A near-native New Mexican, Katherine Durack grew up on Las Cruces, and now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Living in the urban core of the "Queen City of the West" since 2000, she takes her inspiration from the people, history, and urban settings—the "everyday extraordinary" of her neighbors and her surroundings around town, across the street, and just outside the windows. She is a professor at Miami University of Ohio, and the author of a memoir, Unmentionables: a Woman's Journey, Body to Soul. Visit her website.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Urban Dwellings & Unmentionables for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 06/18/2011
Where did the idea for collecting the stories of places and people in your city neighborhood, the essays that came to be Urban Dwellings: A Cincinnati Love Song, come from?
During the first few years my husband and I lived in downtown Cincinnati, I was frequently surprised by the way the city was portrayed in the media or talked about even by long-time locals. Our experience could not have been more different from the bleak portrait we occasionally heard on the news or in conversation, and my goal was to share with others the city we inhabited each day. We love the pedestrian lifestyle this city offers: walking to the post office, the dentist or the doctor's office; shopping at downtown stores and small markets; strolling through the riverfront park or walking halfway across the Roebling Bridge and watching a river barge push its heavy load up the mighty Ohio. In 5-10 minutes, we can be out enjoying casual or fine dining; attending a Broadway show or listening to a live performance by world class musicians; enjoying classic or contemporary art and architecture; watching major league sporting events; or browsing the stacks at one of the country's finest public libraries. Add to this mix the kind of warm, Midwestern friendliness we found among our neighbors, business owners, or passersby, and we thought we had found a community to celebrate.
Was the research—the ferreting out of the stories and the facts behind them—more fun than the writing? Or do you enjoy both the hunt and the storytelling equally?
I am unquenchably curious by nature, so there's no doubt that the research has a special fascination for me, whether the task at hand is an interview or a search for some obscure bit of information in a library archive. But the real fun lies in seeing whether I can put together disparate bits of information so the words "sing," and then sharing that "music" with others.
How long did it take you to research the stories in Urban Dwellings? How did you decide which ones to select for the book?
In one sense, the project began when we first moved to Cincinnati in 2000 and started exploring our new environment. But I didn't write about the city until 2007. After that, the writing took about three years, working on it in my spare time. The essays themselves vary considerably in terms of how long it took to write them. Some were written within days of the preliminary conversation, observation, or event that is the subject. For example, "Sewing Woman" and "Planting Season" were both written rather quickly and drew heavily upon the notes I took in the moment. For other essays, however, months or even years passed before I was able to find the story on a topic that intrigued me and piece together a finished essay. "Real Art," which connects events that occurred more than a year apart, is one example.
Selecting and organizing the essays turned out to be a bigger project than I had initially imagined it would be, largely because the concept for the book changed significantly over time. Originally, I had imagined the book would include a map and be organized according to the several neighborhoods that make up the city center. I later abandoned that plan for a variety of reasons, not the least because organizing the essays according to geography turned out to be problematic as some essays are about events that have long passed or businesses whose owners have moved on (change is the one constant in the city). In the end, I organized the essays to reflect a more personal discovery of the city's charms, beginning with our own experience of deciding to move downtown ("From the Suburbs to the City") and closing with our decision to purchase a home in the same neighborhood ("Puerquitos for Porkopolis"). Between those bookends, I selected and organized essays with the goal of achieving some semblance of thematic flow despite the wide range of topics covered. In short, even though I expect readers will skip around in the book, I sought to create continuity from beginning to end in case some people wanted to read it cover to cover.
What surprised you most in researching and writing the book?
I think what has surprised me the most has been learning how vital Cincinnati has been to our nation in terms of location, innovation, and art. It truly was the gateway to the west as our young nation expanded through the acquisition of the Northwest Territory. It's where Abraham Lincoln delivered, for the first time before a crowd, his "House Divided" speech. The country's first champagne originated here, and at one time the area was expected to rival Germany's Rhineland. The Roebling Bridge, when first completed, was the world's longest suspension bridge (a fact typically overshadowed by its common characterization as the "prototype" of the Brooklyn Bridge). The stirring "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland was commissioned for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and thus first performed here. There's a vibrant arts community, the legacy of more than a century of devoted local support. Today, Cincinnati is home to the country's only K-12 public creative and performing arts school, so not surprisingly, the quality of the arts here is exceptional. This isn't just my opinion: for instance, only a few years ago, when the Cincinnati production of the musical "Company" completed its run, the show reopened on Broadway and was honored with a Tony for best revival.
Did you uncover any stories you could not tell?
There are stories I haven't yet told, including stories that I did not write because the material was too complex for the kind of short format essays I was focused on. For instance, several years ago I came across a mention that Cincinnati was the first place in the country to provide mental health care for its black citizens, in the mid-nineteenth century. Though later I found information that cast doubt on that claim, it's still an interesting story, especially given the city's connections to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Underground Railroad, and Ohio's conflicted history in terms of civil rights.
You published Urban Dwellings yourself as a limited edition fine-print volume, with the help of a designer (who did a beautiful job). Why not go the "traditional" publishing route? Are you pleased with the results?
I shopped the book around for a couple of years and received favorable feedback and encouragement, but no contract. When in fall 2010 the friend whom I have always trusted with my most fledgeling drafts, my "first listener," was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic cancer, I decided to proceed on my own because I wanted her to have a copy to enjoy for as long as possible. While I would have greatly preferred being able to relinquish to a publisher the responsibilities of designing, producing, and distributing the book, it was impractical to even consider continuing to send out queries and proposals given my new, self-imposed deadline.
And I could not be more pleased with the results. I had rather specific ideas about the size and appearance of the book, and the designer did a terrific job. The printer I used (a small, local firm) was incredibly helpful when it came to production details and managing cost and quality. Most important to me was timing: the book design was completed in just a few months, and I had the finished books a little more than a week after turning the files over to the printer. But the best outcome without doubt was the sound of joy in my friend's voice when she called after receiving her copy in the mail.
You recently made the book available in electronic form as well. How did that process work? Did you have to compromise the design at all?
Having used ebooks on both on my iPad and my husband's Kindle, I wasn't really focused on controlling the design of the interior pages because what's most important for an ebook is functionality: Could a user navigate using the table of contents? Adjust font size and style? Search for a particular term or phrase?
In fact, I had experimented with creating an ePub on my own before deciding to do the hard copy book, thinking that I would be able to manage the ebook distribution myself. I had purchased an ISBN, created an ePub file, and loaded the file on my iPad to see how it worked. That part of the process went just fine. The hitch was in getting set up to distribute the book with the iTunes store. Despite having read that independent authors could submit material, and carefully following the instructions and advice I had found online, my application seemed to fall into some sort of virtual black hole, and the several follow-up emails I sent never got any response (uncharacteristic of my typical experiences with Apple). So by the time I had contracted with the book designer and committed to printed books, I had pretty much decided to let go of the ePub idea. (It's important to note here that the ISBN I had purchased for the ebook was at this point a lost expense: you must have separate ISBNs for print and electronic versions of the same book.)
When I finally did decide to go ahead with the ebook, I had concluded that I would need to use a third party distributor. On another writer's suggestion, I used BookBaby. Since having BookBaby convert the PDF the printer used would have incurred additional costs (because of the number of entries in the table of contents), I decided to recreate and submit an ePub file myself based on the finished version of the book manuscript. It ended up taking a lot of time to make sure all the tiny, last minute changes the book designer and I had made were replicated in the word processing file that was eventually converted into the ePub file, so I'm not sure submitting my own ePub file was worth the small cost savings. BookBaby answered all of my questions promptly and got the ebook to all the major booksellers well within the timeframes advertised on the BookBaby site.
In terms of costs and sales and all that—my financial goal from the outset was simply to break even, and sales of just the signed and numbered copies of the print book so far suggest I may very well meet that goal. It helps that a local independent bookseller a few blocks from my home has offered to sell the remaining books from my inventory (thank you, Ohio Bookstore!). It's too soon to tell whether from a business standpoint it was worthwhile to do both the print and the ebook, but I have to say I was tickled to hear my mom talk about how she liked having Urban Dwellings on her iPhone so she can read her favorite stories when she's sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office!
What's next for your writing?
I've been working with the editor of a lovely local publication (Best Magazine) who contacted me about contributing to an upcoming issue on living in downtown Cincinnati, due out this fall. I also participated recently in Cincinnati's new Teilen Rhine storytelling slam, a live monthly competition modeled on New York City's Moth events. I understand that a podcast of my contribution, "The Look of Loving Hands," is slated for future publication via their website and through iTunes. (Speaking live without notes is a significant stretch for me, definitely a step outside my comfort zone. The organizers were kind enough to let me refer to my iPad on stage when I nearly chickened out!) And I have just begun some investigations about the Roebling Bridge, suggested by a new friend's offhand reference to it as "the singing bridge," so we shall see where that leads.