Writers Speak | Richard Price in conversation with Claire Messud

Good evening, friends. I’m Homi Bhabha. I direct the Mahindra Humanities
Center here at Harvard. And it’s a great pleasure to
invite you and welcome you to one of our Writers Speak
sessions for this semester. Writers Speak is a platform of
the Humanities Center very ably headed by my dear, beloved
friend Claire Messud. Who is professor of the practice
of writing and is a wonderful– and I say this without
any prejudice whatsoever– wonderful, reflective,
beautiful novelist. And it’s been one of the
great pleasures of my tenure as director of the Center
to work with Claire on a number of occasions. It is actually a
tribute to Claire, that since she started working
with us to set up the Writers Speak series, she
has chosen writers to come to the campus who
effortlessly represent a large variety of communities,
ethnicities, and cultures. There has been no forced
identitarian agenda here. She has just chosen writers who
she thought were significant. We’ve discussed them. And she’s brought them. And that has really enriched
the archive of our thinking about contemporary writing. So often the discussion is
about bringing writers of color or bringing writers
who lack all color. But Claire has a
fabulous instinct of bringing great writers,
fascinating writers. And as it happens,
they have come from almost every continent
and many countries. And they’re writers
of all colors. In fact, the slightly tinged
lilac ones were my favorite. So Claire, thank you very much
for this great Catholic vision of what writing today is about
and where the voices come from. And in fact, tomorrow,
Richard Price, Edison Julio, and Michelle Kwo accompanied
by Claire Messud, will be in Emerson 2 1 0 at 6:00
PM speaking to a panel titled, “The Words to Say It, Teaching
and Writing and Incarceration.” Please welcome my friend
and colleague Claire Messud. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Homi. Thank you, everyone, for coming. It’s my great pleasure to
introduce Richard this evening and to be in conversation. And, yes, as Homi
mentioned, there are a number of events
around Richard’s visit and also the visit
of Lorraine Adams. And tomorrow, the
six o’clock panel will be upstairs involving
also Edison Julio and Michelle Kwo in a discussion
about teaching writing and incarceration. I hope you can make it. Now I need my glasses. I was saying to
somebody, I don’t know how many of you are
familiar with Fawlty Towers, but this week I am a little bit
like somebody in Fawlty Towers. I put on one hat and then
I move into another room I put on another hat. Next thing, I’ll be wearing a
kimono one offering massages, whatever. As Michiko Kakutani wrote
in her New York Times review of Richard Price’s
most recent novel, The Whites, “Mr. Price has a knack
for using detective work the way John Le
Carre has used spy stories and tradecraft as a
framework on which to build complex
human investigations into the human soul.” Richard Price is the
author of nine novels, including The Wanderers,
Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life, and The Whites. He’s also an
acclaimed scriptwriter for both film and television,
whose credits include The Color of Money,
1986, Ransom, 1996, the series The Wire, 2002, and
last year’s Emmy nominated HBO series, The Night Of. His new show, currently on
air on HBO, is The Deuce. He’s also a frequent contributor
to the Moth Radio Hour, where you can hear him telling
great stories in his own voice. Richard Price,
likened by Walter Kern to Raymond Chandler
and Saul Bellow, is revered for his
extraordinary ear for dialogue. Or as James Wood put it
in his review of Lush Life, “for his wonderful
mind for dialogue, and for his unsurpassed ability
to portray his native New York in its infinite diversity.” His influence over what we now
think of as stellar dialogue is so strong and so pervasive
that young readers and viewers might be forgiven for
failing to appreciate Price’s profound originality. He changed our understanding. And now we think of his
dialogue as the standard that we all try to meet. As Michael Connelly wrote in
his New York Times Book Review of The Whites, it is,
quote, “a work of reportage as much as it is
a work of fiction. That’s what makes it important. It tells it like it is. It provides insight
and knowledge, both rare qualities in the
killing fields of the crime novel.” Frequently using the police
or crime novel as a frame, Price has explored large social
issues from the crack epidemic to the changed economy of New
York City in the first decade of this century, from the
intricacies of family histories and dynamics in The Whites
to the psychological toll of incarceration
in The Night Of. His work is suffused with
a near Shakespearean verbal inventiveness. Or is it attentiveness? A sense of life’s absurdity and
humor, a surprising tenderness for the foibles
and vulnerabilities of his characters, and
an amazing accuracy when it comes to human
behavior, from the smallest gestures on up. Writing good fiction is
like being a safecracker. A writer is listening
for the tiniest clicks. No writer listens better
than Richard Price. And no writer better transforms
that deceptively humble activity in superlative
compelling storytelling. He takes narratives with which
we’re familiar and returns them to us each time as something
illuminating and surprising, enacting Ezra Pound’s
exhortation to make it new. It is a privilege
and a great pleasure to welcome Richard Price. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you for that introduction. That was a privilege. Thank you. So Richard will
read, but we thought we may chat a little first. Yeah. A tad. A tad, a tad bit. One thing I wondered about,
because we talked about it in my class, in
one of my classes, if you took the dead
bodies out of your fiction you would win every prize. And so, I don’t know if
that’s ever occurred to you. But that was something
we were thinking about. We were thinking
that actually what you do in writing
American society is of have such a high level. And you do get a lot of acclaim. But I feel as though, I don’t
know if you get the big prizes. Do you know what I’m saying? Yeah. Oh, yeah. And I wondered if
that was a choice? Whether you thought, this is
what I want to write about and this is the way I do it. I was wondering, how the
elements of genre, if you will, are important to
you as a writer? They’re convenient and
they’re a pain in the ass. Because the minute you
use the word “genre,” a genre has rules. And in the crime,
mystery genre, you have a hero, or an
anti-hero more likely. You have a bad guy, or a
group of bad guys, good, bad. You show off that
nobody’s really all good or really all bad a little bit. But there are rules. You can’t walk out of there
without justice served. And you’re like
moody Marlboro man, half Nordic, half
Chandleresque guy with the busted Venetian blinds
and the bottle of old overcoat whiskey in his bottom drawer. I’ll be honest. My first book that I would
say I reported was Clockers. And I was working on
that from 1988 to 19– it came out in ’92. I had written four
books, which are based on my own human experience. But I was 32. I didn’t have all
that much to say. And I just felt like I
wrote myself into a corner. And through a number
of circumstances, I found myself more in the
world than I had ever been. I was haunted by
my own bad cocaine habit of the early ’80s. I wound up teaching at a day
top village, which is sort of a residential drug center. Pro bono teaching
fiction writing to kids. And I found myself, after having
written a movie, Sea of Love, it came out in ’86
with Al Pacino, I found myself in
the company of cops. And being with cops– there’s no judgment, good,
bad, or indifferent– the stuff you’re allowed
to see of the world when you’re with cops really
pulled me out of my inner, I wonder as I wander books. And I became addicted to
going out into the field, so to speak, and finding a
story larger than myself. I loved it. I just loved it so
much that I really wanted to write stories
not about me but– everything, every novel
is an autobiography. I think crossword
puzzles, you’ll find autobiography in
there from the person who made up the clues. I figured, there’s
enough of me just having a narrative voice here. And I also found, as
my landscapes in books became more and more
panoramic, like in Lush Life it was about Lower
East Siders live not in the days of
[INAUDIBLE] sleep but in the days of
post-crack yuppification. And all the worlds
involved in it– there were seven
separate planets. And I didn’t want to
write a travelogue. And then I realized, if you
follow criminal investigation, it provides you with
a spine that you can ride to a very complex
landscape, like a white horse. Because criminal
investigations are orderly. This happens, they’re
chronological. They makes sense. If you talk to
this person, well, if you talk to this
person, then you need to talk to that person. And that person might be a
Fujinese Chinese person walking by, that person might
be an entrepreneur circa the early 2000s
opening up a hip restaurant. The third person
might be a woman who lives in a housing
project around the corner. Fourth person might be an
old Talmudic scholar davening on the Lower East Side. And I just got addicted
to taking on landscapes and using the cleanness of
a criminal investigation. And like I said, I didn’t
like or dislike cops. Cops are like people. They even are people. They’re like people. I’m joking. I’m not a police buff. I don’t automatically take
the police point of view in dramatic situations. You can’t count on me
to back up your opinion just because I write about. And what happens is, I
just love that stuff. And I just love using
that wherever I go. So there’s bodies in
it, and there’s crime. But I don’t want to
protest too much, but how many great novels had
crimes in them as their basis? Not to compare
myself with anybody. Let’s start with Dreiser. Sorry, I said I
wouldn’t do that. Then all of a sudden, you’ve got
a reputation as a crime writer. And I went, whoa,
wait, wait, wait. That’s not it. I don’t feel like I am. But I feel like I have to
step away from that just to write myself as not a
genre writer, which I never felt I was. When you say, step away,
in what way step away? Step away from crime
and punishment. You mean in your
work, or just in– In my work, in my writing. But that means stepping
away from something I love. I really have a blast
writing crime and punishment. And you’ve got to like
what you’re writing. It’s like it’s like a marriage. And you shouldn’t
marry this individual because it’ll be good for you,
like oatmeal is good for you. So it’s a big compromise
between my fun and but I don’t want
to get seduced into it. I want to show people
that I can write. So the minute you start thinking
about readers as opposed to yourself, you get
lost in the woods. And you can’t figure out,
what do I really want to do. Time is tight. I’m 67. It’s not like I have 50
years of writing ahead of me. So it’s complicated. I’m wrestling with
this every day. If you’ve never felt– I wanted to put to you
because many years ago, the writer [INAUDIBLE] said
to me– it wasn’t just me, it was in a room full of
people, but whatever– he said, you can make
up the characters or you can make up the plot,
but you can’t make up both. And I think a lot about that. And I think, do
I agree with him? I don’t know if
I agree with him. But it’s certainly true
that any work of fiction is a balance between
freedom and constraint. And when you say
that having a crime gives you a sort of
white horse that you can ride through a landscape
it gives you a structure, it gives you constraint. And if those constraints are
in fact liberating for you– you’ve written novels, as I
said in the introduction, that are actually about all these
very different bigger social issues. There may happen to
be corpses in them or investigations in them. But it hasn’t stopped you
writing about anything. Why would you step away from it? Because of what you just said. If it wasn’t for bodies
I might be regarded more. But you are regard– I feel you are. Well, that’s a problem with me. It’s like, stay with yourself. But they’re saying
this and this about me. Well, I’ll show them. And that’s where
you get screwed, where you screw yourself. I’m the type of person that
reviews are dangerous to me. Much less so than ever before. But I’m easily influenced. Like in third grade,
it’d be, well, he just follows this crowd. I’d really like to
see little Richard– it’s a struggle every day. Part of the struggle is
you have to really enjoy what you’re doing to do it. And I write about
certain people. And this is going to sound
bizarre, and very unliterary, but I write about the
people I write about because I can make
them funny, not to sacrifice to the
complexity of their humanity. I know how to make working
class urban people. I know how to write
about urban underdog. I know how to write about cops. I know how to write about
put together families on a certain level of society. I just love being
able to freedom, to make the dialogue fly. Humor doesn’t come
out of it ha, ha. Humor comes out of
sheer recognition. And it’s a surprise when
you find yourself grinning, like I knew that. I didn’t know I knew
that until I read that. But once I read
that, I recognized I knew that all along. So for me, it’s
the beauty of hope, people being able to
recognize certain elements of their personality
and their situation. I don’t know how to make
patent engineers funny. I don’t know how to make
corporate lawyers funny. I don’t know how to make
brain surgeons funny. Well, you should write about
a higher level of society because then it would show you
have this big span, blah, blah. I just have to have fun. If I’m not having fun
nobody’s going to have fun. If I don’t enjoy
writing this nobody’s going to enjoy reading this. I hear you. Life is short. I agree. You’ve said before that
place is a character for you. And that your start with place. Or that place is one of
the fundamental elements. And I wonder, given the sort of
breadth and range of, in a way, thematically of the subjects
that you’ve written about, whether you choose
a place with it– Did you choose,
say, for Lush Life, did you choose the Lower
East Side because of the– Every place is a choice. Because let’s say you have
three key characters in a story. One of those
characters is location. I’d like to know
going into the book at least I have one of
my characters down cold. So I will always write
about urban environments. Look, if I grew up by the
sea I’d be writing sea books. If I grew up in the
mountains it would all take place in the mountains. If I grew up in the Great
Plains, et cetera, et cetera. I grew up in the
city, and I love it. For all the anxiety
and hair pulling that goes through making a
book from beginning to end, you got to love
what you’re doing. You got to love the people
you’re writing about, even if whatever
you making them, blacker than black in
terms of devil souls, you’ve got to love
them in some way. And I’ve got to love my world. And I got to love my people. When I was younger before– when I was writing my first
four books I was in my 20s. They’re very deep books. Not. I started feeling, well,
I don’t want to reputation as this d’ese, d’em,
d’ose dialogue writer. I’m going to show them. I’m going to write about
the Spanish Armada. And I’m going to do it so, wow,
he can write about anything. Never happened. I was probably drunk
at the time, but– It’s all about love. I’m sounding like
a broken record. But it’s a long haul, a book. It’s like getting married. You got to love the
hell out of the person that you’re joining with
for a number of years. There are lots of things
I want to ask you. But maybe, what about
starting with dialogue. And to what extent is
that just something you can do in your sleep? To what extent is that something
that you work at relentlessly? To what extent is it actually
just reported speech? Listen, I always liked making
up people talking to each other. I remember when I
was six years old, there was a girl I had
a crush on, first grade. And I would never talk to
her in a billion years. But I would I would lay in
bed before I went to sleep, and she was being attacked
by a space monster. And she was going,
help, Richard, help. And I’d go, I’ll save you. But then I would
have a big dialogue with the space monster. Don’t you touch
Freida Jankolowitz. I will touch anybody I want. No. We’d start arguing. And Freida would go, Hello. I’m drifting out in space. I just get so caught up. And I would say this and
the monster would say that. So it’s just this intuitive
thing that I just liked. And I was intimidated by
Warner’s English Grammar Handbook. It was the bane
of my adolescence. And I just had an ear. Like some people have– always compared
to being a runner. You can’t teach anybody. People run fast or they don’t. You can fine tune, you can
shave a second or two at best off their times. But you can’t teach
someone to run fast. And with dialogue, you
just have to have an ear. That’s the one thing,
the one gift I was given is I have an ear. I remember, it was actual
creative writing class in high school. Nobody had a creative
writing class at that point. And I had to write a story. And I tried to make people real. And I used the word “damn,”
Like god damn, or damn. And the paper came back
to me and was hemorrhaging red from the English teacher. This is not necessary to
use language like this. I always loved the profane. I always loved the music. That somehow I could put
music into dialogue in a way that, I don’t know
what to compare it to. It was like jazz for me. Yeah. My whole rhythm came out of– Lorraine Adams, who
spoke earlier today, has heard this a billion times
because we lived together. She’s my wife and
I’m her husband. And so she hears me,
oh, god that one again. The way I found my voice– and finding your voice is
the most important thing, I think, for novels. Because your narrative voice
is a close cousin to dialogue. How intimate is the narrator
going to get to the characters? How vernacular is
it going to be? Lorraine called it a
close third person. And that’s pretty
much what it is. And I tried to find my voice. And when I was in high school
in the Bronx I always liked social realism because
I don’t know anybody in Jane Austen’s world,
I don’t know anybody in John Steinbeck’s world. So it’s not just like English. I don’t know anybody
in Dickens world. But when I started reading
James Baldwin, Richard Wright, a couple
of other people, James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan,
people that were writing about things I walk on and I see
and I breathe, I found myself. And it taught me
that my experience is valid grounds for literature. That was a big breakthrough. However– And that was in high school? Yeah. However, the problem was with
social realist novelists, for the most part,
some of the names I have given you
excluded from this, is that’s writing
to make a point. And it’s like sawing wood. One fact, another fact,
somebody makes a statement that’s proving the point or
the social humanitarian point that the author
is trying to make. There’s no magic in it. It was just like taking
dull photographs. But I clung to that
because I recognized, oh, I know that world. So, yeah. Then I read a book that probably
very few people in this room have read. It’s called Last
Exit to Brooklyn. And it was by a writer
who’s a Beat writer, named Hubert Selby. Hubert Selby also wrote about– no, wait, god, am I that boring? Selby also wrote
about the streets. He wrote about Brooklyn, Red
Hook part of Brooklyn, I think, or Bay Ridge, somewhere. But he was a child of the Beat. He was a Beat. He was he was a bebop
artist with words. So he wrote about the same thing
but he had this like rhythm, this like de-de-te-da,
de-de-te-da. And he just lifted
all the concrete out of the cement of
a social realist. It was like he was
playing an instrument. And I found a way not to write
like I was using a hammer and tongs. I was using a saxophone. And so when I found my voice
like that, it was so intimate and there was no line
between dialogue and prose. And it just lifted
me off the ground and really allowed me
to get into my dialogue and not worry too much, in
a way to tell a full story. So– I don’t even think I
answered the question. Well, you did. Now I’m curious. Where along the
line did you say, this is what I’m going to do? Somewhere between the
space monster dialogue in your bed at night and– When I was eight. Early. Fantasy wise, when I was eight. Realistic wise, not
until I graduated college and had a choice. My grandfather was a
factory worker in Brooklyn. Sorry, you got to
hear all this stuff. My grandfather was a
factory worker in Brooklyn. He was a Russian immigrant. And like every Jew in Russia,
he was studying to be a rabbi. I don’t think just
one person from Russia who came over that
was Jewish who wasn’t studying to be a rabbi. Anyway, he was foreman in
a chrome plating factory. But he was very literate. He read the Russians in Russian. And he came over
and he was he was an actor and a stagehand with
the Lower East Side Yiddish Theater. And he would write poems. And they would be published
in this mimeographed thing for the Brooklyn
YMHA, which is this– but there would be poems on
that would be mimeographed like this, and it’s stapled. And it had huge circulation,
I think, 40, 50 copies. And I just remember,
when I was eight seeing my grandfather’s poem. Even at eight, after– well, that was kind of
corny there, gramps. But nonetheless, it had
his name at the bottom. And my father revered
my grandfather. It was his father. Yeah, his father. And I looked at my father
looking at my grandfather. I said, I want some
of that look too. So I decided it was going
to be writer right then. But it was always a fantasy. When you get older
you want to have a specialty, like
the best dancer, or the best hair,
the math brain. And I just wanted to be
known as the writer, which involved pinching my nose
in a library at a table where there was a
couple of girls. And I went like this hoping
some of them would come up to me and say, are you suffering? Never happened. But my nose really
did get narrower. I went to Cornell. I got a degree in
labor relations. But I took all my electives
in creative writing. And I really, really
wanted to be a writer. And my father said, look, you
can write in your spare time. It could be like your hobby. But once you have a serious job
you can write on the weekends. And then came time,
what are you going to do for graduate school? And so I applied to
every– including Harvard. I got for MAT in teaching. That lasted about six minutes. And the one Master of Fine Arts
school I got into was Columbia. And I felt like I
had no right to go. I was working class. I felt like I had
no right to go. My father had a
little hosiery store. And he got so exasperated by me
Hamleting all across the floor, I don’t know what to do. And my father finally
said, oh, Jesus Christ, go to your stupid
creative writing program. If it doesn’t work
out, two years from now you’ll go to law
school, big deal. I just remember saying
literally, gee, dad, you mean it? Boom. And once I went
to graduate school it was great because
I was surrounded by 12 people around a seminar
table about once a week. And all 12 of those people,
none of them went to law school. We’re all here. None of them were premed. none of them went
to business school. Meanwhile, everybody’s
friends from college were now on their
way with a real job. And the worst thing
in the world when you’re a young writer,
even if you’re determined, is somebody saying– say your a writer, and
somebody says, oh, well, what have you written? Well, I’m working on this
Spanish Armada novel, but I’m waiting
for my translator. I want to put it in
17th century Spanish and I don’t know Spanish. Instead of saying,
well, what do you write? I could say, well, I’m in the
Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia. It puts your ego on hold and
it gave you at least two years where you weren’t mortified
by wanting to be a writer. And I got very lucky. I published a book
when I was 24. So were you still in
the program when you– This is the other thing
that’s really embarrassing. I was in the program. I left for a year to go to
Stanford because they had a little fellowship
which Columbia didn’t. Which they still have? Yeah. I got a $1,500 fellowship,
which at that time, you’re in the money. That’s cabbage. And I came back from Columbia. I was taking a class or
two, finishing a seminar, and I published my first
novel, The Wanderers. Then everybody hated you. Well– No? Probably. But I refused to
quit the program. And I published another novel,
and I was still in the program. And it’s driving
everybody batshit. And people said, what,
are you making fun of us? The teachers hated me. Richard Yates was my teacher. And in when he did the roll
call he said, who’s Price? Oh, you’re a billion
dollar bonus baby. What I finally
realized, the reason why I stayed in that
program because I wanted a master’s
degree in fine arts. I was the first person ever
go to college in my family. And I wasn’t even
thinking about it. I wanted that MFA
because I was going to have checks printed on top it
would say, Richard Price, MFA. I was just a working class
thing that I didn’t even recognize until years
after I finally graduated. Did you have the checks printed? No. It’s not too late. [INAUDIBLE] a friend who
put PhD on his checks. It’s not too late. You still could. Yeah, I guess. By the time you
were at university you knew you wanted
to go straight– the story is you wanted to go
straight on and be a writer. And when you wrote
The Wanderers, because the official
story is that you wrote one chapter, as it were,
that was then published in, Halpern published in– In Antaeus. In Antaeus. The class hated it. And Dan Halpern, who became
the head of the writing program for a while– and he was a very well
known and well regarded editor, has his own
imprimatur at HarperCollins. Echo. Echo. He came up to me–
the class hated it because the first
chapter of The Wanderers was about an all-out gang
war between an Italian gang and a black gang. And I had the Italians win. It was the most politically
incorrect thing to do. And teacher was
a psychopath, who hated the fact that he had
to teach these people half his age. Was this Richard Yates
or somebody else? Yeah, Richard– no, no, no. It was W.B. Yeats. No. I don’t want to say his name. But he was the nastiest person,
and charismatic, very funny. So you really didn’t realize
you have internal injuries until you went home. But he led this
wolf pack on this, and everybody trashed
it in the class. And it was the first thing I
ever read in a writing program. I can’t hardly remember how
I felt. I was like startled and I believed everything. I also felt like, oh, well. And at the end of the
class, Dan Halpern, who’s taken a fiction
class just because he knew he was going to be
an administrator and he wanted to see how the whole
writing program worked and all the seminars. He’d come up to me and he
said, I want to publish. I have a magazine and I
want to publish that story. I said, how much? I didn’t even blink. I said, how much? And he looked at me
and he said, well, it’s a literary quarterly. We don’t have a lot of money. We don’t pay anybody. I went, oh. I thought when I said how
much, I thought how much do I have to pay for him to publish? [LAUGHTER] He said, well, you will
get seven free copies. OK. And I couldn’t believe it. That was my first class. But it reminded me, Paul
Schrader, filmmaker, once had a movie that opened
at the Locarno Film Festival. The Locarno Film Festival has
the largest outdoor screen in the world. And the film was The
Comfort of Strangers. It was based on an
Ian McEwan book. And I said, wow, how did it go? He said, well, they started
booing in the opening credits and they never stopped until
the screen went dark an hour and a half later. I said, oh, my god,
how did you feel? He said, I felt they were wrong. I wasn’t that bulletproof. But there is a little
part of me that went– In the workshop? Not a very little
part of me that went– But it’s important
to have that part. Anybody wants to be anything
in the arts as a career, you need insane confidence. Because it’s a
loser’s option of, some day I’m going
to be driving a cab but I’m really a novelist. But at least I’m making
a good $150 a week while I write this
novel for 10 years. You really got to
believe in yourself to put up with all the
crap that you have to do. The most precious thing
a writer can buy is time. But I don’t know, if didn’t
get published so young, if it took 10 more years
to publish my first book, I don’t know if I would
have had the stamina. I think I was very
lucky to publish early simply because
with my upbringing, I don’t know if I could take it. Visiting my Cornell
roommates, one guy is now vice president
at some pudding company, or another guy is– What’s a pudding company? The Jell-O pudding, and
Cosby was his client. Young Cosby. Pudding Pops. But people were
doing real things. And I don’t know
if I could have– I would have avoided
every one of them. I would’ve been so– oh, Price, you still
writing that book? How’s it going? Well, I’m flying in my taxi. that Harry Chapin song. I wanted to be some
kind of like a pilot. I was driving a
taxi but he still get so high when he’s stoned. It’s like that. I didn’t want to be like this– You didn’t want to be that guy. Yeah. I just– No. So then how did writing for
film, how did that come about? And how is that
different for you? Well, it’s very different. I’ve done a lot of film. And now I’m doing a lot of TV. And the difference is, when you
write a novel, it’s all yours. Every decision, every
word, every comma is yours. When you’re working
on a TV show, it’s a collaborative medium. And you’re just one
of a number of people. So you write the script. And they’re going to change the
script for expediency’s sake, or the budget’s too big,
or we lost the main actor. We have another
actor but he doesn’t want to play this type
of guy, change the guy. So you write the script,
but as I said ad nauseam, it’s not a building,
it’s a blueprint. The building is not going
to be the blueprint. The building is
going to be building, depending on what kind of
materials they can get, how the economy goes, well, we
can’t afford all these windows. So when you write a movie,
no matter how good it is, it’s never the
movie that’s made, and because you don’t
have any control over it. You’re the first one in and
everybody lands on top of you in the decision making process. And so you could be Shakespeare,
if they had movies back then. And you got this great story
about this boy and this girl, they go crazy for each
other, blah, blah, blah. The families are fighting. And that’s great. But you know what? Steven Segal wants to
play the Capulet boss. We got a good shot at getting
Brando for the Montague. And these kids, I know
they’re supposed to be 13, but there’s this 22-year-old
hot actress named Amber Heard. And we really think she
would help the movie. And, well, Denzel
wants to play Romeo. So we’ve got to really
age up these characters. It’s going to happen. It’s not your choice. You’re at the mercy. So when a movie or a TV
show is a big success, and somebody comes to you
and says, I loved your movie. I feel like they’re
congratulating eight people between me and
them because it wasn’t my movie, it was my script. And for a sense of pride and
a sense of really wanting to be an artist unfettered
by compromise, unfortunately, [INAUDIBLE] it’s novels. Right. You got the freedom. And bluntly, honestly
speaking, you can make money. There’s no such
thing as free money. But you can make money
doing the other stuff. And sometimes if you get good
at it, it can be like crack. You get so addicted to the
pace, especially with TV. You write something, bang,
two weeks later it’s on. When you’re writing
a novel you could have cobwebs going from
your forehead to the paper. It would be like that
Dickensian birthday cake. And nobody would know. Hey, see Price around? I think he died. No, no, no, he’s
working on a novel. So you get addicted
just metabolically. And frankly, writing a novel
is so freaking isolating. That’s one of the other reasons
why I love reporting the novel. That was my social
life, hanging out with all these
psychopaths and people. At least I was
talking to somebody instead of sitting in my room
all day like I was in a garret. When you’re making a
movie it’s like you’re dealing with people,
you’re dealing with people. It was like antivenom
for isolation. It has nothing to do with
the ultimate finished product of the art. What’s hard for me to come
to terms with is writing is what I do. It’s a calling, but
it’s not my entire life. And the older I get– I was pretty unhappily
in a domestic situation. I had two kids I loved. But I just felt very not where I
was supposed to be in my heart. Not with the kids,
but with the person I was married to in the world
that we found ourselves in. One of the superficial but– so all of my self-esteem and
all my sense of satisfaction, when I wasn’t dealing
with my children, was tied up in the
reception of my books. And my books became
life or death for me in a very unhealthy way. So my life has changed. And I feel like, yeah, I love
to write, I’ll always write. But my life is so much
more than writing. It’s not like if I don’t
write today I’ll die. If I open up a paper and
there’s a review of something I live and die by that review. I don’t feel it anymore. It’s not like I
don’t give a damn, but I kind of don’t give a damn. That’s great. But that goes back to
what you were saying, the Paul Schrader moment. In a way, that’s
where you want to be. I just feel if people
like it I’m happy. If people don’t like
it I’m not not happy. I’m sort of unhappy. I said, it’s too bad evolution
hasn’t allowed humans to live 400 years because
it takes about 380 years to figure this shit out. I’m having one of these, oh,
now I’m going a high get it. Everything is in
its proper place. [INAUDIBLE] believes
in we’re going to be cryogenically frozen, like
Walt Disney and Ted Williams. And we’re going to come
back fresher and stronger but with all our wisdom. I don’t know. I’m just going to play
it minute by minute. I’m wondering, would you be
willing to read a little for us now? Maybe. OK. I’m going to read. What I discovered,
unfortunately and unhappily, is I love to read,
I love to read more than people love to listen. So I’m going to read
something pretty short. That’s paradoxical,
or contradictory. That’s contradictory. That’s like a Marx
Brothers thing. Why a pair of ducks? Sorry. Innuendo. Husband comes in
the door, I go out– I got that all messed up. Your husband leaves,
I go innuendo. Sorry. Never mind. Oh, that was really tedious. So sorry. Speak, oh tablet. OK. This is from the
end of The Whites. I also learned, never read
a passage that involves two people, more than two
people because nobody knows who the hell is talking about who. And it takes a
year to set it up. And people have completely
forgot to set up. As you’re reading, you
see people doing this with their phones. Oh, look, I’ve got a
new friend on Facebook. This is from the end of– and it’s basically
a funeral oration. One of the main
characters in The Whites is a retired detective
named John Pavlicek. And Pavlicek was
a very powerful– is a very powerful presence. He is kind of a natural leader
of any group of individuals he’s with. And Pavlicek is now retired. He’s made a lot of money. And he had a son who
was a total screw up when he was a teenager. And then he finally started
straightening himself out. And then he found
out he was diagnosed as having a leukemia at 21
that normally people get when they’re in their late 60s. And he dies. And his name is John, Jr. And I’m going to leave out
as much description as I can. So it’s a whole bunch
of cops at this funeral. And I’m going to
refer to the dead son. “Junior had apparently
had been utterly indifferent to the notion
of any kind of god. And so Pavlicek, no
Bible beater himself, passed on having any kind
of religious celebrant. And instead, turned the program
over to his son’s friends, who served up a half a dozen
well-spoken homages, an acoustical duet
on “I’ll Fly Away,” and a teary solo of
“Angels Among Us,” sung by a young woman who had
been the closest thing Junior had had to a girlfriend in
the last year of his life. When the woman
returned to his seat a retired detective from Bronx
homicide not on the program spontaneously got up and
sang and a cappella version of Eric Clapton’s
“Tears in Heaven,” which had half the room
weeping like babies. And I’m jumping. “It ended with the old
African-American father of the funeral director
doing a soft gospel singing in his reedy voice. He was seeing
singing seemingly– sorry– he was seemingly singing
directly to Junior’s father as he closed out the concert
with “The Battle is Not Yours.” And then it was this time. Pavlicek rising
from the front row, giving his back to the
room as the silently leaned over the coffin.” This is one of the observers. “Billy could hear him
whispering something to his son but too indistinctly
for anyone to make out. Then finally, turning to the
assembled, the expression on his face near homicidal. ‘I don’t know if anybody
came here to celebrate John, Jr.’s life, but I
certainly didn’t,’ he said, gripping the podium as
if he wanted to crush it. ‘I am here before you. I am here among you to rage and
curse god for the arbitrarily murdering fuck that he is. Not that I’m the first
parent ever to feel that way. And to grant myself at least one
afternoon where suicide would be logistically difficult. You know, you read the
papers after a young man dies in this city. Someone’s always
saying, he was just starting to get
his life together. He was just talking about
going back to school, getting his GED,
getting a job, talking about being a real
father to his daughter, talking about getting
away from the hood, about enlisting, about
marrying his fiance. He was just about to do this,
he was just about to do that. All these justs,
whether they were true or not, because they
all died young and just was all they had. Tomorrow was all they had. And the same could
be said for my boy. He was just about to
finish his schooling. He was just about to find
his own way in the world, just about to show
me the man that now, now he’ll never get to be. The man that over the years
would have null and voided every hardship, every heartache
I’ve ever endured in my life. You want to hear what
a great kid he was? How his heart was pure gold,
how he loved life, loved people, loved the challenge,
all that boilerplate et cetera, et cetera. Well, those of you who
want to hear all of that, consider it said. The fact of the matter is was
that he was just about to be and now he’s not. There’s some people in this
room right now,’ Pavlicek said, ‘who gave 20 years or more
to the job, myself included. We’ve seen it, all
handled it all. And when a young
person dies, we’ve all walked up the stairs,
knocked on the doors and delivered the news, between
us, to an army of parents. We’ve caught them on
their way to the floor, carried them into the bedroom
or living room, then gone into their kitchens
and brought them water. Over the years, an ocean of
water, glass by glass by glass. And so, after all
of that, we think we understand what it
must feel like to be one of those parents. But we don’t. We can’t. I still can’t. But I’m getting there. Thank you for coming.'” I feel like I’m saying
that to the audience. Thank you for– It’s just short. I guess pretty corny after that. I just a voices thing. [APPLAUSE] So this novel, The Whites,
you published initially under a pseudonym. See, that’s where the
problem gets deeper. I need money. And my agent, Lynn Nesbit– I didn’t want to write
anymore screenplays because they became– all anybody wanted was
a Marvel hero adaption. They weren’t even
interest in DC Comics. And here I am in my
late 50s, early 60s, and I’m auditioning to write the
screenplay about the Platinum Neuromancer, the
Turquoise Surfer. I’m too old for Marvel comics. But the executives I
was having to pitch to– this is another word I hate– were all younger
than my daughters. It is humiliating. I would say, well, I think the
blind nut’s action, the Surfer with the guy with the
telescope in his head, I think he should– and then,
here comes Farto, the villain. You know his super power. And they go, wow, it’s great,
writing down everything I said. And at the end of the thing,
at the end of the spiel, I’d give them all
my ideas, and i can hear the scritching of
pencils on the other side, writing down every iota of
thought I had on the subject. And at the end of
this I was winded. It was like an hour. I was going, whoo, it
is fantastic, fantastic. Oh, fuck it. Who cares? I got a job. And he said, we
should really get him on the phone with Mitch. Who the hell’s Mitch? It’s their boss. They have no power
to say yes or no. They only have the power
to say no or maybe. Wow, you got to talk to Mitch. So I’ve got to set up for Mitch. I talk another hour on the
phone with Mitch a week later. Mitch is going,
brilliant, brilliant. I heard you were a genius, but
here it is in living color. And I want to tell
you something. You just know, you
need to talk to Sarah. And we go up the
pike, and up the pike. And here I am, dancing like a
marionette with a busted string to these children. And I went all way up
the chain to Allison. And it turns out they gave the
gig to somebody else, who never written a screenplay
before, was 24 years old, and would do whatever they said
for a fraction of the price. I said, that’s it. You asked me what
time it is and you’re going to have the whole history
of Bolivar watch factory. So I’m go into Lynn
Nesbit, my agent, and said, I’m losing my mind. I’m really behind in my bills. And she says,
well, why don’t you write a novel under a
pseudonym, like John Banville and Benjamin Black? There was this wave of like,
Hi, it’s me, but it’s not me. I’m going to have more fun. And so I said, I can
get you as much money as you would get
for a screenplay. I said, great. I’ll do it. So I figured out some
kind of crime book. That was going to be The Whites. And she said, oh, by the way, if
it takes more than three months to write this thing
it’s not worth it. I said, got it. Cut to four years later. The Whites, the end. My pants fell off, I’m more
bald on this side of my head from pulling my hair out. How do you write down– you write the way you write. No, write stupider. Write gliber-er-er. And you just write
the way you write. And so that was one
hell of a three-month– So the book came out. And I thought it was a
quote, unquote “genre book.” And so I really wanted
to keep the pen name because I didn’t
want this book to be judged in comparison with
one of my more serious books. I didn’t want to– How did it feel
different to you? I’m just curious. Because it’s– Because it followed the rules. That thing of all genres
is that there are rules. And if you break
the rules people don’t know what
the hell this is. They don’t know what
to call the book. Is it a thriller, is it a
philosophical meditation on human mortality? So I said fine. It was part of the easy part. This has to happen. But how do you write
less complex characters? If you don’t believe in
good guys and bad guys, if what you cherish– like every novelist
should cherish is the gray not the
black or the white, but the complexity of
every biped on earth. But I was worried
that because it fit the conventions
and the genre, let me keep the pen name. It’s just like a– but everybody knew it was me. So it was like pulling,
I actually said, pulling a rabbit
out of a glass hat. Here he is. Don’t tell anybody. [INAUDIBLE] So it is ridiculous. Because it said in
the reviews even. Well, what happened is
I’d start reading reviews and it was like, whoa,
hey, it’s a good book. I said, hmm, why
did I ever put it– But it’s a lesser book. I honestly think
it’s a lesser book. As good as it might be, and
just as good as it was received, well as it was received, I
think it’s a lesser book. Because it’s about solving, aha,
they’re the guys that did it. Crime is the only
genre where the reader is in competition
with the writer because they want to
outsmart the writer. And I don’t know the difference
between that and word jumbles or Friday New York
Times crossword puzzles. It’s supposed to be you
just surrendered to a book. I feel like I
surrendered to this book as I surrendered to the others. And it’s true that it’s plotted. I you think about a crime novel,
it’s got to have a revelation. And I hate revelations. And I hate answers. Because life is open ended. There are no answers. The crime genre requires
if not immortal answers, solutions to the mystery. And hopefully, you got
there before the reader did. And it’s just no way
to run an airline. Who the hell wants
to write like that when the whole world
is out there in all it’s unanswerableness? Yeah. But humanly, the characters
are there and all their unanswerableness. I try. But the point is, this time I
really went right to the genre. And that’s why it was more of
like, I killed myself on it, but it was more like,
well, what I do now? And you consult the guide book. In a minute we’ll open it up
to questions from the audience. But I just wanted
to ask you also about The Night Of,
which you are not just the main writer of,
but also a producer. So it’s your project,
it was your project– Yeah. I wrote all the episodes. In a way completely
differently perhaps from some of your
other television. Yes and no because
the co-creator was also the director. So things will get changed. He had more power than I did. So he’s not only changing
things on the set, determining on
circumstances, but he’s changing things because
he’s also a writer, he’s a screenwriter. So the worst thing in
the world is for a writer to write for a writer
because they’re never going to respect what you wrote. And things happen. I can see the
character a certain way but he wants to
cast someone that’s going to play an
entirely opposite way. And it’s his decision. It’s better to hire this
individual and let her or him do his thing. It will serve the
story so much better. I mean, I love what you
wrote, but now we’re dealing with putting
flesh on the page. Yeah, it was mine. But there’s always this
element of like no, no, no, no what do you do, what did you do? But then there is
also stuff that you didn’t write that’s in there. And you’ll go, wow,
he really nailed that. I don’t even touch that. So it’s a give and take. At best it’s a give and take. At worst it’s all take. And you go home with
elephant ears inside out, feeling angry and I’ll never do
that again, till the next time. I realized that
there was a thing way back that I wanted to ask you. There were two paths in a wood. And it was about research,
and how you do your research. And you said, it was an
excuse to spend all this time with people. But it involves calling
people up and going– Sometimes the things
you see in here, the most non sequitorious
things you hear, and the most
meaningless gestures, it’s like heroine of insight. And I don’t do
research, I hang out. I’m not going to go
back to my own life. Like somebody once said,
a lot of post-World War II American fiction is vaguely
unhappy in Connecticut. I was vaguely
unhappy in the Bronx. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to write about
myself, except how I filter in through my sensibility. I had notebooks,
I had notebooks. I’d scribble this down,
scribble that down. There would be a
pile like Rain Man. And I never look
at the notebooks because I figured
whatever I remember is the important things. If I don’t remember
it, looking up my indecipherable
handwriting is going– Right. What’s the point? OK, what did the guy say? Because I don’t know if
this word is gosh or damn. You go out there
and you don’t even know what you’re looking for. I don’t go out there with a
hit list of questions or goals. I go out there just to
be with these people. You think it was a nothing
day or a real waste of time. And then 4 o’clock
in the morning you shoot upright in bed
and you go, oh, my god. What do he say? And all of a sudden, it glink,
glink, glink, glink, glink. And I love it. I just love hanging. It’s part of writing. Like I said, once
again, it’s not like you have a goal of
like these big game animals you want a bag. You’re just going out
there to see what happens. The danger of that is
because it’s so addicting and for me it was so much fun,
I feel like I’m a student, I’m a perpetual student. And just talking to anybody
on the street in any situation I feel like I’m learning. I know this sounds a little
goody, goody, but it’s true. The danger is you can get
so addicted to this game that you forget to write. It’s like trying to drink
the ocean with a colander. There’s just too
much world out there. And it’s really hard to stop. I remember, when I was two years
on the street for Clockers, my editor said, well,
that’s great, that’s great. I tell them all
this amazing stuff. And he said, well, let
me ask you a question. What’s the first
sentence of the book? And I immediately
had a speech defect. Well, I don’t know enough
about the welfare system. I don’t know about
the public defender. Just start writing. You’re a lifeguard who’s
a little bit afraid of sea creatures so you make it so
musclebound with experience that you can’t swim. Just stop, stop. Stop pumping iron, stop
filling up notebooks. Just write. Anybody can go out and observe. It’s like taking
in all his life, and now you got to shape it
into some baggy but logical beholding of a world, where
everything out there is like chaos and pinballs. And so the art is
taking all that stuff and molding it into a story. And the most dangerous thing you
can do, that I ever done is I start writing. Never, ever go back
out on the street. Guaranteed somebody
is going to say something that’s going to
make you doubt everything you’ve ever known. It’s fine, you’re fine. Get away, get away
before it’s too late. So you’re writing and then
you start talking to somebody. And it’s so dangerous. Like in seventh
grade science they try to teach you about
super saturation. So they have beaker water. It’s clear water. And then they drop something
in, it turns violet. That’s what going out there–
all of a sudden it’s clear water. You go out there one time
too many and it’s ink. And you can’t see. You lose all your confidence. It’s like being bold but being
fragile too because you’ve got to protect yourself. Thank you. I’m wondering, I’m
thinking that we should see if people
in the audience would like to ask
a question or two. I just want to say before people
ask questions, ask a question. It’s happened once too often. People get up and they
have something to say. At which point, after
10, 15 minutes, you go, what’s the question? And then they ask some
question that they never meant to ask just to
couch it as a question. It makes everybody
a captive audience. So I would love
to take questions. Yes. [INAUDIBLE] I’m sorry. Hang on. There’s a mic coming. Hi. First of all, thanks
for being here. I appreciate it. You talk about how your
approach to writing changes when you’re writing
for the screen as opposed to when you’re writing
for a novel, for a page. The question was,
what’s the difference in writing on the page,
screen writing and novel? Novels have language, sentences. Novels have prose. Screenplays have no prose. They are like telegrams
to the director. This guy does this,
she says that. He does this, she does that. End of scene. Next scene. Two sentences set up
the location, the move. OK. Boy. Blah, blah, blah. Girl. blah-de-blah-de-blah-blah. Boy. Blah-de-blah. They start throwing kitchen
appliances at each other. Cut. Next scene. Exterior, night. Interior, day. Blup, blup, blup. It’s like Post-It notes. [INAUDIBLE] development. I guess my question was
more development wise, if I can use that term, which
comes from TV and film making. When you’re going
into conceptualizing, developing a screenplay
versus conceptualizing and developing a book. I guess your approach to
plotting and to structure in that way rather
than the actual writing of a scene versus– Well, I think what happens is
the difference in consciousness is the clock. When you’re writing a novel
there’s no narrative clock. When you’re writing a script,
or a television pilot, if you go over say an hour
and 50 minutes you’re dead. If you go over 55
minutes you’re dead. So you’re writing with
one eye on the clock. He wants page 40. So you have to be exactly
conscious of where you are vis-a-vis the length
of the project you’re writing. Novels, you could write
a 9,000-page book. The only requirement is that
it’s compelling and readable and says something. And you could be more amorphous
when you’re writing novels because you can have two people
sitting on a bench talking for 20 pages. And once again, the
conversation, all it has, the conversation has to be
scintillating or interesting at least. You can’t do that for
film because it’s not a written medium. It’s a visual medium. It’s a two-M dimensional medium. You hear and you see. Like I said, there’s no
I wonder as I wander. In writing a script, you
have to know your story. And there’s no room for, gee. You have to know
before you start, because you’re in such a
small phone booth, exactly what the story is. Because you can’t wander off
after 20 pages and decide you don’t like your main
character in the screenplay. He’ll kill you. A novel, some people
just write novels from sentence to sentence,
see where it takes them. But time is money,
and there’s a lot of people waiting for a script. And it’s got to be
tight, crisp, and go where it’s going up front. And that’s all the
difference in the world. Thank you. It feels as though
the script writing has more restrictions on you. I just think, do
you feel as if you can get your narrative
voice into a character’s mouth, or not? Oh, I can. But once again, it’s my voice. But who knows what the ultimate
interpretation that the actor will have or who
the actor will be? Or what the director wants,
what the studio wants? That’s what I’m saying. You’re the first person in and
everybody piles on top of you. And at the end of
the day, you’re lucky if you feel you
recognize half of what you wrote in the final product. But if you know that going
in you’re OK with that? Well, like I said, no
such thing as free money. You to make money, this
is what you got to do. We were joking– Is it painful, though? Hmm? Is it painful, or do
you just get past that– It used to be painful
when I was younger because I was so excited
about working in movies and working with people
that I’ve watched since I was a teenager on screen. The older I get, I’m
more philosophical. This is what I do for money. Because my name is on it
I’ll do the best I can do. But I know the lay of the land. I’m not going to get
my knickers in a twist. This is what
they’re going to do. And I have an
agreement with myself. If this happened to me– because movies, you can write
the best thing in the world. But they have a
change of studio heads and there’s a whole new
slate all of sudden. When I did something
for CBS, they decided halfway
through the series, CBS does not want
to dramas anymore. Dramas aren’t making it. Every drama has to be
converted to action. What am I, like
Hopalong Cassidy? I mean, it’s like, Jesus. You don’t want me
to write action. You can’t tell me mid-stream
more bells than whistles. I’m not going to give you bells
and whistles to begin with. I forgot the question. Am I good with that? I realize, I want
certain things in life. I want things in
life for my family. I want things in
life for myself. I want to enjoy myself. Everything’s a compromise. If I want certain things
there are certain things I have to do. It’s still writing. Whatever I write, no matter
how much I complain, and nobody feels sorry for that poor little
rich girl, but no matter how much I complain
I’m still writing. I’m getting paid for writing. It might not be what
I would like to write, but I’ll make it into
something I want it write. It’s called first draft. After that it’s hell. I mean first draft of a script. Yes. Somebody. I was wondering if you could
describe how your reading has changed over time. Because I know that
you mentioned that once you discovered more New York
and urban centric writers that you really
found your voice. But now that maybe you
have a better sense of what your voice
is than you did then, if your reading has expanded
to like other perspectives. And if that’s maybe like– Has my reading broadened? Yeah, it has because I
don’t need them anymore. I’m the one that the ones
coming up read, in that sense. If you’re looking for somebody
that reminds you of you, if you were like me, I’m
the guy, among others. My reading has
always been eclectic. Not all reading is
for inspiration. It’s because you love to read. When I’m reading to find
myself, that’s more hunting. I’m not hunting anymore,
I’m reading for pleasure. What? So what are you reading? What am I reading? Sorry, I didn’t– Is that Spanish Armada there? I read a hot book
about Sir Francis Drake and didn’t decide
to follow up on it. I don’t know what I’m reading. I’m reading everything. Because of ebooks, if you have
a really good cup of coffee, or god forbid, 5 milligrams of
Adderall, and you go to Amazon, you’re going to
wind up buying seven books in about seven minutes. You’re going to read maybe one. You’re going to read maybe a
couple of pages of another one. And you’re going to
look at the other five and say, why the
hell did I buy this? What’s this about? Ebooks has ruined
my concentration. There’s so much I want to read. I could be reading anything. But I’m also reading
four other books, and I’ll probably never
finish any of them. There’s a sadness also. Is that, when you
get older you realize you’re never going
to read the writers you always meant to read. You’re never going to a lot
of the writers you always meant to read because you
don’t want to read them. Your rhythm, your metabolism. There are certain books you love
when you’re 20, in your 20s. And it’s like learning
a foreign language. Your brain is open to this
book at this time in your life. And as you get older,
I know what I like, I know what I want. I know what makes me curious. So god help me, I’ll
probably never read the Mayor of Casterbridge. I’ll never read a
million books that I’m embarrassed to say
I haven’t read. I want to, but time is short. There are a lot of
books out there. And it’s kind of like
a depressing thought. Yes. [INAUDIBLE] Price, Claire
mentioned John Le Carre. I wonder if you could
name a few other writers, who like you, have kind
of walked with a genre and yet gone outside
it wildly too? Basically, are there writers
in that particular genre? No, not in that
particular genre, but writers like you who’ve– [INTERPOSING VOICES] Writers like you who really have
a tricky and great relationship with genre and have gone
beyond it in great ways. I’d say Le Carre’s one,
and you’re another. Are there others, do you think? I’m sure there are. I can’t think of any right
now, but I’m sure there are. Listen, Joseph Conrad
wrote spy books. If you want to think
about, Dostoyevsky wrote probably one of the
best murder mysteries, although you know up front who
did it, which is what I prefer. Look at the science fiction
being written by Doris– there are people
that use genres, but they’re using genres. It’s not like they’re dyed in
the wool, loyal card carrying members of that genre. Would you call Cormac
McCarthy a Western writer? You Well, speaking more
narrowly, what about writers working as you do with
police and dead bodies, and yet writing these
novels that transcend. Are there others? All I can say is there are a
lot of people in the crime genre that are really great
writing crime genre. But they’re writing crime genre. I don’t know too
many crime writers who bust out of the corral. The thing about crime
writing is you can’t remember who did what to what. I might read The Big Sleep
or Farewell, My Lovely or The Maltese Falcon. Who cares who did what to what? You read crime for the narrative
voice and for the atmosphere. And for creating a
memorable central character and evoking a time and a place. Everything else is popcorn. Many questions. Sir at the back. Yes. Hi. Thanks. Could you speak a little
bit about the role that drugs play in
the writing process, if they play a role for you? In drugs? Drugs. Like you mentioned
cocaine briefly, Adderall. I’m wondering if
that’s something that does play a role
in the writing process in terms of creativity
or otherwise? Even William Burroughs
said he’s never written any a damn page
that was any good on drugs. Apologies to Thomas De Quincy. I think drugs are the
enemy of real creativity. Not to sound like a
moralizer, but I’m haunted by my own
experience with drugs. But when I try to
write on that– Adderall, I do take
Adderall because sometimes I just feel like I don’t
want to write about. But with Adderall,
it’ll just give me a little bit of a boost. And so when I open it I get
lost in working really fast. But my writing is
haunted by drugs because of my own experience. Clockers, I was
just sniffing coke, like party coke when
crack came along. I finally figured out
how to make cocaine affordable to poor people. And it was 10 times deadlier. This cocaine is god’s
way of telling you you’re making too much money. But this is not coke. I was so haunted by my
own years on cocaine, when crack became
a phenomena, and it is the quintessence
of not the end of the world in a white rock. You couldn’t read the sports
pages back in the late ’80s where crack– even you’d
say, well, Yankees 4 crack 3. Crack had just drafted
a new crack head. It was pervasive. And it just haunted me. And that drove me
to write Clockers. Like I said,
autobiography seeps in. I’ll tell you my experience
trying to write on coke. Quite bluntly, I
was 30 years old. I do like to get me started. I do a line, I’d write a
line, I’d write a paragraph. I’d go, that’s a
great paragraph. Let’s celebrate. Write two more lines. That was a great two more lines. Anybody up for a boop? Write one line. All right. Those are great three words. Let’s have a bump. And pretty soon, I started
out allegedly snorting coke in order to write. And then it got so horribly
perverted I was writing as an excuse to do coke. And at one point I’m
working on something. I had 100 pages and
each page was great. But each page was
for a different book. So it made no sense. It was too. It’s like an oscillating
beer sign by the jukebox. Listen, there are
serious drugs that need to be taken by people who
are suffering from stuff that makes them drop down a hole that
nobody can understand if they haven’t had that malady. [INAUDIBLE] that type of
drugs, recreational drugs. Alcohol? Nope. You can’t do any of that stuff
and keep a coherent flowing mind. And that’s been my experience. That’s it. I wouldn’t even go for
a second cup of coffee because I’ll just buy
seven more books on ebooks, instead of writing. Now I’ve got 14 books
I’ll never read. Maybe one last question. Sir here in the front. Actually do you–
no, sir, go ahead. Do you have any examples
of scripts you’ve written and there’s a big change either
like there was a great change, or like, oh, my god, I
can’t believe I did that? Could you be more specific? I’m not quite– Like if you wrote a script,
and then it got produced, let’s say. I don’t know. Was Color of Money was the
protagonist a 12-year-old girl originally, or
something like that? No. No. That’s screenwriting. And TV writing is all business. You don’t have the whim, you
don’t have the power of whimsy to change your
mind because you’re getting paid by people who
are creating a product. And they know the
reason why you’re writing it is that
they gave it thumbs up. Yeah, this sounds great. Go do it. And you can’t come
in, you know, I decided that
12-year-old girl, she should be a 400-year-old
man from another planet. It works so much better. They’re going to look
at you and you’re done. You can’t do that. Whereas, there are some
great stories about writers who started out doing one
thing and halfway through they switch from a
car to an airplane. I had a writing teacher, who was
a mid-century British novelist, Alan Sillitoe, who wrote The
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning. And some of these
books were part of the black and white British
cinema of the late ’50s and early ’60s, And when he was writing Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning, Richard Harris played
the main character. He said, the main character
that he intended was a sailor. And he comes into a bar, I
think it was in Nottingham. So he comes into the bar and he
challenges any of these factory lugs to a drink off. I can drink any man
under the table. He said, well, now I have
to create a character to take up the challenge. So he starts writing. These guys are drinking and
talking, and this and that. All of a sudden, he
realizes, he likes this guy a lot better than the sailor. So he finished the
scene by having the sailor pass out
and get dragged out of the pub and the book. And it became about the guy
that took up the challenge. But you can do
that with a novel. It’s yours. It’s yours until
you surrender it. Are there any times when a
director or producer, whoever, will change something and
it was a pleasant surprise? Well, OK, glad you asked. Constantly. You write a line, you write,
who do you think you are anyhow? And it’s the way [INAUDIBLE] Who
do you think you are, anyhow? But I’ll tell you a story. There’s a great novelist
named Leonard Gardner. And he wrote a book
called Fat City, which is about a tank town boxers,
like night of the tomato can boxers. And was Stockton. It was Steinbeck country. And it was a beautiful,
beautiful novel. Kind of Hemingway-esque
but better. And I read that book
when it came out. I loved it. And I was at a party
in San Francisco. And John Huston made a movie
out of that with Jeff Bridges and I forgot who else. Stacy Keach. Hmm? Stacy Keach. Right, right. Exactly. So I meet Leonard
Gardner at a party. And here’s what you should never
say to a novelist at a party, especially when there’s alcohol. So what did you think of the
movie they made of your book? [LAUGHTER] So I asked him that question. And he’s built like a whippet. I think he used to box
himself at some point. He was just a coil. He wasn’t even a man. He was just a coil of muscle
and tension and quiver. But when I asked that question
he literally started shaking. I thought his temples
were going to explode. He started cursing
out John Huston. That son of a bitch. Any time he thought
he could he could score a girl he gave her an
extra line that I didn’t write. And he did this,
and he did that. And it was like talking to the
Ancient Mariner on steroids. And I said, oh, my god. And I was thinking of
adapting one of my own books. I had an offer. And after that, I
said, god damn, I’m never going to touch my books,
which I should have stuck to. And I said, god, I’m
so sorry, Leonard. What are you doing now? I’m writing a script
for John Huston. [LAUGHTER] And I went, oh, my god. Well, perhaps that’s a
good place for us to stop. Richard, thank you so much. [APPLAUSE] It was [INAUDIBLE]

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