You’ve written for my new show The Deuce, but I hear it’s hard to get you to come to the set.
I find the most boring thing about a movie is the making of the movie. I was the creator of this show for CBS called NYC 22. It was about Harlem rookies. You write the script, you go on set and you tell the director, “Look, this is not the way it should be.” And he goes, “Okay, got it.” Or you tell the actors, “Listen, man, you cannot play this like you’re a Harlem Globetrotter, where you play like you’re a circus clown.” They go, “Got it.” And you get a big, complicated soul handshake, and then they do whatever the fuck they want anyhow. It’s like, why am I standing around in January, outdoors, at seven in the morning with the wind coming off the river? Fuck this.
You were in your 20s when you published your first two novels, The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers. Both are set in the Bronx, where you were born. Did you believe that as a novelist you should use your own experiences?
I went to Columbia for the writing program, and I realized that the Bronx was kind of over and I’d never go back there. So I started writing stories as if I were entertaining people about what it was like to grow up in the Bronx. Then I went to Stanford. I’d never been out of New York state before, and it really made me feel like all I have of the Bronx is my memory of it, and if I forget, it’s gone. It was a combination of homesickness and realizing it was over that made me want to put it all down on paper. After that I thought, How about we don’t write three novels about the Bronx or some semiautobiographical subject? I didn’t live in the Bronx anymore. It was around 1976, and I’d been living in Manhattan for five years. I wasn’t a kid anymore. So I wrote Ladies’ Man to try to write about sexuality in 1970s Manhattan, among other things. And then it took me forever to figure out what I wanted to write, and I fell into a hole. I wrote two novels after that, but I was writing purely because I was in a panic about not having a book.
So you have two finished novels that never came out?
I still have them. They’re in my drawer. Those books need not be exhumed. But by the time I got to The Breaks, I knew I was desperate. Finally I had a story that was saying something, but it was a nightmare. On top of everything, hey, you having trouble writing? Let’s become a coke addict! It’s like, let’s wear a gasoline jacket to a bonfire.
Oh my gosh. [laughs]
So I was really fucked-up and fucking up. I’d always had offers to write scripts for Hollywood, so I thought, Well, I’m already a coke addict, so I might as well be a screenwriter. Stopping coke was relatively easy once I made up my mind, but stopping screenwriting was really hard. Once you start sucking on that glass, that’s celebrity, and it’s social.
You wrote scripts for The Color of Money, Mad Dog and Glory and other films. Then you wrote Clockers, one of my favorite books. David Simon calls it the Grapes of Wrath of the crack epidemic.
The one gift that screenwriting gave me was that old adage “Write what you know.” One of the reasons I stopped writing novels was because everything I knew was written. But in screenwriting you say, Well, the guy’s a pool hustler. I don’t know anything about pool hustlers. I was forced to go down to Kentucky and Virginia and hang out at these nine-ball tournaments and meet all these guys. I realized that you can learn something, you can absorb something and you can write about something without going underground for three years to make it plausible.
David told me there was a particular New Jersey detective you rode around with for Clockers.
Being with cops, you see things you would not otherwise be permitted to see as a civilian. I remember going to this devastated housing project in Jersey City. It was like a tiger cage. This was during the height of the crack epidemic. And it freaked me out so badly because it was like the housing project I’d grown up in, and now it was like the ninth circle of hell. I became obsessed. Sometimes you are drawn to the thing that scares you the most, and that’s what happened with me. All of a sudden I wanted to get into this world, as opposed to run from it. I didn’t want to write it as a screenplay, because I didn’t want people fucking with it, so I decided to write it as a novel.
You’ve worked out a way to switch off between writing novels and writing for movies and TV. How does that work?
I’m 66 years old. It takes me forever to write a novel. But novels don’t pay the bills, so I’m just fighting—all I want to buy is time to write a novel.