The acclaimed writer on reporting fiction, listening to Martin Scorsese, and the family values in his new novel, The Whites.
Image by Lorraine Adams.
On February 23, 2015, David Simon, author, journalist, and writer/producer of popular HBO crime drama The Wire, took the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City to interview heretofore-unknown author Harry Brandt about his debut detective novel, The Whites. No one in the audience was surprised when Brandt turned out to be the acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Richard Price.
Price, known for his meticulous realism in the deftly crafted Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), and Lush Life (2008)—Great American Novels from the other side of the tracks—put out The Whites in a much-publicized and somewhat protracted pseudonymous turn. The novel was originally slated to be a work of genre fiction with a relatively short turnaround from contract signing to bookshelves. Four years later, the world has been introduced to burnt-out “cowboy” sergeant Billy Graves, and Price has discovered what readers have no doubt known since his lauded debut, The Wanderers (1974), an intricate and fantastical series of stories about a teenage gang, set in a Bronx housing project like the one where the author grew up: Price will always be Price.
Born in 1949 to middle-class Jewish parents (his father was a window dresser for Modell’s, among other things; his grandfather wrote poems, “kind of like the O. Henry Miller of Minsk,” Price told The Paris Review in 1996), Price was the first child in his family to go to college. He began to really write and read at Cornell University, from 1967 to 1971; then, at twenty-two, as a student in Columbia University’s fiction MFA program, he penned a short story. As Price recalls in the interview that follows, his classmates more or less hated it. But, crucially, one—the poet Daniel Halpern—didn’t. Not long after Halpern published the story in his journal, Antaeus, Price published The Wanderers, of which that story became a chapter. He was twenty-four.
Price achieved considerable acclaim in his early career, but by his fourth novel, he tells Simon, “I ran out of me.” He had written seemingly all of what he knew—New York, the Bronx, good guys, bad guys, cops and criminals who swerved between former and latter—and needed to try something else. He went to work as a screenwriter, most notably with Martin Scorsese on The Color of Money (1986). At Scorsese’s suggestion, he traveled south to learn about pool hustlers for Money and realized he could actually “learn stuff”—in other words, he had a gift for research.
After a brief cocaine addiction in the ’80s, a subsequent recovery, and a short stint teaching writing to other former addicts at a rehab facility, Price decided to bring a successful eight years of writing for studios to a close, saying he did not want to be “nibbled to death by ducks.” Clockers followed, a testament to Price’s research skill. He rode in countless patrol cars and learned to tell other people’s stories without the condescension of liberating those stories from their rightful owners. He mastered dialogue that was true to its nonfiction origin and yet existed on a fictive plane over which he exerted a control Simon likens to “voodoo.”
The Whites sees Price in unfamiliar territory—not just writing as Brandt but as a seasoned novelist exploring a new subject: family. He attributes this turn to a sense of “peace in my relationships, in my home.” This is how The Whites became less a genre book than what he likens to “the Cousins Karamazov,” and how Richard Price can still transform what we talk about when we talk about Richard Price.
—Amelia Stein for Guernica
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and concision.
David Simon: I’ve seen you answer this question before, but I’ve decided to ask it using my wife, who is a genre writer of some repute. So, Laura Lippman’s take on this was, “Let me understand this: when he was going to write genre, he had to change his name? Is it that bad to write genre? I’ve been doing it for years and I felt no shame until this moment.”
Richard Price: Well, I knew Laura was pissed at me. When I started this book, The Whites, what I intended to do was write a strictly genre book that was going to be an urban thriller—although the problem with thrillers is they are thrilling. It’s like the problem with horror stories is that they are really horrifying. I just thought it was going to be such a departure for me that I wanted to create a persona for this separate type of writing I was allegedly going to do, so I came up with this Harry Brandt.
I use this line all the time, so why not use it again: I know how to dress down, but I don’t know how to write down. And the book kept expanding on me, and the characters kept becoming more, and all of a sudden I was writing about family dynamics in a way that I’ve never done before.
It turned out to be a Richard Price novel after all, and it took four years, just like any one of my cinder-block books, and at this point, I regret using the pen name, because I was foolish to think I could become another person. Laura is still going be pissed at me.
David Simon: To give you some small history in this preamble here: Richard and I have the same editor, John Sterling. He’s here tonight. When I was working on Homicide, he was working on Clockers, and to me at that time Richard Price was The Wanderers; I was like, holy shit, this is otherworldly. Then I was a police reporter in Baltimore, and John laid the manuscript of Clockers on me. Not even the reader’s copy, but the manuscript. I remember reading through it and thinking, “My God, he got to everything.” He got to everything the way it actually is in the project stairwells, on the corners. The Wanderers, I never imagined that it was researched. I imagined it was conjured the way I imagine literature to be conjured. I knew he knew the people of Clockers. They had been transformed to literature, but I knew you knew it, and I don’t think until that moment I had really seriously given thought to the notion that novelists love research.
I discovered the world of learning, and if you have enough imagination and an eye for detail, and an ear for how people speak, you can turn this into art.
Richard Price: I’ve written eight books before The Whites, and the first four books, I was young and I honestly believed that old thing: Write what you know about. All I knew about was me, because I was in my twenties. What do I know about? After the fourth book, which was exhausting, and a flattening experience, I ran out of me, and I didn’t know what to do, and I was writing more because I was anxious about getting published than because I had something I really wanted to say, and the book suffered for that, because there was no core.
I quit writing novels for eight years and I started writing screenplays. The first screenplay that made it into a film, The Color of Money, was a road movie, and it was pool hustlers, and I barely knew how to play pool, plus it was not a New York sport. On the other hand, they say anything you play where you can still wear your wristwatch is not a sport, so I don’t know if pool is a sport, or if golf is, but… Scorsese said, “Well, you’ve got to learn about pool if you are going to write this.”
I went down to Alabama and Virginia and Kentucky, and I hung out with pool hustlers, and all of a sudden I learned, I can learn stuff. If you don’t know something, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn about it and then know something. I discovered the world of learning, and if you have enough imagination and an eye for detail, and an ear for how people speak, and if you pick up just enough rudimentary knowledge about this world that you know nothing about, you can turn this into art. And I wrote The Color of Money, and then I wrote Sea of Love, which involved police work. I didn’t even know a policeman—even when I was a kid, I never knew a policeman—but I got hooked up with a guy in Jersey City, and all of a sudden I’m in the back of police cars, all of a sudden I’m going to crime scenes. Once again, I’m learning. And the learning was so exhilarating to me, and I just felt my creative life expand.
So after eight years of researching screenplays, I finally came across a story that involved my own experiences, having been a coke addict for a couple years in the early ’80s, that involved all the things I saw through cops’ eyes, that involved housing projects that were identical to the projects that I grew up with, and built in the same year, that had become tiger cages. I started teaching pro bono at Daytop Village, which was a rehab center mostly for teenagers in the part of the Bronx where I was born. All of a sudden, after all of this experience in sopping up things, I realized I wanted to write something that I will not trust to the marketing department of a studio. I will not be nibbled to death by ducks.
I finally felt, through the confidence I got through writing screenplays, I was ready to go back to books, but I had such an appetite for what I didn’t know. I was so eager to take the I out: There is no I in “novel.” I took myself out of the formula. I just wanted to report a book. But you can come back and you have stenographers’ notebooks and police memorandum notebooks and they’re piled as high as your chin; that’s just a bunch of notebooks. The challenge is to take all that material and forge a shapely allegory for what you saw. And that was Clockers, and then I did it again with Freedomland. The difference with The Whites is I had such a backlog of memory from going out on the street, hanging out with the police, the policed, the people who service both, attorneys, schoolteachers, social workers. I had such a backlog of memory and incident, [I thought], “I’m going to write this, and I’m not going to hit the field.”
Of course, I walk around Harlem, where I live, and all of a sudden I’m getting new stuff. Even when I had the stuff down cold, I was so nuanced in my thoughts about these things [that] it still took four years. What caught me by surprise is not the police stuff, and how well I could do that. Not the street stuff, and how well I can do that. All of a sudden I was writing about a solid family, and I’ve never been able to write that before. And that was a product of the last six years of my life, when I had enough peace in my relationships, in my home, to feel it’s okay to write this stuff now. I have confidence, and I have so much stuff to bring to the party. It was just new territory for me, so it became less and less a genre book, and more and more… It wasn’t exactly The Brothers Karamazov, but maybe it’s the Cousins Karamazov.
David Simon: The first time I met Richard, as Richard has relayed elsewhere, it was the night of Rodney King. It was a play date arranged by our editor, by John, who thought we should meet, since he was editing both books. We went to Jersey City, where you had staged the magical city of Dempsey for Clockers, and I had acquired these pages, and thought to myself, “He knows these people. They all exist.” I, of course, [was] locked into my own crippling disease. I was a newspaperman, so I was…
Richard Price: You had journalistitis, yeah.
David Simon: Yeah. I took everything literally, and I think I had a moment of revelation. Richard was showing us, “Well, this is the bench in the projects that I imagined to be Strike’s bench.” And I was like, “Yeah, it all comports,” I knew there was a Frankie McCourt, I thought I knew everything, and then at one point I asked you about the great dome in the hospital.
Richard Price: Oh, yeah. The Frank Hague Memorial Maternity.
David Simon: Right. [From the scene where] they were tearing up the metal and throwing it down in the great rotunda, and it was echoing, and I said, “Where is that?” Do you remember what you said?
Richard Price: “I made that up. I’m allowed!”
David Simon: You said it with a good deal of condescension, like, “I’m allowed.”
Richard Price: You get fired, I get paid.
No matter how much I see something that, pardon the cliché, blows my mind, I’ve still got to make it into literature. Just because you saw something doesn’t automatically make it art.
David Simon: So now I want to ask you the question: What is more fun? When somebody comes up to you and they are so locked into one of the novels that there is a scene they have bought hook, line, and sinker, and you know it because you were literally there when that astonishing thing happened, in the back of a police car, or in the interrogation room, and you think, “That’s just great research,” the same way a reporter would feel—or is it when somebody is convinced that something you’ve written has been dead-on true, and you know [it isn’t]?
Richard Price: The fact is, it’s a novel. It’s not a documentary. No matter how much I see something that, pardon the cliché, blows my mind, I’ve still got to make it into literature. Just because you saw something doesn’t automatically make it art. You have to do something with that, and it has to be in harmony with all the billion other things you saw. It goes back to that giant jumble of stenographers’ notebooks. What are you going to do with all this stuff?
David Simon: Now, you get all the credit in the world, and deservedly so, for the dialogue being just pristinely correct. The cop-speak is correct, the street-speak is correct. Nobody who reads a Richard Price novel ever comes away thinking that a line of dialogue is out of place. But I don’t think you get a lot of credit for—and what we tried to bring out when we had you sort of captive for some TV writing—how funny it is. How darkly funny.
Richard Price: I find humor is not the same as comedy. Humor is about provoking recognition in the reader. If you nail a conversation, if you nail a certain archetype, and expand on it in a way that makes it fresh, and somebody reads this and they feel like, “Oh, man. I utterly believe this conversation,” they are going to smile. Not because it’s hilarious, or it might be hilarious, but [because] it’s dead on. Recognition is humor to me. If I can write about something in a way that will evoke that grin in people who have had no experience but [who will] intuitively buy it hook, line, and sinker, that’s my idea of being funny.
David Simon: There are a lot of people who can internalize the wit and the humor of one side or the other. They go into the precinct and they find the cops distinctly inhumane and unfunny, or the precinct humor is magical to them, but they get out on the corner and they don’t hear any wit at all, these are just the chow for heroes of the story.
Richard Price: Well, novels of the ’40s and the ’50s are like cop novels. You would have writers who were so in love with the cops, probably because they had a fantasy: In a different life, I’d be a big policeman… There would always be this underlay of racism, because they saw the black and Puerto Rican perps and the street people as humorous, as opposed to the cops, who were real.
My experience is, you get sort of embedded. These cops invite you into the house of their life, and you’re grateful, and you accept the invitation, and all you want to do is write faithfully, not passing judgment, but just witnessing, and let them dig their own graves and build their own monuments.
But at some point, I want to go to the police, I want to go to the people who live in the world [where] the police are a constant presence, and I feel just the same way about them: “Thank you for inviting me into the house of your life,” and I’m going to treat them with the same open-eyed empathy. If I have to tell you, “This is a bad cop,” if I have to tell you, “This guy is a scumbag and deserves to be collared because he is just a bad seed grown to adulthood”—if I have to tell you that, it’s boring. I just want to present people and let you decide what it’s about.
David Simon: What would be the verdict you most feared, and what would be the verdict you most hoped for, when a book like Clockers came out? Or The Whites, or any of these, where you are journeying from one side to another. My own greatest fear was that the people living the event would call bullshit on the book.
Richard Price: Of course I wanted people to read the book and feel like I did them justice, but that in itself wasn’t going to affect the way I wrote. I wasn’t going to pander to anybody. Oftentimes, when the book was done and out, and I gave it to, gosh, the people on both sides of the line, I’d go into a room when they were there, and they’d kinda look at me, then look away, and move away, and I’m thinking, “Oh, Christ. They hated it. They are feeling like I really betrayed them.” They didn’t feel like I really betrayed them; they didn’t read the book and they are embarrassed. They are not novelists. They are not bookworms.
David Simon: I sent a copy of Homicide to all the detectives, and there it was, it was nonfiction, it was their real names in it, so you would think they would be even more obsessive about reading every phrase. About six months after I’d sent the books out I ran into the real Jay Landsman in a courthouse hallway, and I asked him what he thought, and he said, “It wasn’t as good as Old Yeller.” Then he kept walking, and I realized, I don’t think he’s read the book.
Richard Price: That’s what my father said about The Wanderers. I wrote it when I was twenty-four and I was the first kid in my family to go to college. My father was a window dresser for Modell’s and he drove a cab and he had a tiny hosiery store, and I had actually published a book, which was mind-blowing, and I ran into him about three months after the book came out. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and he said, “Come on, let’s get a Tequila Sunrise”—you know, it’s 1974—or a Harvey Wallbanger or something. He said, “Yeah, I got the book, I read it, you know, it wasn’t like a good book or anything.” I said, “Oh,” but it was like falling asleep under a sunlamp. At the time you go, “Okay.” Then about five hours later you shoot up in bed and your body is radioactively burning: “What? You write a book!”
David Simon: Leaving behind the hurt feelings of my wife, I’ll go back to something else that you’ve been saying now, which is that you do the screenplays, you do anything else but write novels for the cash, but if you could, you’d just write novels. But we only paid you scale for those Wire episodes; you didn’t even make any money off of it. I know we had no money on that show.
Richard Price: I had been such an avid fan for two years watching. I knew the characters. And when you and George asked me if I wanted to write for Season 3, my terror was, “These guys think I know everything in the world because I wrote Clockers.” I put everything I knew in Clockers. When I wrote Clockers, if my brain had pockets, I put everything on the table, including my keys and my big rabbit ears. I was out of new information. I thought, “These guys who are writing this impressive show expect me to raise the level of the show,” and I just felt like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
I’ll do anything not to write.
David Simon: You asked the classic Richard Price request: you asked to go for ride-alongs in Baltimore, which we thought was laughable. I mean, how many more ride-alongs in an American police car do you need? But there you were.
Richard Price: I am so much more happy hanging out than I am actually writing. I’ll do anything not to write. My wife and I go through this multi-hour ritual in the morning, it’s called warming up, a.k.a. going online and looking at shoes and rare books, and, “You know, I never answered this email this guy sent me from 2011, he’s probably wondering, I’d better answer it now.” It’s so hard to get to the place of writing, because when you start writing, it’s like you leave your own body and have to inhabit these characters. I always say it’s like levitation. It’s worse than jogging. It feels so excruciating before you do it, and you’re thinking about it, and you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, and all of a sudden you start doing it, and you go, “Oh.”
I always use the example of people who jog and hate to jog, so they’ll mess around for four hours getting new sneaker laces, and stretching, and, “Wait, I want to watch this thing on ESPN, maybe it will inspire me.” You go out, and you jog for a half hour, and then you are done; but you spent four hours getting to the half hour of the jog. After a certain number of years, you just accept [that] that’s who you are and that’s how I roll, and once I get started, I’m in.
David Simon: Is it just the force of deadlines that forces you to stop, or is there a moment when you realize, “I’ve now researched so far beyond what can be contained?”
Richard Price: Nicholas Pileggi, when he was doing Casino, his nonfiction book about Las Vegas, said when he got to the point where he was asking some wise guy out there, some croupier, a question, and before the guy answered, he was mouthing the guy’s answer—once he could do that, he knew it’s time to stop.
It’s so addictive for me. An actor gets to try on so many lives, so many different roles. You’re a Shylock, you’re a Mafia don, you’re a transgender monkey, you are anything you want to be, depending on the role, and I just want, in my life, to experience as many lives as I can. It’s like, I hate to leave the field, but you have to do it. When I was writing Clockers, and John Sterling had about two and a half years, after we signed the contract, of meeting me and being regaled and mind-boggled by all these incredible stories from the field, we finally had one lunch, and it was like an intervention. I told him, “This happened, this happened.” And finally he just said, “Look, I just have one question for you: What’s the first sentence of the book?” I was like, “No, no, no… I don’t know enough about the public defender’s office; I don’t know enough about the public schools, or the importance of the black church in certain communities.” He just said: “What’s the first sentence of the book?” It was like being talked off a ledge. I so did not want to hear that.
David Simon: You started out writing very personal novels—well, not so much The Wanderers, but you went through a period when you were writing what you know, and you knew yourself, and it makes perfect sense. Now, you have become known for living on that precipice where cops in the street find each other and these moments happen and the city is revealed. Let’s lose the word “genre” for a moment—there’s all this bad weight in literature around that word—but is there something really telling about crime and the culture of poverty?
Richard Price: The first thing that happens when I’m writing a book is to geographically locate myself: I’m in Jersey City, I’m in the Lower East Side, I’m in Harlem. I know I want to write about this place. And usually what happens is my thoughts about the place are panoramic, and I will wander in that place for a year before a story suggests itself. If there’s a crime that is a story about the interface of all the disparate sections in the Lower East Side, or in Harlem, or in Jersey City, that crime, and the orderly investigation that comes out of that crime—first of all, that crime has to speak to the bigger social ailment. I’m not a social realist, I’m not a muckraker, but once I have that crime, I have this big, messy panorama. Once I find that crime, the orderly progression of the police investigating the crime—the witnesses that they see, the family, the victims, the perps, who they hide with, the perps’ families—will give you a spine through that globulous panorama, and that becomes your organizing principle. Follow the investigation of the crime and you will pull in everyone in that world.
You are with a person and they kind of wash over you. What you want to catch is how they process ideas into language.
David Simon: I want to talk about the Pricean voodoo with street language, which is what made us happy in The Wire, like when he would turn in a script, we would read it, and we’d all get to the same pages, and there would be certain phrases that were so improbable, yet fixed. They were supposed to have been said, yet you can’t imagine how he thought of them. They were never the obvious, but they were never hyperbolic; they were never things that couldn’t have been said on a project bench, or in a stairwell, or in a precinct hallway. They could have been said, yet this was better—if that makes sense. How do you get to that?
Richard Price: If you go out there, good dialogue is not about perfect authenticity, because otherwise, the tape recorder can give you good dialogue. What it is, it’s about being with someone till you know how their thoughts come out in the individual fingerprints and snowflakes of how they put words together to express themselves.
You are with a person and they kind of wash over you, and, I hate to say it like this, but you can do them. You are not going to write exactly what they said; you are going to write something in the spirit of what they said. Because what you want to catch is how they process ideas into language. It sounds very anthropological, but it’s a lot more quick than that. I always use the example that we were listening to George Bush on TV for eight years—not everybody is a novelist, not everybody has a great ear, but if I said to you, “Take Shakespeare’s speech, any speech, the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but recite it like George Bush would,” you could all do it. It’s just osmosis, it’s just a spiritual osmosis.
David Simon: The stuff that always stayed with me was there were moments where you’d be engaged in witnessing this astonishing inhumanity, or this real tragedy, and then in the middle of it, there will be something so throw-away, by a cop, by someone who’s being policed. I remember I was in an interrogation room, and the police were slowly leading this guy on. There had been two guys found dead in the back seat of a car in West Baltimore, and they had gotten the guy to put himself in the car, and put himself in the rear-right seat, and he was trying to say that the person in the front seat had turned and shot the two people, and he was just a witness, and at some point the police gently laid in the fact that they had bullet holes coming into the guy’s side, from the right. The guy in the interrogation room, I’ll never forget, he just sighed, and he said, “Yeah, I threw ’em some hot ones.” It was like, he didn’t say, “I shot them,” because as you often say, and I’ve heard you say it, “God is not a second-rate novelist.”
Richard Price: On the other hand, he is a second-rate novelist, because some of the stuff that is real, if you put it in a novel…
David Simon: That’s true.
Richard Price: Looks like, “Oh, please.”
David Simon: It’s true. Well, we have questions [from the audience], and we are going to answer some of them, or not. “How much time did you actually spend with night-watch detectives researching The Whites?” And the more notable question, “Why do you think the NYPD continues to grant you such access?”
Richard Price: Because I have them fooled. You see, this is the thing, there’s all this stuff about me reporting my novels, but when I actually go back on a calendar and tally the amount of days I’ve actually been out with this unit, or those people in the projects, it’s always surprisingly little. I think I went out with night watch on three nights, and I got permission to do it because the guy who was a sergeant on night watch that particular night was a friend of mine, and he said, “Come watch.” I didn’t go through the channels, but I made sure to go out on the three hottest nights for night watch: St. Patrick’s, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve. It feels like I’ve been with these guys out in the swamps with big Margaret Mead glasses on, and I feel like I’ve spent tons of time, but I really haven’t ever spent that much time. It’s not like I go out even for a solid couple of days; it’s sporadic, always.
David Simon: Why do [the NYPD] let you do it?
Richard Price: They don’t let me do it, because I learned not to go through channels. You always need a hook. My first hook was meeting a cop in Jersey City, who was into the boxing world, and I was writing a screenplay for Night and the City that was finally made ten years after I wrote it. He was a card-carrying member of SAG, and he was going to advise me on this, in exchange that he would get an audition. Well, that never panned out, but he was the only cop I knew when I started writing Sea of Love. I had this entrée through him. Basically, you get passed around. You talk to one guy, and it’s never because you got permission, [but] because somebody knows somebody that knows somebody that says you are okay. I talk to this guy, tell him what I want to learn, and he’ll say, “Well, come out with us, but if you really want to learn that stuff…”
First of all, they have to feel like you are good company. They know you are a writer, and I forget the fact that they know I’m a writer. They are not naïve. So even if I’m not copiously writing in a notebook, and I swear I’m not a journalist or an investigative reporter, they’re talking to a writer. They’re not going to talk to me like they would talk to the other guys they work with two hours after I went home. But if I make myself good company and they enjoy the conversation we have, they say, “Well, that thing that you asked about? You should really talk to Bobby in the Crime Scene Unit, I’ll make a call.” I get a call, so now I’m with Bobby. I’m going out with Bobby. I’m seeing things, I’m seeing things, and as I see things, I didn’t even know I had questions about this, because I didn’t even know this existed until I saw it, but it always leaps into something else that, now that I know about it, I want to know about it. They’ll say, “Well, you need to hang out with Gene in Art Forgery, or whatever—the Scuba Team.” Basically, you get passed around like a bong, and the only requirement is that you are good company and that you are interesting to them.
Once I had movies, once they saw I did a movie with Robert De Niro, I did a movie with Al Pacino, it becomes so much easier. I’m with them, and all night I’m thinking, “Oh my God, you walk around with death on your hip. How do you do that?” And they looked at me and said, “I want to ask you something, and be honest with me: Do you call him Bob, Bobby, Robert, or Mr. De Niro?” “Well, I’m glad you asked me that question. Now, about that death on your hip…” So it becomes like a mutual curiosity thing.
David Simon: “When did you know your first novel was ‘ready’? Ready for people to look at, ready to try and sell, et cetera?”
Richard Price: I didn’t. I was twenty-two, and I started writing what I thought were short stories about growing up in the Bronx, but as far as I was concerned I was in the MFA program at Columbia, and I was just a writer, and this is what I was doing for school; it was kind of a goof. For two years in the MFA program I can go to cocktail parties, and people would say, “What would I have read of yours?” Other than saying, “How the fuck do I know, I’m not a mind reader,” the answer is, “Uh, nothing.” I could say, “Well, I’m in the MFA program at Columbia University, which, as you know, is an Ivy League school.”
I didn’t know it was ready, I just kept writing these stories for class, and one of the students in the class was Daniel Halpern, who is a poet but also had this magazine, Antaeus, and I wrote what happened to be the first chapter of The Wanderers, although I didn’t know it at the time, and the class hated it, and considered it racist, because it was about a gang fight between Italians and blacks, and the Italians won, so it’s racist. He came up and he said, “I’d like to publish that,” and I was in shock. I was twenty-two. I said to him, “How much?” He said, “Well, we can’t really pay, but you’ll get three free copies.” I said, “What I meant was, how much am I paying you?” It took two years, and I kept writing that, but forgetting about it, and la-di-da-di-da, and finally some editors saw the Antaeus thing and reached out to me and took all my collected stories and I became an author.
David Simon: Years ago, when you were researching Freedomland, you—of course, because this is how you play—you went down to South Carolina to get your head around the Susan Smith case, which was the prototype for—
Richard Price: Horrific matricide. No, infanticide.
David Simon: Yeah, in which she drove the kids into the lake in a van. You were down there and at some point you got wind that there was a similar case in Baltimore, involving an arson, a mother who had set fire to her house and killed her kids. So I get this call, and I guess this counts as our second play date: “Could you come talk to the detectives?” So we basically rolled around, we talked to the detectives. We went to the crime scene and we stared at the burnt-out row house, and then, because it’s Richard Price—and at this point you wrote The Wanderers and Clockers, and I got to show off somehow, and I was researching for The Corner—we drove out to West Baltimore, and I rolled around the neighborhood that I’d been researching and I found one of my main characters, Gary McCullough, who was high as a kite. We pulled him off the corner, he got in the back seat, we chatted amiably for about fifteen minutes, and at some point he used the phrase—
Richard Price: No, I think that was the guy in the hospital with the big hands, like heroin mitts.
David Simon: No, no, no.
Richard Price: He used that phrase.
David Simon: He used it?
Richard Price: I thought that.
David Simon: Oh, I thought it was Gary. You think it was… You met Fat Curt on that trip?
Richard Price: Mm-hmm.
David Simon: All right, so I don’t even have the story right. In any event, at one point Richard hears the phrase, the guy says, “Oh, he was an apple scrapple,” which in Baltimore, somehow, some decaying piece of New York scrapple from the apple, it means you’re an extra dessert. It’s like, “Oh, you are special,” at best, at best.
Richard Price: At which point we both heard the words “apple scrapple.” And we are standing over this guy’s hospital bed and, because he was a heroin addict, and at a certain point their hands swell up, this guy’s hands look like catchers’ mitts, they were so swollen.
David Simon: Yeah, poor Fat Curt.
Richard Price: He said, “Yeah, you are the apple scrapple, Dave,” and all of a sudden we looked at each other like gunfighters: “Don’t you use that! I’m going to use that! You are in my city; you do not get to say ‘apple scrapple’ in your book!”
David Simon: The parasitic notion of this kind of writing, reporting, whatever you want to call it, [is] there was apple scrapple in the middle of the room, and all I could think of is, “I was showing off, I took Richard to see my guys, and now Price has “apple scrapple.” And he’ll probably publish before I will, the son of a bitch.”
Richard Price: Snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
The 92nd Street Y’s video recording of this conversation can be found here.
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