T.J. English is a man who likes to explore the dark side. At least in his best-selling non-fiction books. In The Westies and Paddywhacked he explored the Irish mob, Havana Nocturne was a stylish and sexy look at the mob in Cuba and in his latest book The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge he investigates murder, police corruption and racial turmoil in 1960s NYC. He’s also a man who can rock a fedora and appreciates a good meal and a good drink. We caught up with him to talk about crime, Irish-Mexican relations and hidden restaurants in Havana.
Tell us about your new book, The Savage City.
The Savage City came out of an interest that I’ve always had about the racial underbelly of New York City. It started for me with the case of George Whitmore, a young black kid who gets framed for the killing of 2 white women in 1963, it was coined the career girls murders. Originally I was going to write a book about that case, but it led me to police corruption and the racial turmoil of the 1960s and 70s. All hell was breaking loose and the book expanded to include all of the social changes that were happening at the time.
Crime, mobsters, corruption. A lot of the topics you write about are pretty dark. What draws you to those topics?
It’s not about the darkness, necessarily. I spend two to three years researching these books, so it has to be a topic that I have an enthusiastic interest in, something that will keep my interest for that long. As for the criminal aspect, I think that what I’m doing is is writing about American society, albeit from a particular point of view, a criminal one.
You are writing a lot about the Narco Wars in Mexico now, why?
I think that the drug war is a major story that is being ignored by most people. I think that it’s a really important story and that historically we will look back at this time and it will be as dramatic as Prohibition in terms of its incredible social impact. I think that part of the reason it gets ignored is race and class.
You are a founder of the Irish-Mexican Alliance, what’s the connection between the two culutures?
The Irish-Mexican Alliance grew out of my work on an article for Playboy about the Narco wars. It was total immersion for me and when the piece was over I wanted to do more. I arrived at the topic of journalists. I’m the co-director of the Irish-American Writers & Artists organization, and the issue of journalists putting their lives on the line to report about the drug wars, that struck me as the sort of thing that an arts organization should be involved with.
We tried to use the historical connection between Irish Americans and Mexican Americans. In many ways, the template laid down by Irish immigrants in the 19th Century is now being played out by Mexican Americans. In the wake of famine and poverty, Irish immigrants came to the U.S. in search of opportunity. Today, Mexicans also flee poverty, and the Narco war for a better life in the U.S. We held an event in December, it was a great cultural interchange, with music and speeches. We raised a lot of money to help journalists reporting on the drug wars.
What’s your drink of choice?
My drinking habits are greatly influenced by my career. I’ve spent long periods of time in Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, when I go to these places, I come back with a greatly expanded drinking problem. My current drink is a good sipping tequila, preferably Don Julio aged.
Do you cook?
I have a wok at home and when I cook it’s a lot of Asian foods, stir-fried veggies over rice.
Most memorable meal?
I spent a month in Havana researching Havana Nocturne, and Havana has these paladars, basically illegal kitchens, private restaurants in peoples homes, where you can have dinner. You head outside on the street and someone will whisper “lagosta, lagosta”, which is lobster, and then you negotiate a price and a menu, he tells you what you can have, then he leads you down an alleyway through a courtyard and into someone’s home, into their kitchen. I had some amazing meals there.
What do you think of T.J. English’s books? Let us know in the comments.