a doctor in the E.R. You've seen everything, you're not going to freak out. Nor should you, because if you do you can't do your job. What good does it do for a doctor to burst into tears when there's a child on a table? You've got to work. A cop can't "Oh my God" everything.

 

Writers like me walk around internally going "Oh my God, Oh my God." And everybody's rolling their eyes, you know, "It's a writer." But you go home and you're good to go. If you have any technical questions, there's the guy's number. But basically, what you're trying to capture is that sense of awe that you felt, that perhaps a detective after twenty years is incapable of feeling any more. For him, there's a long line of dead men leading up to the one from last night.

 

JM: Your last few books address the state of the city, of contemporary urban life, in a way few other novels attempt to do. Despite the fact that we live in a time of such multicultural awareness, there seems to be less and less fiction trying to portray a broad social canvas.

 

RP: Well, it's not required by law to write about the big picture. My kind of storytelling has probably been usurped by other forms -- TV, video, films, even cell phone snaps. I'm a throwback. But take something like The Wire. It takes things head-on, and writes about the issues: "These are the issues." That's the way that show goes, and that's David Simon's influence; he's a reporter. And I write that way when I'm writing for that show. But when, in my novels, I write about the things I see, I'm not addressing anything in particular. I'm just trying to bear witness.

 

I don't have an agenda. But sometimes what I do is more nuanced than what you read in the newspapers. It's all about the grays. So let me write a 400-page book about the grays, then you make of it what you will.

 

JM: You seem to be able to internalize an enormous amount of human intelligence across a wide spectrum of experience, and then to find a form to get it into. I mean, you internalize it and get it back out to us in a way that isn't about you, except in that there are themes that go all the way back, clearly.

 

RP: What I've discovered is that you don't need to know much about somebody. Perhaps all you need to know are the nuts and bolts of their external life, the tricks of their trade or how they do what they do. But their interior life, it's all you. These characters are always an intersection between your own worldview and what you've picked up about this type of individual or that one, and how they think.

 

That's why they call it "fiction." You make stuff up. Somebody might say, "I don't know anybody who's like this." And that's a concern sometimes, especially with the racial thing. I remember with Clockers I was really worried about usurping the life of a 19-year-old black kid -- like it was cultural piracy.

 

Of course, you can't stop thinking about the racial element, but it's still a 19-year-old kid. Not everything has got to be politicized or racially exoticized. Just make him a human being. The same thing with the cops. I don't know anything about being a cop. I'm not a cop. On the other hand, Eric Cash was easy, because he's a guy -- if I didn't get that break with The Wanderers, there but for the grace of God go I.

 

But even with the kids in the projects, like Tristan, I spent enough time with kids like that to have a sense of how they think. And it's amazing the liberties you can take and make work if you just trust yourself. If you hesitate -- "No-no, I don't know enough about what this kid thinks about when he lays in bed in the middle of the night" -- it's difficult to pull off. The trick is not to get intimidated, and to give yourself free rein. As long as your heart's in the right place, as long as you're not going to play to the stereotype of somebody.

 

JM: You write powerfully and movingly about parenthood in this book. In Matty's case, you do so glancingly, when he can't avoid thinking about his role as a father. In Billy Marcus' case, you do it constantly, because it's a much more obvious situation. Is this something that you are able to write about poignantly now because of your own experience as a parent?

 

RP: Definitely. It's not something I want to think about, losing a child, but it was frighteningly easy to imagine the craziness that somebody would experience. I just had to tell myself that whatever Billy Marcus is going through in the book, two years from now he's not even going to remember, because he's in a state of shock right now. To understate it, he's not in his right mind -- nor would anybody be. So basically I'm writing about a crazy person. But the craziness has to make sense. It has to be metaphorically on target to what is making him crazy.

 

With Matty it was kind of fun, because I was, and probably remain, such an obsessive, hovering parent myself; to make somebody like this who is totally parentally constipated, who doesn't want anything to do with them -- the Big One and the Other One is how he thinks of his sons. I wish I was like that. I think my kids would have been better off [LAUGHS].

 

JM: You clearly are well read. And there's this kind of underpinning, I think, that your reading gives your books in a deeper empathy it allows you towards the whole spectrum of characters that populate them -- some crazy, some evil, some resourceful, some just beaten down by despair. But except in the exact sense that they are made very artfully of words, there's nothing "literary" about them. Is that a conscious choice?

 

RP: It's just intuitive. I tend to travel light.

 

JM: If I may ask, what do you read?

 

RP: Everything. It's totally eclectic. What I'm reading right now is Edward Jones's The Known World. Finally. Before that, Josh Ferris's Then We Came To The End. Before that, Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. But I'm also reading a historical book called The Fusiliers, about a British regiment in the American Revolution. The New York Daily News. The Onion. The phonebook. Whatever.

 

I love this poet Christopher Logue. He's sort of done now, but for forty or so years he has been writing his freestyle version of the Iliad. I must have bought dozens of copies of each section to give to people, and keep giving them out. [Editor's note: Logue's Homer project comprises five books to date: War Music (1984), Kings (1991), Husbands (1994), All Day Permanent Red (2003), and Cold Calls (2005). The first three are now available in an omnibus volume entitled War Music.]

 

JM: What appeals to you about that? It's terrific stuff.

 

RP: It's just exhilarating, the liberties he's taking. He's somehow married modern vernacular and wit to antiquity. But in a way that's just thrilling. It doesn't feel cute.

 

JM: That's true. It never feels cute. It's very stark and surprising. Those are wonderful books and they're not as widely known as they should be.

 

RP: I don't know if poetry purists would like them or not. I mean, they might feel like it's a bastard poetry.

 

JM: I've never spoken to anyone who's read Logue's version, even classicists, who haven't found it of great value.

 

RP: Garry Wills said it was the second best translation, the first being Alexander Pope.

 

JM: Let's turn from Homer back to you. Do you ever look back on your career, or travel along a shelf from The Wanderers to Lush Life, and say, "Gee, this makes sense" or "I'm surprised at where I ended up"?

 

RP: The only thing that surprises me is that I started out -- with The Wanderers in 1974 -- writing about a housing project, and, for all the exoticness of the Lower East Side, basically I'm still writing about housing projects. I don't think I ever really left. I think there's been a housing project in just about every book I've done. You can live in many, many, many places, but you're always only from one place. I haven't really had any personal connection to housing projects since 1970, but somehow, maybe they provide a comfort zone.

 

I know I wanted to write about the projects with Clockers, simply because so much had changed. What a housing project meant and what a life in a housing project was like from the time that I lived there to the lives of the people who live there now, it had changed so drastically -- because of drugs, most grievously, crack in the 80s and 90s. And in 1988, at the height of that particular plague, I wanted to understand what happened. I just wanted to know, how does somebody make it through twenty-four hours in this tiger cage? I got sucked in again; I got sucked into the whole world.           

 

Listen. If I grew up in the desert, I'd probably be writing desert books.

 

JM: Do you have any reflections on the change in that housing project life? Is that a situation that ever gets back to what it was for the people you grew up with?

 

RP: Will it ever go back to what it was originally intended to be, which was sort of a launching pad for working class families to have decent housing so the next generation could fare better? I don't think so. Well, I don't know. Now there's a tendency to knock down high rises and replace them with low rises. Where do they put the displaced people? They give them Section 8s, housing vouchers, and they go off somewhere, lower upstate or, in the case of New Jersey, adjoining towns. And presumably low-rise projects are more habitable. But there is that numbers crunch. What did you do with fourteen stories of people? Well, they went that-a-way and that-a-way. Bye! It's like when police come down on a Red Light District and they get rid of the hookers. But they just go somewhere else, and the burden of who they are and what their lives are like goes with them. You're just sweeping them to another corner.

 

I don't know. Projects are tough right now. There's the world inside the apartment and then there's the world of the street. You can be in an apartment in which you have a family that is strong, or somebody who's really trying to equip you for survival and success as best as they can, but the minute you step out that door, you're fair game. It all comes down to how much of that apartment you can take downstairs with you to help you deal with the seductions and pressures out there. That's the thing. That's the challenge for these kids.

 

JM: Are you working on a new novel?

 

RP: It takes me a really long time to figure out what I want to write, novel-wise. So I haven't even thought about it. I'm waiting for this book to come out. It's like I've been pregnant eighteen months.

 

                                                                                                                    -- January 17, 2008

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

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