Interview with Author Michael Downs

Five young, African-American men promised their lives to their troubled city, Hartford, Connecticut.  They make a pledge to return with college degrees and a willingness to live and work in their hometown.  Michael Downs tell their stories–how they kept or broke their  promise to Hartford–in his book House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City.  On March 8, 2007, editor Brianne Burrowes with University Relations at the University of Montana spoke with Michael Downs about House of Good Hope and the universality of sacrifice and leaving home in and outside of African-American communities.

BR: What was it that made you want to write about these boys? Was it an idea that you always had since you first met them when you heard them make this pact or did it come later on in your career?House_of_good_hope_3

MD: It came later on. What happened is that I left Hartford, which is detailed in the book. And leaving Hartford was more difficult for me than I thought, especially because I was leaving my grandparents there. And there were some relatives in the area, but shortly after I left they left too. And then my grandparents were all alone. I began to wonder if leaving had been the right decision even though it was good for me personally. I wondered how other people would make that decision and then how other people would live with themselves having made such a decision. And that reminded me of these five guys who had made this promise.

BR: Had you kept in touch them?

MD: No. But I knew that after college they’d be confronted with the reality of their promise. Their promise would focus the questions I was asking because they would, now having become educated, have to make an active decision to keep their promise and go back or recognize that though there was a degree of wisdom to their promise, there was also naïveté. Maybe they would decide to break the promise, but their stories, mixed as they might be, would allow me to explore the questions that were troubling me. I wasn’t looking for an answer. I was just looking to explore.

BR: Was it difficult for these boys to allow you to write this story about their lives? I mean, it’s very personal.

MD: You know when I contacted them all, when I told them all what I had planned and that it would be a long process, that I would call them at odd times and ask them questions that would surprise them, and I would come visit them and I would ask to spend a day or so with them at a time, and I would want to talk to friends of theirs and relatives and the whole thing — what most of them said was, this is an important story to tell. You know? It matters for Hartford. It matters for other cities that are like Hartford. It matters for other people who like us who were once kids in these places. And because it mattered, and because I was still interested, and perhaps because I had been interested when they were in high school, they seemed to decide that I was an okay person to tell the story.

BR: And that they could trust you.

MD: And that they could trust me. I think I earned that trust and
continued to earn it, you know? I did something that not many newspaper
journalists would do when I finished the manuscript. I let all of them
read it. They had trusted me with their lives and their life stories,
the least I could do was trust them with my manuscript.

BR: I like that.

MD: So I let them read it, and it was great. They had terrific comments
and you know the only kinds of things they said were things like it was
my uncle and not my aunt who paid for my books for college.

BR: Factual things like that.

MD: It was just tiny little things.

BR: So the thing that surprised me when I started reading the book, is
how quickly the boys trusted you, at least in the book it appeared like
that happened rather quickly. And to me that was surprising because of
what they had gone through. How do you think they opened up to you? Why
you?

MD: Again, the only thing that I can guess, and what I write about in
the beginning of the book, is that Harvey saw me as someone who had
done what they expected to do. Harvey saw me as someone who had left
and come back. And I lived in Hartford and, you know, I had decided to
live in Hartford. That was an active decision on my part. I wanted to
live in the city. And I think I was rewarded for that decision by
Harvey’s trust. Once Harvey trusted me . . .

BR: Then his group did.

MD: Yeah, absolutely.

BR: It seems to me that’s kind of how they worked.

MD: Absolutely, yeah.

BR: What made you decide to include yourself in the story? Because you
could have easily just started writing a story about five boys as the
narrator.

MD: Yeah, but it probably couldn’t have been a book, to be honest. The
way the book market works, that would not have been sufficient. And it
would have been maybe a decent magazine piece, but it wouldn’t have
been a book. One of the reasons — intellectually, artistically — that
I wanted to include myself was that I wanted to say this is not just a
story about African American kids from Hartford. This is a story that
applies to anybody who has left home and has had to pay a price for
leaving home. I wanted it to be universal. And I thought that by
including my story, and through that even my great-grandmother’s story
of leaving Poland, I would show that this is not something limited to
urban America. So that’s part of why I thought it was important that I
be in it. But it wasn’t easy. It’s not my tendency.

BR: No, I know to put your life on public display is quite difficult, quite difficult.

MD: Yeah, especially when you’ve been trained as a journalist to stay behind the scenes.

BR: Yes.

MD: That was very difficult, and I had to work really hard at those
sections. My friends and editors kept
telling me, more, more, more. And
I had to go back and back and back to the well and try and do more but
it was — it was not easy.

BR: Okay. So what is the message that you want people to take away from this book when they read it?

MD: I don’t think there’s a message.

BR: You don’t? What do you want them to feel when they read it?

MD: Some kind of connection to their own story perhaps. So many people
have left home or been left by someone else. One of my favorite writers
is Anton Chekhov, and he said something like — I’m paraphrasing here
— he said something like the role of art is not to answer questions;
it’s to ask the right ones.

BR: I like that.

MD: And while much of this [book] is literary journalism, my approach
to it was based more on the mental space [I’m in] when I write fiction,
when I study fiction. So I wasn’t trying to answer any questions here.
I was trying to frame the right questions about leaving home under
these circumstances. And so when you ask what do I want people to take
away from it, I want them to just be part of the conversation. I hope
they will be part of the conversation.

BR: So how long did the actual book take to write?

MD: I finished a draft I was happy with in the spring of 2004. But then
I think I still went back and rewrote it twice more. I was finishing a
draft even as the publisher was saying, “send us the book.”

BR: Another question: was this always planned to be a book or did you
at first think, oh this would make a great magazine article or
something shorter? Was it always a book?

MD: It was always a book. It was always a book.

BR: And also what is it about sports writing that compels you so much?

MD: Well, in the same way that these young men making their promise
focused the questions that I was interested in, I think sports
crystallize the issues that we deal with everyday in a really dramatic
fashion. Granted, it’s a fashion that, you know, doesn’t matter as much
as world affairs do, but at the same time, the steroid controversy in
baseball raises all sorts of questions about competitiveness in
America, about our drug culture, about the culture of celebrity … I
appreciate the vehicle of sports as a method for storytelling. People
are put in extreme and difficult situations, and when that happens –
(extreme) physical situations – their humanity just comes out. And I
think even more importantly for high school sports, it’s so often a
reflection of communities. You know, God bless the University of
Montana athletic department, but it doesn’t reflect Montana as well as
the Cut Bank Wolves high school basketball team reflects Cut Bank. And
I like to see that.

BR: Do you think that’s more prevalent in high school sports than college sports?

MD: Oh yes, absolutely. And it becomes less and less as you move up.
You know, college sports you get people from out-of-state who come to
play here. And then in the pros, hell, you know nobody is from there.
So you get more and more distant from the community the higher up you
go in the level of competition in sports and so I think the best
stories actually come out of high schools. I really do.