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Richard Price on ‘Lush Life,’ Martin Scorsese, and Michael Jackson

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Richard Price cemented his status as a king of American urban fiction with novels like Clockers and Samaritan, as well as a recent stint writing for The Wire. In his new novel, Lush Life, he casts his eye on the Lower East Side, where downtown hipsters and skyrocketing gentrification clash with housing projects and a smorgasbord of ethnicities. (New York’s Sam Anderson really likes the novel; in today’s Times, Michiko gives it a gushy rave.) Price spoke with Vulture at his Gramercy Park townhouse about the Lower East Side’s mix of old and new worlds, his screenplay for the upcoming debut novel Child 44, and the King of Pop.

Why did you decide to set Lush Life on the Lower East Side?
The Lower East Side is my ancestral home, and right now there’s complete chaos of culture. It’s also got a million ghosts. Historically, everybody staggered off the boat at Ellis Island, landed on the Lower East Side, and then instantly proceeded to figure out how to get out of there. After five generations we’ve come full circle back to the Lower East Side. My kids who know the neighborhood so well as it is now only have a marginal awareness that 100 yards away from where they are listening to bands, their great-grandfather was in a kill-or-be-killed situation every day.

Clockers was set in the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey, in large part because you couldn’t get access to the NYPD for research. What changed this time?
I just lucked out. Normally if you go through channels, forget it – you won’t get permission to hang out with the cops. One of my friends is Michael Daly from the Daily News, and I think he made a call that got the ball rolling. I got permission to go and speak to commander of the 7th Precinct on Pitt Street, and luckily, he’d read some of my stuff and said, “What do you want?” It was paralyzing. No one’s ever said that to me, and I couldn’t think of an answer when I didn’t even know what the questions were. I never go anywhere with a specific aim to find out this, this, and this. I have to know specific things exist before I realize I don’t know anything about them.

You’re in the process of adapting Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44, to the screen. How did that come about?
It was offered to me by my agent at CAA who set me up to talk with Ridley Scott, who apparently wanted to work with me for a long time. The book is sort of like a Martin Cruz Smith–type Russian thriller of a particular year, 1953, the year Stalin died. It just seemed so not like me or what I write so I figured, “Why not?”

You had to put it on hold because of the strike, right?
Yeah. But now I’m back. But now I also have a book out, so I’m in the tenth house of madness. I’m half-pitching Lush Life, half-thinking about the life of a KGB agent circa 1953.

I remember reading that you were also behind on your last screenplay…
Nobody ever hands in anything on time, and when they do, it’s probably because it’s superficial and they didn’t do a good job. It’s like construction work; a guy looks at your kitchen, says the job will take two weeks. Three months later he says “Ah, the stuff from Italy didn’t come, sorry about that.” From the outside, anticipating how it’s supposed to go is nice, but there’s that saying, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Screencap from YouTube

So, how did you get involved in writing the dialogue for the video of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”?
Oh my God.

It’s on YouTube, you know.
Too late to deny it then. Listen, it sounded like a great idea. Martin Scorsese came to me and said Quincy Jones came to him on behalf of Michael Jackson to do a music video. This was when music videos were just becoming a big thing. So Jackson wanted to show people that he’s “down.” Think about it: Richard Price, Scorsese, Michael Jackson, who the hell is going to say no? Of course I was going do it. And everybody did their job. Jackson is not a bad actor, and Scorsese, well, he’s great. I wrote a really good eight-page script. Problem is that Michael Jackson is Michael Jackson … he looks like Minnie Mouse. And you forget the whole thing has to end with a song. Looking at it now, I think it’s cool I did it. No one holds it against me, anyway.

It’s definitely one of the more unusual writing credits.
True dat.
— Sarah Weinman

Related: Sam Anderson’s review of Lush Life

Richard Price on ‘Lush Life,’ Martin Scorsese, and Michael Jackson