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Alex Kotlowitz: Learning from master storyteller Studs

Fri, Jun 13, 2014

“Let’s Get Working” is a May 9-11 festival hosted by the University of Chicago and the Reva .and John Logan Center for the Arts honoring the life and work of Studs Terkel, UChicago alumnus and legendary oral historian, broadcaster, historian, actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. StreetWise reporter Thomas Fowkes interviewed Chicago author Alex Kotlowitz, who along with Dave Isay of the nonprofit Story Corps (whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds the chance to record and share the stories of their lives) will discuss Terkel as a storyteller on from 9 to 10 p.m. May 9 at the Logan Center, 915 E. 60th St.

Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz

Fowkes: We know you are the author of There are No Children Here and Never a City So Real, and contributor to The New York Times magazine and This American Life on public radio, but what part of you relates to Studs Terkel? What was the impetus for participating? And how has Terkel’s work touched you personally?

Alex Kotlowitz: I was invited to participate in the festival, and was just thrilled that there’s this effort to familiarize people — especially young people — with Studs’ work. Studs was both a mentor and a dear friend, and his work had a deep impact on my own. My first Studs book, Working, I read in college shortly after it came out. I’d never read anything like it. Stories of ordinary people — people who seemed so honest and candid about their lives. There was poetry in these stories. I soon after read his first collection, Division Street, which to this day still remains my favorite. It speaks to the fissures in our American cities, and even though it was published in the mid-60s it has such resonance today.

After I moved to Chicago in 1983, I got to know Studs (appearing on his radio show for my first book, There Are No Children Here, was one of the highlights of my literary career) — and we became friends. Studs embraced the world. He had this insatiable desire to know, to understand. And on top of all this he was one of the most generous people I’ve known. He read virtually every manuscript sent his way, and when he found a young writer whom he admired he would sing their praises from the mountaintop, urging everyone he knew to read them. He also had such strong convictions, all of which came back to the rather simple notion that life ought to be fair, and when he saw things were out of balance he spoke his mind. With force. With conviction. And with a smile on his face. I miss him deeply.

Fowkes: We know that on May 9, you and Dave Isay will be discussing “Terkel as a storyteller,” but what part overall are you playing in these events?

Kotlowitz: Dave, who’s a dear friend, and I are going to talk about Studs’ influence on our work. We’ll play some radio, maybe show a little film — and talk about what we learned at the feet of one of America’s master storytellers, someone who celebrated what he liked to call “the etceteras of the world.” It’s what Dave has done with StoryCorps, and what I’ve tried to do in my work.

Fowkes: You have talked about the concept of the journalism of empathy, and focusing your work on people who Terkel called “the etceteras of the world.” How did Studs influence that?

Kotlowitz: I’ve already talked much about this, but there’s one thing I think is worth mentioning here. Critics like to glibly say that Studs taught us all how to listen. But anyone who knew Studs knows that the man liked to talk. A lot. And when I first met him, I thought to myself, ‘how could a man who likes to talk as much he does really be a good listener?’ But what I came to realize — and this was a direct result from being around Studs — is that interviewing is not some passive exercise. Studs didn’t sit down with someone, turn on the tape recorder and ask them to tell their story. He engaged. He poked and prodded. He argued. He pushed back. He challenged. He had a full, rich, robust conversation. Now, that’s interviewing. A kind of full on, spirited engagement.

Fowkes: Studs told stories that were contemporary at the time, but how are his material and the issues he covered still relevant today? In Never A City So Real, you talk at great length about Chicago’s character, and how you came here. How did Studs uniquely reflect Chicago? Also, the first character you discuss in that book, South Chicago laborer and former candidate for President of the International Steelworker’s Union “Oil Can Eddie,” Ed Sadlowski, was a friend of Terkel’s. Did he talk to you about their relationship?

Kotlowitz: I remember Aleksandar Hemon once wrote that if Chicago was good enough for Studs, it was good enough for him. I guess I feel the same way. Studs saw Chicago as America’s city, a place that reflected all that there is to celebrate about this country — and all that there is to bemoan. Like me, Studs didn’t only write about the city — but the city was his muse. It’s the place that inspired him, or at least inspired his work. Also, Studs was an outsider, someone who you couldn’t neatly categorize, and Chicago has always been a place that welcomes outsiders. And so Studs felt at home here.

Ed and I talked about Studs a lot. And the three of us spent some time together. Studs meant a great deal to Ed. Both Studs and Ed were filled with life (Ed still is) — and hanging out with them rejuvenated the spirit. Being with them was like plugging in the battery, getting recharged. And nothing got past either of them. They could smell BS a mile away — and they’d make sure everyone knew about it.

Fowkes: UChicago arts as well as this event show a strong sense of cross-disciplines. How is Terkel’s work relevant to so many different fields, and how is it that it had such an effect on them? “Working,” for example has stories from individuals in a vast array of professions.

Kotlowitz: “You see Studs’ influence on all disciplines. He made oral history popular. And on his heels were many imitators, people who employed Studs’ techniques to telling stories, from the novelist Haruki Murakami to the journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski to the actress Anna Deveare Smith to the dramatists who wrote The Laramie Project to the radio documentarian Joe Richman. The vast array of individuals who have tried their hand at oral history speaks to Studs’ influence across disciplines.

Fowkes: Studs was informed by his upbringing close to Bughouse Square, Washington Square Park. This neighborhood has since changed significantly. Do you think gentrification of city is taking away our opportunity to engage in the kind of work and interaction with others that he did?

“But only parts of the city have been gentrified. There are still large swathes of Chicago where people are struggling, where people are trying to remain erect in a world that’s slumping around them. If anything, the divide has become only wider.

Fowkes: Today is a changing climate for media. What do you think is in the future of oral history, radio, and Terkel’s brand of storytelling overall?

Kotlowitz: “Studs’ influence will be felt for generations to come. Storytelling is essential to who we are, and regardless of changes in the media environment our need for telling and hearing stories isn’t going away. We just may need to be creative in finding ways to get stories out there. For me, the incredible success of a show like This American Life is reason to be sanguine about the future of nonfiction storytelling. When done well, there’s nothing more powerful that personal, true stories, stories that speak to who we are and who we want to be.”

Thomas Fowkes
StreetWise Editorial Intern


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