This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on February 5, 2003.
Richard Price’s new book, “Samaritan,” is the third in a string of convincingly realistic novels set in the public housing projects of New Jersey.
Price first used the setting in “Clockers,” a story of drug dealers and the cops tracking them. In his next book, “Freedomland,” a white woman creates a storm by telling police a black man has taken her car, with her young child still inside. “Samaritan” is just as much of a page-turner as its two predecessors, but it’s a more intimate story.
A white television writer, Ray Mitchell, returns to the projects where he grew up to volunteer as a writing teacher. After a violent assault, he ends up in the hospital, but he won’t name his attacker. A retiring black police detective who knew him as a child, Nerese Ammons, sets out to solve the mystery.
Price began his career with the novel “The Wanderers” and later wrote screenplays for such films as “The Color of Money” and “The Sea of Love.” Price … spoke last week by telephone from New York.
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A: In the course of doing “Freedomland” and “Clockers,” I spent a lot of time in these areas, just sort of hanging out with people, and sort of via osmosis learning what I felt like I didn’t know about the small minutiae of life, so I could make up responsible fiction. And in the course of this, I befriended a lot of people. I’m making money off what I’m doing, and they’re helping me, so I’d offer people money if they wanted it. Or if they didn’t want money, I would (say), “Well, what do you want? What can I do for you?” And oftentimes, I would just get closer to the families or take the kids for a weekend, you know, off the mother’s hands. Or I’d work with kids in the schools. And I was having a good time. …
What I wasn’t aware of, was that with a lot of these kids, it was the first time that they had been around an adult (who) was curious (about) them, other than their mothers. It was the first time somebody was really paying attention to them and making them feel like they are something of consequence.
On my end of it, at the end of the day, I just went home. But for a lot of people, it’s like, “What’s he gonna do next?” But the project comes to an end (and) what he’s gonna do next is he’s gonna bail, or he’s gonna move on. And so no matter what I did with teaching or hanging out with people, I always felt like when I left, I left people feeling slightly burned.
And so I was very interested in that intersection between trying to do good things and somehow doing damage — you know, raising hopes and then dashing them. You’re kind of oblivious to the fact that you’ve just done that. And then I read about this guy, Jonathan Levin, who was a teacher in the Bronx. It was big news a couple of years ago. He had been teaching in the Bronx. He had been tortured and killed by a couple of his students for his ATM card. And when I read that article … all of a sudden, I just got this feeling. … I had heard he was the type of guy who was a very charismatic teacher. … He was very beloved, as journalists love to say. There was something about his story that gave me the creeps and made me think about myself — how I might have been oblivious to what was going on in the heads of the people that I’m trying to quote-unquote help.
Q: In “Samaritan,” there’s a questioning of the motives behind altruism.
A: There’s altruism, like people having a fund-raising dinner and raising half a million dollars to do this or that or the other. That’s just like a cash transaction. I’m not really interested in that. When the character pays straight-out for a funeral, he might have had very weak reasons for doing that. But look, somebody gives somebody money, money is needed. That’s a done deal.
The thing I was more focused on was when people get carried away with their own goodness. They have one eye on the mirror, watching themselves be a good person. There are certain emotional promises made to the other, that they might not be aware of, because they’re focused on themselves, and then there’s hell to pay. … If you’re addicted to “Thank you,” you can sort of heedlessly find yourself walking through a minefield. Depending on the neediness of the people around you, you’re playing a very dangerous game.
Q: The other character who is a major focus of tile book is the detective, Nerese Ammons. Was she inspired by people you’ve met?
A: She’s a fictional creation, but she definitely had her inspiration in this one detective I met in the Bronx. I get this rap: He does all this research. It makes it sound sort of journalistic. And throw in a couple of phony names, and it’s fiction. But it’s all fiction. Oftentimes there are people that inspire characters but then I go off on a tangent with them that doesn’t have to do with the real life of the character. She definitely had a source.
Q: What interested you about this character?
A: Just the minutiae of her life. … Because she’s black and female, she sees herself and her career as a product of demographic cosmetics — that she rose off being female and black, therefore making the department look good statistically. … She knows it, and everybody else around her knows it, so she’s kind of alienated from everybody and she has a bone to pick. I just wanted her to be somebody who came from the same projects as him and started off life there. … Now that she’s approaching retirement … if she could solve something, if she could close a case that took place in the very area where she started her life, it would create a full circle for her, and it, would be a satisfying way to go out.
Q: The book reads like a whodunit or a police procedural, and yet it’s not about the sort of crime you normally read about.
A: I feel like I’m borrowing the whodunit format. … I’ve just found, in the last three books, that the structure and chronology of any police investigation, if you look at all the reports and the cast of characters — First of all, you have the arresting officers. Then you have the witnesses. Then you have the victim. Then you have the victim’s relatives. Then you have the perp. Then you have the false alarm — he’s not really the perp. Then you have the alibi people. And if you just follow the jacket chronologically, it’s sort of like a stem cell for the world. It’s a microcosm of human experience thrown against a particular incident. It’s an investigation hopefully leading toward a revelation. I found that if I could borrow that structure … I can drape anything about human experience that I went to go over along the skeleton of this police investigation — and layer on whatever nuances and commentary I want about the world I’m writing about. But I feel more like a borrower of a structure than an adherent to it.
Q: Each of your last three books has two major characters, with scenes alternating between the two characters. Was that by design?
A: Yeah. The last two books were big books. You’d have to join a health club if you bought those books. They were 600 pages. I found that if I could get a swing rhythm between two perspectives, like A, B, A, B, A, B, it just made them read faster. And then it took on a life of its own. … Perhaps I didn’t need that this time around because it’s a considerably shorter book, but I kind of like that.
Q: Your books raise a lot of questions about social issues: crime, poverty, public housing. Do you have political ideas on how to solve these issues or are you more interested in presenting a realistic portrait of what’s happening?
A: I’m not a political writer. My sympathies are obviously with the underdog, for whatever that’s worth. … What I’m trying to do is present portraits’ along racial lines. I think these days, (with) black people and white people, there’s less dialogue now than there ever was before. It might be getting better now, but it seemed like in the early ’90s everybody retreated to their side of the line, shouting at each other, raising up placards with their favorite victims on it. What I want to do is create characters of opposite races whose humanity would inevitably impose itself on their counterpart, in a way that their counterpart couldn’t hold onto their assumptions about the other race. It’s sort of like wishful thinking more than anything else.
Q: What reaction do you get to these books from people who live in areas like Dempsy? I mean the real-life reaction as opposed to the literary-critic reaction.
A: The real-life reaction, for those bothered to read it, is good. I get scared that somebody’s going to read it and say, “Is that what you think of me?” When I write about … a public defender, or a drug dealer or some woman who runs a family that she is the sale head of, if these people are reading what I wrote based on hanging out with them, I don’t want them to walk out of the movie halfway through, put down the book after 50 pages, and go, “This guy has no idea what I was talking about.” That’s the standard I’m looking for journalistically. The people who lived this say, “He got it.”
Q: What do you think when you look back on your early novels?
A: I wrote them all in my 20s. They all kind of make me flinch. I don’t know too many people who are proud of anything they did in their 20s. … All I can see is what I got away with. They had all this happy energy in them because I was so pleased with myself. When you’re in your 20s, you know everything. When you’re in your 50s, you know nothing. So I look them and say, “God, this guy thought he really had it all figured out.”
Q: How would you compare writing screenplays and novels?
A: For starters, in novel writing, someone gives me an advance and then I disappear for two or three years. I’m by myself. Screenwriting, I’m being hired. People are hovering, because they want product … and they want control over that product. And I’m aware of that, and that’s the way it goes. … The money is phenomenally more (when you’re) writing screenplays. The writing itself is not really satisfying. You write a first draft of a script, and everything you do after that first draft is a matter of collective bargaining — making this guy happier or that guy less nervous or this guy more excited, all simultaneously. So it’s about making people feel good about proceeding to the next stage. There’s no writing in screenwriting. There’s no authorial voice, there’s no narrative, there’s no language, there’s no sentences. It’s a two-dimensional medium. People say things and then they do things. Say and do, say and do, it’s all about momentum. It’s like speed chess. There’s no interior life, there’s no past. Novel writing is just the opposite. It’s all about depth.
Q: Do you feel like you have any particular strengths as a screenwriter?
A: My dialogue is obviously kind of snappy, but that’s not really important. People think that because somebody can write good dialogue, they’ll automatically be a good screenwriter. Good screenwriting is more about architecture: your ability to build a two-hour story that has an inexorable forward momentum.
Q: Do you know what your next project will be?
A: I’m doing a script with Jonathan Demme. It’s an original script.
Q: Do you have another novel planned?
A: Oh, man, I wish. Unfortunately, not. It takes me just as long to figure out what I want to do as it does to do it.