In Richard Price's Latest Novel, Haunted Cops And Cases They Couldn't Close
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we’re featuring an end of summer series, playing back some of our favorite interviews of the year so far. Today - an interview with Richard Price, one of my favorite writers. I look for his name, and so do a lot of other people, but he used a pseudonym for his latest novel "The Whites" - well, kind of. The book is described as written by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt. Price will explain a little later.
Price's name means something. He wrote "Clockers," the novel about police detectives and drug dealers, which Price and Spike Lee adapted into a film. And he wrote for the great HBO series "The Wire," which was also about police detectives and drug dealers. Price started his career with the novel "The Wanderers," about street gangs in the Bronx, where he grew up. He read the screenplay for "Sea Of Love," which starred Al Pacino as a homicide detective, and the screenplay for the movie adaptation of his novel "Freedomland," which starred Samuel Jackson as a police detective.
Richard Price returned to the world of police detectives in his latest novel "The Whites," which is set in New York. In The New York Times book review, Michiko Kakutani praised Price for using detective work as a framework on which to build complex investigations into the human soul. I spoke with Price in February when “The Whites” was published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Richard Price, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love your writing, so I'm going to ask you to start with a reading from your new novel.
RICHARD PRICE: OK. This is from the first page of the first chapter.
(Reading) It was the night of St. Patrick's - worst of the year for NYPD's night watch, the handful of detectives under Billy's command responsible for covering all of felony-weight Manhattan, from Washington Heights to Wall Street between 1 a.m. and 8 a.m., when there were no active squads in any of the local precincts. There were other worse nights - Halloween and New Year's Eve for two - but St. Patrick's was the ugliest - the violence, the most spontaneous and low-tech - stompings, blunt objects, fists, more stitches than surgeries, but some very malicious acting out. 1[15 in the a.m. Tonight, as always, the calls could come in at any time. But experience had taught him that the most fraught hours, especially on a drinking holiday, were between 3 a.m., when the bars and clubs started shutting down, everyone pouring out into the streets at once, and 5 a.m., when even the most hard-core animals were out of fuel and lurching off to oblivion. On the other hand, the city being the city, Billy never knew exactly when he'd see his pillow again. 8 a.m. could find him at a local precinct writing up bullets on an ag assault for the incoming day squad, while the actor was either still in the wind or snoring in a holding cell. It could find him hanging around the ER at Harlem Hospital or Beth Israel or St. Luke's Roosevelt, interviewing family and-or witnesses while waiting for the victim to either go out of the picture or pull through. It could find him strolling around an outdoor crime scene, hands in pockets, toe-searching through the detritus for shell casings.
Or - or - or if the prince of peace was afoot, and Yonkers-bound traffic was light, he could actually be home in time to take his kids to school. There were gung-ho detectives out there, even on the lobster shift, but Billy was not one of them. Mainly, he hoped each night that most of Manhattan's nocturnal mayhem was not worthy of his squad's attention - just petty nonsense that could be kicked back to patrol.
GROSS: That's Richard Price reading from his new novel "The Whites." Why did you want to return to writing about cops?
PRICE: Because it just finally dawned on me I always gravitate toward urban characters - street people, cops, the police and the policed because I can laugh when I write. I just love the language. I don't know how to make lawyers laugh. I don't know how to make doctors funny. I just need to feel like these people are zingers, no matter how heavy or tragic or light the subject is. I have to feel like I can be dead on.
GROSS: Why are cops funny in a way that, say, doctors aren't? They're both facing life-and-death situations - one in hospitals, one on the streets.
PRICE: I'm not saying the job is funny. I'm not saying surgery is funny. I'm just saying I know I understand cops. A lot of the people I grew up with became cops. I mean, it's sort of like myself talking. A lot of the people in the street are people I've known all my life. I'm just very comfortable with them. And I feel like humor comes not out of being comical but out of being dead-on accurate.
GROSS: So the main character in your novel "The Whites" is a cop who was demoted after he shot what you describe as a giant armed with a - with an already bloody lead pipe. And the bullet passed through that guy and hit a 10-year-old Hispanic boy and nearly killed him. So this double shooting earned the cop both a citation for bravery and a civilian review board hearing and kind of a demotion, too, and this is why he's on night watch.
So you're writing about this cop who totally accidentally shoots a 10-year-old boy. You're writing about - this is published at a time when there's so many people who are angry at police because of the deaths of young men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner. You're writing in this book about cops who have done good and cops who have done bad and cops who have done bad with the intention of doing good. And you're writing about everybody with a lot of empathy. And I'm wondering what it's like for you to have this novel about cops published at this time in our culture?
PRICE: Well, I think this time in our culture has always been with us. Ferguson, Eric Garner, the kid in the Pink Houses in Brooklyn who was shot by that rookie cop in the stairwell - things like this happen all the time. But this is the age of, you know, iPhones and cell snaps, but, you know, this has been through - God, can you imagine what it was like 75 years ago?
I wasn't intending to write about racial elements of, you know, police versus the police, as I've done in the past. But now that Eric Garner's happened, that Ferguson has happened, I feel people ask me, well, is this what your book's about? And frankly, it isn't. If I were to write a book that was inspired by the Eric Garner incident, I would not have used a pen name because that would be a book, like many of my others, that is talking to a larger ailment in the culture.
What I intended to write was a tight urban thriller where what you see is what you get. And for me, it was a very different kind of book. Of course, it resonates now, I mean, because - you know, because of the media blow-up over the latest types of incidents. But they were not in my mind when I was writing this book.
GROSS: Having spent so much time with cops and written so much about cops, I'd be curious to hear what it's been like for you to follow the news of those stories and to see how it's affected cops, how it's affected people who are so angry about the deaths of these young men.
PRICE: Well, my thoughts go to two places. One is that when cops are attacked, they close ranks. I mean, it’s - I'm not talking about the blue wall of silence, but I think what happens is us versus them. And I'm talking about incidents which the cops - like Ferguson, where an unarmed man was shot. When they get under attack with the media, they just close ranks. It's like Cape Buffalo, you know, when they see lions out there. You know, they're going to form a phalanx like Roman soldiers. You know, it's like from time immemorial.
When cops feel isolated, when cops feel like there's nothing attacking their infallibility because the culture and the politicians around them, they kind of feel like they're in a world of their own, that they're the sheriffs. And what they do is what they do. And I think that is what you've been seeing, you know, in various places. They just close ranks, and honestly, they're feeling like it's been this way since time immemorial here in Cleveland. You know, how are we to be different?
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Richard Price. His new novel is called “The Whites.” He intended to write it under a pen name, so on the cover it says, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. Let’s take a short break here, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Richard Price, who has a new novel called “The Whites.”
Why don't you explain what "The Whites" are? It's not a racial reference.
PRICE: No. But given my history of writing, you know, I don't mind, you know, that it's a little confusing because any time you write about police and justice, there's always a racial undertone, you know, even if it's not addressed directly. I mean, that's the world.
"The Whites" - I've always seen detectives. Since 1986, there's always been one guy in every precinct who's been so haunted by a case that they either knew who did it and couldn't prove it or the guy walked and the cop - it just gets inside this cop to the point when they retire, they're sneaking out all the legal boxes with, you know, all the case files, all the transcripts, the interviews and everything. And they're going to continue working on it in their basement, you know, have a six-pack of beer and start making odd calls like they're still cops. They can't let go of this thing. This thing can't let go of them. And it's different for every cop.
What - in a world - 20 years of mayhem - they each pick one case that got to them. And it's rarely the goriest case. It's rarely about a body count. It's about some element of this crime that spoke to them - identification with the aggressor, identification with the victim, there but for the grace of God go I. The grieving family just feels like the family I wish I had and I never had. It's a kid - anybody who touches a kid. It's an old person. The point is, all these obsessed cops with their single case that's like malaria to them, they all reminded me of Ahab. So therefore, you know, they're looking for their whales. They're looking for their whites.
GROSS: Their great white whale. Did you actually like "Moby Dick" when you read it, and did you read it in high school?
PRICE: I tried reading it about five times before I actually got through it. And, yeah, I think it was - you know, when I was mature enough to read it and read it like, you know, a person that had some life under their belt. Yeah, I thought it was a fantastic book. It does not obsess me. It's not the book I think about all the time. It just seemed apropos in terms of what I wanted to write.
GROSS: One of the things I love about your writing is the great details in it and things you observe. There's a character - I won't say much about who he is - but there's a character named Milton Ramos who's Puerto Rican and had been married to a Jewish woman. So he's visiting his Jewish aunt at an assisted living facility. And in her room there's a bowl of silver and gold paper mache fruit, a plaster pair of life-sized praying hands, two ceramic menorahs and a glazed and mounted ram's horn, as well as a framed print of a fiddler floating sideways above an off-balance ghetto. I can't tell you how many times I've seen those things (laughter) like, in the 1960s.
PRICE: Well, you know what?
PRICE: That's my mother's room in assisted living.
PRICE: Yeah, and she's not religious, except, you know, she identifies, and she's very emotional about being a Jew. But that's - I don't think she's been in a synagogue since I was bar-mitzvahed. But, you know, the whole point for me to go out is not - you know, the obvious things are the obvious things. But what breathes life, you know, into a scene or what my eyes register or what my heart registers are the tiny things. You know that I was vaguely describing a Chagall print. I can't tell you in my mother's place - which is nondenominational - I mean, even the Christians have Chagall paintings, you know, in their living rooms. The praying hands, all that - I mean, some of this stuff is obviously made up, or not obviously, but it is. But you can't tell which is which. But it's always been about the details for me, always.
I mean, the cops used to feel - I'd come out – and what I wrote about in "Clockers" was really small. I mean, it was a small, petty life, you know, petty crime, a routine investigation. And a lot of the cops, after the book came out, said I can't believe you wrote about this stuff. You know, we intercepted, you know, a 50-kilo cocaine shipment. Why didn't you write about that? Because that's the stuff that's - you can read about that in the newspapers. What you can't read about is that this guy who had a fearsome reputation in the street not only lived with his grandmother but didn't have a chest of drawers and kept all his clothes in a jumble, in a pile, going up to his hips. You know, and that's how he chose how to dress. But on the street, he was a legend. At his home, he looked like somebody should buy him a chest of drawers.
GROSS: There's more obesity in this novel than has been in previous novels of yours, which makes sense ‘cause there's more obesity in our culture than there used to be. Was that a conscious decision to put in, you know, several obese characters and to - also there's a former cop who's now a funeral director, and in one week he gets a 400- and a 500-pound corpse. And he realizes that if he adds on the weight of the coffin that his front steps are going to collapse from the weight. So he actually has to send these bodies to another funeral home because they're just too darn heavy.
PRICE: And the other funeral home was smart enough to put in reinforced steel on their steps because they know the situation.
GROSS: Yeah. So can you tell me a little bit about wanting to include obesity and deciding how you were going to get that to figure into the novel?
PRICE: Well, it wasn't a theme in any way. I wasn't responding to anything I read in, you know, Hello or OK or People or Us, you know? But, you know, I live in Harlem and there's an obesity problem around where I live now that is hard not to see. Like I described in the book, you'll see a Roy Rogers, a Dunkin' Donuts and a big woman's muumuu shop and then a funeral home. You know, and it's like a de-evolution cartoon. It was right in front of my eyes.
I've been living there for close to seven years now and it was - depends where. You're not going to see that kind of obesity if I was writing about, you know, Gramercy Park or Tribeca, you know? But there are other parts of the city and, hell, the country. I mean, like I said, you know, there are fat people in Nebraska, too. You know, and it's a national plague, but I wasn't thinking about it anymore than just making observations through the eyes of a funeral director.
GROSS: Since you mentioned you live in Harlem now and have been living there for seven years, how come you moved there?
PRICE: Because when I was with my soon-to-be wife, Lorraine Adams, the novelist, she - we were sitting there one day when we decided we were going to ultimately live together. And it just came up - where do you want to live? And it just came out of her mouth - Harlem. Now, I - my experience with Harlem, even though my grandmother had been born there in the turn of the 20th century, my experience with Harlem for the last 15 years before that was going up there with the crime scene unit to - or the night watch - to process a dead body on the sidewalk. And, you know, so I had a very narrow view of Harlem. I'd just go up there for death. So when she said Harlem, you know, I thought - gulp. OK, here's this big-deal writer, this big, macho writer of "Clockers" and "Freedomland." All of a sudden, you know, his mate says Harlem, and he has to swallow a golf ball.
Then I realize she, Lorraine, had been to Iran, Afghanistan. She's been to Pakistan seven times - always on her own. And now she's with a guy - this big-shot street guy. I was just too embarrassed to say no. So I said OK. And I'm going, all right, what's going to happen? So we rent a house. I go up there. It’s the first day. I'm bracing. And I can't get close to my house ‘cause there are trailers - movie trailers because they're shooting an episode of "Sesame Street" in the house across the street. So that was my first day in Harlem.
GROSS: (Laughter) So this new book, "The Whites," is the first one you've written under a pen name, the pen name of Harry Brandt (laughter). How un-ethnic does that sound (laughter)?
PRICE: That is correct, sir. I'm trying to pass.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why a pen name for this one?
PRICE: Well, first of all, I just want to say, I picked the name Brandt in honor of my former agent, Carl Brandt, who had represented me from the time I was 22 till the time I was 40 and who had died the year before, and I was just giving him a little shout out by choosing his name. The reason why I picked a pen name was because what I intended to do in this book was slicker, tighter, faster, more the surface of what's happening, more propelled by the mystery at its core, and I didn't have any social resonance to - I mean, my earlier books, it was always inspired by a crime that spoke to a larger issue in the culture. This isn't Smith kidnappings, the gentrification of the Lower East Side, the impact of crack on a community, which was "Clockers." This time, I just wanted to write about people. I wanted to focus on the characters, you know, not the social impact of the story. And I thought it was just going to be a tighter, faster, more genre-oriented book. And it was going to be different from my other books, and I wanted to signal that.
And I was under the illusion that I could drop a lot of the stuff that was big to me, you know, just to write about plot and character, write fast, write slick, make it propelled by mystery. But once I started writing, I couldn't write any other way than the way I always write, and it became another four-year struggle to create a book. It's supposed to be four to six months, my agent said to me. And I said, hey, great, I can do that. Well, guess what? I can't. And once I realized, deeper into the process, that this is just going to be another Richard Price book - I hate people who refer to themselves by their names, like Kanye don't play, says Kanye.
PRICE: And you know, I just - all of a sudden I realized, it's just another damn book by me. You know, there's no separation. There's no genre. There's no nothing, except another book. But at that time, it was too late to withdraw the pen name, and so I'm living with it. But if I had to do it all over again, if I had a crystal ball four years ago, I would've had it under my own name.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Price. We’ll talk more after a break. And David Bianculli will review the new TV series “Public Morals.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Richard Price. His latest novel, “The Whites,” is about a police detective in New York, who, like several of the cops he came up with, knows a killer who was never prosecuted and got away with it.
These cops can’t forget. They can’t let go of those cases. The killers that got away are called the whites, like the white whale that Captain Ahab couldn’t stop chasing in “Moby Dick.” Richard Price’s other books include “The Wanderers,” “Clockers” and “Freedomland,” which were each adapted into films. Several of his novels and films have focused on police detectives. He also wrote for the HBO series “The Wire.” When we left off, we were talking about his novel “The Whites.”
There are several characters, you know, like, the police and the police precinct are characters in your novel, but hospitals are characters, too. One of, you know, the main character - the main detective's wife is a nurse. You describe her as a triage nurse in the St. Anne's knife-and-gun-club ER. And I'm wondering if you've had to spend a lot of time in hospitals for friends, family, for parents.
PRICE: Well, I had an infantile hernia when I was 3, and I was born in a hospital - but not an awful lot. The thing is, if you're going to be a cop that's responding to crime scenes, you're going to wind up in a hospital about three or four times a night talking to victims, talking to the people that brought the victim in, talking to the doctors, talking to the witnesses. Every time I went out with night watch, I saw some of the finer and some of the grimier ERs in Manhattan. It's just the nature of the job. You know, you're responding to felonies. You're responding to violence. You're going to wind up in the hospital 'cause that's where your victim is, invariably. I mean, that's just the nature of the job, and to not acknowledge that would be to leaving out a huge chunk of what a night watch cop's job is.
The other thing is that in my experience - I'm not a sociologist, but I would say - so many cops are married to nurses, and it's just the way it is. It's - you know, mom's a nurse, dad's a cop, or mom and dad are cops. Rarely are mom and dad, you know, doctor, nurses. And you know what? You talk about meeting cute, you know, that's where they're going to meet their spouses, you know, following up a homicide, following up an aggravated assault, you know? And you go to the same hospital maybe three times a week for a couple of months, you get to know these people, and they get to know you pretty well. And it's kind of like this medical courtship around mayhem.
GROSS: The father in your novel - the father of the main police detective has dementia and is living with the detective. And if you don't mind my asking, did you go through that with your parents at all?
PRICE: No, not at all. My mother's going to be 90 in April, and she's sharp as a tack.
PRICE: My father died when he was 84. He was playing racquetball that day and poker that night, and he just had a cerebral hemorrhage. And, you know, it's like somebody turned out the light. He didn't suffer the indignities of deterioration. No, I mean, dementia's not - is not something that runs in my family, thank God.
GROSS: How were your parents' lives changed by your success?
PRICE: Yeah, a lot. I mean, the irony is that when you come from a working-class family, such as I did in the Bronx, where my father was a cab driver and a small store window dresser. My mother was a housewife. She had a tiny hosiery store. Later on, she was a bank teller. And these are people that were born in the '20s, and they grew up haunted by the Depression. And they never had children that surpassed them and actually went to college and had some real options out in the world. So they couldn't understand the fact that I wanted to be a writer because there's no job coming. You know, there's no context, and there's no security to validate your kid wanting to be something in the arts when you grew up struggling.
So they were totally upset that I didn't take the job at Blue Cross management trainee program, which was offered to me when I graduated 'cause I wanted to go to Columbia and study just fiction workshops for two years. And it was very hard for them to accept. And when I had success after that, they were poleaxed. They weren't poleaxed 'cause they didn't have confidence in me, but they were poleaxed that something like this can work. And they, like myself, they were kind of knocked over by my success. You know, to every time I saw my father up until his 80s, he would look at me and just say, we didn't know.
PRICE: You know, in that plaintiff, kind of shrugging-your-shoulders, like, what do you want? We didn't know. We did our best. I think - it wasn't like they didn't have confidence in me. They didn't have confidence in the situation, and they were very protective and anxious that I wouldn't wind up being a ditch digger.
GROSS: Did your success change their standard of living?
PRICE: I helped them out, yeah. It just - I mean, they were very comfortable and social people, but yeah, I helped them out financially, just enough to, you know, to keep them not looking over their shoulder for the wolf. Yeah, I changed their - you know, and you know, they're parents. They're proud.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Richard Price. And his new novel is called “The Whites.” Let’s take a short break, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Richard Price. He has a new novel called “The Whites” that’s about police detectives and some of the people who they’ve helped lock up and some of the people who have evaded them. And Richard Price is also the author of “The Wanderers,” “Bloodbrothers,” “Freedomland,” “Clockers.” Several of those books were adapted into films. He used to write for “The Wire.” And this new novel is going to be adapted into a film.
The last time you were on FRESH AIR, which was about five years ago, after the publication of your novel, "Lush Life," which was set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you mentioned that your grandfather was locked up a number of times on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for violent crimes. And somehow I think I neglected to ask you the follow-up question - what crimes? So I'm going to ask you today. What crimes?
PRICE: Well, first of all, I might have been a little romantic and mythical about my grandfather. You know, he wasn't a killer. He wasn't a - he was a poor kid in a ghetto neighborhood of the Lower East Side. And all the poor kids, just like today, they idolized the gangsters. And he idolized the gangsters in his environment, and he started running with them. And he was a gofer for them. And one time he was collared for - he had to hide a gun after a murder ‘cause he was this 14-year-old gee-whiz kid looking up to his gods, who were 17, in the pool hall. And they said, hey, Artie, do me favor. Keep this shoebox in your closet. And he - and they said don't open it, which, if that was me, the first thing I'd do is open it.
But anyways, so he just came home from peddling shoelaces on the street, he told me that one day. And his tenement apartment was flooded with cops, and they had a murder weapon and he had it. So he went away for that when he was in his - and he's also a guy who thought with his hands, you know? He was kind of like an emotional - he was a violent mama's boy in a way, where he was very sentimental and he - he just liked to fight, you know? And he liked an opportunity to prove himself, and it got him into some bad situations.
And there was a time - during the depression, he was a poultry truck driver coming out of the Hunts Point Terminal delivering chickens to Chinese restaurants. And he was fired by his boss because he took two chicks home for my mother. He was probably 6 at the time. And the boss fired him, and he went down to this poultry wholesaling place, which used to be on 14th Street, you know, to beg for his boss to, you know, take him back. And the boss not only didn't take him back, but he said you're blackballed out of this industry. You'll never work again. And my grandfather lost it and beat the guy to an inch of his death. He just broke all his ribs. He was just going insane, you know, and he was spirited out of there, you know, by other guys that he knew on the job. But he was arrested in his home, and he went to a cop in the Bronx - in South Bronx - southeast Bronx. This was Vyse Avenue, for those who live there.
Anyways, and he begged the cop if he could help him out. And the cop said to him, well, here's what's going to happen. You're going to go in front of a judge. The judge is going to throw the book at you. He's going to scream and curse you out, you know, for the subhuman that you are. You're going to be steered towards the door - a side door - and you're going to go out in cuffs through that side door, and that's what's going to happen. My grandfather went there. The guy he beat up was there. He was wearing an entire body cast like, you know, something out of a Mel Brooks movie with just the middle finger exposed. And the judge, you know, tore him a new one, sentenced him. He went out that door in cuffs. The minute he was out the door, he realized he was in an alley. And one second later, this cop who was behind him booted him in the behind so hard that he went off the ground - both feet. And the cop, after that, uncuffed him and said, if you ever make me do this for you again, I'm going to say, to hell with you.
GROSS: So who told you the story? Was it your grandfather or your parents?
PRICE: My grandfather. I had a - at the end of my grandfather's life, he was in - he was 86. My second daughter was just born. I realized my grandfather's not going to be around forever. And so I went to him, and I had a tape recorder. And I said, gramps, just tell me the stories again. He's been telling - I know these stories, but I wanted to have his voice. I wanted - for my kids - I wanted them to have their great-grandfather's voice that propelled me to be a writer - all these stories. And they're always working-class stories. They're always ghetto stories. And he didn't want to do it, but he did it. And he talked for two hours - every bad thing that ever happened to him, and it was all bad. It was just, you know, hard luck Charlie stories. And he would be crying. He would be choked up about things that happened to him in 1917. And I was so tormented by making my grandfather - at the age of 86 - relive this stuff for hours. When he finally finished, I thanked him profusely and I went to turn off the tape recorder and realized I never pushed play.
GROSS: Oh, no.
PRICE: Yeah. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
GROSS: Wow. Oh, that's heartbreaking.
PRICE: Well, it's...
GROSS: And then you couldn't - you felt like you couldn't put him through it a second time?
PRICE: No, I would never, after three hours, just say, listen, we're going to do a second take on the next three hours. It'll probably kill you. But, you know what? It's good for the kids. I want them to have this. So, you know - oh, my God, no.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, that's a shame. That's really a shame. But I didn't realize what an influence your grandfather was on your storytelling and your subject matter.
PRICE: Well, what happened was my grandfather - that grandfather was an influence on me because of the drama in his life and the ways that both my grandparents had of telling stories, what happened to them. That was my maternal grandfather who had all these events in his life that were just, to me - to the little version of me - were just mind-blowing. And I never forgot. I loved hearing them again and again.
My other grandfather, who had no stories, was a Jew that immigrated as a teenager from Russia, worked as a foreman in a chrome plating factory for a living and was literate and read, you know, basically - I had somebody in my family who read all the great Russians in Russian. He was involved in a Yiddish theater as a stagehand. And I would see when I was a kid that he would write these poems in Yiddish that - was it Yiddish or Russian? I'm not even sure. It was probably Yiddish because my father would do the translating. And they'd show up in these mimeographed YMHA, you know, Brooklyn regional journals.
You know, it was just this poem, and it said Morris Price. And it made an enormous impression on me. I was, like, 8 or 9 at the time. And my father was in awe of my grandfather. He really looked up to him as a learned man. And, you know, I wanted some of that. I wanted to be that guy that my father would be in awe of.
GROSS: Did your grandfather who wrote ever get to read your work?
PRICE: You know what? He died before my first novel, and I dedicated it to him. And to this day I always think about - I'm at the age where you really start thinking about the people in your family who are no longer there and you're dying. You wish you could just have one more good conversation with them. You know, you weren't curious enough when you were a kid because it was your everyday living life. And you never asked the questions that became important to you once they were gone and you were older and had become more reflective. So, yeah, it always galls me - not galls me, but, you know, I feel really sad that my grandfather never lived to see my book. Then again, he might not have liked it ‘cause it had dirty words in it.
GROSS: (Laughter) If you’re just joining us, my guest is Richard Price. He has a new novel called “The Whites” that’s about cops. And he is also the author of “Clockers,” which he adapted into a film with Spike Lee of the same name. He used to write for “The Wire.” His other books include “Freedomland,” “Lush Life,” “Bloodbrothers,” “The Wanderers.”
So you're 65 now. Do you ever think about when your parents were 65, and what you thought 65 meant?
PRICE: Oh, of course. The older you get, the more you hate arithmetic.
PRICE: You know, so - OK, when they were 65, I was like 59 or - no, I mean...
GROSS: No. (Laughter).
PRICE: You know, they're also the generation where they got young and had kids in their - you know, by the time everybody was 25. You know, I waited till I was - I think my first daughter was born when I was 37. You know, 65 meant cemetery when I was growing up. Somebody was 65, they were my grandmother's grandmother, you know. And they were shapeless, and they would toddle from foot to foot and let gravity kick in for forward momentum. I mean, 65, to me, was George Washington if he was still alive. Yeah, but, you know - and they say - well, I want to tell you something. This is what I've discovered, Terry. Sixty-five is the new 64.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, probably when you were very young, you thought 65 was a world where the people in your family spoke Yiddish.
PRICE: No. No, people - my family spoke English, but they were fluent in Yiddish.
PRICE: And whenever they started talking Yiddish, it was something I wasn't allowed to hear.
PRICE: And so, of course, I'm going, what does that mean? What does that mean? I remember there was a bawdy female comedian named Belle Barth, and she had all these naughty albums - comedy albums. And so I'd be laying in bed. My parents and their friends would be in the living room, and they'd be listening to Belle Barth jokes. And it would be something like, well, you know, the rabbi, you know, went to the beach and was on the beach next to the nun. It got really hot, and the nun took off her top. And it got really hot, and the rabbi took off his bottom. And the nun got really hot and took off her bottom. And then the rabbi turns to the nun and says (speaking Yiddish). It was in Yiddish.
PRICE: I going crazy. I was just running out in my Davy Crockett pajamas. What did the rabbi say? You know, but that's the story of my life in Yiddish.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you've been quoted as saying what you really want to do most - that you write for TV, you do movies, but what you really want to do is write novels. And I'm thinking much as I love your novels, why would you be so insistent on writing novels in an age when fewer and fewer people, sadly, read them?
PRICE: Well, it's all that crap. The novel is dead. You know, cable took over, you know, the novel's purpose. It's just a bunch of nonsense. You know, the novel will outlive us all, will be at our funeral.
And of all the art forms for a storyteller, every one that pays better - screenplays, TV - there's a committee over your head that determines what you're supposed to do. You are basically writing for them to feel like, yeah, this is marketable. We can get a maximum audience for this. When writing my books, nobody tells me anything. You know, if I trust my editor and have a rapport with my editor, I listen. And with my current editor, John Sterling, I listen very hard. He was the editor for me for "Clockers" and "Freedomland." But I'm free. I'm free to write what I want. I don't have to worry about whether people in Montana, you know, are going to tune into my novel. You know, it's just me writing about what I know the best way I can, answering to no one.
GROSS: Well, keep writing, please. Richard Price, it's such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.
PRICE: Oh, you're welcome.
GROSS: Richard Price's latest novel is called "The Whites." Our interview was recorded last February when it was published. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new series “Public Morals.” This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.