A People with Passion series
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz
Back in December of 2008, I interviewed writer Alex Kotlowitz, and our conversation served in many ways as a prologue to my current Chicago journalism series. I was interested in interviewing Alex because of his acclaimed book There Are No Children Here and his wonderful book of Chicago essays Never A City So Real, which I was reading.
I was also interested in him because in May of that year, he'd written a fabulous feature for the New York Times called "Blocking the Transmission of Violence," a story about Chicago's CeaseFire organization, their trained "violence interrupters," and CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin's theory that violence is a disease. That story is now being told to millions of filmgoers as The Interrupters, a documentary produced by Kotlowitz and his friend Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams.
As such, I've decided to take a fresh look at my original Kotlowitz interview, which I present here re-edited from the original transcript.
You’ve called yourself an ‘accidental Midwesterner,’ and an ‘accidental Chicagoan.’ Let me read this to you, from “Never A City So Real”:
“I never felt that I truly belonged to New York. It’s a place obsessed with status. Money. Beauty. Power. It’s how you’re measured there. Everybody, though, finds a place in Chicago.”
What have you found is your place, in Chicago?
My place… (laughs lightly) I came here to look. I came here as a journalist. And I figured this would be as good a place if not a better place than any to just sort of peer into America’s soul, which is what as a journalist you attempt to do. You sort of look for the truth of matters. I came here with that intent, and I thought I’d be here two or three years, and it’s been 25 years, and we’ll probably be here much longer.
I’ve always sort of thought of myself as an outsider. That’s my own kind of messed-up, psychological make-up, and Chicago’s a great place to be an outsider. You can feel comfortable here, you can find a place. What I end up doing is writing about outsiders, people who are on the margins. That’s what I love to do. I can’t think of a better way to take measure of a country than to sort of understand how power is used and abused, to understand it from the ground level.
Chicago’s just been this place that’s always been kind of accepting. People are less likely in this city to tell you that you can’t do things, or that it’s impossible. I mean, most recently, look at our President-elect. You couldn’t ask for a better example.
It’s not a place that measures you by your wealth, or by your job. It measures you for who you are. There is something kind of democratic, small ‘d,’ democratic about this city.
Was there a point where you realized “Oh, I’m sort of locked in here. This is the place for me to be.”?
No. I don’t think there was ever a moment – there was no epiphany if that’s what you’re asking. It’s been a gradual attachment to the place. My wife and I at times have thought about moving, and each time – I mean, this is what I write about. And it’s not that all my writing is here in Chicago. It’s just what inspires me.
You look at the tradition of Chicago writers, which is pretty extraordinary. Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Stuart Dybek, Aleksandar Hemon. They’re all people who really have their feet on the ground. Chicago does sort of give this certain perspective to people. There’s nothing dreamy about those writers. They understand what’s at work out there. And they’re as honest and as searing a school of writers as you can imagine, if you can consider it a school.
Do you consider it a school?
(immediately) No, I don’t think I’d consider it a school. It’s not as if – I mean, look at Sara Paratsky. Look at Scott Turow. You can go on and on. There’s a kind of grittiness to them, as there is to the city. I think the city inspires it. To live in Chicago you have to have both feet on the ground. There’s just no other way about it.
In New York you can live a very cloistered life. If you’re wealthy, you can have very little to do with anybody else. If you’re of a certain ethnic group, you can have very little to do with somebody else. It’s hard in Chicago to not have something to do with others in this city. It’s not that we don’t have a very segregated city. Especially by race, when it comes to housing. But it forces you to have your feet on the ground. You’ve got all the figures in the American landscape within the boundaries of this city. Race, class, poverty, religion… you name it. It’s all here.
It is true that a lot of writers and filmmakers are drawn to Chicago. This is America. You come here, and you find all that haunts us. All there is to celebrate. All there is to bemoan. It’s a city – I suspect like many other cities – but it’s a city just teeming with stories. And they’re stories that allow us to reflect on who we are, and where we came from and where we’re going. And that’s what people do – I think of my friend Steve James, who did Hoop Dreams. Or my neighbor John Conroy. It’s a kind of writing that you’ll find in other places but not to the extent you’ll find in Chicago.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Cleveland recently, and I’ve been kind of astonished. It’s a city that doesn’t have a very rich literary history. And Detroit which has some literary history, but nothing nearly as rich as Chicago.
What about New York? The land of 8 million stories…
Well New York has a very rich literary history. It’s the center of the publishing world. There’s nothing like New York. It’s just one of a kind. I mean, there’s just no place like it. But you know, there you find people mostly writing about the powers-that-be. You know, those who’ve got wealth and money. That’s where I’m from, but as a writer it’s not a place I want to be.
Do you have a favorite place in Chicago that has maybe inspired the most words from you?
Oh, I’d say if there’s any place, any neighborhood, or any area in the city that I like to spend time in, it’s on the West Side. It just feels to me so vital. There’s so much activity, and so much going on. If somebody said, as a writer, you’ve got to pick one place, one neighborhood to write about for the rest of your life, I’d say “Lemme know just write about the West Side of Chicago.” That’s where I’d end up.
Enjoy this interview? Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up this Wednesday, August 17: Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune