Chicago author Alex Kotlowitz has always been willing to tackle the big issues that impact our society and in his book An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, he looks at one summer in Chicago to tell the story about violence throughout the United States. Kotlowitz discussed his book with Northwest Indiana Times correspondent Jane Ammeson.
What was the inspiration for writing An American Summer? And can you give us a synopsis of the book in your own words?
I feel like I’ve been working my way to this book for a long while. When some thirty years ago I was reporting There Are No Children Here, it was the violence that unmoored me. The numbers are staggering. In the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, in Chicago 14,033 people have been killed, another 60,000 wounded by gunfire. I’ve long felt we’ve completely underestimated the effect of that violence on the spirit of individuals and the spirit of community. And so I set out to tell the stories of those emerging from the violence and trying to reckon with it, people who are standing tall in a world slumping around them. The book is set in one summer, 2013, and it’s a collection of 14 stories, intimate tales that speak to the capacity of the human heart, stories that I hope will upend what you think you know.
How did you choose who to talk to? How did you find them? And how did you go about choosing which stories to use?
I spent that summer speaking with as many people as I could. I’ve been reporting on many of these neighborhoods for thirty years, so I visited with many of the people I knew. I embedded with a homicide unit. I spent time at a trauma center. I hung out at the criminal courthouse. I spent time on the streets, in churches, at taverns, halfway houses. I was looking for stories that surprised me, that knocked me off balance, hoping they might do the same for readers. And as is often the case, I wrote about people who on some level I admired. For who they are. For how they persevered. For their character. I wrote about people who I came to deeply care about. I wrote about stories that made me smile and that left me anger. I wrote about stories that left me with a sense of hope.
You’ve been writing about violence for 30 years? Do you ever get worn out by it?
It’s by no means all that I’ve written about, but, yes, a lot of my work has dealt with the profound poverty of our cities. I write out of a fundamental belief that life ought to be fair, and so much of the time I land in corners of the country where life isn’t fair at all. Do I get worn out by it? Sometimes. But I come away each time inspired by the people I meet along the way.
I know the number of murders has gone down but so has the number of murders and shootings that are solved. Any thoughts on why that is? And does that have an impact on the continuing violence?
Murders have gone down from the early 1990s, though we saw an unsettling spike in 2016 which approached those numbers of 30 years ago. And, yes, you’re right the clearance rate on homicides and shootings are remarkably low. You have a three in four chance of getting away with murder in Chicago, and a nine in ten chance of getting away with shooting someone and wounding them. Those numbers aren’t a misprint. That inability to solve violent crimes only erodes even further the distrust between communities of color and the police. It erodes even further that there will be justice. And as a result when there’s a sense that there’s no justice, people take matters into their own hands.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
The humanity of the people I write about. I’m a storyteller. My ambitions are reasonably modest. I guess my hope in the end is after reading these stories, readers will think of themselves and the world around just a little bit differently. And maybe it will nudge along politicians and policy makers to act, to recognize the urgency.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
One final thought. This book takes place in Chicago, but Chicago, despite its reputation, isn’t even among the top ten most violent cities in the country. I could’ve written this book about so many other cities. What’s more, these stories speak to who we are as a nation. In the wake of the tragedies at Newtown and Parkland, we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What would bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? In Chicago, in Baltimore, in New Orleans, in the cities across the nation, no one’s asking those questions. What does that say about us?
An American Summer is available in hard cover, digital, and as an audiobook.