An interview with Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz

This is an excerpt from an interview with author and writer Alex Kotlowitz. For the new edit of this interview run August 15, 2011, please go to ChicagoNow’s Eye on Chi. For the original edit of this interview from December 2008, please see readjack.com/kotlowitz.htm

It’s glib, but the first thing that Studs taught everybody is how to listen. I think it’s clear if you’re a close reader of his work: he wasn’t a passive listener. He didn’t just put a tape recorder down and ask questions. He engaged them. He knew what he wanted to know.

I had been interviewed by him once on his radio show—he’d come with the book all marked up, and he’d pull tape that resonated for him from stories he had done years ago. He was somebody who loved to talk. He couldn’t shut up. He was incredibly loquacious.

People would meet him and say, “How could this guy be a good listener?” But what made him a good listener was he was willing to engage. And so he taught people how to listen in a really active way. Everybody just talks about how he taught people to listen, but it was more than just listening. It was engaging with people. Having a conversation. Which is what he liked to say, that he was having a conversation with America.

The other thing about reading his stuff is you realize the poetry in the words of everyday people. The eloquence in some of those interviews is just astonishing. He makes you reflect on what it means to be on the bottom.

When did he interview you?

It was right after There Are No Children Here came out, so it must’ve been 1991. He had a show on WFMT where he would interview writers and artists. It was a great show.

It was the first time I ever had a chance to really sit down with him. And it was extraordinary. Still to this day the best interview I’ve ever had by anybody. My book was all marked up. It was dog-eared pages. And I remember there was a moment in the book where there’s a funeral, and a young girl is speaking at the funeral, giving the eulogy, and she talks about how “there’s no promise for tomorrow,” and he had pulled tape that he had done some 25 years earlier of kids on the West Side saying exactly the same thing. How he remembered, how he knew where to find it, God knows. But he had pulled that tape.

FOR MORE “PEOPLE WITH PASSION” interviews, please see readjack.com/passion.html

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