Interviewing the Interviewer: Rick Kogan’s Life in Words (Rick Kogan and Randy Albers in Conversation)
Thursday, October 13, 2022
Rick and I meet—where else?—in the Billy Goat Tavern. Rick’s choice. And appropriate—not only because for decades it has been a home away from home for newspaper people before they drag off to their real homes after a long day, nerves still buzzing despite the shots and beers. And not only because Rick has frequently been among them—at least until corporate “progress” resulted in closing the Tribune Tower, his longtime office building just up the stairs and across the street.
No, it’s appropriate because the Billy Goat, with its simple red-and-white-checked, Formica-topped tables, its squared-off bar lined with scruffy stools, its alcove filled with newspaper clippings, and its journalists Wall of Fame along one wall, is buried below the surface of the city, closer to its beating heart—the place, it seems to me, that Rick is always trying to reach.
The Billy Goat is also the place where, when we can make our schedules mesh, he and I choose to meet more often than not, where our conversation grows ever more freewheeling as the drinks (Jack Daniel’s, Dewars, the occasional martini) lubricate the wheels and the stories travel smoothly and widely. Here, I asked him one time if he had an idea for something at Story Week, the festival that Sheryl Johnston and I ran for many years. “I’m looking for something new,” I said, and without any pause, he said, “Ask people—writers, yes, but also politicians, bus drivers, cops, whoever— ask them to read a half-page of their favorite Chicago story to the audience.” Thus was born Chicago Classics, which was always the final event of the week, held in the Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall under the magnificent Tiffany dome and hosted magnificently by Rick himself. We called it ending the festival on a high.
This time, we come to the Billy Goat with a purpose, a bit more inclined to keep the wheels on a path. He had interviewed me a number of times, and turnabout is fair play, they say, but I wasn’t sure. I was to interview the master interviewer, and I confess to feeling a little daunted. For one thing, it would be impossible to touch on every aspect of this man’s amazing career. His books reveal an incredible range of subjects and kinds of writing—commissioned (Brunswick: The Story of an American Company from 1845 to 1985) or just for fun (Dr. Night Life); historical (Yesterday’s Chicago) or novelistic (Everybody Pays); assigned (countless obits) or love’s labor (America’s Mom, i.e. Esther Pauline “Eppie” Friedman Lederer, aka Ann Landers); multifarious (Sidewalks I and II) or focused (A Chicago Tavern: a Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream). Anyone who has sampled these works or his thousands of columns in three major dailies or tuned into his radio shows over the years on four different stations must be as impressed by the extent of his knowledge about the city as by the apparent ease in that distinctive voice, which Newcity once proclaimed the best in Chicago.
We greet each other warmly, and adjourn to a back room, where we settle at a table under a painting with familiar faces—Royko, Studs, the Goat’s own Sam and Bill Sianis, and others. He orders a drink, I order coffee (“I’ll graduate to something more interesting later,” I assure him.), and I tell him I’d like to talk about three main areas: his personal and journalistic history, his writing process, and his connection to Chicago. “Right,” he says, “good,” nodding as bartender Bobby sets a glass before him. I wonder whether he is saying good to my plan or to the sight of the vodka. Under the flat white lights, with one of the staff at a table across the room noisily cutting cheese for the endless burgers—“Cheeseborger! Cheeseborger! Coke, no Pepsi!), I plunge on.
You should know that what follows has been edited for clarity and with some nod to limitations of length.
And with that, as Rick says at the end of every email: Onward!
Randy: So, first of all, Rick, congratulations on your Fuller Award for lifetime achievement!
Rick: It’s an honor. It’s an honor even though you usually give these things to people on their deathbed. I’m not quite there yet.
Randy: We haven’t written anybody off yet.
Rick: I know, you haven’t killed anybody. It may be a way to live on, a modicum of immortality.
Randy: Well, you know, everybody at the Hall of Fame is very happy.
Rick: And I’m . . . I’m flattered and honored, you know.
Randy: I was happy to be co-chairing the committee. We had a really good, diverse committee and a lot of great candidates, but I’m so glad to see you come out on top.
So we can’t get too far on this interview without recalling the famous story of your birth, all right?
Rick: Yes—what little I remember of it. But what I have been told is that in the early morning that I was born, at roughly 4:30—which I would come to know as last call at various places—I was born at Wesley Memorial Hospital. It was a tradition generations ago to take the dad out for a drink, and Studs, who was dear friends of my parents before my birth, and long after my birth, took my dad out for a celebratory drink.
Randy: Right. Did you have a feeling at any point in your life that maybe you were born to write? Growing up in your particular family, having . . .
Rick: Boy, that’s a good question. I think probably at some point, because the house was always filled with books, and it was always filled—I would later realize—with writers. And my father was the kind of guy who, whenever I would ask a question‚ he certainly was a smart guy and would answer a question, but when I was able to read, he would lead me to books that might be more erudite than he and more colorful than his stories. You know, he’d lead me to the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’d come home from a movie saying, “Dad, tell me more about Spartacus. He has to be more than just Kirk Douglas!” And he would grab a Britannica and let me read about it. So words were always, always part of my life. And as I’ve said many times, apocryphal or not, the first memory that I have is the sound of a typewriter clicking in my father’s office, because he was in that office in that Old Town apartment all the time, writing his own books. So that sound was a narcotic for me, it really was.
Randy: Well, and you had people sitting around the living room, like Studs and Nelson...
Rick: Nelson, oh sure, Studs and Nelson, other people like Marcel Marceau and Mort Sahl and Willard Motley. I do remember, I was young enough, whether I remember him sleeping in our living room or not, I am told that Jim Jones returned to spend a few messy days on the Kogans’ couch in the living room. I have no distinct memory, but knowing that happened is something that’s very special.
Randy: I heard that you got your first byline at 16.
Rick: I did. That was when my dad was working for the Sun-Times. And I used to drive, at 16, drive my father to pick up Jim Hoge, the editor of the Sun-Times, to play tennis. They were tennis partners. And one day in the car, Jim said, “Rick, how old are you?” “I’m 16, Jim.” He said, “Well, why don’t you review this book that’s come into the office? It’s called, How to Get a Teenage Boy and What to Do with Him When You Get Him. You’d be perfect for this.” I thought, “Well, that would be fun.” I do not remember the author’s name—I can easily find it; I think it was Ellen something. And I wrote a review that was probably the most savage review I have ever written. And I’ve seen and read some bad things since then. I’ll never forget, it was published in the Sun-Times, and it had a huge picture of me—it was my senior yearbook picture, a huge picture, retouched and looking great. And I thought, Wow, this is a neat thing. I think I got, you know, $50 for it. And, again, it was the narcotic effect of seeing my name in print. And seeing my writing. I’m sure the piece was edited, but I remember it not being edited—you know, it wasn’t a piece like, “This woman is stupid,” it was a fairly, you know, cogent kind of piece. But it was an incredible slam.
Randy: So you got that narcotic feel, but at what point then did you consider other things? I know you went off to Spain. Was that much later?
Rick: No, no. I flirted with college at Circle campus where my uncle was head of the English department. Bernard Kogan, also a very smart guy. And it was just such a culture shock coming from the tiny Latin School, where my senior class was 38 people. My first lecture hall, an English lecture hall at Circle, was 400 people, and we were assigned to read The Red Badge of Courage, which I had read as a freshman at Latin. And I just decided I didn’t think I needed college. It was an arrogant kind of decision.
Randy: You were self-taught, in a way. You’d been reading.
Rick: In a way. And Latin was a very good sort of classical education, too. It was tough to tell my dad. I mean, the seminal moment of my life and career, I suppose, was sitting on the back porch in Old Town, and I said, “Dad, I don’t think I’m going to learn anything from college.” And I’m saying this to a man who, in the middle of the Depression, graduated from the University of Chicago in three years while traveling to the school from his mother’s apartment in Rogers Park, while working midnight to eight at the City News Bureau. He could have guilt-tripped me back into college in a heartbeat. He could have said, “No, I really prefer if you go to school. Your uncle’s the head of the English department, you’ll be fine.” And instead, he said, “What do you want to do?” And not really realizing I would have that opportunity, I said, “Well, Dad, I’d like to drive a cab.” And that’s what I did for a couple of years, drove a cab, and thought, Wow, this would be a good way to pick up stories—though most of the passengers, when I would say, “Well, why are you going to LaSalle and Jackson?” [would say,] “Shut up and drive.” Yeah, there were no really great anecdotes, there were no great stories. When I’d saved up enough money, I went to Spain—not in any Hemingwayesque kind of way. I was still feeling my way, certainly, as a writer. I was writing really bad short stories. But I did publish, thanks to my dad, a travel story in the Tribune. He knew the travel editor of the Tribune, and that paid $150, which was two months’ rent. Well, I thought, if this will translate to when I’m 40, whatever my rent is, I’ll make twice as much. And I really, really got a bug over there because there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do. I wasn’t studying bullfighting or something. I wrote all the time.
Randy: You did. Fiction?
Rick: Yes, fiction, and published a couple travel stories. Eventually, after a year, I ran out of money—I did not have much, but it lasted a year—and then came back here. And my dad said, “Well, if you want to be a writer, there’s this wonderful place called Columbia College. My friend John Schultz and Mike Alexandroff are doing some amazing things, and why don’t you try that?” So I went there for one day and did a class, a sort of a reviews and criticism class. And everybody in there wanted to be a critic on TV. And I thought, no, that’s not exactly what I want to do. So, I lasted a day.
Randy: So it took your dad three years to get through U. of C., but you—
Rick: It took me about three weeks to get through college. A total of three weeks.
Randy: Pretty funny. Your dad, though, you wrote Yesterday’s Chicago with him.
Rick: I think that was during the time I was driving a cab, and my father said graciously. “Rick, do you want to help me with this book?” And I did. It was a basically a pictorial history. It was still great fun.
Randy: I love that book.
Rick: So do I. It was great fun to work with my father. It was sort of like, you know, a century before, building a log cabin on the prairie or something. I learned a great deal about his astonishing work ethic. And it was a good book. I mean, it was a book that I’m quite proud of. And we appeared together on Studs’s show to talk about it because he and Studs were great friends. And I don’t think I said a word during that entire show—hard to believe. There’s a great picture of us presenting the book to Richard J. Daley.
Randy: Oh, really.
Rick: And it was a good book, because my father certainly was an expert, a passionate expert in Chicago history. And from that point, I think what happened then is, Jon and Abra Anderson were starting a magazine. She was the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. Jon was a stylish Canadian. And he and she started a magazine, a very well-funded magazine called The Chicagoan, and they hired Dick Christiansen away from the Daily News, where my father had made him a theater critic and the head of Panorama. Dick hired me, and I thought he was hiring me to be a copy boy and get coffee for people—I was 20, 21—and instead, he said, “You’re a writer, a staffer. You’re one of the three staff writers.” I had given him my two travel stories—ha, here’s a nice clip book with two travel stories, the review of How to Get a Teenage Boy and What to Do with Him When You Get Him, and a piece for the Latin School paper, Why aren’t you coming out to watch us play football? This blistering editorial. I worked there for about a year-and-a-half. The magazine lasted a year-and-a-half, and it was quite a magazine. Dick was great friends with Mike Royko and was able to convince Royko to write the first major piece he wrote after Boss, which was a real coup. Dick knew everybody. In its time, it was a great magazine, and it sort of helped give birth to Chicago magazine, which at the time was little more than a guidebook, a slightly embellished guidebook.
Randy: Did you know Mike already?
Rick: No. I may have met him, Randy, as a kid sometime in the house or the apartment. I may have met him, but no, Dick Christiansen I knew very, very well, because I would go down to the Panorama offices when I was 12 or 13, hang around on Saturdays and Sundays. Then, that folded, and I wound up starting to freelance for the Sun-Times.
Randy: You mentioned your dad’s astonishing work ethic. And one of the things that I am stunned by is how much you get done. You know, you do column after column, you’ve done a bunch of books, you have the radio show, plus you make appearances—you were with us at Story Week many times. And you know, you’re very generous with your time with various things, and I guess I’m curious about how you manage it.
Rick: Well, I don’t know how I manage it. Certainly, my father when he would go in on Saturdays and Sundays to the Panorama offices when I would be with him as an impressionable 12- and 13-year-old, what he was doing in the office was reading manuscripts that had come in and submissions that had come in and also writing very personal, typed personal notes, to people—
Randy: —who were sending him things?
Rick: He said thanks for your submission, try again, or much more verbose letters to some people. And the sound of that typewriter never stopped. He wrote books his entire life. And also, he was active in the literary community. Like, you know, they used to have a thing called the Book and Author Luncheon, before Panorama, at the Sun-Times that would attract a thousand people.
Randy: Wow. Fantastic.
Rick: Yeah. And all the people of the day, I mean, Dick Christiansen used to work 18 hours a day and Mike Royko used to write six columns. And a great story—I’m sure I’ve told you—but Mike went on the wagon while he was writing Boss, until one day, after a few months, he goes down one Sunday afternoon to Riccardo’s, which was open on Sunday night. He sat at the bar, and the bartender, Jose, who I remember quite well, said, “Oh, Mike, so great to see you. Where you been? Been sick? What’s the matter?” He says, “No. I’ve been gone. I’ve been working on a book.” And Jose says, “Oh, wow, that’s great.” Mike ordered a martini, and he made it, brought it over. “To celebrate finish the book, eh?” And about a half-hour later, he’s all by himself. And Jose comes by with a tattered paperback. And it’s a Mickey Spillane, one of Mickey Spillane’s many books. He says, “Mike, I’m so glad. I’m almost finished with this one. So when I finish this, you can read this one next.”
Randy: So generous.
Rick: That story has always impressed me. He just finished writing arguably the greatest political book ever written about the city of Chicago.
Rick: But he had finished the book, and it was an era when that work ethic is what— everybody I knew worked their ass off. They loved it too. And were passionate about it. They weren’t doing it for money. They were doing it out of passion. And that ever, ever impressed me.
Randy: You think that’s what drives you?
Rick: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s a drive. It’s just, it’s what infuses what many of my wives and girlfriends have called workaholism. But it’s not that. I don’t think it’s a workaholism. It’s just—
Randy: You love what you do.
Rick: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
Randy: I think that’s the only reason you should do things, myself.
Rick: If you’re lucky.
Randy: If you’re lucky.
One thing I wanted to mention, I love the picture on the Yesterday’s Chicago jacket. You look—
Rick: Young. Very. . .
Randy: And very lovely. But also, I thought it was interesting. You’ve mentioned a couple short stories. And I think it’s there that it says you were working on a novel.
Rick: I’ve always been working on a novel.
Randy: Have you?
Randy: Good. How’s progress, can I ask you?
Rick: Halting! Progress is halting, because one needs, I think, some really—call it free time—to work on a novel, but basically, I’ve been a newspaperman my whole life. There is in the near future, very near future, sometimes in the very, very near future, a deadline that I’ve had to meet. I did not have, and don’t expect to have, that kind of lengthy time. I mean I have notes, I’ve started a couple of things and thrown them away, because I just get distracted by real life. Not that a novel’s not about real life, I’m not writing about science fiction or something. But yeah, I have ever, even from those early days in Spain, been drawn to fiction. I suppose that in its way, that’s why I’m such a huge fan of fiction writing. Because I know, and am very respectful of it too, because I know the difficulties. . . there are people who think, Well, maybe if I just buy a typewriter, I’ll be able to write a book, and it’s not that. There’s so much more involved in it. And I think that’s why I have a real—I mean, I have a real, genuine reverence. And I’ve never interviewed an author without reading the entire book, even if some of them made it a real slog. I respect and understand the time it takes. It’s not the time typing. It’s everything else that goes into creating a work of fiction.
Randy: Right. Well, I remember asking you one time, How do you manage to ask such good questions of an author, and —
Rick: One thing I learned from Studs. After I joined the staff of the Sun-Times—I’m sure I’ve told you this, too—that I was on Studs’s show for Dr. Night Life Chicago. And it was an astonishing hour [taking on Studs’s gravelly voice] “We’re here with Dr. Night Life Chicago. You’ve crafted an era. You talk about Riccardo’s. Your parents and I met in the late 40s. You talk about the Earl of Old Town, a favorite place of mine. Here you write this so correctly. Rick, let’s hear some Fred Holstein, who used to play there.” And he’d play a song. It’s a dream interview. And after the whole thing, I get up and my knees are weak from this thing. And he says, “Rick, was it good? Did you have fun?” And I go, “Studs, it was unbelievable. It was astonishing to me. What is the”—I’m 25 years old or something— “What is the secret? What’s the secret?”
“Read the book.”
And not that I was interviewing a lot of authors before I was 25, but I realized it is so much easier to have a conversation that does not start with, “So, what’s your book about?”
Randy: Right, exactly. Which you hear so many people do.
Rick: Oh my god, it’s unbelievable. And I’m thinking to myself, Okay, what the fuck, it takes a few hours to read a book. . . . It’s so much easier, and I think you can get deeper insight about the writer by talking about the book. If you’re a great interviewer, read the fucking book!
Randy: One of the things—talking about your process, and your writing—after having taught fiction writing and creative nonfiction writing for many, many years, one of the things I am impressed with is the way you take so many fictional techniques and put them to work in writing nonfiction. You know, I’m thinking of scene. Everybody Pays is scene after scene. Very closely observed detail.
Rick: Well, but that, Randy, is what life is all about. That’s what I’ve always tried to do in my journalism, too. I am not a fan of the of the Q&A format. Some things are superficial, like, you know, “Randy Albers said, picking up his pen.” So what? Or, “Randy Albers said, taking a sip of coffee.” I think life is to be observed. Life is meant to be observed. And you know, I’ve always tried to do that, even, you know, in the short Sidewalks.
Randy: Right. Wonderful mini-stories.
Rick: Right, they are mini-stories, and you have to realize in telling the mini-story, you want to cram as much as you can in there. Much of it is observational.
Randy: But this is the thing, when you get that kind of seeing going, it has a kind of gestural pull on voice. And you are known for your voice, right?—on the radio, but you’re also known for your voice on the page, I think.
Rick: Well, I have ever found—from my earliest, I’ve found life interesting. And it’s my job to find in whatever aspect of life I’m covering, whether it’s—for instance, I wrote a story today that’ll be in Sunday’s paper, about Claes Oldenburg, the sculptor.
Randy: Oh, yes. I saw his death announced on Facebook.
Rick: Do I think that it’s important to note that he grew up with a younger brother who became the head of the Museum of Modern Art, and with a dog, a French poodle named Tessie? Yeah, I do!
Randy: Yeah, why not!
Rick: Yeah, takes five words. And it gives something more of texture and color. I’m always looking for that.
Randy: Well, yes, and I think that that’s part of why your writing reads so vividly and fluidly. Do you have an audience actually in mind when you’re writing?
Rick: No. Me!
Randy: You, OK.
Rick: I really do. I mean, I’ve ever thought this, that if I am interested in the subject about which I’m writing, it is, first of all, my job to try to make it interesting to other people. And if I write something that is interesting to me—because I’m taking a lot of things and mushing them into 1,000 or 400 or 2,000 words—if I find it interesting, I have to believe, not everybody who reads a Tribune is going to find it interesting, but a certain number will be satisfied by it.
Randy: It reminds me of a little passage I came across from your Billy Goat book: “Twenty-five years behind a bar will teach you a great deal about mankind. Not all of it will be good, but much of it will be interesting, and some of it will be important.” And I thought, That’s a nice summary of not only bartending but also Rick Kogan’s approach to writing.
Rick: It tells you that I’ve known a lot of bartenders! Much of it comes from just talking to people, too. You do get a sense if your encounters aren’t totally superficial, and many are. My father used to talk to everybody—so did Studs—and there’s nobody they wouldn’t talk to. They weren’t interviewing people, but they would at least say hello to people. They didn’t look through waiters or waitresses or bartenders or guys on the street. Everybody is interesting to me. I am dead serious. They may not be interesting enough to hold my attention for more than five minutes, but they can have five minutes of my time, sure. You know, life’s too short not to give people something of yourself.
Randy: That’s what I loved about teaching writing because everybody’s got a story.
Rick: You know, of the stories I’ve written, especially for the papers, they’re not all front-page news—or deserve to be. But they deserve to have their stories told, because their stories are part of the fabric of Chicago.
Randy: Let’s talk a little bit about Chicago.
Randy: You moved back from Spain, but did you ever think about moving anywhere else to do journalism?
Rick: No. I moved to New York for a time in the late seventies. And lived at Bowery and Houston, when it was really a fucking mess—god! And enjoyed it. One of the great things—my father introduced me, with letters, how wonderful, to Rose Hecht, Ben Hecht’s widow. Who invited me up, because I was a nice, cute young guy, and I did have one suit that I would wear. She would invite me up every once in a while for drinks, to their apartment, and tell me stories about Benny. That was something. New York is an incredibly exciting place, and I think being downtown, living across the street from CBGB in the real Bohemian days, I think it beat me down. It was too fast. I smoked more and drank more, I walked faster. And found it interesting for about a year, then came back here. No, I have not thought about living anywhere else. Chicago is ever fascinating to me. And ever interesting. And ever chaotic. And I’m talking about Chicago being at its most chaotic and dispiriting now. But I remain hopeful. As Studs said, Hope dies last. Hope dies last. You turn a corner in this city, and something new is there.
Randy: And evidently, the city is still something you can catch up to. Not like New York, where you were maybe feeling like it was running away from you.
Rick: New York, unless you’re going to be Patti Smith or Sam Shepherd and become incredibly famous and incredibly rich there, it’s a hard place to live. And I was living in a second-floor loft in a former Battery building at Bowery and Houston, filled with bugs and rats and everything, and most of the people I knew were living in like circumstances. Manhattan changed radically. The last time I was back there, I looked at the building I lived in, and it held multi-million-dollar lofts. I am ever fascinated with New York, but it would be too hard for me at this advanced age to get a handle on that city. It’s impossible to get a handle on Chicago, too. [But] you know, I have my places, and I can look out at the lake and feel OK.
Randy: Yeah, and you know this city, every corner of it. A person reads those Sidewalks books, you know—
Rick: Well, that was the great joy of that invention of mine. I had gotten so sick of—I was an editor at the Tribune for a while, editor of the Tempo section, and when that job was over, I said, What do you want to do? Well, I want to go out and just explore the city. I called Charles Osgood, the photographer with whom I collaborated, and said, “I’m going to grab another book. You grab a camera. And let’s go.” And Charley’s like, “What do you mean, go where?” “Anywhere.”
Randy: Anywhere. And he had a car.
Rick: Exactly. Good point. I know how to drive. I’m like Studs. I know how to drive, but I’ve never owned a car. And we did. We found some amazing places. And we did it for a number of years.
Randy: And not just in Chicago, but Indiana and Wisconsin.
Rick: Yeah, sure, we would take a risk and go outside the borders of the city.
Randy: Did you usually have an idea ahead of time where you were heading?
Rick: Rarely. Occasionally, yeah. Someone would occasionally call and say, “Hey, I love your column. We have a really weird bowling alley in southwestern Michigan. Why don’t you come and see it?” But not often. We’d get in the car, parked underneath the Tribune building, or what was the Tribune then, and Charley would go, “Which way?” “I don’t know. What do you think?”
Randy: And take off. That’s great.
Rick: That was a way of really experiencing Chicago in a way that most people don’t. I mean, cops don’t—very few cab drivers will go all the way across the city. And we did that, we did Sidewalks, and then one year we interviewed every one of the 50 aldermen. I had asked each alderman—and they were impossible to get a hold of, it was the most exhausting year I’ve ever had—
Randy: Well, they were so busy.
Rick: Oh, yeah, helping people get new garbage cans. They wouldn’t get back to me and wouldn’t get back to me, and I had asked each of them, for photographic purposes, “Choose something in your ward that is really meaningful to you. Could be your grammar school. Maybe the candy story you went to as a child. Maybe an apartment you grew up in.” And most of them were, like, “Well, what’s meaningful is we’re putting a new sewer in at 74th and Drexel.” No, no. something more romantic or fun.” And then finally Ed Burke, God love him, said, “I want a picture of myself.” And I went, “OK. Fine. Perfect! We’ll do that!” And then that was it. All the other aldermen got pictures of themselves. But it was wonderful to go around and see the city like that. Because no one gets a chance to do that. And I was paid to do it!
Randy: Such a great idea. How do you get most of your ideas? You have people sending them to you? Do you just walk around and look at things? Do you have a notebook and jot them down?
Rick: Some of it, I’ve been doing radio so long, sometimes I will interview someone on the radio, and I’ll think, God, this would make a good story for print. The radio show is fed. Some of my newspaper work—I’m trying to think—the last thing I wrote Tuesday was about the Bughouse Square debates, which I used to host when Studs died, and how they changed, and what does that mean? And there’s a lot going on, and it’s the oldest park in the city, and it used to be a home to lunatics.
Randy: And the spirit and ashes of Studs are there.
Rick: The ashes of Studs and Ida are there, buried—I don’t know exactly where.
That’s a good question. You know, I’ll read a book and think, This is worth writing about. Claes Oldenburg died, and we don’t run in the Tribune—sadly— the number of obituaries we used to. We did run one of him, but it barely mentioned that he grew up here, for Christ’s sake! I knew he had gone to the Latin School. I knew he had lived on Crilly Court, which was in my neighborhood. And I had done a story about the bat, and I was out there as a young reporter when they erected his big bat on Madison Street. And I’m thinking, Wait, this guy deserves more than this.
Randy: I made a pilgrimage there this weekend when I heard he had died. I hadn’t seen it in a long time.
Rick: The bat’s cool! I like the bat. And the great thing is that Blair Kamin, the architecture critic, who initially called it ludicrous called me today and said, “Rick, I did call it ludicrous, but it’s really growing on me.” And I said, “Good for you, Blair. Good for you for admitting it.”
They come at me from everywhere. I mean from everywhere.
Randy: I know that with the radio, you probably get a lot of PR pitches and so on.
Rick: Most that I ignore.
Randy: Did doing the radio show have any influence on your print writing?
Rick: No. Well, occasionally, I would steal parts of a print piece from a radio interview. And I am a long-form interview guy. I’m not one of those [speaking quickly], “Hey, what’s your book about?” So it’s easy for me to incorporate some of the interview I’ve done on the air in a print piece. Not often, but occasionally I will re-interview someone. Radio’s been interesting. I mean, I’m glad that it’s only two hours a week. I couldn’t read a 400-page book a day. In any kind of real radio time, it is a series for four- or five-minute interviews. That’s not what I do.
Randy: I guess what I was thinking about in terms of your writing process is that the one thing about radio is, you know you’ve got an audience out there. You said earlier that you don’t really think about the audience when you are writing. Do you think about the audience when you’re on the radio?
Rick: No. For me, it’s a very weird—to have a Sunday morning show, as I have had for a decade or more, and a Sunday evening show as I have had, I don’t know who’s listening. I know I have some loyal listeners who will always write in and say, “Great interview!” But no.
Randy: I was amazed that when you would interview me, for instance about Story Week, I would get calls and emails, “Oh, I caught you at 6:45!”
Rick: Well, that’s one of the things still about WGN. There are people who’ve had WGN for 40 years in their house and never turned it off! I like that, and I’m glad for that because it gives me a sense that there is an audience out there that’s listening to whatever it is that I’m saying.
Randy: But it wouldn’t be any different if you didn’t have an audience?
Rick: No. I’d be interviewing interesting people. Interesting to me. And it’s nice to get people in, instead of saying, “Hey, I’d just like to talk to you for my own benefit.” They’d go, “Fuck you, I’m busy!” “Well, you can be on the radio.”
Randy: And there might be somebody up at 6:45!
Rick: So it gives you this modest bit of clout, I suppose, to get people in. And to interview somebody for 45 minutes on the radio, even with commercials, is really worthwhile.
Randy: Yes, and fun. It’s that passion, right?
Rick: Yes, indeed, even for the guests.
Randy: I think that one of the things I’m always struck by—well, two things that drive your interviews. One is your own curiosity.
Randy: You’re just curious about people.
Rick: Well, I’ve never had a list of ten questions, for anybody. You know, because you’d have a list of ten questions, and, “Then you grew up in Topeka, Kansas.” “Yeah, but then we moved after my mama killed my daddy.” And you go, “OK, and then where did you go to school?” And you go, Wait a minute, that’s not. . . . Of course, I have in my head some things I want to know, but I trust myself. If I can’t have a conversation with somebody for 25, 35, 45 minutes, I shouldn’t be doing what I do.
Randy: The other thing, in addition to your curiosity, is your generosity. I am always impressed by how you foreground the interviewee. You make sure you get the title of the book in. You make sure people know when the event is.
Rick: That’s kind of Radio 101. I had to learn that, frankly.
Randy: But you’re also generous in that you ask questions that draw people out, not lay them out.
Rick: Oh, no.
Randy: But other people will do that.
Rick: Oh, sure. More so than ever these days. You know, what I do is not adversarial. It would be real easy, “Hi. You know Bill Schmo is here from the American Nazi Party.” No, thank you!
Randy: Not interested!
Rick: Not interested. And the other thing I try to do is to have people on who don’t have the publicity machine behind them, who need promotion, who need—Jamie O’Reilly is a good example. She doesn’t have any fucking money for advertising or anything. And she’s an interesting, wonderful person.
[Break for drinks.]
Randy: It was September 2020 that you wrote your column about getting Covid.
Randy: And surviving it. And it was not an easy voyage.
Rick: I got Covid in March of 2020, before most people got Covid. And it was quite serious. I was the second person admitted to the Northwestern Hospital Covid ICU section. And it was terrifying. It was pleasant on one level, because no one else was around, I had a nice room, I had a TV. I’m watching CNN, and everybody who is getting Covid is dying, on a ventilator and dying. There’s a lot of debate the first two days about whether I should be on a ventilator or not. And I kept telling them, “Doctor, please, please, yes I’m having trouble breathing, but I don’t want to go on a ventilator. Because, literally, all I was seeing was dead people.
Randy: It was like when somebody went on a ventilator, that was pretty much it.
Rick: Yeah. And they didn’t know what Covid was, nobody knew what Covid was. I certainly didn’t. So I was there for five, five-and-a-half days, and they said, “Well, you can go home.” And it was a very debilitating disease. Kate, my longtime love-of-my-life girlfriend, had to move out. And friends brought groceries and left them in front of the door. It was a tough week, a very tough week.
Randy: And could you breathe?
Rick: With difficulty. I could barely walk. I mean, it was like having the worst flu I’ve ever had. It knocked me out and made me weak and sleeping 20 hours a day, unable to concentrate. Naturally, I had to call the office and say, “I’m sick, man. I can’t write for a while.” And they said, “You have Covid? You’ve gotta write about this. You’ve gotta write about this.” And I go, “That’s not what I do. There are fucking people dying. I’m not going to say, “Ooh, I was sick for five days and in the hospital.” “People will love it!” I go, “No, not I.”
Randy: Well, you don’t write about yourself.
Rick: I don’t. Not much. Not much. But, some months later—the recovery was long, it was hard to walk, hard to do a lot of things—I don’t know, a few months later, a friend called me from the paper and said, “Rick, how are you feeling? How’s everything?” I hadn’t heard from him, a copyeditor. I said, “I’m fine. Don’t worry.” “Were you worried?” “Yeah.” “I don’t think you know this. The paper had Chris Jones write your obituary.” And I said, “Excuse me?” “Yeah, I just read it.” “Oh, get the fuck out of here.” I go, “OK, you’ve got to send it to me.” “Oh, I can’t. I’ll get in trouble.” I said, “Figure out a way. Copy it, email it to me.” And I read it, and it was shit. I mean, I love Chris, and much of it was very flattering, but much of it was also totally wrong. Totally wrong.
Randy: You want accuracy on your own obituary?
Rick: Yeah, really. I’ve written obituaries for Mike Royko, Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, Tim Weigel, Maggie Daley, Ann Landers—I mean, I’ve written a lot of obituaries in my life, and pride myself on getting it right. That is what finally compelled me to finally write a story about what it was like to have Covid.
Randy: It was the obituary.
Randy: Oh I didn’t realize that. I thought it was just people pressuring you. I remember telling you myself that I thought you ought to write about it.
Rick: No, I fought off the pressure from the editors, because it’s just not me. But I could not resist. Plus by that September, I was feeling a little bit better. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to die. But that was something, to read your own obituary—having been a furious obituary writer over the years.
Randy: Well, it’s sobering.
Rick: Sobering is the word. Yes, sobering is the word.
Randy: And who the hell wants to be sober at a time like that?
Rick: Oh, man. It wasn’t just sobering. In a way, it was really shocking, and if I had been a different sort of person, I would have said to the editor—and they were shocked that I had found this thing—what I should have said is, “OK, I feel pretty good now, but let me write this. I’ll take over here from Chris.”
Randy: Well, writing your obituary, what has been the after-effect?
Rick: Of Covid?
Randy: Yeah, physically, or even more to the point here, anything in the way you approach life?
Rick: Oh [Laughs], yeah, I’d like to say, “I take each moment more preciously than before.” I’ve always taken each moment as a precious thing, certainly each day as a precious thing, because I wake up, and on that day, I am going to read something new, meet someone new, I’m going to listen to something new, I’m going to see something new. That, I think, is the adventure of life.
Randy: And then write something new.
Rick: That’s not the adventure, but in a sense—that’s a very interesting observation— in a sense, the writing about such things and telling other people is the thank you to life. For allowing me to have met a peanut vendor on the exit ramp of the Eisenhower Expressway. To have gotten to know the Sianis family. I mean, I think that’s one of the things that kept Studs alive until 96. All of his brothers died in their forties. I don’t go to bed thinking, “Oh gee, who am I going to meet who is so exciting tomorrow?” But when I get up, foggy as I might be, after a couple of cups of coffee, I think, OK, what do I get to do today? It is exciting, life. It is exciting.
Randy: Exactly. When I was listening to you interview Don Evans—this may be related—about the new poetry collection, Wherever I’m At, you asked him a question that made me curious about your own view. It had to do with how he was picking the poems. You were asking him about whether they had a spiritual sense to them. And is that something that you feel in some way, that there’s a spiritual part to writing—or to living—either one?
Rick: There probably is to living. I’m not sure there is to my writing. I’m not a religious person. My mother was a wildly lapsed Catholic, and my father was a much more interestingly lapsed Jew because he had lived through World War II and couldn’t draw on religion with what he saw. But no, I— [Pauses] That’s a really good question. I suppose occasionally you could say that there’s something spiritual about life in general.
Randy: Well, that’s what made me think of it. Because you were talking about people, what’s new and what you can find that’s interesting.
Rick: Well, the thing is that when I get up—and I have had some boring days in my life—but I have to think that during any day I have had of these 70 years, something has happened that has enriched me, either to a huge extent or to a very minor extent, that has taught me about the joy, pain, and beauty and ugliness of life. You know, we all get—whatever anyone else thinks of it—we get only one shot at this, right? You know this as well as I do. You get one shot. And if you don’t take advantage of it—fuck you.
Randy: I was thinking about Wordsworth. Somebody described Wordsworth’s poetry as constantly trying to reconstitute hope. And you mentioned hope earlier, and I am wondering if that attitude, or that sense, is part of what teaches you ways to reconstitute hope in the midst of all the craziness.
Rick: Oh yeah. Studs, one of his last books—Studs just kept churning them out, was Hope Dies Last. And I think that that is absolutely true. I just spoke to a dear, dear friend who told me that she has cancer. And the alternative to crying, wailing, is to try to be positive, optimistic, and hopeful. You know, I’m not a doctor, and she was very hopeful. And that encouraged me, too. Life is too short. I don’t know if I want to live to be 96 like Studs. Those last couple months were tough. But it was a vibrant, vibrant life.
Randy: Here’s another question. I was thinking about you and Chicago. I am curious about your view of the writing community in Chicago. At the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, we’re very interested in promoting and encouraging writers and recognizing great ones like yourself.
Rick: Well, as anyone who writes knows, writing is tough. I mean it’s gotten increasingly tough because the publishing biz has gotten increasingly tough. I think and know some astonishing writers in this town. Whether they are going to be the next Saul Bellow, the next James T. Farrell, the next Ben Hecht, the next Scott Turow, I don’t know. The publishing business is such a weird kind of crapshoot these days. The Tribune does not have anything approaching a book section. Neither does the Sun-Times. Those used to be the main way that the vox populi would come to know books. There used to be saloons where writers would gather to bitch and moan and compliment each other and insult each other, and that does not seem to exist much anymore. It’s become, I think, a more solitary pursuit. You have some writers, and I could name them, who are couples and who must help one another. You have writing groups that have replaced the bitching and moaning groups at saloons. But I still believe there are so many stories to be told in this time, Randy, so many stories to be told from this town to the world that again, not to overuse this, I am hopeful. I am hopeful. As you well know, the urge to communicate with one another is as old as fucking cave drawings, for God’s sake. And whatever form it may take—I, for one, am not fond of reading ebooks and I am not fond of reading shit on my phone, but if that’s the way of the future, that’s the way of the future.
Randy: Is there anything identifiable as intrinsic to Chicago writing?
Rick: I’m not sure that there is anymore. I mean, there was a real muscle and sinew and hard edge, even with Bellow, that seemed to identify one as a Chicago writer. You think of James T. Farrell and Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren and Willard Motley and all these other characters. You know, Scott Turow is a great writer. Sara Paretsky is a great writer. But I don’t know if they are in that lengthy—there is no Chicago road anymore that people travel on. Those who do generally, as I have noted, tend to fuck up.
Randy: I think that people feel generally nourished, though, in Chicago, that they can actually learn and grow as writers. So it may be more important for the younger writers.
Rick: No question, because I still think—what I’ve noticed about Chicago, as opposed to some fucking snake pit like New York, is that there is a nurturing aspect to the writing community here.
Randy: A lot of reading series. A lot of oral storytelling.
Rick: Yes. A lot of organizations. There’s a lot of oral storytelling. There’s a kid named Nestor Gomez.
Randy: I know Nestor.
Rick: I met Nestor. I was giving some speech at the Cultural Center about Studs or something. And this kid comes up to me, barely speaks English, and he goes, “I write the stories.” And I go, “That’s great. You should keep writing stories.” And he goes, “I send them to you.” I go, “OK, here’s my address.” And he sent me these stories, and they were really good. And this guy has gone on to win The Moth storytelling contest, like, 50 times! And publish a couple of small books, about driving an Uber or something. It’s out there, but it doesn’t exist much anymore, the avenues to get those into the general public. That’s the problem. Is there going to be another Scott Turow or Sara Paretsky emerging from Chicago? There’s this guy named Brad Thor, you know who he is? He writes these thrillers; he sells millions of books. I know him, I’ve met him, and he’s a nice kid. But it’s very hard to have that kind of impactful literary career that was once possible here. You know it’s hard enough to make a living. You know, Audrey [Niffenegger] is a great writer, Rebecca [Makkai]. . .
Randy: Stuart [Dybek]
Rick: Yes, Stuart’s a great writer. But do you think Stuart is making any money from his books?
Randy: Yeah, I get that. One of the things we’re trying to do with the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is think more broadly about how we get Chicago writing out there, not just in the United States but abroad, and it becomes known. We have an incredible number of writers, and a lot of them are great.
Rick: What I would need to do is go back in time and be the age I am now and talk to my father and Studs and Willard Motley and Jim Jones and be in Riccardo’s in 1952. Even in 1952, there were a lot more people writing that never emerged, never made money at it, never scored, and I think the same is true now. I am an old kind of hippie in the sense that I believe that talent will out. But that is certainly not the case anymore. I have read so many great writers in this town who sold ten books.
Randy: Well, thank you for doing this, Rick. It’s just such a pleasure to talk.
Rick: It’s always fun to be with you.
Randy: And congratulations again on your award.
Now, can I buy you a drink?
Rick: You having one?
Rick: I’ll go get Bobby.