The Alex Kotlowitz Interview

Today is the day to know this is the last post on, ever.

Today's interviewee should be studied closely by those interested in the art of nonfiction writing. His book There Are No Children Here was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important books of the century. I personally also recommend his short book on Chicago, Never a City So Real, for anybody who wants to learn about the Big Windy beyond deep-dish pizza and the Sears Tower. He also teaches writing at Northwestern University and produces the show "Chicago Matters" on NPR's Chicago station, WBEZ.

The Alex Kotlowitz Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Most cities come with a preconceived identity. New York is gritty and sophisticated. LA is glamorous and shallow. New Orleans is relaxed and festive. I always wondered what the generalized stereotype people from other cities held for Chicago. What was yours, and do you think that's what other people's typically is?
I suppose most outside Chicago think of it as this rough and tumble place, one that will take you for all your worth if you're not watchful.

Coming from New York, I thought of it as provincial - which is how most easterners and Los Angelinos think of it. I grew up in New York, and there's no question that there folks hang around with like-minded folks -- writers with writers, lawyers with lawyers, money people with money people. That's not the case in Chicago. It's a democratic (small 'd') place - where every thing and every one is out there in the open, for better or for worse. (So watch your wallets. Only kidding.)

Look, the truth of the matter is, it's a complicated city, filled with paradoxes. But I like how my artist friend Tony Fitzpatrick thinks of it: as exotic, like Bombay or Istanbul. It is exotic, magical and gritty at the same time.

Many neighborhoods in the city are undergoing what is typically referred to as "gentrification," wherein a neighborhood is spiffed up at the cost of the former residents being run out. What do you think the happy medium is, if any, between gentrification and letting a neighborhood languish?
You're trying to trip me up here, no? I don't know if that's the equation we want to consider, that gentrification is the only way in which we can rebuild depressed neighborhoods? I'm all for layered communities, neighborhoods with a mix of classes and races and ethnic groups. It's kind of cool to live in a place that's all mixed up, filled with surprises. But most of us don't live in places like that. Any way we can encourage that, I'm all for it.

Have you adopted any Chicago teams as your own?
I have a bad, a real bad basketball jones. (I'm still playing, or at least going through the motions.) And I arrived here at the right time, for the Jordan era, and like everyone else got far too wrapped up in it (watched far too many games according to my wife.) I'm still a Bulls fan.

You've done reporting and interviewing in some very sensitive and volatile areas and situations. Is this something you've grown to be more comfortable with, or is it a skill that writers are either born with or not?
There's no magic about it. You just go out and be yourself. I'm real straight with folks about what I'm writing, and always have my notebook out, just to remind people why I'm there. Most of the people I spend time with have never dealt with the press, and so in the end I don't want them to feel I've betrayed their confidence. If I'm taking notes then there's no confusion about why I'm there. I see it as a privilege to be let into their lives, and to be able to tell their stories publicly.

What's the most threatened or vulnerable you've ever felt while researching a piece or book?
I've been caught in crossfire. I've walked in on drug deals. I've been there in the aftermath of a firebombing by a street gang. But I've never been accosted or injured. As a friend says, I'm blessed. Let it remain that way.

What are some of your favorite nonfiction books?
I actually read more fiction than nonfiction. But I love my genre, so here goes.
Tony Lukas's Common Ground. Melissa Fay Greene's Praying for Sheetrock. Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Tracy Kidder's Hometown. Darcy Frey's The Last Shot. Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberland. I'm going to stop here, only because I could just go on. Hey, there's some terrific stuff out there, and I haven't even included some of the more personal writings, like Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge or anything by E.B. White.

Do you write fiction?
I'll leave that to my dad. (The closest I've come are my periodic stabs at a screenplay.)

Are there any topics you hope to cover in the future that diverge from your previous work?
I'm kind of obsessed now with this notion that no one stays put, that the world is becoming a much smaller place because of that. The number of people estimated to annually migrate - either inside a country or to another --- is 160 million. That's an astonishing number. And I think we underestimate the toll such migration takes on the fabric of a society, especially when it's a forced movement, because of persecution or economic devastation. Having said all this, I'm not at all sure how to get my arms around it. I suppose one of the places to start is here at home, and our changing attitudes about immigration.

I've been working on a long project profiling a teenager and sometimes (believe it or not) it's hard to get her to open up. Do you have any advice for people interviewing youngsters?
Lots of pizza, and lots of just hanging out. The problem with most kids is that they're not terribly reflective. They live for the moment. I remember with Lafeyette and Pharoah, the subjects of my first book, I'd ask them what they did the previous week or even yesterday and they'd just shrug their shoulders. Thank god their parents and older siblings could help me. Once I could remind them of a moment, they'd recount it with this extraordinary vividness. So, I guess my main piece of advice is to lean on the adults in their lives.

You produce shows often for Chicago Public Radio. What duties does producing entail?
I love radio. It's where some of the most inventive nonfiction storytelling is taking place. Ira Glass's This American Life, Dave Isay. The Kitchen Sisters. I actually got started in journalism by contributing to All Things Considered and Morning Edition, some twenty years ago, so I guess I'm kind of coming home. I've been doing two things, one is the occasional piece for This American Life (the best damn show on radio) - and then for Chicago Public Radio, I (along with this terrific producer, Amy Dorn) have put together three collections of personal narratives around the subjects of home, love and money. I've had so much fun doing it, it feels more like an avocation. Some of the stories are being adapted for the stage for a production scheduled to open this June in Chicago. (At Pegasus Players.) It'll give the stories another life. It's an idiosyncratic collection, one story about a commodities trader who goes belly up and ends up robbing banks, another about an artist who for years has been painting murals in the apartments of public housing, another about a the courtship between a priest and a nun. And it's storytelling at its sparest. We go out and interview folks, sometimes two or three times, and then edit it down to eight to twelve minutes, where outside of my introduction, it's only the voice of the subject spinning out their narrative.

How was "new journalism" different from "gonzo journalism," or is there a difference?
"Gonzo journalism" put the writer front and center. Hunter Thompson, of course, pulled it off like no one else could. It's writing with an attitude. "New Journalism", a term Tom Wolfe came up with, referred to the nonfiction writers who were using the storytelling tools of fiction writers. Most of it - though not all - was told in the third person.

Why do you think nonfiction teachers and students often make such a big deal about defining "creative nonfiction"? I don't get the impression that people doubt much anymore that nonfiction can be creative.
It's not so much about defining 'creative nonfiction' (or 'literary journalism' or 'the literature of fact' or 'nonfiction narrative', whatever you care to call it) but rather about encouraging it. I have this undying loyalty to story, and if I can pass anything along to my students at Northwestern and Notre Dame, it's that, the importance of story. It is, after all, how we make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Also, what could be more fun that to curl up on the couch with a good story.

Do you research as you write or do all your research first and then sit down to put it together?
I wait to write until I've done the bulk of my reporting. I have friends who write as they go along, but I never feel like I can make sense of it all until I've gathered all that I can. Having said that, inevitably as I begin writing I realize there are all these holes, and so I head out to do more reporting. Sometimes - and this can be a problem - I don't know when to stop. I'm a pack rat, and that's evident in my reporting. I acquire everything I can, and then in the end maybe use only a third of what I've gathered, if that. My office as a result is a bloody mess. And each time I vow to organize everything, it all spreads itself out within a matter of days.

I read an interview where you say that you're working on a screenplay. Is that still proceeding? What is it about?
I've tried it once. It was bought - and then shelved. That's Hollywood.

How are you finding the format of screenplay versus the other media you've worked with?
You know, to be perfectly frank, I thought writing a screenplay would come easy for me, because it's all about story. But, man, it's tough. It's like a house of cards. You get two-thirds of the way through, and you begin to pull at some thread in the plot and the whole damn thing unravels. (Now there's a mixed metaphor for you.)And rather quickly. But I love film so I suspect I'll try it again.

Are there other cities in the world that remind you of Chicago, in terms of attitude, architecture or history?
Not that I know of. Any place in Europe has far more history than this place - and the architecture is of a different era. Chicago is very much its own.

If you're in line at the coffee shop, do you ever try to get to the head of the line by saying, "Hey, according to the New York Public Library, I wrote one of the 150 most important books of the century! Outta my way!"?
Try that in Chicago, and they'll just say, "That's New York's public library. Get to the back of the line, ass--"

Do you keep in touch with the people you write about or profile after the piece is published?
It's the best thing about what I do, the friends I pick up along my way. At our wedding ten years ago, a number of people there were folks who I'd written about. Pharoah and Lafeyette are still very much a part of my life. Don Sharp, a Baptist minister I wrote about years ago, has become a kind of spiritual advisor. Brenda and Millie, two women who live on the West Side where they work with young mothers, meet me for lunch every couple of months, to gossip, to commiserate, to swap stories. God, there are so many. I feel pretty fortunate. It makes life pretty darn rich.

How does it feel to be the 118th person interviewed for
It's taken me long enough to get back to you. Am I still the 118th, or have I dropped in the standings?

Yeah, now you're 121.