“I should have known better,” Alex Kotlowitz told me, explaining that he had intended to spend six months reporting his new book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. In reality, he said, it took more than two years—though one could argue it’s actually taken closer to 30.
Kotlowitz’s 1991 book There Are No Children Here—about two brothers, Lafayette and Pharoah, growing up in a Chicago housing project—was named one of the New York Public Library’s “books of the century.” In the years since, his prolific journalistic output has spanned genres while revolving, more often than not, around his adopted hometown. Kotlowitz co-produced the Emmy-winning documentary The Interrupters, about a violence intervention program in Chicago. He also co-reported the Peabody-winning This American Life episodes on the South Side’s Harper High School.
An American Summer chronicles a three-month period in 2013 that saw nearly 1,000 people killed or wounded by gunfire in the city, and is constructed as a series of stories about those left behind. In addition to introducing a diverse array of new characters, Kotlowitz uses An American Summer as an opportunity to revisit characters from There Are No Children Here, Harper High, and The Interrupters. The result is an intimate, harrowing depiction of what it is to live and love amid constant violence.
I first read There Are No Children Here in the summer of 2009, as I prepared to become a public-school teacher. I went on to teach in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and Near West Side neighborhoods for eight years, and these experiences colored my conversation with Kotlowitz. Over hot tea in his Oak Park kitchen on a frigid, snow-covered January day, we talked about his evolution as a journalist, the perils of writing about communities that aren’t one’s own, the trauma and healing inherent in telling stories about violence, and why he’s stayed in Chicago so long…