SPEAKER: There are those professors who have lived their lives by such strong aesthetic passions that they inspire other students to consider-- just simply consider-- that in place of religion, in place of therapy, in place of yogis or nuns or any form of organized transcendental activity, there was art. Before any of those things were created, there was always art so that the museum, the library, the jazz club, the theater, the film, the poem, the novel, meant empowerment and transcendence.
These professors inspire their students to consider-- to consider, take a moment-- literature might just have the fingerprints to our happiness so that we are no longer students and they themselves are no longer professors. We are no longer administrators or sales clerks or janitors or policemen. In literature, we can be elevated. We can be transformed, made different. We can all become heroic figures.
I can only guess that for our esteemed guest today, Richard Price, such a professor was Archie Ammons. I did not know Archie Ammons other than reading his poems and knowing that he was one of the 20th century's greatest poets. He had already left to the stars by the time I arrived at Cornell. But from what I've heard from his students and everyone who has met him, he shook their lives like a devastation, both in intellect and in kindness. It is well-known here at Cornell that Archie Ammons will hold court at the Temple of Zeus, which still exists today in a different incarnation. And it was there where Ammons will share his knowledge, his kindness, his wit, and his humor with anyone who wish to participate.
A few years ago, Richard Price was once a member of that court. It was there that Ammons, a poet from the South whose work mainly sang to the humanity's relationship with nature, that somehow spoke to Richard Price, a kid from the projects of the Bronx. It did not matter to Richard that Ammons' work was about the leaf, the snow the tree, the moss, the weed, the tick, the icicle. Somehow he knew that in literature, we are all writing. We are all speaking. And we are all living under the same cathedral.
This afternoon, Richard Price has returned to Cornell to share with us Ammons' influence in his pursuit towards a career in writing, a career which is now is as illustrious as Ammons'. Richard Price has written many screenplays, among them Sea of Love, Ransom, Mad Dog and Glory, Shaft, and was nominated for an Academy Award for my personal favorite, The Color of Money, about two pool hall hustlers played by Paul Newman and Tom Cruise with a kickass soundtrack full of rock and roll aristocracy. You have Don Henley, Eric Clapton, Warren Zevon, Robbie Robertson, BB King, it continues-- Mark Knopfler, Robert Palmer, produced by Jeff Lynne-- an amazing soundtrack.
He has also not just written screenplays, but he has also written nine novels, of which Clockers was nominated for a Book Critics Circle Award. And his latest novel, The Whites, just arrived in 2015 under a pseudonym, which I just read. He now wishes he wouldn't have done that-- good question to ask him later.
He has also received the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. He has also received a Writer's Guild award for the fifth season of The Wire. Let me tell you. When the Writers Guild award gives you an award, you've got to be great. I mean, this guild, this union, is basically full of writers-- jealous writers. And they don't want to give awards to nobody but themselves. So I always say, oh, it's a technical error. That's why I was not nominated.
So Richard Price is great. He is an amazing author. And before I give way to Richard, I would like to take a moment for a personal anecdote. This is my copy of The Wanderers from high school. And what I found in this book was things that spoke to me, people that I knew, people that were similar to the people that I dealt with in Spanish Harlem. It was very exciting to me to read about the subways that I took, to read about places that I knew. And what this book was was a blueprint.
And I thought maybe if I work hard enough, I can do something like this, too-- maybe not at the same level as Richard. But that is OK. I'll be living in that cathedral. And though I will not have a stained glass, it's OK. I'll just have a little pew. I was just happy to be there.
I find it fitting to quote one of your screenplays, a line from one of your screenplays, which was made into a movie, of course. It is from a wonderful three shorts called New York Stories. And it's really the-- the best one is the one with Scorsese written by Richard Price. The other two are OK. The Woody Allen one is OK. And the Coppola one is not worth watching, totally. I am telling the truth.
And it's called Life Lessons. And it is about a tortured painter played by Nick Nolte. And Richard Price makes a cameo towards the end of that movie. And he says something that I always found very poignant, very humorous. And I would like to quote it today. But instead of saying your paintings, I would like to say, your novels. So Richard, I'm a writer, too. When I look at your novels, you make me want to divorce my wife. With you now, Richard Price.
RICHARD PRICE: [INAUDIBLE]. That was fantastic. That was the best introduction I've ever had. I think my-- is my microphone on? Because I'm saying all this catty stuff. And all of a sudden-- like a Robert Durst moment, talking crap with my wife and this stuff. What did I do? I killed them all, of course.
So thank you so much for that introduction. You know, there are people that inspired me to write The Wanderers. And the fact that I can inspire other young guys, women, anybody of any species to become a writer or feel like if this guy did this, I can do something, too.
I used to feel that way about Richard Brautigan when I was an undergraduate in the late '60s. Because his crap was so hippie-ish, I figured if this guy can get published-- I cannot believe I can't get published. But that's not your reasoning. I understand.
It's ironic that I'm here-- well, not ironic. It just-- it is. I was in ILR. I was in this building for from 1967 to 1971. And I could not find the entrance, because this part didn't exist. And ILR at that point was called either Long Island High because everybody was from Five Towns or it was called What Did You Get U, like when the test results would come into the cubbyholes, everybody would be, what did you get? What did you get, you know? Yeah. Fun for the whole family.
I want to just start out-- I don't think I can talk as eloquently as was spoken about Archie Ammons. But I never took a class with him. I was in labor relations. I always wanted to be a writer. I was told by my family-- my family grew up in the Depression. We lived in a housing project. And it was impossible to get validation for becoming a writer if your family remembers going through the coats in the closet to find a quarter to buy a quart of milk.
So if you said to them, well, I want to be a writer. I want to be a poet. I want to be a dancer. I want to be an actor. They said, do I kill you now? Or do I wait to calm down and then kill you calmly? You know, they just said, what are you talking about? The whole point of college was economic security.
You go out. There's a job waiting for you. There's an interview. There's something with a pension. And I was like a sneaky writer. I would take my one ILR are elective in some creative writing class. And I had some great teachers here. There's going to be some funny names. Is anybody here from class of '72 or earlier? Thank you. So I'm at least equally, with someone else, the oldest person in the room.
I take all my-- had a teacher named Joanna Russ who I think had a wooden leg and was one of the most-- and she just died the other day. And she was one of the most important gay feminist science fiction writers of whatever. And then I had a guy named Ronald Sukenick who graduated in 1958. And he was here when Pynchon was here and Richard Farina and Steve Katz and all these guys who became teachers. And Joanna Russ came back at that time.
And Ronald Sukenick was-- he was a hippie. And I from, the Bronx, it's like, oh, you always dress nice. If you're going to grow a protest beard, make sure it's neat. If you're going to wear an army fatigue jacket, not one with too many blood spatters on it. It was Vietnam era.
And I remember my father coming to Sukenick's-- my junior and senior years, I took creative writing seminars with him. And my father came. And he wore a jacket and a tie because it was a professor. And Sukenick came in with a t-shirt, a leather vest, and no shoes. And he put his feet up on-- and my father almost just decomposed, you know like on Star Trek when the atoms go like that? He was horrified. And I was going, ain't he cool?
But I had some great teachers here. And then about my junior year-- in 1969-- there was the original Temple of Zeus. This is pathetic, the Temple of Zeus here. This is an abomination. It should be called the Temple of Amico or Conoco or something. The original Temple of Zeus had reproductions of all the Elgin Marbles. And it was long. And it was low. And those years, it was filled with guys with plaid shirts-- hey-- but had hippy long hair and these Viking hanging mustaches. And all the girls wore these free-flowing skirts and were bringing their big dogs.
And I was just this conservative kid from the Bronx. And this was my counterculture, introduction to a world of counterculture. And when they started an open mic reading series on Wednesday afternoons, it all was about poetry. It was all about fiction. And anybody could go up to the mic. And in the audience at that time was Archie Ammons, who had won the National Book Award 20 years-- for two books 20 years apart and was a brilliant poet, nature-oriented poet, Walter Slatoff, Baxter Hathaway, who ran Epic magazine. So there's all these elegant geezers there. And everybody else looked like somebody bedraggled Viking and his chick.
And I got up to the mic the first time. And I didn't know anything about poetry. I just was glib. So I would just do that anything goes kind of Richard Brautigan poetry, oh, purple ostrich on Texaco plain. Why do thou torment me with your war dead? [MUMBLE] You don't like one? Here's another one. [MUMBLE] Alligator and you know?
But every time-- and it was the first time I was in front of a microphone. And every time I looked into this audience, there was Archie Ammons. And if anybody doesn't know what he looks like, think Walker Percy. He was a tall, thin, elegant, North Carolina guy. And he was bald with a red fringe. And he always wore conservative slacks and a sport jacket and comfortable shoes. And he would be laughing every time I read. And it was thrilling. Because everybody else-- see, all the hippies were like [COUGHING]. You know-- [TAPPING] that was applause.
And I knew who Archie Ammons was, because I had read his 1962 book of poetry, Corsons Inlet. And he had-- I would read-- go there every week. And my practical thing of being a lawyer or a Blue Cross management guy, he started getting chipped away at. So by the time I was about to graduate-- and Goldwin Smith Hall, room 264, was Archie's office. And this man-- it was like as narrow as a shoe box.
And this man would sit there with his door open in his open Oxford shirt and his sport jacket and his sensible slacks just from 9:00 to 5:00, it felt like, waiting for somebody who wanted to talk to him. It was astounding. And I finally worked up the nerve because I had to apply to graduate school. And I came in to his office. And I said, Professor Ammons, I know you've heard me read a bunch of times at the Temple of Zeus. But I want to ask you, do you think I could be a writer?
And butchering Rilke. And I'm butchering Archie Ammons. But he said to me, well-- "whell," because he's Southern. There's an H after every W. "Whell," as Rilke said to the young poet, if you can think of anything to do but write, do that thing. If not, write.
And then his-- like in other words, dude, it's up to you. But long story short, it was enough for me. And I went off to write. And I published my first novel. And I sent it to him as a thank you. And he wrote back a blurb that was so sweet and generous about my book to my publisher. And he had typed his blurb on a postcard. I mean, we're talking manual typewriter and had signed it. And he was just this wonderful, supportive man that had as much to do with me becoming a writer as any human on Earth.
But the greatest thing about Archie is that in 2000, when I came back to teach in the English department, he was sort of retired. But nobody would ever take his office away. And I came up with my 13-year-old daughter. And I was trying to tease out the creativeness in her. And she started writing his little doggerelly things that were kind of cute.
And I wanted her to meet Archie Ammons. I had no idea how sick he was. And his secretary called, said, Archie will see you at 8:00 in the morning. I don't see anybody at 8:00 in the morning. I say, could we make it later? And there's a pregnant pause. She said, Archie will see you at 8:00 in the morning. I said, oh, OK.
And it went into this little shoe horn office with my 13-year-old daughter, who really didn't have any intention to being a writer. She's an actress now. And Archie sat there. And he was a year away from death. And he came in just to talk to my 13-year-old girl. And he said, Genevieve, I understand you're something of a poet. And she was like buh, buh, buh. She didn't know anything. She wanted to see the girls' basketball team.
And he proceeded for 45 minutes, talking to my 13-year-old daughter, occasionally. But he came in to see this little girl. And he very courteously and bravely basically said, well, I have cancer-- it was some kind of brain cancer. And I said, well, can you still write your poetry? He said, regrettably not. And that was my last living memory of Archie. I came up for his memorial service at Sage Chapel. And it was basically a lot of senior English department guys were there.
And everybody was assembled. He was so beloved. And it opened up with through the speakers was Archie Ammons' voice going, well, I guess you're wondering why I brought you here, you know? And then everybody came up and just-- and after that, everybody from the chapel walked in a procession to Goldwin Smith Hall, to room 264, which was his office.
And door was open. The chair was angled just like he used to-- he would sit, half looking at the door and half looking at his desk. And his hat-- he had a little tweedy fedora. And I don't know if there was a pipe there. But it was all the things that anybody who knew Archie were there. And people just stood in front of the door silently. And then they went home. So thank you, Archie, for living. You gave me life.
What I'd like to do-- OK, I'd like to read for about 15, 20 minutes and open it up to questions. What I'd like to read from is my worst novel, The Breaks. And the only reason why I'd like to read it is the prologue is about the Arts-- I'm doing my "quard"-- the Arts Quad spring graduation, 1971. It was based on it. I call Cornell Simon Straight college, the Harvard of upstate New York.
And it has one-- as my wife told me, don't read anything with too many characters. Nobody's going to follow it, ever. But I'm going to try. And those of you who went through graduation, I hope you laugh a little bit. It's also about what it's like-- it's also a tribute to my father, who basically, he got a general diploma from a public high school in the Bronx and never did anything else.
And I was the first person in my family ever to go to college. So for him, it was-- like to be here at my graduation, I was bored out of my mind. But he's a sort of a narrow man. He had a 54-inch chest that day. And it's also the culture clash between the more genteel Midwestern and urbane families that sent their kids to Cornell and the schmoes from the Bronx.
"There we were, scattered around the Arts Quad, the proud men and women of Simon Straight College, class of 1971, a thousand gowns casually smoking joints and playing Frisbee with their mortar boards as their parents shook hands under the trees. In the 93 degree heat, my own gown felt like a horse blanket. But I'd have sooner set myself on fire than lowered the zipper that was gnawing my Adam's apple.
After three generations of teamsters, cabbies, and mailman, the Kellers had finally scored for a college graduate. I was the happy ending to our private little American everyman play." That doesn't even make any sense. I don't think the everyman play-- you know, I was young. "I had worked construction every summer, was in hock up to my ass with student loans. And with all that, my father still wound up paying through the nose. But that was the way it was.
Four years earlier, we had sat down with my three acceptance letters and decided that if we were going to do it up, we would do it up right. I could have gone to Fordham University on a half scholarship or CCNY for free. But from where we were coming, a Simon Straight car sticker was priceless.
My father was standing within earshot of me talking to Larry Arthur's old man under the shadow of the bright-green copper founder's statue. Mr. Arthur was the only guy my father recognized. They had met my junior year over parent's weekend at the fraternity house. They weren't what I would call soul mates. But George Arthur was hard to forget. He was six foot nine."
This is my father talking. And the character-- I'm Pete. "Yeah, well, Peter got on the waiting list for Columbia Law School. But uh, we figure, he figures-- and I kind of agree-- that instead of going to some ambulance chasing factory on short notice-- sorry-- he's going to move back in with us, get a good one-year job, save his money, get a nice bank account going, and reapply next year. This way, he'll be a year more mature, experienced. Because they like that-- kids who have been out in the world. He can pay his own tuition, and like that.
My father tapped his cigarette on the toe of the founder's shoe, slipped the butt into the corner of his mouth, and hiked up the skirt of his jacket by slipping his hands into his front pants pocket. He had tilted his head to the side as he talked because Mr. Arthur had a good 10 inches on him. And I'll tell you, I myself am pretty impressed with Pete's maturity. I think it's unusual these days with all this shit going on-- he murmur slurred the word shit-- for a kid to be that sensible, you know? In addition, of course, his stepmother would love to have him around for another year.
Mr. Arthur chuckled politely, his eyes briefly darting from my father to some other parents. Look, I'll be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Arthur. He squinted in candidness and touched his own chest with his fingertips, his own lit cigarette bouncing between his lips. We're very, very proud of Peter-- he held out his hand to Mr. Arthur's chest-- as I'm sure you are of Larry. But uh, I am not an educated man. I've been working the post office for 20 years. He grimaced. George Arthur was a patent attorney.
In fact, Pete's the first kid in our family-- all my cousins' kids, everybody-- the first one to go to college. And he got this place. You know, what do they call it? The Harvard of upstate New York? Oh, we're fit to bust. So even if he goes no further, you know what I mean? We'll see what happens. But for now, I admire that kid's sensibleness. I really do.
Mr. Arthur squinted in acknowledgment. He had a silvery, slightly sloppy, William Buckley crop. My father had a jet black pompadour fronting for an almost totally bald crown. Both my father and Mr. Arthur were dressed in their tribal costumes-- old George in kelly green slacks and a loud patchwork, summer-weight sports jacket, my father in a blue and white double-knit suit and white Thom McAn loafers."
And this is shifting to me and my two roommates. "Yo, Pete. Two gowns weaved across the grass towards me. I spit on my fingertips and ran them down my cheeks so they'd look like tear slicks. This is the proudest day my life, Larry. Yeah, me too. Bam-Bam, tell him what happened. You know that check I got from the phone company? What check? The return of our deposit from September-- it bounced. The Alexander A Graham Bell Telephone Company, their freaking check to me bounced.
Heads up, he shouted, as they duck a mortar board that went screaming by like Oddjob's steel Derby. Mortar board Frisbee was catching on. The entire squad was zipping with low-flying caps, tassels erect with momentum. Stay down. Bam-Bam snagged one backhand as I remained in my squat.
Bam-Bam, my man, a fat, handsome [INAUDIBLE], first generation Scarsdale. So this is the proudest day of your life, Pete? Larry was already grinning, half way to a laugh. I'm serious man, it was rough. My goddamn delivered ice to fifth floor walk-ups in the Lower East Side to get me through here.
Ice, he chuckled. Yeah, Larry, ice. I shook my head sadly. You know, and his bad leg is one thing, man, but I don't know if you ever noticed it, but he's got artificial arms, my father. The idiot actually looked over to where my old man was standing, talking to his.
You crack me up, he said tentatively. Well, now he's got artificial arms-- I mean, real artificial arms. But up until two years ago, he couldn't even afford them, man. He had-- he had pliers bolted into his shoulder sockets. Do you have any idea what it must feel like to lug a cake of ice up five flights of stairs with freaking pliers for arms? I hunched up as if to make my shoulder caps catch across my chest. Do you know what held that place with your lower back?
He cracked up like the Midwesterner he was. Actually, even Bam-Bam started laughing. A cool breeze wafted across the quad. It felt wonderful, hopeful. I love you guys, I suddenly blurted, surprising myself. And to cover my embarrassment, I grabbed them both in headlocks. And we clinched in a clumsy huddle of affection.
Over their bowed heads, they saw my stepmother, Vi, standing by herself, smiling, lost, holding her purse in front of her pleated skirt with both hands. Vi-- as usual, her hair was lifted, teased, and frozen into an iridescent rust helmet. She had been going to a beauty parlor every day since I'd known her. But instead of her looking hard, it accentuated her breakablness. She had a fragile, tentative face, shining eyes under eyebrows dyed to match your hair and permanently arched in some kind of wet expectation, nostrils all flared under a sharp, narrow bridge, nose all flared, nostrils under a sharp-- of, read it-- nose all flared nostrils under a sharp, narrow bridge, lips parted and slightly tremulous over buck teeth.
She was only five feet tall and a living testament to the expression terror makes you slender, since she weighed in at 98 pounds. My real mother had tipped the scales at 250 soaking wet. Vi never touched or held an object. She gripped. She never turned to a voice. She whipped around. Everything about her promised a nervous breakdown. And in the five years that she'd been married to my father, I always felt at least half bad about never, quote, "extending myself." But that was that."
Oh. So now he's just talking about Bam-Bam, who is this Italian up from working class roommate, and Larry, who is Mr. Arthur's son, who's from gentry. "The three of us had been in Pi Omega, a Jewish house. Bam-Bam got in because New York Italians were honorary Jews. And Larry got in as one of the token Midwesterners. Jewish fraternities had a hard-on for WASPs. They couldn't tell the difference between a good guy and a jerk, everybody being temporarily blinded by all that blond hair. If Larry had been two teaspoons more together, he would have probably gotten rushed by one of the American houses where everybody brought their lacrosse sticks down to breakfast.
So at this point-- oh, OK-- "So Mr. Pete, Bam-Bam smiled, I'll save you a carrel at the law school. I felt my heart descend. And all I could manage was a wink. I loved Bam-Bam like a brother. But it killed me that he had gotten into Columbia, and the best I could do was a waiting list. I graduated with honors in English, dean's list, and it was all Bam-Bam could do to scrape up a B average as a labor relations major. But his father was a big shot with the teamsters. And Bam-Bam was smart enough to make a lot of noise on his application about wanting to be a labor lawyer. That recommendation from George Meany his father managed to score for him probably didn't hurt, either.
Bam-Bam was no dope. He'd probably make a great lawyer. As for me, I had nobody to blame for my waiting list status but myself. The night before the law boards, I picked up-- I got hammered in College Town and crawled into the examination room at 7:00 AM the next morning with my eyeballs hanging out of my head. I'd been accepted at my safety school, St. John's. But nobody ever went to their safety. I had to reapply next year. I had to wait it out.
Pete, Larry whispered, check it out. He bent down to raise the hem of his gowns to his knees. He was wearing pants legs only up to his shins. Apparently, he was nude from the kneecaps up. You're an asshole, Larry."
This is Bam-Bam's family. "Tommy-- from 30 feet away, Bam-Bam's mother bawled out his name in her cigarette rasp as if she were yelling from a fifth floor window. She stood there holding a camera under her arm like a football helmet, a tough, dark, wiry lady wearing a silk blouse, and outrageous slit maxi skirt, and high heels. She had permanently smoky rings under her eyes.
[AUDIO OUT] caught me staring absently at her slit skirt. And she tilted her chin in my direction. What are you looking at, hot stuff? I laughed, blushed, and waved her away. You got a nice roommate, Tommy. He's trying to look up my dress. Cut the crap, Ma." [LAUGHTER] (SINGING) Far above [INAUDIBLE].
"I stood there watching Bam-Bam get into a pose for his mother with his little brother, Bam-Bam II, and his father, Big Bam-Bam, the three of them stacked up, the kid on his knees, Bam-Bam in a shortstop crouch over the kid's head, and Big Bam-Bam behind them, standing erect, chest puffed out in pride, fists on hips. Without moving his body or his smile, Bam-Bam murmur yelled for me to join the picture. I made like I didn't hear.
Mrs. [INAUDIBLE] was probably the only camera bug who could squeeze off a shot with a cigarette butt hanging from her lips. She barked, freeze. And I heard the whining whir of an instamatic photo rolling out of a Polaroid. The three Bam-Bams crowded around her and started yelling at the picture to develop faster.
I moved toward my father, who is still bending Mr. Arthur's ear with more up from Ellis Island crap. I listened to him run down how his mother's oldest sister had bought it in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. If my family had to design a family crest, it would be crossed AFL, CIO, and CSEA union cards on a field of time clocks.
So uh, what's Lenny's plans, my father said. Larry, Mr. Arthur gently corrected, Larry. My father was feeling good. I can hear him play jingle bells with the change in his pockets as he rocked back and forth on his heels. Well, Larry will be staying with myself and his mother this summer. We live outside of Saint Paul. Saint Paul, my father raised his eyebrows. And come September, I think he's heading out west to California. California, he raised his eyebrows again.
He was waiting for Mr. Arthur to continue. But Arthur just smiled. Does he have a job out there, or is he going for the girls? He had. That's my dad." Last paragraph.
"Well, Mr. Arthur gave another mild chuckle, neither actually. I guess he squeezed his way into Stanford medical school." That's great, my old man said weakly, the jingle bells losing their beat then picking up again double-time. That's great. I got hit on the arm with the point of a flung mortar board and whipped it back so hard that the guy opted for ducking. Those things can really freaking travel." That's it.
So-- ah. I spent a month with my editor at Simon Schuster, who is this feisty guy from Texas A&M named Herman Golb, trying to figure out a title for this book. And so we're sitting there, throwing out titles. And I just remember-- at one point he looked at me and he said, come to me. And I went, oh, shit. And then I realize, he's just coming up with a title. And that's all I have to say about The Breaks.
So at this point, I'd love to open it up to questions-- anybody. Yes?
AUDIENCE: So Richard, have you secretly written poetry any time?
RICHARD PRICE: Yes, I did. When I was at Cornell, I wrote poetry. But just like I said, I knew nothing about poetry. I didn't understand structure. I'd never read Eliot. I barely read Whitman. I don't even think I read Whitman. I knew about Ginsburg, but I didn't know about Whitman. And I liked-- it was short. And I didn't have a thought in my head, so it seemed perfect for me.
I just didn't know. I never heard of "The Waste Land." I loved Yates. Yates, I loved. But I was very ignorant. And I just wanted to write. I didn't care what I wrote. And if I look back on my sophomore and I see that poetry I gave in, it's just-- it's not even [MUMBLING]. It doesn't make-- it's a waste of ink. And it's a waste of trees.
But yes, I started writing poetry. The thing that changed me from writing doggerel to trying to get a little more focused is that when I was 11 in 1961, I had a cousin who was 26 years old named Paul. And he was six-four, blond, and a weightlifter. And I had just saw him. And he came to my house for my sixth grade dance party in the projects. And he blew up the balloons. And he wrote in soap on the mirror, congratulations PS 41 grads. It was six-- I mean, sixth grade.
And then a week later, my parents came to me in the morning and said that Paul was dead. And it was, what? I had never known a dead person before when they were living. He said he died of a heart attack. And that's what I thought.
And when I went to Cornell in '69 or '70, my father came up to drive me from Ithaca back to the Bronx. And in the car, I had mentioned to him that I smoked a joint. And he got so freaked out, he almost drove the car off the road. And I was going, listen, everybody is smoking. What's the difference?
But I couldn't understand his overreaction. I knew he was a very conservative guy. But I saw Paul's older brother, Stanley, who was about 40 at this point. And I told Stanley about my father and his overreaction. He says, well, it was probably because of Paul. I said, what are you talking about? Paul died of a heart attack.
He said, who told you that? He died of a heroin overdose. In fact, it wasn't even a heroin overdose. He was given battery acid, which is when they want to kill somebody. Instead of giving them heroin, they give him something that looks like heroin, but in fact, will kill them.
And with that realization, all of a sudden, I got focused on what I didn't know in the world. And so my poetry shifted from purple Texaco, ostrich, or flamingo, to starting to write tentative poems about the Bronx. And I became haunted by where I've been and what I didn't know. And it really, for the first time, made me want not just to have the label of writer, but to actually be a writer, a writer who says something. And that was the beginning of my life, finding out that my cousin died of an overdose.
So yeah, but that started out in poetry. There was a little literary magazine called Rainy Day. It was a student-- is it still exists? And they had these unbearably artsy things on the cover, like an empty rocking chair or someone going like this. But I saw my name in print. And I went crazy. I went crazy.
In fact, the first copy of Rainy Day was sent to a mailbox where my parents had a sort of a summer house near Peekskill, New York. And I went to the mailbox. And I saw it. I saw my name. And I was so shaky. And I reached out of there and didn't realize that this is not air. This is glass wall. And I'd knock myself out. Yep. I've been knocking myself out ever since. So yeah, that's the name of that tune.
RICHARD PRICE: Yes?
AUDIENCE: I'm wondering if you've been thinking of Baltimore in the last week.
RICHARD PRICE: Well, I'm assuming that's code for Eric Garner, for Ferguson, for some guy in custody, police custody.
AUDIENCE: But just Baltimore this week, I mean-- not the whole--
RICHARD PRICE: I don't know about Baltimore this week. I just know about the police-- the guy dying in police custody.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, the guy dying in the police station.
RICHARD PRICE: Yeah. You know, people--
AUDIENCE: This is an opening to talking about The Wire and Baltimore and--
RICHARD PRICE: Well, I'm more about New York. And I write a lot about. Police investigations. But people have been asking me, what do I think about Ferguson and Eric Garner? And it seems-- and I don't really know what to say. Because I mean, I spent a lot of time with cops. And I understand some of the mentality of it. But I don't know what to say. I mean, it is what it is. And the chips--
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE], you were incredibly sensitive, understanding of police and their lives [INAUDIBLE]
RICHARD PRICE: Well, listen, I know this about police. And we saw this in Staten Island. We saw this at Ferguson, Missouri, after two unmentionable deaths, is that it's not about right or wrong. I think police tend to have an us versus them attitude. And this us versus them has to do that they're armed. They're the biggest gang in America, city by city. But they feel like they're [AUDIO OUT].
Did my thing just go off, or did I-- OK. I feel like they have to be aggressive. They can't back down. Because if you show weakness, the animals will be all over you is the attitude. But they double-down on that when, right or wrong, whatever they did, they sense they're being attacked, not only by the people around them, but by the media. And they close ranks.
This is not The Thin Blue Line. This is not like we protect our own. But they just close ranks. And it's not about was it murder or was it an arrest. It's just they're being attacked. And there is this fortress mentality that takes place.
And I think every police chief everywhere right now after Ferguson and Staten Island is-- they're racing each other to fire officers and apologize to everybody because the media will just slaughter that police department and just slaughter that town, in terms of it's a symbol of civil rights injustice. It's Mississippi Burning 2015 . And I think it's-- I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say. But after Ferguson, they're just going overboard to be the most socially sensitive and responsible police chiefs until the next thing happens. And it will.
AUDIENCE: Why did you use a pen name for your last novel?
RICHARD PRICE: OK, why did I use a pen name? I just thought-- my novels take so long. And I meant this to be a quickie novel. It's sort of a genre novel that was what you see is what you get. And I wanted to signal that, that this was not a book like the others. This is supposed to be like a slim read that it's all surface.
And it turned out not to be. It turned out to be just another book like the books I write. And by the time my book was done, it was too late to change the pen name. But I'm losing the pen name on every subsequent printing. It was just an ill-conceived idea, thinking that I could write any other way than I write.
AUDIENCE: Do you read other people's fiction?
RICHARD PRICE: Yeah. And if you ask me who, I'm going to draw a blank. Because when you ask a question like that, I draw a blanks, but yeah, voluminously. I don't know who-- I don't know what books I read. I read so much. I can't remember what I just finished. But I like just contemporary American fiction.
Not to sound nepotistic, but one of my favorite American writers is my wife, Lorraine Adams, who had written Harbor, about Algerian stowaways coming into Boston and a second novel, Room and a Chair, which takes place in Iran, Afghanistan, and Washington, DC. I like Smith Henderson, who wrote Fourth of July Creek. I love Lorrie Moore's work.
My wife will kill me, but I love Philip Roth sometimes-- until I hate him. But he writes something. I go, hey, you know, what this is-- oh, you jerk. And then, wow, this is really good. Oh, you're doing it again-- goddamn you. The Sun is this great sort of Western saga written by Philipp Meyer. And it was just one of those good old-- Hm?
AUDIENCE: He's Cornell.
RICHARD PRICE: Oh. Oh, by the way, I was rejected by the Cornell MFA program. [LAUGHTER] And I think Archie Ammons was behind that. And I think-- here's how I think benignly about that. I spent four years on campus. Maybe the people in the faculty who liked me felt it would be best for me to go somewhere else. And I went to Columbia, which was-- it was the best experience in my life. But at the time, I went, rejected? Do you know who I am? And apparently they did. And they didn't accept me. Yeah, maybe somebody else-- yeah?
AUDIENCE: I've always been a great fan of Martin Scorsese. But [INAUDIBLE] with him on [INAUDIBLE].
RICHARD PRICE: It was a schlep. I mean, the project was a schlep. But listen, I respect him so much and the energy and the artfulness that goes into his films. He was great. I mean, Scorsese, he wanted to get to his shots. And he wanted to get to certain things. And he had enough confidence in himself that he said, write this and let me get to my-- he didn't hover over me.
But at the same time-- I'll give you a better example. When I was working on New York Stories, and it was a 40-minute movie with Nick Nolte. And Scorsese just said, all right, look. We're going to do this fast. Why don't you come in with a beat sheet? Give me like the 10 major moments in this 40 minutes. And I gave me this list. I said this-- and he went and said, great, great, great, crap, great, bullshit, great, great, crap. All right, come back in three days.
And I went back. And it was like great, great, great, great, awful. Go in that corner there and rewrite that note. And I did. And he never questioned. He shot. A screenwriter, what they do, it's so easily buried under 10 times 10 types of interpretation by the director, by the actors, by the cinematographer, by the editing room, and by the marketing anxieties of the studio. And you're lucky to see anything that resembles what you wrote. But with Scorsese, basically it was all my words. And I've never seen that, rarely.
I just wrote this movie that probably get the worst reviews last week, Child 44. And exactly-- everybody's going, huh? And it was based on a Russian historical thriller, Stalin era 1953. And so I wrote it. But it's based on a 400-page historical political thriller. And 400-page book has to be converted into a 120-page telegram. He said, she said. They move here. They're over there. There's no writing in a screenplay. There's just stage direction and language.
And I did my best. And the director was a dour Dane. And so he loved the Stalin stuff. So he made everything as gray, green, and grim as possible. It anybody cracked a smile in that movie, the whole world would have fallen apart. And he should have gone against the grain of that, because-- but listen. I've got a million things. And I'll stop now. But that movie sucked.
AUDIENCE: I just wanted to ask you how your setting in [INAUDIBLE] affected your writing, [INAUDIBLE].
RICHARD PRICE: It's an excellent question.
AUDIENCE: And how did you segue into being a writer?
RICHARD PRICE: Well, ILR was actually great for me. And I didn't know it at the time, because your knee-jerk fantasy is that you should be a literature major if you want to be a writer. But I'm of the school that feels like the more you read the greats when you're 19 and 20 years old, the more demoralized you feel when you write your 19, 20-year-old crap.
I just read Nostromo. Or I just read whatever. Just pick one. And I'm going home. All I knew to write about was how I'm horny. I didn't know what else to write about. I'd go home Thanksgiving. And I thought I was going to be happy to see my family. But I can't wait to get out of here. And when I was teaching writing, all the undergraduates were writing that.
But at least being in ILR, it forced me-- you can't rush wisdom. You can't tell a 20-year-old, here's a trick to being 40 years old. You got to live. And then you become a better writer. Talent aside, you become a better writer when you understand things. And you understand nothing when you're an undergraduate.
But Cornell-- the ILR at our school was great except for statistics and pension administration, some god-awful crap like that, because it forced me-- economics, sociology, social psychology. It was this historical, social, psychological, core curriculum that forced me to learn about Earth, not green earth but the Earth that we live on and the people in it. And I think it didn't have a self-conscious bone in my body when I just wanting to write. I had no people to compare myself to. And it was great. And I really felt like I got-- it's a major that sounds like a straight jacket. But it was pretty great and pretty well-rounded. And I didn't have the money or the grades to get into arts and sciences anyhow.
The thing about ILR, it's a state college. When your parents put the car sticker, it just says Cornell, not Cornell with an asterisk-- the easier part and the cheaper part to get into. It's not like Roger Maris, 61, asterisk. It just says Cornell.
How I got into writing from an ILR, I was just in ILR because somebody came into my parent's hosiery store in the Bronx one day and talked about her son just got into the school of Cornell. And my mother came home that day, said how'd you like to go to an Ivy League college? You don't even need good grades to get in.
I don't know how I got in. First of all, I thought it was a school of public relations. And I wanted to write ads, jingles. And I thought that all through my interview. And I got accepted anyhow. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
And coming from Bronx public schools, to see this campus-- my only frame of reference for a university was the Dobie Gillis show, a sitcom. And there was a college campus on it. I thought I died when I saw the school. I just thought, I must have died and been lifted to Heaven. I was just so overwhelmed with excitement.
And just being at Cornell in general over those four years, it was the first time I ever left home my life and still had to be 21 before I left the state-- just the whole experience of being here and studying economics and studying government. And I remember taking a social psychology course, sociology of deviance. And there was a lot of jocks in the class And it was called Sluts and Nuts 201. And then there was also a geology class called Rocks for Jocks. And yeah, I got a little science in there.
It was just-- the whole school just opened me up. And I was still a bumpkin when I graduated. But it got me on my way. And I just felt when it came time to graduate when I was a senior, everybody in ILR is planning a law school and/or business college. And my two best friends went to Harvard Business School.
And I really wanted to be a writer, thanks to the Temple of Zeus and thanks to feeling like, oh, I think I slightly have something I really want to say. And I applied to all kinds of teachers' colleges. I applied to law schools and this and that. And I got into about half of everything.
And I applied to the MFA programs that were just starting out then. They weren't factories like they are now. There weren't careers outlets. People actually wanted to write and weren't worried about their jacket photo if they were young enough.
And I remember being in my parents' hosiery store and just Hamleting up and down in front of the pantyhose, going, yeah, I really want to write. I know I've gotten here and [MUTTERING]. And my father finally just exploded. And he said, oh, for Christ's sakes. Go to your goddamn writing school already. So you go there two years. If nothing happens, then you go to law school.
I said, do you mean it? And I didn't say, thanks, Dad. Or I am in control of my destiny. I had to have him get so disgusted with my whining to give me permission. And once I realized that I was in a writing school and started writing and having novelists as teachers, my identity, my sense of identity as a writer was wanting to be a writer, no nonsense, was established in me.
And fortunately, I got published at 24. At that point, the median age of a first novel-- the novelist writing their first novel was 40. And so incredibly, I lucked out, I think a lot because I was writing about white working class housing project life. And nobody was writing about that. My hero, my model, was Hubert Selby, Last Exit to Brooklyn. And so I got published at 24. And then that's it. I'm an author.
But if I had not published that early, if I had to put in 10 more years driving cabs or waitressing or whatever you do while all my friends went off to Harvard Business School, law school, were establishing themselves in the world, and I'm still driving a cab like a geriatric hippie, I don't know if it would have had the stamina in me. Because I just came from a world where people had no context for a child becoming any kind of artist. They just were bewildered and terribly anxious about it. And I'd tell you what my uncle said to me, but I think there's kids in the audience, about being a poet. I'll send an email out.
AUDIENCE: I was curious if you feel the consumption of paper books versus electronic books has changed your consumption of literature or you feel it's changed the population's consumption of literature? And a follow-up or an addendum to that is, have you seen these rich-content books that are coming out now where when you mentioned a place, it'll show you a map and a picture of the place? And it's kind of a newer technology. But they're rich-content books. So they're electronic books that take you to a whole other level.
RICHARD PRICE: Well, I'm just a little bit learning about the rich-content books. So rather than go into that, I feel, in my case, I read more with electronic books because it's so much easier to buy books. At same time, it makes me more ADD around my reading experiences because I just bought six books in 10 minutes. And I forget-- by the time I get to one of them, I have no idea of what this book is. Why did I buy it?
I know my wife is experimenting with writing a novel and enhancing it with connections to media and language, songs, and places. So she would know a lot more than I would about-- I didn't know that it had a name like that. But I mean, there's a lot of anxiety that you're losing your audience.
RICHARD PRICE: Well, it works. But she's actually addressing that. As a novelist, I should be buying books in bookstores. But I've just gotten so conditioned to buy e-books. But it's just easier for me to read.
AUDIENCE: What advice would you give to the English majors or the humanities majors who are maybe frightened about getting published or making a career for themselves?
RICHARD PRICE: Well, first of all, they shouldn't be frightened about getting published. They should be frightened about, am I a real writer? You're jumping the gun. If you're thinking about being a writer and your first thought is, will ever get published, you're not a writer.
AUDIENCE: Oh, no, I wasn't saying that--
RICHARD PRICE: No, I'm not saying you are. But if that's your thought, and that's the product of these careerist MFA programs that people were going in there, and it's like a job mart. It's about connections and this and that. It's like, a writer writes.
Somebody said, well, how do you become a writer? And somebody said, you have to write a million words. I mean, it's very different being published and being a writer. I mean, being published is perhaps a reward for being a writer. But it's not being a writer. So I'd say if you're a writer, you won't even ask that question. Because you write. You write because you have no choice, because you really want to write. And if you can't write, you're miserable.
AUDIENCE: I had a question about the difference between writing for movies, and TV, and music videos and writing novels in terms of process. Are you able to novel at the same time you're writing your movies?
RICHARD PRICE: No, I can't write in two mediums at one time. You're going to break something. But I do understand the difference between writing a novel, where I'm in control of it and its actual language, and writing a TV pilot and a movie script, where basically, you're setting up stage directions for somebody else to execute. And I understand when I'm writing a screenplay, I have screenwriter hat on. And when I'm writing a novel, it's like, good riddance to all that. But you got to make money. You got to live. Nobody can live off novel royalties unless you're James Patterson or somebody.
AUDIENCE: I have one last question.
RICHARD PRICE: Yes?
AUDIENCE: You also collaborated with Spike Lee in Clockers. But that was your book. But you collaborated with him for the screenplay. But it was your book.
RICHARD PRICE: I didn't really collaborate with him. I wrote the screenplay for Scorsese and De Niro. When they dropped out, Spike Lee jumped in as director. I had already written a script, copious scripts. And he just took over. And he just did his script. So even though we have co-writing credit, that doesn't mean we wrote together. That means I wrote enough to deserve a credit. And then he did what he did.
AUDIENCE: I see.
RICHARD PRICE: So when you see that little ampersand there or whatever, usually that means somebody got fired and somebody took over.
He made it worse.
SPEAKER: Last question.
AUDIENCE: Did your father read your first novel? And what was his reaction?
RICHARD PRICE: Well, glad you asked.
I went through a period where I was estranged from my parents for a couple of years, including the year I published my book. And at this point, my father was a window dresser. He worked for Modell's. He would put the clothing in the window and just do all that decor. It was not like Barney's. It was Modell's, you know? It was like Dick's Sporting Goods.
And he had a store in Times Square. And I was walking through Times Square one day. And I hadn't seen my father for a couple years. And I pass him in the window, tacking up running jackets. And I walked past. And I was in shock. And then I walked back. And he was there. And he had his mouth filled with pins. And he just spewed all the pins out.
And we had a reunion of sorts. And I thought I was a real big shot because I got a $4,000 advance. And I had a credit card. And so he introduced me to all the other window dressers, all these guys named you know Morty and Ben. Like I said, this is not Barney's. And I said, well, let's have a drink.
And so he was not a big drinker at all. So we went to some Times Square semi-respectable restaurant. And we were sitting at a table. And I was going to show off. I had my credit card. I ordered like a tequilla hummingbird or one of these-- like Harvey Wallbanger, or whatever we were drinking in 1971 when you had no [INAUDIBLE] was about. It's like pimps' drinks. They had to have different pretty colors mixed up.
My father ordered a beer. And when the bill came, I said, I got it, Dad. And I took out my American Express card. And they go, we don't take credit cards. And I had no cash on me. And my father looked at me, said, pfft, just pulled out a couple of bucks.
But we were talking. And maybe this is because we were estranged. But he said, you know, I read your book, The Wanderers, right? It was OK. It wasn't like a good book or anything. And I remember at the time, I went, oh. To each his own.
But it's like falling asleep under a sun lamp. You're asleep. And then three hours later, you're screaming in agony. And I remember six hours later or the middle of the night, he said, what? But I was in shock when he said that. So I had sort of a calm reaction. But man did it hit me in the head, delayed reaction. But who knows? So yeah, that was my father's reaction.
And then when my career became more and more successful, my parents would say to me every time I came over-- they'd look at what I did. And they'd go, we didn't know. We didn't know. But you know what? They didn't.
And they weren't evil. They weren't trying to destroy my dreams. They were just freaked out, struggling, working class people. And I can't believe my kid went to Cornell. And now he's writing. Is he writing for a newspaper? No. What is he writing? A book. A published book? Well, we don't know. I mean, they went insane with anxiety.
SPEAKER: Thank you. Thank you, Richard.
RICHARD PRICE: OK.
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Novelist Richard Price '71 recalls the great Cornell poet/professor A.R. Ammons and describes Ammons' profound influence on his decision to pursue a writing career. Part of Cornell's sesquicentennial celebration April 24-27, 2015.