Exclusive Interview: The View from Detroit with American Reporter CHARLIE LEDUFF!
Charlie LeDuff is many things, but first and foremost he is an adventurer and a reporter of the world.
Charlie has that wonderful sort of manic energy, which causes him to jump around a lot in his train of thought sometimes, but he’s a great conversationalist and very insightful. If I had the impossible task of describing Charlie LeDuff, I would call him an ‘existential drifter and an American reporter’.
Sitting in the backyard at Charlie’s house, drinking IPA’s with him and playing with his dog Rupert, a purebred lab, we talked for hours about a wide range of topics, everything from George Orwell & Hunter S. Thompson to Mexican cartels to the way big media can control reality to Charlie’s time living in a treehouse in Alaska.
Charlie has lived all over the world. He grew up at Joy Road and Wayne Road in Westland, Michigan and attended Churchill High School. From there he studied political science at the University of Michigan, then documentary film at University of California-Berkeley.
Then it was a whirlwind tour of writing for the New York Times (1995-2007), winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, moving back to Detroit to work at the Detroit News, then Fox 2 News (2010-2016) and writing a few books along the way, including the 2013 smash hit for Penguin, ‘Detroit: An American Autopsy.’
Most of his exploits are notorious and hilarious. He lived in a treehouse in Alaska, took a bath in the Rouge River, golfed empty Detroit lots, ate catfood, wore a coonskin hat while talking to a Detroit guy who sells raccoon meat, etc.
The Magic and Importance of Books in Society
“Books are forever. Always were and always will be the greatest art that humanity could ever conceive. They can be smuggled, buried, don’t need a plug, can’t be told to shut up. I love books. I have a library. I even have my own bookplate stamp.”
“Sometimes the image is better, you know, films, photos. Sometimes the image makes the point when it’s impossible to capture it in words.”
“I try to write daily Monday through Friday from 8am to Noon or 10am to 2pm. I take the weekends off. Weekends are for family, beer and gardening.”
“Writing books is hard, really hard. You won’t know until you do it. You do the best you can writing your book, you put it out there, you hope it’s well-received, then you move on.”
Detroit Festival of Books (aka: Detroit Bookfest)
“Detroit needs an uplift. The Detroit Festival of Books is great for Detroit. If we’re gonna do hockey arenas and skyscrapers, we better have some culture. I support Detroit Bookfest 100% and so should you.”
“Detroit is a critical part of the world. Detroit matters. Something tells me the world is worried and everyone is looking to Detroit for hope. It’s hard. To actually get something this big right.”
Charlie’s New Untitled Book
Charlie is currently working on an untitled book for Penguin Press.
“My new book is about the economic impact of corporate policies and political agendas on the regular average working class people of America. Not the over-educated liberal elite but the average hard-working Americans out there grinding every day. The book is readable, not stuffy.”
“Writing the book has been the journey of a multi-ethnic son of a blue-collar father, me the reporter, doing it. And along the way, smoking a little weed, drinking a little booze, visiting a whorehouse, going where the guns are, the urban cores, the halls of power, etc. It’s an examination without being a lecture of this great thing called America.”
Ask the Regular Guy
Charlie is frequently critical of those in power because he cares about the big picture, the treatment of people and the well-being of a planet not quite past the point of no return.
“I’ve been busy working on the book and shooting a pilot for A&E. Been traveling all over the country filming this thing.”
“Politics has become absurdist theater, mind-torture. I’d rather be kayaking in a yellow rubber speedo with the cartel again near the Texas border than listen to all of it.”
“In the totem of American life, the ghetto feels it first. Take the Flint water crisis. Flint River water so gnarly you have to mix it with Kool-Aid so you don’t gag. Around July or August, Flint’s first boil-water advisory came out right after we did our story. Like Bedouins to the well, the good people of Flint could no longer drink their own water, they had to drink water bottled elsewhere.”
“Ferguson went from white to black overnight, yet still had a white power structure. Cops were instructed to be shakedown artists and ticket everyone. See, politics.”
Does Media Control Reality or Does Reality Control Media?
“To what extent does the clang-clang of the echo chamber of the media, television, the internet, etc, control reality? Let’s put it this way. I carpooled with the Grand Dragon of the KKK down to the Carolina’s. When I got down there, there was only a few hundred of these guys total.”
“So, in reality, these racist pukes are in far smaller numbers than the media would have you believe. The media also makes people think that every year is the worst of times. It’s not. Everybody’s going berserk, just calm down. Maybe we’re better off than you think.”
Charlie the Reporter
“I’m a reporter. I don’t blog. I barely tweet. Reporting is different than journalism. The difference is a journalist can type without looking. Reporters know how to hit the blocks. I like to experiment, use the new tools.”
“I studied documentary film at Berkeley. I was the first multi-media columnist at the New York Times. Some of my favorite documentaries are ‘American Dream’ (Kopple) about the meat packing plant strike. Meat packers got paid $10.25/hr on average plus bennies (benefits) in the 1980’s, it was too much money, so they broke the union. I also like ‘Harlan County USA’ about the coal miners strike.”
“There’s just so many large issues affecting everyone. Banking deregulation, forever wars, feckless leadership, the mortgage meltdown, trickledown economics, the trade deals. I love the think tanks = hey, look at my fuckin’ community pal, it didn’t work!”
Alaska Was Cold
“Alaska was cold. I was chasing my newlywed wife. She had planned to work there with her sister for a year. I met her 8 weeks prior, fell in love with her, we eloped, came to Detroit for the honeymoon, she went to Alaska, I followed.”
“Before that, I went to Moscow for a bit. I was dating a girl who lived in Boris Yeltsin’s apartment complex around 1990. I met her there. I was just blowing thru baby, call me The Breeze.”
“Came back from that jaunt around the globe, went to the University of Michigan for Poli-Sci. I had a major in Poli-Sci and a minor in Saturday night. Ended up in New York. Lived in Queens. Applied to Berkeley for journalism. Then moved out to California and lived in the Hollywood flats, it’s not the Hills. Then back to Detroit, baby.”
Charlie on Being a News Reporter
“I wanted to become a reporter because you can get paid to hangout in places you have no reasonable access to, learn something, try the craft of writing, the greatest craft there is, and it’s really democratic.”
“I’m a Timesman, always will be. You learn how to do the paperwork there at the New York Times. News exces are like blackjack players at 3am in the morning trying to hold onto dawn. Then the sun comes up. Some are there, some aren’t.”
“Being a reporter is tough. The billionaires are off-limits. The media would rather hang out with the power than challenge it.”
“In absorbing the news, people just want a true reflection of what’s going on, some info and for fucks sake, can it be entertaining? The unassailable #1 rule is your info has to be correct though. That is first and foremost.”
“Being persistent is being annoying, it’s seduction, it’s the art of the dance. Kurt Eichewald used to sell pens over the phone before he worked at the Times. Why would you need a $100 pen? Sell the pen, he said! My pitch is history. The media is here. What do you have to say? You count. If you don’t want to talk, that’s cool too but it might last and have a great effect on somebody.”
“I really love reporting in Detroit and New York but all of America is great. New York, especially, when you get into its finery and hard-wiring, its unfucking believable. A reporter’s wet dream.”
Charlie is Part Ojibwa Indian, Creole and Mackinac Islander
“I’m part Ojibwa. My Mom, Dad and Grandma on both sides were from Mackinac Island. I’m a part of the McGulpin family, which originally hails from Scotland. Some of my relatives still live on the island and I go there sometimes. I’m a pipe carrier, just made my own stem out of ash.”
“I’m also Creole, my cousins live in Louisiana. The Detroit LeDuff’s are the lightest skin LeDuff’s you’ll ever meet. My people were making families and loving each other when it was hard. Before the liberal establishment, when it was illegal, when we had no rights. We’re here and I’ll honor the whole rainbow that I’m from. French, Ojibwa, Creole, put it all together and you get….Italian! (laughs)”
“If anything about me is a secret, I’m keeping it that way. Some things belong to me. My daughter will write it, it’s not for you. Even I don’t fully understand it.”
“I had three dads, spent some time in Gary, Indiana, some time in Detroit. My Mom still lives in the area.”
“My advice for aspiring writers and reporters is: read. Read a lot, read what you like and never stop reading. Believe in yourself and practice, write, write, write, write, write. It’s a craft, one of the best crafts there is. Writing is democratic and can be achieved through hard work and practice. It’s lonely. Just you, ink and paper. But it allows your soul to unfold.”
“People don’t even believe in death, taxes, the certainties, not all of them. People believe in loneliness. Everybody wants to escape loneliness, that’s part of the curse of being embodied. The nothingness of normality.”
“Go out into the Great Big World and find out what you are. You know what I found out? I found out that I’m nothing special. I think of the mass of humanity when I’m getting all freaked out or bummed out and I realize I’m not alone, that I’ll get through it and so will you. Isn’t that what Detroit is all about? Detroit prepares you for the whole world, it’s a great upbringing.”
“You can conquer anything if you think you’re one of the chosen ones.”
Humanity’s Inevitable Encounter with Aliens
Ryan: “Hey, Charlie, when do you think contact with extra-terrestrials will be achieved? Or at least publicly acknowledged?”
Charlie: “I believe both of those things have already occurred. All I know is this: fuck them. You know what we blasted out there? A gold record of Chuck Berry. Johnny B Goode. The Beatles were gonna be on there but they could get over the rights. Bach, Javanese Court Gamelan, Senegal, Zaire Pygmies, El Cascabel, Johnny B Goode, Shakuhachi, Bach again, Mozart, Georgian USSR Soviet Chorus, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Bulgarian and Blind Willie Johnson. If there’s life out there and they’re not digging Johnny B Goode, then they’re not intelligent.”
Overall, Charlie is a hilarious and humble individual. A fun, rambling Kerouack-ian type figure and a brilliant writer.
I’m deeply honored that he took several hours to sit down and hang out with me and do this interview for Detroit Bookfest.
“Where’s life gonna take me? I don’t know, Ryan, let’s see what it does.”
Charlie LeDuff Homepage
Charlie LeDuff Facebook
Detroit: An American Autopsy