Richard Price has gone through a lot of life changes over the last ten years and come out pretty much the same. He got divorced, sold his family’s art-filled Gramercy Park townhouse —and then, in 2008, married the writer Lorraine Adams at a ceremony in his new home, a five-story Harlem brownstone restored to its Victorian bones and stocked with photos by Weegee, the seedy street-life touchstone of his later fiction. After publishing his last and maybe most ambitious literary procedural, Lush Life, a thin-sliced vivisection of the Lower East Side, he decided to focus even more intensely on his novels, and less on the increasingly tedious, decreasingly lucrative sideline of screenwriting. Yet his adaptation of the novel Child 44 will hit theaters in April, and he’s writing a script for Scott Rudin from his latest novel, The Whites. So much for change.
Out February 17, The Whites was another 180-degree-turn that happily went 360. Just after moving to Harlem, Price had signed with Lush Life’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to do for his new neighborhood what Lush Life did for the LES. Then he took a “sabbatical,” signing with another publisher, Henry Holt, to write straight-ahead thrillers under a pseudonym. Meant to take four months, the first book — The Whites — took four years, and it’s almost as complex as anything else he’s done.
Five cops, all retired except for our night-shift-toiling protagonist, Billy Graves, nurse grudges against killers who somehow escaped the law. These perps at large are the Whites of the title — the reference is literary (i.e., Moby-Dick) rather than racial. When the Whites start dropping off, Billy steals time from his sleepless routine to investigate, even as a stalker shatters the precarious tranquility of his Yonkers family. Billy and his nemesis grew deeper as Price wrote, defying his potboiler ambitions. The result, pleasantly for everyone (except maybe FSG), is that The Whites is just another Richard Price novel — razor-sharp, unpredictable, and ringing with Price’s fun-house slang.
Looking weary yet caffeinated in a black T-shirt and jeans, Price invited us recently into that beautiful Harlem home. In between nervous phone calls about his book party (“You’ve had too much coffee, next thing you know, you’ve invited every person on the street and your dead relatives”), he talked about Ferguson, vengeance, the trappings of Hollywood, the gentrification of everywhere, and that other novel he owes.
How did you get into the business of using a “transparent pseudonym” — Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt?
I wanted to do a more orthodox urban thriller, and I talked to my agent [Lynn Nesbit] and said, “I’m so sick of writing screenplays for money.” She said, “I could probably get you the money that you would get for a screenplay [under a pseudonym].” She represents Scott Spenser, who had also done that. I was thinking, Wow, I have all these memories stockpiled; I just have to figure out a plot. I’m gonna have to really try to write something according to the rules of the genre, whatever the rules might be. But once I started writing this thing, it got so out of hand. And it just became another book by me, as sprawling as any other book. But I needed the pen name basically to get permission to take a sabbatical from my obligation for Farrar Straus. At this point, I wish it didn’t have a pen name, but at the time, I had my reasons.
It took almost as long as Lush Life.
The plan failed the minute the words came out of anybody’s mouth. Once I’m writing, I’m writing. I can’t be Richard Price Lite. It’s like I’ve been a woman all my life and all of a sudden I’m supposed to be a man. I’m black and I’m supposed to be Chinese. So it took me four years. And not only because I was agonizing over the Dostoyevskyan depths of psychology and so on, but because I took this job to make money and then I had to take other jobs to make money so I could finish the job I took to make money.
You’ve got plenty of screen stuff in the works: the HBO series Crime, several others in development, and a movie adaptation of the novel Child 44.
But I wrote Child 44 in 2008. The screenwriting market totally collapsed. I went off to write Lush Life in 2004 and I was getting ridiculous amounts of money. And then I came back and it was like somebody slammed the door of the oven and the soufflé collapsed. If you’re a guy that’s been out of the business for four or five years, and have always had a literary attitude of looking down your nose, you have to reestablish yourself. I got involved in this new phenomenon of auditioning for a job, and frankly, right now, it’s too damaging to my psyche. I’m 65 years old and I’ve got to do a soft-shoe dance? So there’s TV pilots, but it’s nowhere near the money.
You also got remarried around that time.
Divorce is expensive, and buying a new home, starting a new life with someone. I had kids that I was still helping out. At this point, this house is basically all I need, but I was making a fraction of what I’d been making — and was spoiled to be making. Even though I pissed and moaned about Hollywood being all psychopaths and yes men and this and that, yes, I’ll deign to take your money. Meanwhile, my kids can go to private school until they’re 90 years old.
You’re also going to write a Whites screenplay. Is it better to adapt your own books?
Some writers might feel like it’s their dream come true — a movie’s gonna be made and they’re gonna write the screenplay. Well, it’s been brutal. On Clockers, I started out with Scorsese and De Niro and they left to do Casino, and Spike Lee came in and rewrote the script. Freedomland, I spent two years on that thing. I don’t want to comment on the movie. Then I killed myself on Lush Life and it’s just sitting there. I don’t do it out of a sense of honor. I do it for money. Oftentimes they’ll buy the book, but only if you come along as screenwriter. So I tell myself, This time I’ve learned my lesson, I know how to go about it. But you never learn your lesson.
Where did you get the pseudonym Harry Brandt? When the book deal was announced, it was supposed to be “Jay Morris.”
Yeah, because Jay’s my middle name and Morris was my grandfather who was a writer in Brooklyn. But it was so bland, I was falling asleep in the middle of Morris. Brandt is in honor of my longtime literary agent Carl Brandt, who picked me up when I was 25. He treated me like family and I was shocked that he died [two years ago]. I just wanted to put his name somewhere. And Harry just seemed like a blunt name. It’s retro, but it’s not as popular as Max, for example. It just seemed like every male friend of mine from the projects was named Harry.
Are there future Harry Brandt books in the works?
It’s the hope of my publisher that if this book is successful, he can build on it. The Whites, followed by The Oranges, etc. I would love to alternate a book like the one I’m still gonna write for Farrar Straus with this character. Basically, I’d like to support myself as a literary writer as opposed to a media writer.
One for you and one for them, as they say in Hollywood.
But this would be like both for me. Famous last words. Ultimately, it all comes down to that line, “I bet it ain’t even loaded.” Anytime you think it’s gonna be fun, it’s like saying, “I bet that ain’t even loaded.” Next thing you know, you’re laying there with a hole in your forehead.
Was the “transparent” pseudonym originally part of the plan?
First I was fighting my name on it at all, because I thought it was going to be a strictly genre book. It was negotiated with [FSG publisher Jonathan] Galassi. Holt said, “We have to bring his name, because otherwise it’s gonna land at the bottom of the heap.” And Jonathan said, “Fine.” Then it finally dawned on me that this book was completely like any other book I wrote.
Completely like them? It does feel more straightforward.
The difference is, I think there’s a pattern in my books where there’s some central drama that makes the papers, and in that crime I see essentialized something much bigger. I wasn’t intending to do that with this one. Basically, I wanted to be smart and entertaining. It’s about guilt, you know, and how we deal, what we do with it.
You’re a famously research-intensive novelist, a gumshoe Tom Wolfe. Did you use up any shoe leather on this one?
None. I have so much in my head from going out since the ‘80s and having absorbed things from people on both sides of the law, hung out with the police and the policed. It is fiction, so you’re supposed to use your imagination. But I had such a reservoir of incident.
Do the cops you know have any of their own “Whites,” and did those go into the book?
The guy who’s the model for Billy, Lush Life was inspired by his obsession. There was a kid from Illinois who’d just graduated college and he was visiting his friend on the Lower East Side, and they were bombed and it was four in the morning and these two guys came out of the woodwork to try to hold him up. He took off his jacket and basically dared them and they shot him. So why are you haunted by this murder? Well, it turns out he met the family and they were from the Midwest with four kids, and he glommed on to this family — he’s Irish, too. And he saw the tragedy continue in them. Premature deaths, hospitalizations, They never caught these two guys who shot him. For somebody else, it would be empathy for the victims. The three women that were shot and killed [by another of the book’s “Whites”], there was a cop who basically had a situation like that. He knew it, couldn’t do anything about it. Showed up at the guy’s wedding to fuck with him and got in trouble. In Freedomland, I had this black cop yelling at this community board meeting, “You all know who did it!” That was this cop and that was his obsession.
Maybe the ex-cops in your book are also bored, or nostalgic? They patrolled the Bronx in the days of 2,000 murders a year.
That was the worst time in New York but it was also their salad days. They were young and fit: “We were soldiers once.” This is a horrible analogy, but in one of Roth’s books [Operation Shylock], there’s a character that used to be a Nazi guard. As people got off the trains, he was notorious for torturing people with swords. He was a laugh riot. And now in the book, he’s living in Cleveland and he’s thinking about that. He’s ushered thousands of people to their death, and he’s had a great time, but he’s also thinking, Well, that’s a young man’s game. So these cops — I don’t mean to say they’re Nazis or fascists or anything like that — but anybody working in a horrible area at a horrible time when they’re at their peak, they’re gonna remember that fondly. “Holy shit, do you remember when? Holy shit!”
And obviously the neighborhoods have changed. Did you see that property values are going up in East New York?
Well, I gotta tell you, I go to Brownsville, I go to East New York, I go to Ocean Hill, and I can’t imagine the smell of espresso there — some suburban girl walking down the street with ear buds and texting. She’ll get eaten alive and they’ll cut her up and sell her for parts. But you could have said the same thing — I saw my first dead body in Bushwick. And I saw my second dead body on Lenox and 116th Street. It was the same night.
And now you’re living ten minutes away. There’s some of Harlem in this book — but much more in the one you’ve got planned.
The parts that are in Harlem are based on my osmosis. But the book is fiction. I feel like the spirit for me in this book is Weegee — a lobster shift midnight tour, if Weegee had a pen instead of a camera. So I might have seen things over the years, or I juxtapose them, they happened in Harlem and I put them in Chelsea. These crime scenes are very portable.
Most of The Whites is set in the Bronx — a borough that’s changed a lot since you grew up there.
I was just in the Bronx last week, with my daughter. I’d never taken her to the building where I grew up. When I was a kid, the world was six stories high in that area, and now all that’s gone and it’s affordable income housing, low and prefab. It’s a serious step up for people that live there. I mean, it fucks with my nostalgia, but I don’t live there, you know.
Since you started writing The Whites, it’s become accidentally timely. Police loyalty is a big theme, and Billy has an accidental shooting in his past. What thoughts did you have, watching Ferguson explode, following by everything else?
On Ferguson, all the bullshit aside, I would like to see what happened, but nobody can. You get these Rashomon versions [of the shooting]. In terms of [Eric Garner and] the Staten Island cops, I’ve heard from other cops that they’re not NYPD. It’s a whole different culture. I have heard it from cops who work in Manhattan but live in Staten Island. Their kids get fucked up by cops because they said something wrong — and these are white kids. I think there are police departments that become detached from reality and have this kind of Wild West mentality about where they are, and they become like occupying troops.
What about the cops who turned their backs on de Blasio?
Yeah, but that’s the bullshit of newspapers. You’ve got the bigmouth [Patrick] Lynch, and he’s saying the mayor owes us an apology and so the papers who don’t like de Blasio say, “He’s a douchebag liberal, he’s a half a lesbian, he’s a this and that.” And all of a sudden the tide turns, and it’s a pissing match and the papers are going, “Shut up, Lynch!”
Your were always classified as a literary writer. Why have you focused so much on crime from Clockers onward?
I’ve heard that before: “This is really great, but do you always have to write about cops?” People see that as limiting. But there’s a young writer, a mordant, funny-as-hell guy named Matt Burgess, and he wrote a book called Uncle Janice, which I loved and it’s basically a thriller. He was asked, too, and he said, “Because I can make cops funny. I don’t know how to make doctors or lawyers funny.” Frankly, it’s fun. These people are alive; these people are kinetic. You see life in extremis, in such extremis that a police presence is required. Nobody will ever confuse me with Louis Auchincloss.
Is there a due date for the Harlem novel you owe FSG?
It’s pretty open-ended. Otherwise I would have been in jail a couple of years ago. But no, my goal is, by the summer, to build up enough of a nest egg to just be able to just do what I do, to write a book. But in a way, it’s gonna be a better book. I had no illusion about being a white guy writing about a historical black area, but if I had written about Harlem in 2008, it would have been like, “Oh my God, can you believe this? A storefront church! Holy cow!” And I’ve been living here six going on seven years. I just have a more refined eye right now.
Will it revolve around a crime?
I’m gonna really try hard for it to not be police-centric. But you know what? I bet that thing ain’t even loaded. It’s probably gonna be the ultimate police novel.