This week, the In Retrospect series is looking back at Richard Price’s 1992 fiction finalist, Clockers. What follows is the first of a three part interview (parts 2 and 3 here), conducted on Sept. 6, 2007, at Price’s home in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, with NBCC member Mark Athitakis.
Q: I know a little about what you were doing in the mid-80s. You were teaching in the Bronx and had gone through your own history of addiction. Was there a moment where it crystallized for you and you thought, I need to write a novel about this?
A: I discovered what you see of the world when you have a police escort, and that seemed…different. I don’t want to use the word “refreshing,” but it was so different than what I had been writing about previously, which was my navel. I just became obsessed with seeing human behavior in extremis. And that was because I was writing a script for Sea of Love, this police movie. I knew nothing about police.
The second thing was that I had gone through my own period of a sort of pedestrian, 80s-style cocaine habit, which had been five years gone—no, more—but still, it was kind of haunting. And I had been teaching at this rehab center in the Bronx, teaching writing to these kids who had been falling down on crack, which was not around when I was doing coke, thank God. And I started seeing the devastation that was taking place. And it also brought me back to the Bronx to teach there, where I started writing. I had been wanting to write another book, but screenwriting is its own crack. It involves other people, which is very seductive to an isolated novelist. There’s a lot of money. I became seduced by that, and the worst thing you could do is get good at it.
When this all came together, I didn’t have a story. But there was one experience when I was in Jersey City, and I was with Hudson County homicide detectives. A kid was killed at some kind of burger franchise—not a McDonald’s, but something like that. And another kid had surrendered, came in with a minister and a politician. So it was a very smart surrender. The kid had no criminal record whatsoever. I went with the cops to interview the arrested kid’s family, because the cops didn’t want to get in a situation where they find out later on that there was a motive that justified it or made it less of a guaranteed win for the prosecutor. So what they do is talk to whoever they can, do research on the guy they just arrested, because they don’t want to make their boss look like a horse’s ass in court a year from now. So I went with them to the parents’ house.
To make a long story short, the parents were very—they would barely turn their head from the TV, they’re very unresponsive. And their kid had just been arrested, and had never been arrested. The homicide detective saw a photo of him in a cap and gown, he said, Can I borrow this picture? He wanted to do more research on this kid, but he wanted to have the picture so he could show it around. You never want to show somebody’s friends a mug shot and ask them more burying questions. So, this is a user-friendly picture.
“Can I borrow this?”
“Well, that’s not him.”
“What do you mean that’s not him? That’s his brother. Jesus, they look like twins.”
So just on a whim, they guy looks up the twin, and the kid had a huge, long record. And right there it’s a Dickensian moment—The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask, “Which Twin Has the Toni?” So all of a sudden I had my story—two brothers. In real life what happened was the kid who actually surrendered did do it. And he was a thug just like his brother, he was just smarter so he never got caught. And he was also smart enough to blue-ribbon his own surrender. That’s the moment where it all came together for me, because I had been spending a year in Jersey City primarily going out with these cops, absorbing the world and thinking about writing stuff. I had everything but a story. I knew the world I wanted to write about, I knew the neighborhood, I just didn’t have the building address. That night I got the address. From there I was off to the races.
Q: Were you still researching Sea of Love when this happened?
A: Sea of Love was done by a few years. The thing is, it’s addicting, because you never know what you’re gonna learn tonight. And the danger is that you can get so addicted to learning stuff, seeing stuff—and avoiding writing, by the way—that you never want to give it up. And then you wind up with way too much information, and you get sort of paralyzed by real things. “Wait, this is fiction, I’m supposed to make things up.” “But, no no no, by me knowing more about this…” Sometimes you can screw yourself by falling in love with the research.
Q: In one interview you mentioned you had a two-foot-high stack of notebooks of research.
A: Yeah, something like that.
Q: So why not do a nonfiction book?
A: Because nonfiction is nonfiction. There’s nothing for me to do there except report. I ask journalists the same question: Don’t you want to just make this stuff up? And they’ll say to me, “You can’t top this stuff.” Their attitude is, you know, “I’m very good at summarizing what’s out there. And what’s out there is: God’s a first-rate novelist.” My attitude is like, is if it’s already out there, to me, that’s like clerical work. Although it’s not—I know that. But to me, I want to take all that stuff and fashion a metaphor from it. Because oftentimes, the way life unfolds, it’s very random and chaotic. It’s only in the history books where you look back everything seemed like it all happened in seven streamlined paragraphs. But daily life is much more meandering, and what a novel can do is condense and essentialize, and highlight. That’s what I like.
Q: If you’re writing about the crack epidemic, you could have written about it from the angle of addiction, or written about it from the angle of family, which I know you did to an extent. But you chose to make it crime story. Did you tinker with different approaches, or was it always a crime story?
A: I didn’t want to write about the crack epidemic purely as the crack epidemic. I didn’t have the sophistication to fashion it on a world level, where all this stuff comes in on airplanes and it starts between diplomats and warlords, there’s a lot of white people in expensive suits that make a lot of money before it gets down to the street. I didn’t have that sophistication. And my affection and my focus has always been working-class, welfare-class life in the urban trenches. So in my mind, I just wanted to write about life—life at that level. I got as high as the police and the policed.
Q: Can you tell me about the writing process?
A: I had about a thousand pages with no ending in sight. Before that, I had God knows how many man hours out there, how much scribbling. It took about a year to bang out this promising but all-over-the place first draft with no end. And it took another year to essentialize it and refashion it. And the third year was just the punch list: cleaning up sentences, making sure everybody’s motivations were clear—to me, at any rate. But I hadn’t written a novel in God knows how long.
“What’s your first sentence?” is so anxiety-provoking that you keep putting it off, and you keep piling up experience and observations and everything. You keep putting it off, putting it off, and when you finally forced to say “What’s the first sentence?” you’re looking at this mountain of stuff that, at least half of it was unnecessary because you’ve just been delaying, delaying, delaying.
Q: Outside of editors, was there anybody you vetted the novel with, or talked it through with?
A: I’m constantly throwing things out to the people I’m spending time with, saying, ‘What would you do in a situation like this?’ ‘If I wanted to do something like this, does that sound plausible to you?’ They could be cops, they could be drug dealers, mothers of families living in the area that I’m writing about, legal aid lawyers, they could be schoolteachers dealing with schools that are not the schools my kids are going to, for sure. I went to public schools, but they’re not the public schools that they’re going to now—I need to relearn all that stuff. I’m always looking for the odd thing that people wouldn’t expect, that people in know take for granted, whatever that might be. How things really work, the little negotiations in life between people who you would think would be mortal enemies who have to see each other every day. How people work out civility between guys who—one guy’s Confederate, one guy’s union. They see each other every day, so what are they gonna do? Scowl at each other? You gotta live. So I’m constantly looking for that type of stuff. And people will relate anecdotes to me. Other things I’ll just see, and once you see it, you got it.
Q: Was there a large preconception that got destroyed while you were working on the book?
A: The big one is—it’s not about, “police are corrupt” or anything like that. It’s the leeway that the drug world has with the police world. Cops basically know that people are gonna live, and people are gonna do what they’re gonna do. And if you go after everybody like they’re Al Capone, you’re gonna burn out. So you learn to negotiate. Not to be vague, but it’s the whole notion of, everybody sees everybody every day, and everybody knows everything about everybody else and people are basically civil to each other, even if they’re arresting somebody, or eluding arrest, or whatever it is. That’s the stuff I found fascinating. It’s like, “Listen, we’re all in this sewer together. You don’t start splashing around, and I won’t start splashing around, and neither of us will drown. I gotta do my job, and you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do. I’m not gonna talk you out of it.” The casualness of the contact between the people.
Q: Is there a reason why you went to Jersey City for the research?
A: I originally wanted to do New York. I’m a New Yorker, and I’ve always written about New York previously, but the red tape was so impossible with the police department. I knew a guy through Sea of Love, who was a detective in Jersey City, who was an aspiring actor who said, ‘I’ll bring you around, I’ll hook you up with people, and if this Sea of Love ever gets to be made’—or this other project I was working on, which was a boxing movie—‘just get me in the door for an audition, I’ll take care of myself.’ So it was chain reaction of meeting people. I went to Jersey City, I met this homicide detective, Larry Mullane, and we just hit it off. Through him, people pass you around. All you have to do is be civil and be interesting to be with, and it’s fun. It’s fun for them. What helped was that I had written some films that people knew. The average American’s mind-boggled obsession with movies. The fact that I actually met movie actors and had written movies that they’d seen was, to say the least, intriguing to them. On my end of it, I’m thinking, you guys go out every night, you’ve got death on your hip and all this? And in they’re mind, they’re, “We’re just civil servants, this is our job.’ You get used to whatever you do. I don’t know what’s under “under-impressed” with screenwriting. But if I didn’t do it, I’d probably be like, “Wow!” And same for them. So it was a mutual-admiration-slash-boredom-with-my-own-thing.
Q: How long were you teaching in rehab centers?
A: Not too long. I did it for I think two years, volunteer. Then I volunteer taught in the public schools in Jersey City, Newark, for two years. But each time I’m doing it, I’m getting something out of it too. I’m trying to learn. Nothing’s for nothing: I volunteer taught at Washington Irving High School right here, a fairly rough-and-tumble school about three blocks away from here. I’m going there because I want to keep up the quid-pro-quo; I don’t want to write about people who are living in dire straits and make money off of it, without doing something in return. At the same time, I’m thinking about things, looking at things. Everybody gets something, I hope.