After writing novels located primarily in the Bronx and New Jersey, New York-native Richard Price has written a new novel, Lush Life, that captures the vivacity of life and language in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Dissent’s Jon Wiener (“The Weatherman Temptation,” spring 2007) interviewed him this month.
Jon Wiener: Lush Life involves several worlds that exist side by side on the Lower East Side today—tell us about them.
Richard Price: Right now it seems like the place belongs to young, white middle-class kids in their twenties. It’s become their Montparnasse. But there’s also a big housing project population. There are tenements that haven’t been caught up in the real estate rehabbing game, and they are filled with Hispanics and Chinese and old hippies. There are the orthodox Jews, who are in a world unto themselves down there. And there is this huge population of Fujianese immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. All these people are occupying the same sidewalks and not really aware of each others’ existence.
J.W.: What did you learn about the Fujianese immigrants?
R.P.: They’ve got it really tough. Historically, the Lower East Side had the highest population density in the world circa 1900. Forget Calcutta. And that was mostly Eastern European Jews. But the Fujianese are living just like that, cheek and jowl, while in the next building are yuppies with a floor-thru that cost two million bucks. The burden that these guys have, that nobody before them had down there, is that they have to pay somebody to smuggle them into the country. So the minute they step off the boat they are $70,000 in the hole to the snakehead who got them over. On top of everything else, working seven days a week, they’ve got to pay off a mammoth debt.
J.W.: You describe what we might politely call “overcrowding” in their buildings.
R.P.: Everybody’s doing menial labor. Everybody’s working seven days a week. They have to divide up an apartment with maybe 20 other guys. I’ve seen apartments where someone basically rents a plank of wood to sleep on for a month for $150. And if he’s being taken by van to upstate New York to work in a Chinese restaurant three or four days a week, he is going to sublet that plank of wood.
J.W.: There’s one other group on the Lower East Side that you write about: the police. You obviously have spent a lot of time riding around with cops. Are you into cops?
R.P.: Honestly no. I’m not a law and order guy. I never talk about politics with the cops. I doubt very many of them would agree with me politically. But I would have to say that when you’re with them, you get to see things—from the back of a police car, or going up a flight of stairs—that you’d never see normally. You see human behavior in such extreme states that a police presence is required. To be with them is like getting a backstage pass on life.
J.W.: You write that the central character in Lush Life “was seized with the notion of the Lower East Side as haunted.” Were you “haunted” by the Lower East Side—by the ghosts of a million Jews from Eastern Europe?
R.P.: The other population down there is the ghosts. You can do urban archaeology without a shovel. All you have to do is look: faded signs over faded signs. For my family, like a lot of other New York families, we started out down there. So you grow up with the stories of how hard it was for your grandparents. Sometimes it gets sentimentalized. I’ve always thought it was a tough, desperate place. The whole point of landing there was to get out as fast as you could.
J.W.: Many writers envy your way of working. Writing is a lonely job, but you got to ride around with cops and talk to kids in the projects and hang out at trendy bars—all in the name of research.
R.P.: All in the name of avoiding actual writing. I’ll spend a lot of time with the people I feel I want to write about. I feel like I don’t have to write about my own life, and it’s kind of liberating just to step out in my books and become other people. When I first started writing, all my novels were self-referential. I wrote about everything but my breakfast by the time I was 31. Then I went off and did screenplays for eight years, and there I learned that your autobiography and your ability to write are not Siamese twins. You can go out into the world. You can learn stuff. You can bring it back. And you can turn it into art. That’s what I’ve been doing since Clockers.
J.W.: You are famous for writing dialogue—you know how the cops and the kids in the projects talk. I imagine you as a kind of linguistic anthropologist, on the streets with your notebook, collecting people’s speech patterns and vocabulary.
R.P.: Not really. I hardly take any notes. You just want to hang out and get a feel for the spirit of how people talk. And if you have a knack for improvising, you’re in good shape. There’s nothing particularly authentic about the stuff I do. Most good dialogue is extremely artificial because realistic speech goes nowhere.
J.W.: On The Wire and in Lush Life, you have some incredibly tender scenes where teenage boys take care of their younger stepbrothers—your guy calls them “the hamsters”—he tries to protect them, get them to school on time. But it’s so hard, and he is so likely to. How come you know so much about these boys?
R.P.: There not exotic creatures. They’re teenagers. I grew up in a housing project. The book is not a documentary, it’s fiction. It’s your imagination. A lot of what you create is nothing that you’ve seen—you know something about what it’s like to live in the projects, so you make stuff up. You’re allowed.
Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at the University of California-Irvine; his most recent book is Historians in Trouble.