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Interview with Alex Kotlowitz: “You just hope the good days outnumber the bad days.”

For forty years, Alex Kotlowitz has been an award-winning journalist, author and professor, known for his intimate and powerful stories from the heart of America.

He has written four books, including the national bestseller There Are No Children Here, which was selected as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library. He has also worked in film and radio, receiving an Emmy, Cinema Eye award and Independent Spirit award for his documentary, The Interrupters.

His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and This American Life, among others. He is currently a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

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Hi Alex, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

A native New Yorker, I call Chicago home where for forty years I’ve been telling stories, nonfiction stories from America’s heartland. I believe fiercely in the power of narrative. The stories I tell are mostly intimate tales of struggle and perseverance.

Much of my writing speaks to the fissures in the American landscape, around race, around class, around immigration. I love what I do. Along the way, I’ve made good friends – and I’ve had my faith in the general goodness and generosity of people reaffirmed over and over, especially by people who have all the reason in the world to be bitter and angry.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your book, An American Summer

I set out to write about one summer in Chicago, to tell stories of people touched by the city’s street violence which has been so stubbornly persistent. Look, the numbers of those shot or killed is staggering, but we’ve paid little attention because most of the victims are Black or brown and poor. I looked for stories that surprised me, that knocked me off balance, that challenged what I thought I already knew.

Honestly, I thought by choosing a summer, I could report the book reasonably quickly but – and I feel a bit sheepish even admitting this – since it sounds almost naive – I soon realized that the more time I spent with people and as their journeys unfolded, I learned so much more about them and what they were contending with – which of course was not only the violence but ALSO the distress of their communities and the sordid history of race in this country.

I would interview people again and again. One young man I met with just about every Sunday over the course of two years. It’s how I work. I come back over and over again. And I’m not interviewing all the time. With this one young man, we played chess and watched football and shared meals.

With another person I wrote about, we traveled to Texas to visit his family, and along the way stopped at multiple casinos. (And won some money, mostly at roulette which he was particularly adept at.) With still another, I’d stop by his juke joint on the city’s West Side just to join him for a beer. Again, one of the things I love about my work is that I meet people I otherwise would never have a reason to meet, and come to know many of them not only as subjects of my writing but also as friends. 

I don’t start writing until I’ve completed all of my reporting and research. And when I sit down to write, I tell the people I’ve been spending time with that I need to disappear for a while. I need some distance – only because I need to remind myself that I’m not writing for them but I’m writing for my readers. And then I put aside my notes (which fill boxes upon boxes) – and try to write from memory with the assumption that the moments that have stayed with me are the moments that will stay with my readers. And then I pull out my notes, and fill in the details – and inevitably find moments that I’d forgotten about.

More than anything, I try to tell a story, try to give the reader reason to read on. It’s the foundation of any good narrative, just wanting to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen next. And I try to be honest to what I’ve seen and heard – and to not pigeonhole people but to write about them in a manner that acknowledges their contradictions and complexities, to see them in all their humanity, to find empathy. Many years ago, a copy editor wrote in the margins of one of my manuscripts: “Be kind.” And so I always keep that in mind, as well. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I’m a morning person, like so many other writers. I get up at 5:30 or 6:00 and go for a walk or run, then coffee (hot and strong) and breakfast with the newspaper. I’m at my desk by 8:00 – and try to write for four hours or so.

When I’m immersed in a writing project, it inhabits me. I think about it all the time. So I carry around a notebook to write thoughts as they come to me. Maybe it’s a sentence that’s not working for me. Or a structure that’s unraveling. Or a character whom I feel like I haven’t adequately captured.

If I was really disciplined, I’d stop writing at noon and spend the afternoon reworking drafts, but too often I have this compulsion to push on, and by early afternoon I’ve begun to run out of steam, and beat myself up for not writing more. I’m learning though – slowly. 

Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day? 

I don’t have a targeted word count. I have enough angst as it is. Setting up a daily goal would be just one more way I could disappoint myself. I have my good days and my bad days. On those good days, I feel pretty darn good. Alive. Exhilarated. Sometimes even celebratory. And then there are the other days when I feel like a total imposter, when a nap in the morning feels pretty enticing, when I’m perusing topographic maps planning out my next canoe trip, anything to keep me from writing, or trying to write. In the end, you just hope the good days outnumber the bad days – by a lot.

Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things? 

I often hit roadblocks – who doesn’t? – moments or days when the writing feels just too difficult. Days when I doubt myself. And so I’ll sprawl out on our couch with a good book, usually a novel, and refresh myself, remind myself what good writing sounds like, what a good story feels like. And then I’ll think, damn, it’s doable.

On some days, I just throw in the towel. Find a pick-up basketball game. Take a walk. Have a glass of wine with my wife. Or call a writer friend just to hear that someone else out there is struggling, too. All I know is that once I’ve finished a book, it feels like magic. Which I suppose is a good thing. The memories of sweating blood have slipped into the ether, and all that matters is that I’ve made it to the end. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

Right before COVID, my wife and I moved into a hundred-year-old Greystone in Chicago’s Uptown, it was a place that needed some work, and so once we got through the pandemic we renovated our second floor, and converted a bedroom in the rear to my office.

I need lots of light so we put in an extra window, and then I quietly settled in – and my wife, Maria, will tell you it soon took on the look of a storage locker, boxes of notes, books, magazines, and more books spread across the floor. Papers spilling off piles on my desk. And in the middle of my floor – I just noticed it as I looked around – a baby blue Nike high-top sneaker lies on its side, the laces coming apart, an offering from our dog. While there seems to be no order – and my wife finds this hard to believe, I know where to find everything. (Thankfully.) 

I’ve of course decorated the room with things that give me comfort, that remind me I’m not alone in this insanely lonely pursuit of writing. My canoe paddle sits against the wall in one corner, a kind of talisman, something to hold onto, to help me slip into that place where I can – vicariously – find refuge in the stillness of being on the water.

On my walls are photos. Of a restaurant my mom came across called: Struggling Man’s Place. Of two of my literary heroes, Studs Terkel and the novelist Harriette Arnow. Of my wife, of my son and daughter, of my brother and of friends. I feel nestled in the company of those who love me even if I were never to write another word.

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