A Conversation with Alex Kotlowitz

On Monday, February 4, 2013, accidental Chicagoan and storyteller Alex Kotlowitz met with a small group of students in Chapin Humanities Residential College at Northwestern University to discuss his relationship with Studs Terkel, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Working (1974). Terkel liked to collect stories about people’s lives, especially the everyman who often went unrecognized.

Alex Kotlowitz is a slender, unassuming man. Yet when he starts to speak in his characteristically calm tone, a hush falls over the room. It is as if everyone agrees that this is a time for quiet reflection.

He begins by explaining how he first met Studs Terkel, or as Kotlowitz likes to call him, Studs.

“I read his book Working and was impressed by how Studs just went around and talked to people in Chicago. The people in the pages felt so alive.”

Like Terkel, Kotlowitz is a champion of the working class, and likes to give voice to people who often go unnoticed. He admired Working because it made a lot of people realize, for the first time, that everyone had a story worth listening to.

“Studs was a guy who liked to collect stories from the people he called the etceteras of the world.”

This seems to be the basis of Kotlowitz’s most recent book, Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, which was selected as the One Book One Northwestern  this year. In the book, Kotowitz collects the life histories of people from all over Chicago, celebrating the kinds of accomplishments that usually go uncelebrated. He interviewed an artist who was famed for his murals in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project, a salesman who believed in the miracles of eucalyptus oil, and a highly motivated public defender who is determined to provide her clients with quality counsel.

Kotlowitz recalls another important lesson gleaned from Terkel. “Studs taught me that the best storytelling is when you as the storyteller get out of the way. His words are the words of the people he talked to.”

With that, Kotlowitz plays a recording from NPR in which he interviewed artist Milton Reed, famous in the projects for his beautiful and unique murals.

Kotlowitz remarks, “You can hear the exuberance in his voice. When I first started talking to him, he was telling me all these stories. Nobody had ever asked him about his work.”

When asked what keeps him motivated to continue writing, Kotlowitz responds that it’s the people themselves.

“I come into someone’s life and watch things unfold. I’m always being knocked off balance by things I didn’t expect.”

For more information about Kotlowitz’s work, please visit http://alexkotlowitz.com/

(I wrote this in my capacity as Operations Manager for Helicon Literary Magazine, an undergraduate publication at Northwestern. For more information about Helicon, visit http://nuhelicon.tumblr.com/ or http://nuhelicon.com/).


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