Author's anxious spiral inspires creativity

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, January 25, 2004

You'd think that Richard Price has it pretty much made.

A critically acclaimed novelist from his first time out of the gate (1974's "The Wanderers") up through last year's "Samaritan" (recently named by Entertainment Weekly as the year's top fiction), Price has since the mid-'80s built a parallel career as a screenwriter and a specialist in late-model urban film noir such as "Sea of Love," "Ransom" and "The Color of Money" (which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1987).

So you'd think Price, at age 54, has the writing game beat.

Price would disagree. Right now, he's between projects, and it's driving him up the wall.

"Invariably, it feels like whatever I'm doing, I want to be doing the thing I'm not doing," he said earlier this month.

"I always want to write a novel while I'm doing screenplays -- until I'm actually writing a novel. Then I wish I was really doing screenplays, which make me so happy. Except when I'm doing a screenplay, I wish I was writing a novel, which makes me so happy.

"Except nothing actually makes me happy when it's happening," said Price, who visits the New York State Writers Institute on Tuesday. "It's more like instant artificial nostalgia. Maybe I just don't like to write. I'd much rather read a book than write a book."

Lucky for us, this anxious spiral eventually results in novels as good as Price's three most recent, all set in a fictional New Jersey city called Dempsey. "Clockers" (1992) tracked the redemption of a young crack dealer in the backwash of a rival dealer's murder; "Freedomland" (1998) followed the tense investigation of the alledged kidnapping of a white child by a black carjacker; "Samaritan" explores the near-fatal beating of a successful TV writer who has returned to Dempsey to teach school. Spike Lee directed the 1995 film version of "Clockers"; Julianne Moore and Morgan Freeman are slated to star in "Freedomland."

Something else

While capsule descriptions make these novels sound like thrillers, Price is after something else. Despite the author's copious research -- every detail about police procedure or life in a housing project rings true -- the Dempsey books are remarkable for the way in which the resolution of the plot gradually becomes less compelling than the behavior of Price's wounded, witty, highly verbal protagonists.

"I've kind of fallen into this thing of seeing the world through police eyes," Price said. "Not that I'm either pro- or anti-police, but because when I had the opportunity to go out with the police, I saw human behavior that I'd never see on my own. And you get kind of hung up on this endless trench warfare, (seeing) behavior which is so extreme that a police presence is required.

"... It just seemed to me that if you took any police report on any incident, it's a novel -- and the least of it is the whodunit. It's more like the whydunits."

The landscape of crime, he decided, "was as good a place as any to set any kind of story that's an exploration of any kind of human behavior. It makes it easy for me, like a pre-built structure: 'It's an investigation' -- well, every book is an investigation of human behavior."

TV trenches

Right now, Price is involved in another kind of investigation: He'll be writing several episodes of the third season of HBO's brilliant, dense-packed series "The Wire." The job emerged from Price's 10-year acquaintance with "Wire" co-creator and producer David Simon; the two writers shared an editor in the early '90s, when Price was completing "Clockers" and Simon was working on his nonfiction account "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which became the basis for the long-running NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"We'd sort of sporadically stayed in touch," Price said, "and I think ('The Wire') is the best thing on TV. ... It's Proustian -- I mean, it can take years just setting up the smallest thing. It's as close to a novel as anything on TV."

Simon has drafted other acclaimed authors for "The Wire": George Pelecanos ("King Suckerman," "Hell to Pay") joined the writing staff in the second season; Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River") joins Price for season three.

After that ... well, Price isn't quite sure. Like a compass trying to find true north, he's still waiting to feel that inexorable pull. Maybe the next book will be his first historical novel; Price has spent a lot of time recently researching immigrant life on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

"It's probably the most well-documented, literarily speaking, moment in American history," he said. "It seems like the minute people got over here and got finished working in the sweatshops, they wrote a novel about it."

After a while, that sort of rich historical record can get to be a bit of a hassle.

"By nature, I'm such an obsessive writer about getting things, like, dead-on," Price said. "It's hard enough to do that with things that you can just walk out on the street to confirm, and reconfirm, and reconfirm. Then to apply that to a time that's vanished -- I figured with my obsessiveness I'd never get out of the research phase. So I've got to be very careful; either that, or I've got to truly rethink the value of obsessive accuracy."

"Not everybody gets hung up like this," he said.

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Richard Price