Richard Price: A real writer wants to write novels

Richard Price: A real writer wants to write novels

American novelist-screenwriter Richard Price speaks during a panel discussion at last week’s İstanbul Book Fair.

November 14, 2009, Saturday/ 16:01:00
“Screenwriting is not healthy writing,” says Richard Price, an acclaimed American novelist-screenwriter who was in İstanbul last weekend to speak in a panel discussion as part of this year’s İstanbul Book Fair, which wrapped up last Sunday.Born in New York City, Price grew up in a working-class housing project in the Bronx. Early in his life, Price was taken with the fact that his factory-worker grandfather was writing poetry. “I don’t know if it was good or bad -- I was too young -- but it made an impression on me. So, I had it in my mind, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know if I had anything to write about, but it stayed within. And in my 20s, I finally had my story to tell,” he recalls.

Price graduated from Cornell University and also did graduate work at Stanford University. Teaching writing at Columbia, Yale University and New York University, he received an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters Awards in 1999. Among Price’s novels are “The Wanderers,” “Clockers” (later made into a movie by Spike Lee), “Freedomland,” “Samaritan” and “Lush Life,” which will be published in Turkey in January by Alfa Publishing.

The 60-year-old author has also penned numerous screenplays, including 1986’s “The Color of Money,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar, as well as “Life Lessons” (1989), “Mad Dog and Glory” (1992), “Ransom” (1996) and “Shaft” (2000). During his stay in İstanbul, Price spoke to Sunday’s Zaman about his career.

Your first novel was published when you were 24, and it was made into a movie. It must have been a good beginning.

It made a little bit of a splash because I was so young and that became a kind of interest to the book world because at that time, 1974, people did not publish at that age. It didn’t sell incredibly well and the movie didn’t do particularly well, but it established a name.

Did you start writing screenplays after your novels were made into movies?

Two of my novels were made into movies without my participation. They had screenwriters to do it, which was probably a good idea. But because people saw how I wrote in the books, they thought it was very cinematic, so I just had offers such as if you ever want to try screenwriting, and after a couple of books, I just felt I had nothing else to write about, so I decided to take them up on it and see what was it like to be a screenwriter so I kept writing at least.

Can you foresee whether a work will succeed or not?

I’m nervous about everything I do. All I can do is complete it … I can’t think about anything else but finishing the work.

You say that you need psychiatric nursing while you write. What do you mean?

For me it takes a few years to write a book. I feel so anxious about “was this a good idea?” It just means that someone has to calm me down, like an editor; he should convince me that it’s worth working on so that I’ll go on. It’s like temperamental. It’s a sort of a joke. ... Familiarity is important because I realize that I go through this with every book. But the minute I finish that book, I forget and then I go through it again. Someone has to tell me, “This is the seventh time you’re going through this,” and somebody has to be around me enough to know.

Which is more essential for you, novels or screenwriting?

Novel writing. You don’t have to get anybody’s permission to do it. You can’t write a screenplay unless somebody gives you a job. It’s like you can’t be an actor unless someone gives you a job. But you write a novel, or you paint a picture; all you need is the material and whether the item is good enough to be published or not. It seems like a simple decision; there’s nobody involved.

You say that writing novels and screenplays at the same time hurts you.

It’s like playing two different sports at the same time such as playing European football and one hour later playing American football. I have only one brain, and I can’t multi-task because there’s such a big difference of sensibility between novel writing and screen writing. They rely on different instincts, and if you try to do them at the same time, they will cross over. If you’re writing a script, it’s for the screen; people watch it so the writing is superficial. When you’re writing a novel, you’re multi-dimensional because you’re plunging inside a character; you’re narrating a world around. And if you try to write a novel with a screenwriting sensibility, it would be very superficial. And if you write a screenplay with a novel writing sense, it would be too heavy.

While writing scripts, do you imagine the characters as certain people, like specific actors?

No, I don’t think about that. I put all my energy into making the novel. If I tried to write creatively and at the same time thought about a movie, it takes away the concentration of the task. The task is to write the novel. Once you’re done, there’s no harm in having conversations, wouldn’t this actor be good, etc., but I can’t do that while writing; I have to do the work.

How would you feel if your novels were adapted for the cinema by different directors from Turkey or Europe?

That would be very interesting. It depends on the people and on the situation. Another dilemma is that I don’t speak any other language than English. So, when the translations are made, I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. But it would be interesting to see how somebody from Turkey would interpret my story because I find people in this part of the world much more involved in the life of the family. That is not necessarily the case in the United States. The generations live together in the same house; the grandmother lives in the same house; the bride moves into the groom’s house. I didn’t have that experience. This is a sensibility that might be Turkish or anything not American. I would like to see my script filtered through what’s important to other cultures in my story. It might be something that I don’t think is particularly important, so it might be interesting to see how somebody would interpret it.

“The sin wasn’t to write the screenplays. The sin was to write them well.” What do you mean by these words?

Writing novels is a very solitary occupation. When you’re done, it’s all yours. Screenwriting is anything but solitary, you’re working with directors, actors, studios, agents and you have no control over that. You have a social world; you have a connection with other people that writing novels won’t allow you. Screenwriting is not healthy writing. You don’t control what you’re trying to say about the world; other people do it for you. So, for a real writer, I think you want to be a novelist because it’s you and nobody can affect that. The problem in screenwriting is that there’s always people that want to talk to you about your work. When the product is finished, you feel a little cheated because all you did was to write it on paper, and it’s up to everyone to put it up on the screen. You think that what they did is not what you exactly think, but you can’t do anything about it. But you do it again because this actor’s name is involved, or it’s a location to be excited about, but I think it hurts seriously.

Is there any specific person that you want to work with?

I worked with many different people; I think the most creatively successful stuff was done by Martin Scorsese. In terms of actors, I don’t think that any actor is consistently excellent. Even the great actors have bad roles, even the great directors have bad films, even the great writers write bad books.

What do you read, and what do you watch?

I read a lot of history and any fiction. I don’t watch too much. I worked on a TV series called “The Wire.” I watch that, but I’m not much for TV. And I don’t go to the cinema much. As for authors, I like Robert Stone, Richard Yates, but I like books too because nobody consistently writes excellent books. But there are writers that I automatically buy a book of theirs. And I’d like to know what these writers are going to write about next. But it’s kind of random.

You’ve seen the İstanbul Book Fair. What do you think about the literary sphere in Turkey?

The only Turkish writer [I know] is Orhan Pamuk. I don’t know if Turkish writers have broken into the American sensibility. Only 3 percent of all the books in America are translated from another language. And that includes countries culturally close to America like France, Germany, England and so on. I don’t know any Dutch writers; I don’t know any Turkish writers; now I’m meeting Turkish writers. But I’m trying to get a sense by meeting writers, of what the work is about, but I’m not there yet. I’m not qualified.

One of your works was related to Michael Jackson’s video “Bad.”

It’s embarrassing.

But don’t you think it’s more significant today after Jackson’s death?

No, but ... the funny thing is that I live in Harlem in New York, which is a predominantly black, historically black neighborhood. And I was on the street when Michael Jackson died. And it was like every person on the street started talking, it was like George Washington died, like Atatürk died. The entire neighborhood, everybody was on the cell phone; it was like a phenomena. I didn’t know how important he was to the culture. He just seemed so weird to me. When I worked with him, it was just a music video; I just met him once, years ago. They treated him like a God died. It’s a little bizarre.

If they offered to remake the video would you accept?

Probably not. The older I get, the more I want to do what I really want to do. And that’s writing novels.

Are you working on something at the moment?

I’m writing a novel about Harlem. It’s a slow process. It takes a few years, but it depends on how familiar I am with what I’m going to write about. It takes about three years. I try to observe the community, and I have to change all this into a fiction. I have to write a story, but the first part is learning what I need to learn.

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