A Conversation with Richard Price, author of Samaritan
Q: Samaritan is your third novel (following Clockers and Freedomland) to bring to life the streets and housing projects of Dempsey, NJ. What made you want to return to this fictional landscape and how do you see this book in relation to those two?
A: I created the city of Dempsey, which has been the setting for all three books, because I didn’t want anyone to associate the location with a specific city and think, “Oh this is about Camden, New Jersey” or “This is about Gary, Indiana.” I want people to think of Dempsey as the nearest mid sized city. It’s about urban America. The fictional setting also allows me to invent whatever small realities, political quirks or other customized universalities I want without fear of misrepresentation. Socially tainted fiction like mine should be called Accurate Lying.
I see these books as connected in that each is an exploration of a facet of race relations in urban America. Clockers is about economic survival on the street and the relationship between cops and citizens in a world where people see the police as an occupying army. Freedomland is about racial paranoia, using the kidnapping hoax at the center of the story to write about white America’s readiness to buy the worst assumptions about the black people that live nearby but are not really neighbors (and also how the media is so willing to jump on that particular bandwagon). Samaritan is a much more intimate take. It’s about the Haves reaching out without really understanding what the Have Nots are all about, and the trickiness of trying to connect in a real and meaningful way across the lines of race and class.
Q: Near the beginning of Samaritan, Ray has been beaten and left for dead and it is up to a cop (and the reader) to figure out whodunit. Is Samaritan a mystery? A novel of suspense? Or something else?
A: Like many writers before me, I find that the basic structure of a police investigation offers a natural framework for writing about almost any aspect of human nature with the built-in bonuses of criminally bad behavior and a strip-tease of gradually revealed identities. But this is not a “mystery,” or a detective novel. Of course I want people to fall into the book, to be eager to know what happens next, but Samaritan, like Clockers and Freedomland, is more of a “whydunit” than a whodunit. The social fabric, the background tapestry of everyday life is important, if not more so than the actual misdeed that propels the story.
Q: Nerese is convinced that Ray’s humanitarianism comes from a need to feel good about himself. As she says, “You need too much to be liked…That’s a bad weakness to have. It makes you reckless. And it makes you dangerous.” Is she right? Can the impulse to do good ever be free of a certain narcissism?
A: In terms of doing good deeds or extending yourself to others, I would imagine for most people there is something coming back to them in terms of “well, this is one way to get to heaven.” No interaction of this nature is ever completely selfless and certainly there are times when narcissism can poison altruism. Sometimes it’s very hard to find the line between delivering to people what you promised and leaving them feeling seduced and abandoned.
Q: In Ray, you have created a multi-layered character; the reader often feels both the urge to slap some sense into him and to applaud his noble efforts. How would you prefer for people to react to him by book’s end?
A: Basically, the guy’s an unregenerate human being, which is to say, like everyone else his ass is three and a half feet from his head. He’s a weak, needy but good-hearted person with too much power in too small a world. He has a hard time seeing the selfishness drizzled through his acts of selflessness but he means well, so. . .
Q: Are there any similarities between you and the character Ray?
A: Although this is a work of fiction it is obviously informed by a lot of my life experiences. In the course of doing the work for Freedomland and Clockers I found myself, in exchange for information or access into people lives, offering up anything--from money to jobs to simple human company to whatever would make it seem a fair exchange. And I also found myself doing a lot of pro-bono teaching.
I’ve given Ray many of the external elements of my life. We both grew up in public housing projects, had a history with drugs, and basically made our way out in the course of our lives through writing. We both grew up in a racially mixed environment-- in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in New York City, housing projects were as close to “melting pots” as America would ever see.
And to this day I find myself, for a million different reasons, going back to the projects where I was raised and will occasionally, like Ray, drag one of my daughters along with me.
Q: This novel deals with what one character calls “the enormity of small things;” how the smallest gesture of kindness can have immeasurable effects. Have you had such an experience in your own life?
A: Obviously, we’re all a product of our upbringing, schooled in how to be, who to be by the people that raised us. Yet, if the timing is right someone coming along and reaching out in a way that goes completely against the grain of that instruction, can be an earthshaking experience. As for myself, there were certain people, teachers for the most part, who have occasionally but lastingly turned my world upside down, although I imagine most of them weren’t aware of the impact they were having on me.
Q: Storytelling features prominently in Samaritan— in Ray’s relationships with Ruby and his students; in his role as father, teacher, and television writer. What is the power of
storytelling in daily life, especially for kids?
A: Sometimes it is easier for people to express their feelings towards others by sharing small stories that have always been close to their heart, these narratives a kind of long hand for “I love you.” Everyone, no matter what age, no matter how limited their experience or education, can tell a dozen great stories and usually they center around the mythology of their family. What makes them great is not that they are true or false or even well told, but that these anecdotes have been living inside them all their lives and when offered up they’re like giving a piece of your soul.
Q: The World Trade Center appears on the sidelines in this novel, its absence an integral part of the city as Ray gazes across the Hudson from his terrace. Did you feel it was important to somehow incorporate the events of 9/11 in the novel?
A:Writing a book about the New York area after 9/11 and ignoring what happened is like writing a book about Hawaii in late December, 1941 and ignoring Pearl Harbor. The question becomes: How do you integrate it without exploiting it? And how do you integrate it without losing sight of what you were writing about before September 11th?
Q: The family units that appear in your novel are non-traditional: single-parent, inter-racial, and joint-custody. Would you say that this contributes to the problems many of the characters experience?
A: I’m so used to non-traditional family units that I wasn’t even aware I was creating them. Sometimes I feel like a two parent house is as exotic as any other type of arrangement.
Q: Ray is a white guy who in Samaritan operates in a mostly black world. You are a white guy who covers racial territory and captures experiences many would shy away from. What has made you want to explore this terrain?
A: The whole notion of being white and creating black characters is a non-issue to me. A writer’s job is to imagine lives not his or her own so no race no gender no sexual preference, no religion should be out of bounds. The only mandate is that whoever you create on paper should be a multi-dimensional, full-blooded human being.
I choose to write novels with strong racial elements because race is the heart and soul of American history, race relations the great American obsession, and racism the American flu.
Q: What kind of preparation or research went into this novel?
A: Compared to the last few books there was no real research. Experientially I’d done everything that the character had done. I grew up in public housing, made my mark in Hollywood, taught in urban public schools. I”ve also spent alot of time with cops and around housing projects for the better part of the last fifteen years, because I believe in what Jimmy Breslin once said regarding Damon Runyon, “He did what all good reporters do. He hung out.”
From the Hardcover edition.