I was scheduled to do a reading and signing of HUBERT’S FREAKS at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, but when I saw that they’d failed to secure a listing for the event in the “Boston Sunday Globe,” I knew I was in trouble. Worse still, there was a listing for Richard Price reading from his hot new novel LUSH LIFE at the Harvard Book Store on the same night.
Sure enough, the only person in attendance at the Harvard Coop was a Nigerian man named Sunny. He was a writer, too. He had written dozens of books – fiction, poetry, non-fiction, self help. He was certain that if he just had the proper exposure, his books would be widely read. He wanted to know how to get an agent, and if I would show his work to my agent. It turned out he spent a lot of time at the Harvard Coop. After a while we were joined by another, very slender, gentleman who spent even more time at the Coop. He liked to research books there, which he would then withdraw from the nearby public library, where he also spent a lot of time. But, we soon discovered, if he wanted to research my book, he would not find it in New Arrivals or Non-Fiction at the Harvard Coop. According to the computer at one of the desks, the store’s lone copy of HUBERT’S FREAKS was shelved under “Cultural Anthropology.”
After about fifteen minutes the slender man went off somewhere to munch more books. I set to work signing the stacks of soon-to-be-returned copies of my book that the Coop had set out for decoration. That way, I figured, they could not be sent back to the distributor. “Cultural Anthropology” would be bulging with them. Then two ladies entered the reading and signing area. They had just come from the Harvard Book Store, and they said Richard Price was still reading. I suggested we go over and check him out. The ladies demurred, but Sunny and I took off, excited at the prospect of hearing a famous writer talk.
By the time we got there, Price had stopped reading and was answering questions to an overflow crowd of men and women, mostly in their twenties and thirties. He had a jittery, nervy affect that came across as vulnerability rather than attitude. He talked about “The Wire” for which he’d written episodes, and about his other novels, and about this one, which took place in the Lower East Side, and how he did his research by “hanging out.” He talked about how dense and varied the Lower East Side was, and how much fun hanging out had been. It was helpful, he said, to have a crime to build a novel around, because getting started – getting that first sentence down – was very hard. Writing was very hard. He could never remember how he’d done it in the past. But once he got going insights occurred, things happened to characters that he never could have planned or plotted. You could do all the research in the world, all the hanging out you wanted, but it wasn’t writing. Only writing was writing. And writing was hard. It was a rare, special kind of effort.
Richard Price hung in there for a good half-hour, talking in this way about writing, his claw of a right hand clutching the podium, as if to keep him from blowing away in the gale of fascinated questions. His answers were invariably intense and humorous in a New York ironic way, and really smart.
Then I understood why everybody wants to be a writer. It wasn’t just about being rich and adored. People see a guy like this, all ravaged and funny and wise, and they get a sense of how difficult and dangerous it must be, and how wonderful it must feel to be in that moment when characters have lives of their own. I glanced over at Sunny and he was right in there with me, ready to start another book.
He said, “You will tell your agent, won’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But I was only kidding about Oprah. I don’t really party with her. I don’t know her at all.”
Sunny smiled, courageous and undeterred. As Richard Price was, gamely forging ahead up there. As, just for a moment, I was, too.