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Novelist Richard Price Discusses "Freedomland."

Novelist Richard Price talks about his latest book "Freedomland". (Broadway Books) It's a story that examines race relations in a fictional urban New Jersey town. Inspired by the real life Susan Smith incident in which she alleged a black man carjacked her and took her two children. Price's story follows a similar theme and how the events affect the community. Price's earlier novel "Clockers" about life in the inner city world of drug dealing was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Price also is a screenwriter with such notable films: "Sea of Love," "Ransom," and "The Color of Money."


Other segments from the episode on May 21, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 21, 1998: Interview with Richard Price; Commentary on Ray Charles.


Date: MAY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052101np.217
Head: Freedomland
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Richard Price is the author of "Clockers," the bestselling novel about crack dealers and cops that was adapted into a Spike Lee film. His new novel "Freedomland" is set in neighboring black and white towns in New Jersey. It's a crime story that takes elements from recent news stories about the racial divisions in this country.

In Freedomland, a white woman claims that an African-American man stole her car with her 4-year-old son in the backseat. A manhunt is conducted in the housing project near the scene of the crime. The media converges on the case. Cops surround the project.

Here's a reading from the novel in a scene after the woman confesses that there was no black carjacker. Racial tensions are heightening in the project and opportunists of every sort are trying to exploit the situation. Lorenzo Counsel (ph) is a black cop assigned to the case, who lives in the project and knows and cares about the people there.

As he's walking through the hall, he overhears a workshop given by Isaac Hathaway (ph). It's supposed to be a workshop to help cool things off, but Hathaway is conducting a self-esteem workshop and Counsel thinks the tone is all wrong for the occasion.

RICHARD PRICE, SCREENWRITER, AUTHOR "FREEDOMLAND": "My name is Isaac Hathaway, and I'm here today because I love you." The guy beamed at the children in the room, the boys sniggering. "I love you. I love you. I love you." Isaac Hathaway methodically went around the horn. Lorenzo, furious, immediately realizing that someone had screwed up and arranged a self-esteem workshop instead of a "keep cool" workshop. Somebody always screwing up like that around here.

"I love you. I love you. And I even love the brother sitting under the window pretending he's asleep over there." Hathaway's voice carried a heightened buoyancy now, as he gestured toward a glower-faced 15-year-old leaning up against the wall. The boy's name was Daniel Bennett (ph), and as Lorenzo watched him sitting knees to chin, he was suddenly gripped by a disturbingly powerful desire to march over and smack Daniel -- not a bad kid -- on his head.

"But most important," Hathaway said, then paused, "I love me." He withstood another wave of sputtery ridicule. Lorenzo stood in the doorway fuming. "See, I'm from here. I'm from here just like you, but I don't live here now. Uh-uh. Uh-uh. I got me a house. I got me a small house over in Jersey City. It's small, but it's mine. I got me a wife, a son. I got me a roof over my head. I got out," he said, grinning at them.

"I got out. And you may ask me: how did you get out, Isaac? How did you do it? And I'll tell you. I got out because I got me an education. Did I go to 22 School like you all? No. Me, I went to the school of hard knocks. Let me show you my diplomas."

Hathaway held up a knife-scarred arm. "Here's my bachelor's degree." He stared at them; the kids attentive now, half smiles of interest on their faces. Hathaway removed his tie, and unbuttoned the front of his shirt, popping out his left shoulder, touching a starred bullet wound. "Here's my masters." "Whoa" one of the boys barked.

Lorenzo was disgusted. This type of show and tell invariably backfired. The kids always winding up jazzed instead of woken up. "And here," Hathaway lifted the belly of his shirt to reveal another long vertical knife scar above his navel. "Here's my Ph.D." "Damn" -- all the boys are grinning now; the girls speaking to one another behind a screen of hands. "Either you change," he announced, "or you expire."

"You change your new tire," one wiseguy whispered loudly, cracking up the kids nearest to him.

"Now, we're gonna get into something here, but first I want to know who you are? So I want you all to go around the horn, tell me your name, and after you say your name, I want you to say: 'and I love myself.' OK? I'll go first, because I love saying how much I love myself. So my name is Isaac Hathaway and I love myself. Go ahead. This girl first."

"Excuse me," Lorenzo stepped into the room and exploded, paralyzing his audience. "I got to go, but I would like to give you kids some tips on the next few nights out here. I'd like to give you some tips on survival. No theories; no speeches -- facts." Prowling the room now, Lorenzo glared at them.

"Facts. The police is angry. The police is scared. And the ones you're gonna see around here tonight, tomorrow night -- they don't know you. They don't know what's in your head, who your mother is, if you're a good kid, bad kid -- all they know is they're living on the edge of their own nerves, just like you."

"'Freeze' means 'freeze.' It don't mean take another step. It don't mean wave your arms. I don't mean turn your back. And it don't mean show your girl friend how brave you are. 'Freeze' means 'freeze.' Listen to the police officer because you just might be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

Lorenzo was bellowing, his voice cracking. "Any way a person can die, I've seen it and I'm tired of it. I'm tired of going to autopsies and funerals of kids who look just like you. You want the best advice for these next few days? Stay home. Watch TV. Read a book. Don't mess up. Thank you."

"Thank you," Isaac Hathaway said with a cautious positiveness. Angry to the point of tears, Lorenzo finally left the room. A moment later, Lorenzo found himself prowling the breezeway, enraged by that useless workshop; enraged at himself; and enraged, too, at the cops -- at the idea of the cops, who had ringed these high-rises again at nightfall; wired, scared, ready for anything, expecting the worst.

Those kids in there having done nothing to merit the danger of this armed edginess, but having the misfortune, in the wake of Brenda's hoax, to call this place home.

GROSS: That's a great reading, Richard Price. Thank you for doing that. That's Richard Price reading from his new book Freedomland.

You know, this -- this is based on a real incident, and you know, in your novel, this becomes a real crisis in this housing project because the people in the project have been set up by these false accusations. Have you found that certain crises become paydays for people like the Isaac Hathaway character, who's coming to do the self-esteem workshop?

PRICE: Well, there are people who can "benefit" from a potential urban firestorm, and some of them have a great deal of self-interest at their base. Others are fairly altruistic.

The point is, the strategy is: when something happens, when sort of the white power structure screws up and they've put minority people through hell for no good reason at all, that is an opportunity for a swap meet. Some reverend or some politico can step in and say: "look, you guys messed up, now we can make this easy or we can make this embarrassing. What can you give us as a way of saying "I'm sorry?" Can you give us summer jobs? Can you give us more black police? Can you give us a midnight basketball tournament? Can you give us a recreation program for the summer? We want something. You guys owe us."

Other people, it's just an opportunity to get their names in the paper, and they just want to see stuff go up in flames. It depends, you know, who sees the range.

GROSS: The character of Lorenzo is a really interesting character. He's the cop who works and lives in the housing project. Is he based on somebody who you met?

PRICE: You know, all my characters are inspired by various people or combinations of various people. Lorenzo, in particular, was inspired by a cop who's a friend of mine in Jersey City, who I think is a magnificent individual.

He's got his flaws, I mean everybody's butt's three feet from their brain, but he is one of these tireless people who just keep going, who have no idea what a time clock is. And he's a star. And he's the guy to go to. He's the expediter for all the people in the projects of Jersey City.

GROSS: He's in a really awkward spot, because he is a cop and he represents the cops. But yet, he sees the cops in a way a lot of the tenants do, as sometimes being an occupying force in the projects.

PRICE: Right.

GROSS: And he genuinely cares about the people there. So he's really in the middle. He's trying to convince the people to cooperate when they ought to with the cops, and yet at the same time he understands all the things that the cops have done wrong.

PRICE: Well, you know, it is interesting, you know, being around black cops in Hudson County. I mean, basically a cop's a cop. He's not Eldrige Cleaver (ph). He's got a job to do, and I don't particularly know any cops who, simply because they happen to be the same color as the people in the projects, stop being cops. If you mess up, you mess up and you will pay.

However, there's a difference between an appropriate payment and a presumption of guilt based on color. So yeah, you'll have -- yeah, they'll have varying relationships with their white coworkers and sometimes it's strained and sometimes it's cordial.

But you know, at the bottom, they're black but they're also blue. There was an expression somebody told me that -- that the -- some black people said to describe the dilemma of this cop: "either you're blue or you're black, and if you turn your back, you might wind up both."

So yeah, it is -- it's kind of a jam situation.

GROSS: Richard Price, this novel Freedomland is based in part on the 1994 Susan Smith story, which you followed once she confessed that she had killed her sons herself, and that it wasn't the -- the black man who she said had done it. What made you think that you had to follow this story?

PRICE: Well, I mean, it was something I was peripherally following on the TV for the seven or eight or nine days that she was appealing to this fictional black carjacker to return her sons. And I didn't even realize that I was paying that much attention to it, except when that one day I passed the TV and somebody said she's been indicted for two homicides.

And everything just went off in me. And I went down to South Carolina the next day, not really knowing what I was going to do once I got down there, but I -- just something happened. I still really don't understand why it hit me the way that it did. Basically, I was there with the press. I met people from New York, tabloid reporters who I had marginally met over the years, so I sort of fell in with the press pack.

When I came back, I was not particularly interested in Susan Smith -- her psycho-history and her crime. Nor was I interested, really, in that part of the country. It's not my neck of the woods. I mean, I'm from the city. What I did come back with is how quickly people can buy that a black guy did it.

And I thought that travels everywhere. There's the Charles Stewart (ph) case in Boston where a guy shot and killed his pregnant wife, then shot himself. I think it was in the late '80s. And everybody bought that hook, line, and sinker.

And I just wondered, well Jesus, what if Susan Smith was from Newark or from Howard Beach or from one of those interracial DMZs in Brooklyn? And claimed that a black man had abducted her child, and the police came down on a highly sensitive, hot, political, crowded, anonymous area, and made everybody miserable for four days? And then, she said: "I lied."

What would happen, kaboom? You know, so I brought that back with me, and then I felt like I wanted to create another person, another mother, with a whole different story.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Price. His new novel is called Freedomland. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Richard Price. We're talking about his new novel Freedomland.

It was interesting -- the character that you created, the mother that you created in your novel, is not a kind of straight-up, white racist.

PRICE: Nor was Susan Smith.

GROSS: The character you've created is somebody who has dated a lot of men of color. She has great taste in music. Gosh, I mean, her favorite singers include Solomon Burke (ph), Ann Peebles (ph), Arthur Alexander (ph), O.V. Wright (ph) -- and these are soul singers who aren't that well-known to white people.

PRICE: Well, here's -- here's the deal. I wanted to create a woman who -- whose credentials as a "liberal" are four-star. I mean, here's a woman who perceives herself as an outcast from her police family in the town that she's from, which is very blue collar, uptight about the blacks across the fence. She works in the projects. She works with the children in the projects.

She's got -- like you said, she's got a history of interracial dating. As much as it's possible, for somebody from her town to embrace the life of the other, she has done this. Her sense of being an outcast has probably made this very appealing for her.

And yet again, she -- when it hits the fan -- that, you know, that knee-jerk reaction "a black guy did it" just pops right out of her mouth. I mean, she's an American. It's an acculturated panic button. She knows people are going to buy it. And I went out of my way to create somebody whose got sort of superlative credentials, so to speak. I mean, you know, as much as anybody could be, she's an honorary sister as far as everybody's concerned.

Doesn't make a difference. It's the American flu.

GROSS: What? Race?

PRICE: Yeah. "A black guy did it." Urban paranoia. Urban nihilism. Those -- you know -- random violence. I mean, there are more white drug addicts in America than black, but the -- I mean, people's reaction when you say that is "that cannot be true."

GROSS: You hung out with reporters in South Carolina when you were following this Susan Smith story.

PRICE: Right.

GROSS: Now, you'd hung out with cops a lot before for "Sea of Love," the screenplay that you wrote, and for Clockers, your book about cops and crack dealers. So, did the press covering the story look different to you when you were hanging with them than they did when you were observing them from the point of view of cops?

PRICE: You know, I never saw the press around cops because when I would go to homicides, they'd always be black victims, so there was no press. So, I really didn't have any -- any kind of interaction with the press, you know, while I was working with the -- working -- I mean, I wasn't really working -- when I was watching the homicide cops go at it or the street cops.

The thing that hit me about the press down there is that they reminded me of street cops. They reminded me of ambulance drivers. They were basically adrenalin junkies and it was a race to the information. And it was the thing that draws me to this world, too. I have this, like, impulse. I just want to be there. I just want to see something. I just want to take it in.

And especially when I was running with the reporters, back up in New York from the police shack (ph). You know, these guys would just hit -- hit the ground running with a beeper on their hip. And something would happen; they'd take down names, dates, bodies, addresses, dump it over the phone and say: "what's next? Who's next? What's happening? What's happening? There's five boroughs here. Give me something."

You know, and that -- I mean, I would imagine if I was a reporter, that's the type of reporter I would be.

GROSS: Did you see any reporters offer anything that they shouldn't have offered to people in exchange for information?

PRICE: No. I mean, you know, there's -- you know, there's a couple of tricks. Every once in a while, you know, some guys would feel kind of -- that they do with a kind of retroactive wince later on -- and some people just wouldn't think twice.

I mean, I -- one of the things -- somebody would always say when they were interviewing somebody who was very paranoid about being quoted, they would say "this is strictly background." That is not the same as "this is off the record," although it sounds like "I'm not going to use this; this is for the library part of the thing."

Yeah, you know, they could -- yeah, there was a couple of snaky, slithery things going on there. But you know, the other thing, too, is these guys when stuff is going down like this, everybody's red hot. I mean, they're like traders in the pit of Wall Street. You know, they're just going buck wild. They're not thinking in a philosophical way of, like, you know, "my job, who I am, whither thou goest wind."

You know, I mean, it's like "where is she; I cannot come home without the head of Alfredo Garcia."


"I am not leaving -- my editor told me unless I interview the father, I gotta stay in Union, South Carolina for the rest of my life." Meanwhile, this father's like, you know, two inches away from suicide, he's so wild with despair he's projectile tearing. You know, he's crying so hard. And you have all these guys that are prowling, like feral packs. But it's not like they're contemptuous of this guy. Hey, these guys -- they're just radioactive. They're working. This is what they do.

GROSS: Did you find yourself identifying both with the poor father who didn't want to talk to the press, and with the press who needed to get the story?

PRICE: Yeah, I mean, I'll tell you one ironic thing that I heard that they were talking about, that there was a lake -- the John D. Long Lake -- where she basically sent her car off a boat ramp -- a cement boat ramp -- into this lake with her kids.

And that site became a sort of a memorial garden. There was always hundreds of people there just staring at the water, floating messages to the children out on the water. There were big styrofoam crucifixes and hearts and little action figure toys in memoriam. I mean, it was a very sort of sad place.

And Oprah Winfrey came down, and she wanted to do a segment directly at the mouth of the boat ramp. And they were just hustling everybody away -- "Oprah's coming through" -- and apparently there was a guy there that was just crying; that was just standing there. And her people just, you know, kicked him out. And it turned out it was David Smith, the father of the kids.


PRICE: And you know, that's the way it be.

GROSS: Richard Price -- his new novel is called Freedomland. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

One of the great soul singers the main character in Price's new novel listens to is the late Arthur Alexander. Let's here him singing "Anna" -- a song he wrote which was recorded by The Beatles.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


You come and ask me, girl
To set you free, girl
You say he loves you more than me
Well I will set you free
Go with him
Go with him

But Anna
Girl, before you go now
I want you to know now
I still love you so
But if he loves you more
Go with him

All of my life
I've been searching for a girl
To love me
Like I love you
Oh, now
But every girl I've ever had
Breaks my heart and leaves me sad
What am I
What am I supposed to do?

Just one more thing, girl
Give back my ring to me
And darlin' you'll be free
To go with him

All of my life
I've been searching for a girl, now
To love me
Like I love you...

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Richard Price. He's the author of the bestseller Clockers, which was adapted into a Spike Lee film, and he wrote the screenplays for Sea of Love, "The Color of Money," and "Ransom." His new novel Freedomland was inspired in part by the real story of Susan Smith, a white woman who claimed that a black man stole her car with her two children. Smith later confessed there was no black man. She killed the children herself.

I'm wondering what you thought of some of the writing that you saw about the Susan Smith story. I'm thinking in your novel, Jesse House (ph), who's the main reporter that your novel follows, is really doggedly trying to get the story.

She's trying to get to know Brenda, the woman who said her car's been hijacked. And she walks in one day while Brenda has been puking her guts out, and she's cut her hair off. Brenda's cut her hair off, she says, because her head is killing her.

And Jesse the reporter starts writing in her mind: "in a gesture as timeless as Greek tragedy."


PRICE: Mm-hmm. Well, it's like you're doing two things. You're a human being reacting to this other human being, but you're also working. It's like you're on automatic pilot. You know, it's like you're speaking one thing and you're thinking three steps ahead. You know, and that's the way it is.

What I try to do is to create a situation in which the humanity at the core of this woman's tragedy, and it is a tragedy, it's a -- you know, she's not a criminal. Tangles everybody up -- trips everybody up -- derails all the people that come near her, because it's -- she -- you know, she infects everyone around her with this case of humanity that they can't shake, and basically confuses them because they're working.

I would say there's one other thing that's very important. I think there is a dynamic every once in a while with some reporters, where you fall in love with the person that you're with; that you got in with, because you're kind of like a hollow vessel and you fill yourself up with your story.

And just the very fact that this woman has let you into her world -- I don't know whether it's -- it's not a healthy love and it's not exactly empathy, but this woman has told you who you are for the next three days of this story. You are this woman. You've got to think like her. You've gotta be like her. You're like an empty vessel filled up with Brenda Martin. It's like, you know, water takes the shape of its vessel.

And sometimes editors can ask the reporter, once they see, you know, the details coming in are kind of a little on the sympathetic side, as opposed to the objective side, you know, it's a throwdown challenge: are you in love? You know, and a reporter will say: "of course not, of course not. What are you talking about?"

GROSS: And -- and do you think that having empathy for somebody in the story affects the way you feel about the larger story?

PRICE: Not necessarily. I mean, Jesus Christ, you better watch out or you're gonna be a fully realized human being. No, I think, you know, you know, it might make some writers hesitant to, you know, say everything that's there, or they get a little too politic.

But I mean, you know, by and large, man, I can't see anybody suffering because, Jesus Christ, they feel sorry for somebody. I mean, you can only -- you know, ultimately, it just, you know, it's going to make you a better whatever you are.

GROSS: What you're saying reminds me of something that you had told the New York Times the other day, it's a quote I particularly like. You said: "I wanted to create people who wind up tripping all over themselves because they have unexpected empathy for the other side. I just wanted to do a story where people cannot hold to their sides."

PRICE: Well, what that's about is that the way I feel race relations in America is right now, and especially in the urban areas, it's just divided into our side and your side. There's no real effort for people to get together and sort of figure out a compromise.

There's no common goals anymore. I mean, all the legislation's been taken care of. It's -- you know, as I said earlier somewhere, you know, it's all hearts and minds. And unfortunately, hearts and minds are making people go in two separate directions.

And every time there's a racial incident, people just divide. "OJ did it." "He didn't do it." I can't imagine that, you know, any person with a three-digit IQ -- I mean, "no, it wasn't OJ. It was Terry Bradshaw," you know. "He did it. He was jealous that OJ had the Arnold Palmer gig."

I mean, of course he did it. But the issue was not "OJ did it." It's like: "how do you like getting screwed by the system? We've been getting screwed by the system since 1792." And it just -- America just divides. Whites feel one way. Blacks feel another way. And it happens every time there's an issue.

There's nobody coming together and saying: "OK, look, let's just think about the truth, as oppose to, you know, the politics, the passion." And what I tried to do is to create a situation that was ideal for that dividing of races, you know, like a Susan Smith situation, but in a more highly politicized area.

And then I wanted the main players, a black policeman, a white victim/perpetrator, a white reporter -- to be unable to hold their sides because they're feeling an unexpected sympathy for people on the other side, and they get tangled up in the best parts of themselves. They cannot say, well, "I'm black, so therefore OJ is innocent." They cannot say: "I'm white, so therefore those cops needed to get off on the Rodney King thing. A police officer has got to be able to do his job."

Brenda is this thing that's just screwing everybody up because she's just bringing things out, and people that make them think of themselves as human beings first and as racial entities second, white and black.

GROSS: Ever since you've been writing about cops in Sea of Love and Clockers and Freedomland, have your thoughts on when cops cross the line into violating people's rights changed? Like, have your ideas of where that line is or where that line should be, changed?

PRICE: I have seen cops go off, and they're all wrong. And especially like in the projects, and this is where like black cops -- you know, this is the sticking point for black cops, is most of the politicized black policemen that are in, you know, like the Guardians or, you know, some fraternal order of minority cops, this is where they stop being cops for a minute and start being, you know, defenders of their neighborhoods. When cops go off, they will not back a white cop who is wrong. Never. I've never seen that.

Myself, I've seen situations where the police have been way wrong, but sometimes they're so subtle and it's like so hurtful, but it leaves no mark, and oftentimes it's more like that than, you know, some cop decided to make a pinata out of somebody.

It'd be a situation where, like, police will do a raid on an apartment, and during a heat wave, and they're sort of panicky 'cause they're going through a closed door. Anything could be behind the closed door. And they bash down this door; their hearts are pumping kool-aid, and there are six pathetic junkies sitting there. All the crack's been smoked; all the heroin's been shot. There's nothing but paraphernalia.

And they're walking around in bullet-proof vests in 98 degree heat. Now, they've got to lock up these people that are just going to be revolved at arraignment anyhow. And they've got the entire projects outside, waiting for them to come out and seeing, you know, what's their big catch. And it's humiliating and it's demoralizing and it's enraging.

And so, here come these cops, who were scared to death about two hours ago going through this door, coming out with six junkies, all of which are probably HIV positive; none of which have the strength to commit any kind of real crime.

And as the cops come out -- I've seen a cop take a look at a pregnant black woman, look down at her stomach and just shake his head, like "great, here comes another one." And I saw the look on -- he didn't say anything -- it was just a look and I knew what he had been through to get him to this point of like disgust and despair.

And I saw the look on this woman's face, and it was like he had just punched her in the mouth. And there's nothing this woman could say. "You looked at my pregnant stomach" -- so, I mean, it's -- you can't bust anybody for a dirty look. But this woman -- it was a slap; it was a punch.

This woman's going to go to sleep that night saying: "this cop basically just locked up my unborn child. This cop has just condemned my kid to a life as a criminal -- the assumption of thug life in my belly."

I've seen that more than, you know, people being a little easy with the batons.

GROSS: Right.

PRICE: And that, in a way, is more deadly, because it leaves no mark. You cannot -- you have no evidence.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Price. His new novel is called Freedomland. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Richard Price. His new novel is called Freedomland.

Now you grew up in the Bronx in a multi-ethnic neighborhood that was predominantly -- what? -- Jewish, Italian -- what else?

PRICE: Well, I mean, it was a housing project so I mean, the city placed you and as a result, you know, people -- there was no profit motive to keep a neighborhood all white or all black or anything. So, the city just dumped you in a project according to your income. So, I would say it was about 25 percent black, about 30 percent white-Jewish, and the rest white-Catholic -- everybody in the exact same income range. And that's something you'll never see again ever.

GROSS: You think so?

PRICE: I absolutely know so.

GROSS: Was that a good experience for you, to be living with other ethnic groups? And I'm remembering back to some of your early books in which, you know, you had talked about how, at the time they were published, how when you were a teenager, you really wanted to be Italian. You know, you wanted to be Dion.

PRICE: Yeah, but I mean, you know, you know at the time you don't think of it: is this a good thing that, you know, that, you know, it's -- we're all holding hands and singing "Me an Rosie O'Grady." It was just life. I mean, this is -- I just grew up. It's a given. It's all these people in the world, and we all live in the same projects and we all go to the same schools and we all play in the same playground. And you didn't think about it. That's just the way it is.

It's only in retrospect now, when I -- you know, I live in a world where that's no longer true, that I can look back and say, well at least I had then, when I felt like, you know, I was part of the United Nations, blue-collar UN or something.

GROSS: But I mean...

PRICE: But in retrospect, it feels like, you know, I was lucky to do that.

GROSS: So you do feel lucky to have had that?

PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: But it's not like kids who were, like, holding hands and singing peace songs. I mean, there were gangs and there was probably a lot of...

PRICE: Nah, well, you know, I jazzed that up. I mean, you know, I mean -- this is the area -- era before, like, you know, crack or drugs or even the Beatles or Vietnam. I mean, you know, the big scary word was "JD" -- you know, juvenile delinquent.

You know, and today, yeah, they were the guys that -- with the kind of slick-backed hair. But you know, I was not among them. It was a real garden project of every kind of stinkweed and every kind of pansy.

And the relationships between blacks and whites in these projects, I don't even -- you know, I don't know how intimate anybody got in their friendships, but I don't ever remember any racial incidents. Everybody was at least cordial.

Every once in a while, you know, some kind of like verbal race war would break out between whites and blacks, but it wasn't -- you know, it was more like doing the dozens on each other. I mean, you know, nobody got livid; nobody threw a punch.

You know -- and believe me, people were not colorblind. I mean, you know, you knew if you were going up in the elevator with a white person or a black person, but it was just -- you didn't think about it. You know, it wasn't like there was -- I never felt any tension.

And you know, and you had all that teenage testosterone flying around on those basketball courts. Anything could have happened, and nothing did because there was no reason to. We -- you know, we knew each other, you know, from the jump.

GROSS: Richard Price is my guest and his new novel is called Freedomland.

Freedomland is being made into a movie. In fact, the rights to your novel were bought before you had even written the novel.

PRICE: Right.

GROSS: And now -- now that you've completed the novel, you have to write the screenplay based on the novel.

PRICE: Well, I'm trying to convince them just to give me the money and, you know, I think they should skip the first screenwriter -- me -- and go right to the second screenwriter, since they...

GROSS: They re-write it all anyways.


PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: But I'm thinking if you're gonna be angry at yourself because, you know, the book is -- what? -- about 500 pages, a little over that.

PRICE: I went through this on Clockers, man. Whew.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause you've written a novel that isn't easy to adapt into a screenplay because it's big and it's complicated.

PRICE: I mean, novels are about density, you know. I have a 600 -- well not -- no -- a 540-page book here that's gotta be made into 120-page telegram, which is a screenplay. I mean, it's an awful lot of stuff that's got to get thrown overboard to make the boat go faster. And for me to do it, on one hand, well gee, who knows this stuff better and B, oh by the way, I'm a good screenwriter.

But C, I'm the author of the book and it's sort of like being a dentist in your own chair doing root canal on yourself with a mirror. You know, it's potentially crazy making. I will tell you one thing I'm going to do, which is -- one thing I'm not going to do, which is open the book. I'm not -- you know, I'm just going to do everything out of my head 'cause the minute you open that book, it's like -- you're gonna fall in. It's like going up to the attic, you know, to get a baseball glove...


... and you find six steamer trunks from grandma's time, and you come down three days later with a straw hat and a whalebone corset on and covered with dust. It's very dangerous to open that book once you write the -- once you start on the screenplay.

GROSS: Did you ever think to yourself while you were writing your book: oh, I should keep this simpler 'cause it's gonna be a heck of a time adapting it into a movie?

PRICE: No, I -- no, I never ever, ever think of what this -- what'll happen to this after it's finished. I mean, I need -- you need every brain cell to tell this story. Any thought about "gee, I wonder if Denzel Washington would like to play Lorenzo" or "hmmm, this is a long speech, but I've gotta -- at some point I'll need to cut this" -- I never think like that.

A lot of times when I give talks at colleges or different reading venues and take questions from the audience, invariably the first question is: how do I get an agent? And I say: "well, by writing something worth publishing. Have you done that?"

You know, 90 percent of the time people ask that question, they haven't even written anything yet, but already they're thinking about the agent. You just need to deal with the task in front of you, which is to tell the story in the best and most compelling way possible. And once you're done, then you can play all those games about "gee, I wonder who's going to play this, that, or the other."

GROSS: The detective in your book, Lorenzo Counsel, has a pretty bad case of asthma. And I'm wondering if you asked Martin Scorsese who you've worked with a lot for tips on asthma, 'cause I know he's had asthma all his life, too.

PRICE: Well, now that you mention it, are there any cats in this studio?

GROSS: You got it bad, too?

PRICE: No -- hey, Scorsese's not the only guy with asthma in this world, you know. I have it. It's not too bad. You know, every once in a while, you like, you like to put your little personal tattoo here and there, like the "Where's Waldo?" I like to put Waldo in the book now and then.

Yeah, I've, you know, I have, you know, asthma. It's no big deal, but it's -- you know, it serves as a, you know, as a humanizing element, you know, to a character who's in danger of being canonized.

GROSS: You've been writing about race and class. Is that going to continue to be your territory, do you think?

PRICE: Well, I can't see myself, you know, taking over Jay McInerney's (ph) world any time soon.


I mean, I like Jay's stuff. He writes about basically the world that I actually live in. I can't write about the world I live in because I'm too -- you know, it's all I can do to live it. You know, I mean, my ongoing relationships with my wife and my children and you know, my friends and my job. I mean, that's one thing.

It's hard enough to like -- like take care of that stuff without -- without it also having to be fodder for my career. I mean, it feels sort of like a cannibal eating its own foot.

I mean, I would never want to write about my children. I mean, I think about them all the time. And it -- everything you write is autobiography at one point or another. It just gets in there. Your autobiography seeps into everything that you write. You could be writing a word jumble, and your autobiography will seep in. Clockers -- you know, I'm not -- I'm no people there, but I am -- I'm not -- I am -- I am not -- I am. Same thing with Freedomland.

GROSS: Richard Price, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much for talking with us.

PRICE: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: Richard Price's new novel is called Freedomland. Coming up, the second half of our profile of Ray Charles.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Richard Price
High: Novelist Richard Price talks about his latest book "Freedomland." It's a story that examines race relations in a fictional urban New Jersey town. Inspired by the real life Susan Smith incident in which she alleged a black man carjacked her and took her two children. Price's story follows a similar theme and how the events affect the community. Price's earlier novel "Clockers" about life in the inner-city world of drug dealing was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Price also is a screenwriter with such notable films: "Sea of Love," "Ransom," and "The Color of Money."
Spec: Books; Authors; Freedomland; Susan Smith; Race Relations
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Freedomland
Date: MAY 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052102np.217
Head: Genius & Soul Part II
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Ray Charles is celebrating his 50th year in music, which has inspired our rock historian Ed Ward to present a two-part profile. In this second half, Ed looks at the career Charles had after he left Atlantic Records in 1960.


RAY CHARLES, SINGER, SINGING: People talkin' tryin' to pick us up
Why won't they let us be
Bricks and stones may break my bones
But talk don't bother me

People talk about...

ED WARD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: In 1960, ABC-Paramount Records was, like other record companies attached to film studios, playing catch-up with rock and roll. So when they went looking to sign talent, they made some impressive offers.

Ray Charles had been studying the record business and when ABC told him that in addition to artistic freedom and a hefty recording budget, he'd keep the ownership of his master tapes, he reluctantly said good-bye to Atlantic Records, who'd brought him to fame, and signed with ABC.

At first, there was very little change in his sound, but that summer he took a suggestion from his driver and recorded an old classic.


CHARLES, AND SINGERS: Georgia, Georgia
The whole day through
Just an old sweet song
Keep Georgia on my mind
Georgia on my mind

I said Georgia, Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines...

WARD: "Georgia On My Mind" was just one of a selection of songs Charles had recorded for an album called "The Genius Hits The Road," comprised of tunes with place names in them -- the first concept album. Of course, it got its title from another hit he'd had recently, which wasn't on the album.


CHARLES, AND SINGERS: Hit the road, Jack
And don't you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Jack
And don't you come back no more

What you say?

Hit the road, Jack
And don't you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Jack
And don't you come back no more

Oh, woman, oh, woman
Don't treat me so mean
You're the meanest old woman
That I've ever seen

I guess if you say so
I'll have to pack my things and go

That's right
Hit the road, Jack
And don't you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more...

WARD: "Hit the Road, Jack" was written by Percy Mayfield (ph), whose performing career had stalled, but was still writing great songs. And since Ray Charles hated songwriting, he was happy to find such a source of great material.

There was another source that Ray had wanted to tap for years: country music. While at Atlantic, he'd recorded a red-hot version of Hank Snow "I'm Movin' On," but in 1962, he delivered a whole album of the stuff.


CHARLES, AND SINGERS: I can't stop loving you
I've made up my mind
To live in memories
Of the lonesome time

I can't stop wanting you
It's useless to say
So I'll just live my life
In dreams of yesterday

Those happy hours...

WARD: Modern sounds in country and western music was as radical a step as any pop performer had ever taken. As the country woke up to the civil rights movement, here was one of its top black performers tipping his hat to the fact that in the South, black people often listened to the Grand Ole Opry. The public shot "I Can't Stop Loving You" to the top of the pop and R&B charts, and it was one of six singles from the album that charted.

Although he delivered a second album of country, Ray Charles wasn't going to allow himself to be boxed in. He continued to explore pop standards, jazz tunes, and whatever he felt like. And the results were always pure Ray Charles.


CHARLES, SINGING: Now I coulda been a gambler
'Cause I'm good with the cards
I coulda been a lover
Breakin' others' hearts

And I feel so silly
Betting on the dice
And a lover seldom sees
The same girl twice

And that is why
Oh, that's why I chose
I chose to sing the blues
Yes, I did

Now I coulda been a doctor...

WARD: He could issue a single of "Eleanor Rigby" backed with "Yesterday," then turn around and pay a deeply moving tribute to one of his inspirations, Charles Brown.


CHARLES, SINGING: Oh, I'm so lonesome, baby now
I am in a traveling mood, yes I am
Oh, I'm so lonesome now
I tell you I am in a travelin' mood

Guess I'll have to hop a freight to California
'Cause I've got the travelin' blues, yes I have

WARD: And being a veteran performer had its benefits, too. Quincy Jones, the little kid who'd followed a teenage Ray around Seattle, was now scoring movies and knew just who to use for the theme to a movie about racial strife.


CHARLES, SINGING: In the heat of the night
Seems like a cold sweat creeping 'cross my brow
In the heat of the night
I'm feeling marvelous somehow

Stars with evil eyes
Stare from the skies
All mean and bright
In the heat of the night

And a woman is so...

WARD: But the fact was by the mid-1970s, the hits had stopped coming. Part of this was due to Ray's eclecticism being incompatible with the increasing rigidity of radio. And part of it was due to the fact that he was opting for the supper club and Vegas circuit, which paid well.

From a pop star, Ray Charles had turned into an icon. When he charted again, it would be the mid-1980s. The song? A duet with Willie Nelson, and the charts would be the country charts. It figures. Be it blindness, race, or musical genre, Ray Charles just doesn't respect boundaries.

GROSS: Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin. A five-CD box set of Ray Charles music spanning 50 years has been released by Rhino Records. It's called "Ray Charles: Genius and Soul."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Ed Ward, Berlin; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock Historian Ed Ward has part 2 of 2 in our look at Ray Charles career. This year marks his 50th year in the music business. Much of the music comes from "Ray Charles: Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection."
Spec: Music Industry; Ray Charles; Genius & Soul
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Genius & Soul Part II
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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