Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him explores the comedian’s early life, career, and later difficulties. Here the authors, brothers David and Joe Henry, and the audiobook’s narrator, actor Dion Graham, answer questions about Pryor and the book itself. See the review on page 46.
JH: In 2000, I wrote a song called “Richard Pryor
Addresses a Tearful Nation,” which I recorded with the legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The label I was on at the time was owned by Disney, and they insisted that I needed Richard’s permission to reference him in the song title. So I had to jump through hoops to actually find him.
Richard loved the song—was moved by it, I was told—and gave me permission. I was then asked by Esquire magazine to write a piece about Richard and Ornette and how writing about one led me to work with the other. Based on that, Richard and his wife asked me if I would write a screenplay based on Richard’s life. I turned to my brother, David, who is a screenwriter. I knew I needed that kind of structural help. And we spent a couple of years working on spec writing a screenplay that has yet to be produced. But it led us finally to say, “We should just write a book, because then we don’t have to wait for somebody else to decide
that it’s worth turning into a motion picture.”
DH: We weren’t trying to write the cradle-to-grave doorstop biography. We had things that we loved about Richard very deeply and really wanted to explore. We didn’t necessarily have a vision fully formed. We kind of wanted to go digging ourselves; there were things we wanted to learn about him. We touch on certain recurring themes and elements in his very complicated and very compelling life story.
Dion, what was your experience of narrating?
DG: First of all, it’s a really great book, and I identified with what Joe and Dave said about how they came to uncover the book. You could sub-subtitle the book “Searching for Richard Pryor.” That’s how I came to it. I always think it’s valuable to reach out to the author or authors. They were fantastic, and it made for a magnificent piece of work.
I had extended conversations with both Joe and Dave, which were really helpful in getting insights into how they came to Richard and how they approached [the book]. One of the things I think is fascinating is—as they were saying earlier—is that it’s a little messy. The book is about Richard Pryor, but I find it’s also about [the Henrys] interacting with Richard Pryor the person, Richard Pryor the icon, Richard Pryor the soothsayer, all these different aspects of the artist, the person, and their relationship to him and his work as well.
I told Joe and Dave I was really not going to try to impersonate; I was going to “lean in” so we could hopefully catch the essence of Richard. But also, two authors have written this book. So what I hope comes through is the spirit of both of their voices and their engagement and their passion with Richard. So I just tried to be an open channel to respond to all the great and terrific and painful and hilarious and horrible and beautiful things that make up the life that they are presenting. It was a real trip to take a ride with Richard, and I hope that we did really illuminate him. I didn’t want to be corny or try too hard or hit any false notes. But Richard is so present in the book, and there are so many things that are just so potent and ring in our memory and our imagination about him. I hope that when listeners hear it, the experience is one of discovery for them, too.
Joe and David, what was it like for you to work with Dion?
JH: I think what Dion is describing is exactly why people in the business of creating audiobooks would turn to an actor. It’s not just about putting some melody to the text; it’s about being able to inhabit characters as they come to the fore—treating it like a role and not a reading. And Dion’s done that.
DH: I was very impressed with the depth of conversations we had with Dion before he began. I was impressed with how much he put himself into it. He had some probing questions and was very eager to convey what we wanted people to get out of the book. First, he wasn’t going to do the voices. Then he called back and said, “I’m going to reverse myself on that,” because there was too much to do with this to leave it at that. And that’s what you want to hear from somebody.