BEHIND THE SCENES with Amy Drozdowska and Alex Kotlowitz

How did you meet Mike and Victor, and how did they respond when you proposed the idea of a story about their lives together?

AK: I met Mike around eight years ago through a mutual friend. Mike was going through an especially tough time with Victor, and our friend thought I might be able to offer some support because of an experience I'd had. They were barely talking to each other and while I hadn't met Victor, Mike seemed so agitated, honestly I wasn't sure they'd be able to repair things. And then about a year-and-half ago I ran into Mike, and the story of their relationship had taken this incredibly surprising twist which completely threw me for a loop. As he told me what had happened, I found myself smiling and shaking my head in amazement. I asked if he'd be interested in publicly sharing their story, and after consulting with Victor (okay, I'm giving a snippet of it away), he not only agreed but was enthused by the idea. He thought it would be cathartic for both of them. The tricky part was whether I could get others to participate, especially a social worker they'd been close to as well as Mike's mom.

Why did you feel it was an important/compelling story to tell? Do you think that Mike and Victor – and your story - challenges social and political assumptions about race in Chicago? Or is this story more about single parenthood? Or something else altogether?

AD: For me, this story was compelling because it's about all those things, but I find this story particularly amazing because of all the different ways it challenges us to think about family. There's the relationship between Mike and Victor, between them and the courts and foster care system, and also between Mike and his family - and each of those relationships carries its own complexities. The idea of race plays a part in all of these relationships as well, bringing its own set of rules to be confronted and challenged.**

AK: The story was done for a WBEZ series on race, but in the end their story has less to do with race than it does with our changing notion of family. And it has so much to do with self-identity: how we see ourselves and see others. What Mike and Victor hold in common – in addition to some personality traits and their deep love for each other – is that both spent years grappling with who they are. Because Victor was one of the few African-Americans in his high school many assumed that he had access to drugs and gangs, and Victor lost his footing for a while trying to measure up to others' expectations of him. And Mike, of course, is wrestling with something even more fundamental (I don't want to give the story away if you haven't already listened to it), in fear that somehow he'll be exposed for who he really is. It's not until both are on sure-footing with themselves can they then find their way back to each other.

Mike and Victor describe their shared joy and pain with a surprising amount of openness. How were you able to gain their trust and make them feel at ease?

AK: I don't know that there's any magic here. It was a privilege to be invited into their lives, and given what I was asking of them I tried, in return, to be as open and straightforward about what I heard when I listened to their story. We also spent a good deal of time together, some of it with microphone and recorder, some of it over meals just getting to know each other. It helped, of course, that I'd met Mike years earlier, and that both Mike and Victor were familiar with my work. Mike and Victor were incredibly open and candid, courageous really in sharing their story as they did. And they held nothing back, including stories that didn't always put them in the best light. I came away with such a deep and profound admiration for each of them.

In making this story, which includes memories of events that took place many, many years ago, how did you prompt or prepare Mike and Victor to recollect the past with such precise detail and imagery?

AK: I first sat down with Mike, and had him tell me the story from beginning to end. More than anything, I'm looking for moments or scenes that will make the story feel cinematic. Then I spoke with Victor. And as each of them remembered stories, I'd return to each of them to flesh out those particular moments. I also asked to see photos, and that, too, brought back memories. Finally, I spoke with Mike's mom and the social worker who had helped them during the adoption process, and each of them remembered some anecdotes that I could then go back to Mike and Victor for illumination. When I'm interviewing someone, I feel like I'm closing my eyes trying to picture each moment, each scene, and to do so with as much precision and vividness as I can muster. And I'm looking for moments that acknowledge the richness and fullness and complications of those whose story it is.

Did the process of telling the story to you, have an impact on their relationship?

AK: Mike has told me that the process of recounting their years together has brought them closer together. In fact, Mike told me that they're closer now than they've ever been. I think listening to each other's take on what were some difficult years helped each better understand the other, and made them both realize how deeply they each cared for and worried about the other, even when times were tough.

Have you stayed in touch with Mike or Victor? How are they doing?

AK: I talk to Mike regularly, and both are doing well. Real well.

The two of you have worked to together on many personal narratives over the years. Are you drawn to similar stories? How do you share the workload? Do you have any projects or ideas in the works?

AD: I jumped at the chance to work with Alex on this story after a long hiatus. Alex's talent as an interviewer to forge meaningful relationships and to portray his subjects with deep respect creates a narrative that's about more than just a good story. Instead, he provides the opportunity to deeply empathize with another human being, and to be able to relate to and root for people so very different from yourself. It's not an easy feat - but it's the kind of storytelling that got me into public radio in the first place. As far as workload, I think we both like to think of the whole process as fairly collaborative, but generally Alex has the contacts and leads the interview process. Then I take the (hours!) of tape and work to cut things up and order them so that the story flows well, and is full of momentum, points of suspense, and revealing moments of surprise. It's important to me that a story doesn't have to end in a way that's neat and tidy, but at least arrives somewhere satisfying: something to be learned, to reflect on beyond the listening.

I also figure out how music should be placed to help the rhythm and pacing of it all, and how other voices and bits of interviews might fit in as well. Obviously I do this with lots of input from Alex along the way. There's lots of back and forth between us as the pieces comes together, lots of suggestions for rejiggering bits of tape, what to add and subtract, and almost always the need to go back and do further interviewing for parts of the story that need more detail or reflection. That last step - the additional interviewing - really gives interview subjects the chance to properly express themselves, to tell their story to the fullest and in a way that does it justice. It can be the most energy-consuming part of working with Alex, and also why I most value our collaborations. We have no future projects currently in the works, but I certainly hope there will be another opportunity to work together again before long.

AK: Amy has such a terrific sensibility, a keen ear for story and a deep well of empathy. When I began this story, I reached out to Amy, and asked if I could bring her aboard. She's an extraordinary producer (and knows better than most how music can help a narrative and not get in the way) – and she's not afraid to push back, to challenge, and to question. As we're piecing together the narrative – Amy then in Minneapolis, me in Chicago – there's a lot of back and forth, disagreements and lobbying. It's what I cherish about collaborative efforts like this, the pushing and pulling, all with an eye to making the story as engaging and as seamless as you can. On the front end, we knew we wanted to do this piece without narration, and so when interviewing I need to keep that in mind, to make sure that Mike and Victor responded in full sentences, being conscious that I don't plan to use my questions. And sometimes that can mean returning just to get Mike or Victor to repeat an anecdote where something small is missing, for instance Mike referring to "her" rather than "my mom." It's so critical in a non-narrated piece that there not be a moment of ambiguity or confusion, or you're likely to lose your listeners. Often, it's not until Amy and I start editing that we realize that I need to go back to get another rendition of a moment. I was partnered with Amy nearly ten years ago for a radio series – Stories of Home (which won a Peabody) – and I knew that that would be just the first of many. Amy's one of the most creative radio producers out there, and as an added bonus, she's just a joy to work with. She's an original. We'll work together again, of that I have no doubt.