Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Zakiya Harris, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Jill Leovy about her book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (Spiegel & Grau), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
"I wanted white people to read this book."
“If every murder and every serious assault against a black man on the streets were investigated with Skaggs’s ceaseless vigor and determination—investigated as if one’s own child were the victim, or as if we, as a society, could not bear to lose these people—conditions would have been different.” —Jill Leovy
Such is the case made in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, which demands readers take an unflinching look at the often-ignored issue of black-on-black crime and the conditions that have allowed it to go on. I had the great opportunity to speak with Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside and editor and reporter for the LA Times, about writing, true crime, and the white savior trope in the media.
Zakiya Harris: I saw you read last night at The New School auditorium, and I was wondering what exactly made you choose that section of Skaggs and Stirling visiting the prison.
Jill Leovy: I kind of decided on that last minute. I was actually gonna read something else, but I think for a short reading like that, if you stay with one character and sort of one scene, it’s a little easier. So that part of the book fit that criteria and I think it was representative of the book, which is largely reporting-based and observation-based.
ZH: Right. I think that section that you read really said a lot about Detective Skaggs, and when I was I watching you, I leaned over to my friend and said, “This is the part with the frappuccino.” I vividly remembered that whole scene. Detective Skaggs really came alive in Ghettoside, and I was taken by how much it reminded me, when I was reading it, of an old-school crime or detective novel, not just because of the crime but also because of how cinematic the characters were…the book itself, the writing.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the narrator of Ghettoside. The point-of-view, and how it seems to shift, you know, forward in time and backwards in time when referring to the characters and the LAPD in general.
JL: Well, it’s probably one of the mistakes of the book. You have to move ploddingly forward in time, you have to be chronological, you cannot fight it. It is the only way to do things. And for me, that’s a hard discipline, and there’s probably a little too much looping back. There’s backgrounding subjects when you come to them, which is a little bit different, but in terms of the way the book moves it really doesn’t work unless it’s absolutely chronological.
I veer from that a little bit in Ghettoside, and there are actually some weaker parts in the book, you know. I had to compromise with the material I had. I was very determined to utilize as much firsthand observation as I could but I couldn’t be everywhere at once, especially as these events were happening. I didn’t know how they were gonna turn out, what was gonna happen, so I didn’t always know where to be.
And so the big deviation from chronology, which was the scene of Barbara Pritchett at the beginning of the book (which really occurs probably three months after the arrests are made in the Tennelle case)…my publisher originally wanted to make that an introduction. But I don’t like introductions, so I pushed them to make it the first chapter. The purpose of it is obviously to anchor the book where I think it should be anchored in victimization, and victims, and grief, and also because you know, Barbara plays this role throughout the book.
It’s not this special case, it’s all the cases...the whole roar of homicides going on all around this central one, they’re the point of the book. So the book is a failed attempt to be chronological. The next book I’m really determined, I’m not going to veer from that, you cannot get away with not being chronological.
And in terms of the cinematic, really, I feel like, especially with Skaggs, I just said it like I thought and it’s very concrete. It’s not interpretive, it’s completely observed. And if you knew him it actually pales a little bit. It’s actually an anodyne description of the real thing, he’s kind of hilarious that way. And his wife and sister told me after the book came out that I had nailed him. He’s sort of an unusual guy that way…I interviewed him 40 times—hours of, days of interviews, really, followed him around—he never asked me what I was doing the whole time. That’s just not who he is. And I can’t remember if I put this in the book or not. His wife told me one of the hardest things about living with him is he’s so neat and organized that he would throw things out around the house, pick up, constantly be leaving stuff. Maybe, he was almost more of a caricature than I made him in real life, and so it’s very easy to do that.
Same with Stirling—just absolutely, the caricature of a caricature. Writing about him paled in comparison to experience. And that guy, he is an extremely hyperactive person.
So you know, people are a very un-distilled brew when you experience them in real life, it’s always a little paler on paper. I don’t think that the characters in Ghettoside are dramatized.
ZH: That’s really interesting. They all seem to stand for something. They all seem to be—the main characters at least, Skaggs, Stirling—I don’t want to say tropes. I don’t want to dismiss them, but they all have a driving force within them that becomes really clear within the book.
I’m curious specifically about what you said about grief in the beginning. There’s one part, I remember, when you start listing all of the different murders that happen within the month that Bryant Tennelle is shot. I made tally marks on each…there are marks all over the page.
I’m just curious, with your profession—working and reporting on this for so long—did this start to affect you after a little bit? After awhile, I wonder if it becomes tropes, or it starts to seem “everyday” when you start writing about it so often, or interviewing people?
JL: Well it’s definitely a different world. One of my friends would always chime in, “Of course it’s depressing!” because people would ask me if it’s depressing. Of course it’s depressing, that’s why I did it. It does not, when you’re close to it, become routine. It is only routine when you have some distance from it, when you’re reading about it in the paper, in the news, when you’re intimately involved in it, it is appalling and mind-blowing every single time, and it’s part of working so long in this arena. And I can’t claim to be good at it, or have mastered anything; there’s other people I know who work in frontline fields who are better than me, but just personally for myself I did have to manage the intensity of it, to some degree.
You need to figure out your own path to endurance. You can’t burn out because then you don’t get the work done. So, a little bit of Ghettoside is about that. I’m also really trying to think of what…it’s almost unbearable, and readers can’t handle it. You need to find a way for them to enter this world that is bearable, that gives them a way to trek through it without it being so emotionally overwhelming that it turns people off and people don’t read…and I’ve had lots of experience writing things that people just can’t read.
So the police are a safe harbor in that respect. They are an entre point for readers that aren’t familiar with the subject matter…a way that I thought people would read and stick with and not burn out. And also for me, just in terms of regulating my reporting, I would return to the police sometimes when I needed a break. It was one of the easier realms that I was reporting in. And I just couldn’t do the hard stuff all day long every day, sometimes.
And legitimately I think this is a big problem with criminal justice—people are not getting all sides. You have to talk to everybody in neighborhoods…you have to separate your jobs. There’s exceptions to this. Basically, I was all with the police, or I was all not with the police for months at a time. Because if they see you with the police they won’t talk to you on the street…and the police are weird, sometimes. They see you as someone who’s always out there. So you kind of have to separate those things. I spent so much time on this, I was able to spend a year at a time with the police and then maybe another year…so that’s part of the reason why I went with this particular narrative, it goes to the question you asked. Which is, you know, how to manage as a writer the depressing and crushing nature of the subject matter.
ZH: Right. Personally with Ghettoside, I did tear up at the end of it, in public, which was sort of embarrassing. But I felt like I knew the characters. Even though I know you said you mentioned wanting to move in chronological order a little more, I actually liked that we found out in the beginning little tidbits…I believe this took place early the year before Obama was elected. We learn that Skaggs is not going to vote for Obama, and Barbara Pritchett is going to cry when she sees Obama elected for president. Those little things…I really liked that. In the moment, I could use that information to deduce what the characters were about.
I did want to ask you about Detective Skaggs and how he seems to be a heroic character in Ghettoside. So, to me, Ghettoside seems to be a plea for people to understand black lives should matter. I don’t know if that’s what you were going for. I think you started writing this before the movement took off. But I’m curious about Detective Skaggs being an exception or a rarity in the LAPD for treating every black life like it mattered. I was wondering, in the back of my mind, if you were worried about the white savior mentality with him as a character. And I know he just happened to be white. But it was something I was thinking of in terms of him interacting in this environment with young black men, and he’s this tall blond man…
So I was wondering if you had any thoughts, or if you believe in the white savior mentality at all, you know, as a thing in literature or film or whatnot.
JL: Oh, it’s totally a thing, it’s totally a thing. It’s a strange and fascinating thing…for me, the thing that was highly toxic for years and years.
But also, you know, I really—and again, this is after many years of failure, failing time and time again to write about this in a way that people would care about—you know, I wanted white people to read this book. I wanted it to be relatable to people who are living at a very far distance from the conditions that I describe in this book, and who cannot relate to it and see little tidbits here and there in the paper, on the news, have been trained to apply all kinds of preconceptions to those things. I wanted to reach those people.
At some point, I realized I really had to take that job seriously. And it would mean, in a sense, compromises. It would mean reaching out where they were and drawing them in. And that’s part of the reason why I went with a white detective. And for some reason it could partly be because of the evolution of the LAPD, it used to be white and now it’s more diverse. The LAPD of course is a majority-minority police department. It’s only about 30% white now. But because of the older guys got into detective work, those units do tend to be whiter, and more male than other units.
But having said that, I didn’t write about white characters for a long time on the crime beat, and I chose Skaggs because he represented this idea of vigor in the criminal justice system and the book is about this question of vigor, in the justice apparatus. And so he was a great vehicle…but I also gave into the fact that he was white, cautiously, with the idea that it would help bring white readers into this. And in travelling that freeway that he travels everyday from a white suburb, where people go surfing or they’re worried about their RVs where they don’t have crime and driving into the southeast division. In a sense, he could bring those readers along with him. And that if it meant people would sneer at me and say I had written a white savior narrative…let me tell you, I had reached the point when I was ready to do anything to get people to read about this because it was very, very difficult to read about it.
Having said that, everything I said happened, happened in the book. I tried to hold everybody to account to this. And Skaggs said I got it right. Walter Tennelle who’s a little nicer, said I got it right. [Laughs.] The defense attorney said I got it right. And I tried to tell a narrative that was true to what was there. I think it’s not a Hollywood narrative in certain ways. There’s lots of elements of this that go against Hollywood narratives, in fact. The successful detectives are happy, and kind of boring family people; it’s something you don’t see a lot. It’s actually not an interesting case. It’s not an exciting case. That’s kind of the point of Ghettoside, is that it’s really just an average gang case like dozens and dozens and dozens of others that are happening all around, going through the courts. So that’s one of the other ideas.
And Skaggs is…his limitations are also on view in the book. A lot is happening around him [laughs] that don’t necessarily pertain to him. But choosing a police narrative in the first place, and then choosing a white detective and in a, to some degree, conscious choice to address what I talked about before is that white leaders are very, very very difficult to engage on these subjects. It’s very hard to get them to read a narrative about the black inner city. Or maybe I’m just not the writer to do it.
This was a way to give them a bridge to their own world, to the world outside, to this quite hermetically sealed place I described, and that’s also the real world. South Central is not an island, it doesn’t flow out in the ocean, it is connected to the real world. So you know, I…I think that maybe it’s a trick that I’m offering, what may feel at first like a familiar Hollywood narrative that people can relate to, and I kind thought about it as a reflection of my going over the edge. I have no principles anymore, I will do anything to get people to see this world and I feel like that’s what it takes. It was actually a hard step for me to make personally [laughs] because I understand…
I’ve seen a lot about the white savior narrative, and I think it’s actually a very interesting phenomenon, and it’s very interesting to think about what it means, particularly since the lead detective in Ghettoside gives me more and more sense that we do not understand what happened in this country. We do not understand Jim Crow, we do not understand the complexity of Jim Crow. I mentioned for example the small number of black on black lynchings in the book. I did a lot of reading about lynching and communal justice worldwide and you know, this sort of general picture that was very present in Jim Crow of the most racist forces being anti-police. It’s something you don’t really hear in present day today about politics and the police.
All of these things are things that I think about all the time, but my job is to popularize. I am a journalist. Eventually you have to come to terms with that. You are writing for people who do not have the benefit that you have of living in this world. I’ve gotten many, many notes from readers saying, “I never even pull off the freeway, I’ve never even driven through these streets,” and you have to stop and have no ego about it and say, “What are you going to do to engage these people?”
ZH: So many good things. I was very appreciative that you brought up the Jim Crow lynching part of history as well for this book, because I do think that is such a big part, and all of this book plays a big part in understanding. Even with the election craziness going on, although immigration has been one of the bigger focuses, candidates are often asked about police and how are they gonna address this problem with black communities not trusting police. And I think this book makes this conflict, one that is so deeply entrenched in this country, accessible to everybody. And I do hope that this book reaches those people who aren’t in communities with people who look different [from them], or don’t have issues with the police.
JL: I really think with South Los Angeles…that the so-called inner city black community is rife with disagreement. But it’s not a black political bloc. People are very, very different in their views about police and police misconduct, and their views about crime. There is a whole range of views. Not an urban black consensus. [Laughs.]
ZH: Right. I agree with that. I just have one more question for you. You mentioned Hollywood—[Ghettoside] is not your typical Hollywood spectacular story, it starts off that way, and you say it’s kind your typical case. And this made me think of the true crime genre, which is all over the place. I just started watching the O.J. Simpson show that FX is doing, then there’s Serial, there’s The Jinx, there’s Making of a Murderer…the genre has just skyrocketed. And I was wondering why you chose this particular way to tell the story? I know that you’re a reporter, and this is the medium you use. But I was wondering, you know, would you ever make this into a podcast, or would you ever want to make this a documentary? Why did you choose exactly this medium?
JL: Well, my book is about law and so it does focus on the legal system. A single court case…again, it’s a simple thread that people can follow. It’s chronological and, very importantly for my work, I needed a case that had been solved. And adjudicated. And the reason is that people are far too terrified to cooperate…on a case that’s not solved, it’s too charged. Witnesses are in too much danger. They are in enough danger after a verdict is rendered. And so I needed a solved case. And I was telling the story of unsolved homicide using a solved case. Which is not necessarily a hard thing to do, but…it’s the “exception that proves the rule” kind of narrative.
No, I haven’t done anything in terms of making a documentary at the moment. But the Tennelle family hasn’t been comfortable with it going forward…which I completely understand. When you do something like this you're deeply involved with people you have to sort of be in tune with what they’re comfortable with. So I haven’t really thought of it, and I’m very, very wary about fictionalizing.
Some of the true crime stuff that you mentioned. I don’t totally understand. I am interested in constitutional due process and I kind of think that you can’t try things through documentaries, you cannot try things through media coverage. We try things within the constitutional constraints that we spent generations of working out in our judicial system. Under what we consider rule of law, and that’s the only place it can happen. Laughs you can’t go around bringing in lots of inadmissible evidence. Then it’s a different process. It’s not very interesting to me, to see things tried outside of court to see if it’s a different verdict than what the judiciary comes up with. What is interesting to me is how our judiciary functions, how law enforcement functions, and what those things mean.
Zakiya Harris is a nonfiction MFA student at The New School. She was born in Connecticut but was Tar Heel-bred at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received her undergraduate degree in English literature. In her spare time she works at a pie shop, drinks lots of coffee, reviews books, and blogs about pretty much everything at catchsomezee.wordpress.com.