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Arts & Entertainment
1/25/04, G-08

Richard Price bases books on his youth in urban setting

Author Richard Price grew up in a Bronx housing project during the 1950s, but admits that housing projects of today are much more dangerous places to live.

"When I grew up, housing projects were springboards to join the middle class," he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Manhattan.

"We all lived in families that had two parents and all our fathers had jobs. Each of my friends ended up going to college. I feel bad for kids growing up in housing projects today because there's so much more violence, and they don't have the family support my friends and I had."

For the past 20 years, Price has had a successful career writing about the urban settings of New York and New Jersey. He has published seven novels, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has also written numerous screenplays including "Sea of Love," "Ransom" and "The Color of Money," which was nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting.

On Tuesday, he will conduct a public reading at 8 p.m. at the University at Albany's uptown campus in the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center as part of the New York State Writers Institute series. Earlier that day, he will present an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m. at the Assembly Hall in the university's Campus Center.

His most recent bestseller, "Samaritan" (367 pages, $25, Alfred A. Knopf), is another of his compelling crime dramas, this time about a former television writer who returns to teach in the inner city of his youth.

"The book's main character, Ray Mitchell, is a lot like me," said Price. "When I was starting out as a writer, I used to go in to New York City schools and teach some classes. Ray also grew up in a housing project, and we both had a drug problem when we were young."

Price said what he was trying to explore in the book is why people do altruistic things. "Ray Mitchell is no longer a TV writer," said Price. "He's sort of lost, and working at the school is a way to make himself feel good. There's a great deal of ego involved in altruism. Nobody is ever entirely selfless. Everybody wants to get something back. Even Mother Theresa became world-famous for her generosity and compassion."

Price said writing as Ray Mitchell was difficult because it felt too much like himself, but writing as detective Nerese Ammons, Ray's childhood acquaintance from the projects, was more enjoyable.

"She was a sort of charismatic character," said Price, "who just sort of took over whenever she came on center stage. You don't always know if a character is going to do that when you start a book. She was probably easier to write because there was no me in her."

Theme of race

The underlying theme in many of his books is the continuing struggle with race in this country.

"This book along with `Clockers' and `Freedomland' are all about race," said Price. "Our race problem is sort of like an American flu. It seems to be part of human nature to struggle with our sense of the other. The white middle-class culture in our country just doesn't know how to deal with the black culture, and the black culture doesn't know how to deal with the whites."

Paramount studio has bought the rights to make a film of "Samaritan," and they want Price to write the screenplay. "But I'm just not ready to do that," said Price. "I wrote the book and I'm just not ready to pare it down to rewrite it into screenplay form."

He says that he feels like an artist when he's writing a novel and a craftsman when working on a screenplay. "The screenplays allow me the opportunity to write the novels," he said.

"The pay is good, but there's not much real writing in a screenplay because there's no sense of language that you find in a well-written book. The best screenplays usually come from B novels that are plot-driven." His readers and many book critics often praise him for his realistic dialogue. "The dialogue I include isn't superficial," he said. "The dialogue should always reveal the character and keep the story moving."

Being able to write good dialogue is something Price says you either have or you don't. "Writing dialogue is sort of like performing improv," he said. "It's spontaneous, and I know in my head when the line is not right."

He has just finished writing two screenplays for the HBO series "The Wire."

"It was fun writing for television," said Price, "but I'm still waiting for an idea for my next book."

Praise for Kennedy

He will most likely read from his book "Samaritan" when he visits Albany, and he's looking forward to seeing Albany author William Kennedy, executive director of the Writers Institute. "I admire the way William Kennedy writes," he said. "We're very different writers, although we both write about urban settings."

His advice for beginning writers is to just write. "Too many beginning writers want to know how to get an agent, and the best advice I can give is to just write, because if you don't write you'll never get an agent," he said.

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