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?
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?
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 …
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?
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.
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