Richard Price’s enviable writing career spans turbo-charged movies (The Color of Money, Sea of Love, and Ransom) and award-winning TV drama (HBO’s The Wire). But it was a gritty novel—his first bestseller, The Wanderers (1974)—that started it all. Now the 58-year-old New Yorker can add Lush Life to his literary hit list. In it, a chance Manhattan murder exposes a city bursting at its gentrifying seams. Yuppies, police, gangbangers, and politicians are all sucked into the search for a murderer in an electrifying story that roils just beneath the glitzy surfaces of a supposedly “new” New York. Victoria Lautman interviewed Richard Price, who spoke from his home in Manhattan.
Q: Character? Plot? Which first drew you into this labyrinthine story?
A: Actually, the Lower East Side came first. The neighborhood has changed so dramatically so many times since it was known as an immigrant hub in the Jacob Riis days [circa 1890]. In the early 1990s it was at its most dangerous due to drugs and gangs. And under Giuliani it transformed again, into a kind of yuppie playland. But from the 1970s until the 1990s, people were lining up to buy drugs down there; now they’re buying million-dollar apartments! My children, who were [very young] when this transformation was happening—they had no real connection to the fact that this was where their family started out in this country when it was a pretty savage place.
Q: So the collision of two worlds—yuppies and gangs—became the arc you wanted to describe?
A: It’s more like four or five worlds: there are the undocumented Chinese; the world of the blacks and Hispanics living in the projects and tenement areas; the world of the Orthodox Jews—very self-contained. Then there are the basic, middle-class, Midwestern white kids coming to New York to play on Ludlow Street. I wanted to capture all of that, and the irony that the neighborhood has come full circle. Those kids buy gelato on a corner where their grandfathers, like mine, were clawing for survival a century ago.
Q: Sounds like a brewing historical novel …
A: Yeah, except I didn’t want to write a historical novel—they’ve been done to death. I had no idea how to approach this at first. But there have been a few incidents of fatal encounters between young white kids and kids from the projects. Someone sticks a gun in their face at 3 a.m., and the kid thinks this is a movie or something. Normally, these worlds don’t intersect. They’re invisible to each other until an encounter like this. Then there are five days of newspaper headlines. So I manufactured an incident. That’s the horse I rode into a very complicated, byzantine landscape.
Q: What kind of research did this entail?
A: I did what I always do, which is to hang out with various people and absorb. I spent so much time at the [Lower East Side] Tenement Museum, they offered me a job as tour guide. But the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, and it just billows out. I was trying to take on the whole world, and I wound up cutting 200 pages from the finished book. My book calved!
Q: You’re a self-described “nice Jewish boy from the Bronx projects” who wanted to be a writer from childhood. I read that your grandfather, a neighborhood poet, inspired you.
A: I was more impressed with the fact that my father was impressed, seeing his dad’s name in print. I don’t want to overromanticize it. I just thought, Wow, I want to be famous, but not in any particular, mentally healthy way.
Photograph: Ralph Gibson