Kotlowitz first won acclaim as the journalist-author of There
Are No Children Here, an award-winning account of two boys
growing up in the chicago projects. In his second book, The
Other Side of the River, Kotlowitz explores how the mysterious
death of teenager Eric McGinnis polarized the racial attitudes
of two Michigan towns, at the same time that the Rodney king and
O.J. simpson trials brought the racial debate in America to a
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
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
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
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