an interview with alex kotlowitz   introduction  

photo of alex kotlowitz

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How did you decide on Eric McGinnis's death as the subject for your book?

After writing There Are No Children Here I felt that the one subject I hadn't tackled head-on--and yet underlay so much of my reportage--was race. It's such a difficult subject to write about because everyone comes to it with such strong opinions, such strong preconceptions. I wanted to find a way that would nudge people to think about race just a little bit differently, that would challenge their preconceptions. To do that, I knew I needed a story. I'm a strong believer in the fierce power of narrative. And I found that in the tale of Eric McGinnis's death. As the story unravels my hope is that readers, both black and white, begin to question their assumptions about each other.

What has drawn you to the questions of poverty and race in America?

I've always been struck that in a country so rich in resources and spirits, we fall so short when it comes to issues of racial justice and of equal opportunity. I also am struck that in a country that takes so much pride in its diversity how little we really have to do with each other, how tenuous our connections are. Finally, as a journalist, I like to venture into corners of America that have not been overrun by other reporters--and in those corners I often find people whose stories revolve around race or poverty or both.

Was your approach to writing The Other Side of the River very different from your approach to There Are No Children Here?

In short, yes. In writing There Are No Children Here I immersed myself in the lives of the book's heroes, Lafeyette and Pharoah. I went everywhere with them. We became an integral part of each other's lives. In The Other Side of the River the cast of characters is much larger, and so I had to spend a great deal of time figuring out who the players were. Moreover, in There Are No Children Here I had an obvious structure to the story: chronology. The book follows the boys over the course of two years. I didn't have that in this recent book, and so had to find another structure that might work. Part of that involved stealing a bit from what Sherwood Anderson did in Winesburg, Ohio, telling the tale of a town in a series of short stories. Also, I ended up being a character in the book. Without a main protagonist, I needed someone to lead the reader through the two towns and through the investigation into Eric's death. I did this cautiously since I'm not a big fan of the first person, but I felt the reader needed a guide--a guide who would not be identified with one town or the other.

How are the attitudes of the citizens of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph typical of the racial attitudes of other Americans?

In two ways. One, people in these towns, I believe, want to do right but don't know where to begin. As they said of the politicians in the Jim Crow south, race diminishes us. We act clumsily, cowardly, and sometimes cruelly. We're quick to choose sides. That's certainly the case in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. Secondly, because we have so little to do with each other it's easy--too easy--to build myths about the other side. And those myths get in the way of any reasonable conversation or dialogue. In the end, I chose to write about these towns because I felt they so mirrored the way most of us live our lives vis-à-vis race.

What can be done to improve race relations in America? Are you optimistic about the future?

Optimistic? I'm not sure. Certainly hopeful. You can't ever let go of that hope. I'm encouraged by this year-long conversation convened by Clinton inasmuch as it's an acknowledgement from our political leadership that race still very much informs the way we go about our lives, and that there are still real inequities out there. After my five years in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor I came to realize that the biggest policy failure has been in encouraging residential integration. Our cities and towns are as segregated as they were 25 years ago. As are our schools. For there to be any progress in race relations we've got to be able to find a way in which we can share the mundane routines of everyday life. That's where connections are built. There's the common ground. Raising children. Finding meaningful and lucrative work. Searching for community. Creating safe neighborhoods. Building first-rate schools.

What were the attitudes of the people of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph towards you, an outsider and a reporter? Was it difficult at times to get the cooperation you needed?

Let me answer the latter question first. Yes and no. When people in St. Joseph heard I was writing a book about race, they would often ask me why I was writing such a negative book. Race, as is the case for most whites, doesn't impose on their daily lives. For them, it's not an issue, or at least certainly not a burning issue. And there were some in St. Joseph who would have nothing to do with me or refused to talk about relations between the two towns. Maybe they hoped I'd just go away. But there were some, like Jim Reeves, the lieutenant who investigated Eric's death, who were incredibly open and candid with me. That took a certain courage since he knew others in his town didn't approve of my presence in Benton Harbor, people were wary. Who was I, a white man, to write about their community? A perfectly reasonable question. But over time, I found people warmed up. With a willing listener--that is, me--they were eager to talk about the slights they'd suffered. They were thankful someone wanted to hear their stories, that someone wanted to talk about race. In the end, I found the Benton Harbor community quite welcoming.

How did you become a writer? Was there a particular book person or event that inspired you?

I can't say I had any epiphany that, yes, this is what I want to do. My dad's a novelist and memoirist and so our home was lined with books, hundreds of them. Early on, I developed a love affair with books. And later in life, I came to recognize what an extraordinarily gifted writer my dad is. He's given me something to aspire to. But having said that, growing up I wanted to become a zoologist--and when I went off to college I realized I didn't want to spend the rest of my life holed up in a laboratory. Too confining. My first job after college was at a small alternative weekly newspaper in Lansing, Michigan, and it was there that I realized what a wonderful way it is to make a living. Imagine, someone would pay me to go talk to people--and to tell stories. A number of writers, in addition to my dad, have informed my writing. John Steinbeck. He had such respect for regular folks, and what a story-teller. Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. One of the finest models of taut, lyrical writing. Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker. A novel that brought home for me the extraordinary importance of detail and character. Tony Lukas's Common Ground. It's the bible for my generation of nonfiction wnters. It reminds one not only of the power of good writing, but also the extraordinary importance of probing, painstaking reporting. I could go on. As a writer, I read voraciously. And I'm still learning so much from other writers, from other story-tellers.

What do you enjoy doing when you're not writing?

Of course, hanging out with my family. Nothing beats that. A day at the zoo with my daughter. Dinner with my wife. Hoops with my stepson. Though I've lost a step or two, I'm still a basketball junkie. I play every chance I get. And despite my immersion in urban life, my real passion is canoeing. Every summer, I try to get away for a week or so to paddle a Canadian river. Nothing beats those quiet days on the water. I can't wait until my daughter's old enough to join me.

What are you working on next?

Most immediately, I have a couple of magazine assignments--and a screenplay, a foray into uncharted waters. I also lecture at college campuses. Another book will come, but I want to give it some time.
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