Q&A with Richard Stradling, co-author of “Where the River Burned”

Richard Stradling is co-author of “Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle To Save Cleveland.” He is also deputy metro editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Stradling discusses the origins of the book, how he and his brother researched and wrote it, and how he balanced the project with his daily duties at the N&O.

Q. How did you and your brother decide to write “Where The River Burned”?

A. The project dates back to 1998 when I took a year off from newspaper work to do a mid-career journalism program at Ohio State University.

I had always been interested in the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 and the mythology that had grown up around it and decided to make that the focus of my master’s thesis. I wanted to explain why this relatively small fire had become so well-known while many previous fires on the river had long been forgotten. I did a lot of research and thought maybe I had enough for a book, but by then I’d gone to work for The News & Observer as a reporter.

I was talking it over with my brother David, who is a historian at the University of Cincinnati, and we agreed that we’d work on it together. Pretty early on in his research, David suggested that we broaden the scope of the book to look at all the environmental problems facing Cleveland at that time, not just the fire.

Q. How did you go about researching and writing this book? What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?

A. David has a history professor’s schedule and propensity to do research in archives. He made numerous trips to Cleveland to go through the papers of Carl Stokes at the Western Reserve Historical Society, as well as other archival material.

whereriverburnedI focused more on interviews, including ones I had already done while at Ohio State. For example, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to Bailus Walker, who ran the rat control program in Cleveland in the late 1960s and had moved on to teach at Howard University.

David took the lead on writing most of the book, with some exceptions, and we traded drafts back and forth. Distance was one obstacle. We made some trips together to Cleveland, but mostly we worked remotely — David in Cincinnati and me in Raleigh. That slowed the process down but also may have made it more deliberate and thoughtful. We could think things over before responding.

My main obstacle was having a more-than-full-time job at The News & Observer. I became an editor in 2005, and 10-hour days are normal. I had to carve out time to work on the book at night and on weekends.

Q. How was working on this project different from your work as an editor and reporter at The News & Observer? What were the similarities?

A. It was different in that for a long time there was no deadline. It became a little more pressing after we got the book contract from Cornell University Press. But for the most part we worked at our own pace. As a history project, the story wasn’t likely to change as it would with a contemporary story.

Aside from the depth of the research, the project was similar to journalism: deciding what we wanted to know, looking for the sources of information, asking the right questions and sifting through all the material, deciding what to use and how to organize and present it. The scale and timeline are different, but those are the same things we do in journalism every day.

Q. What was it like working with the book’s publisher and being edited?

A. The editing process was really very easy. We had four outside readers — two chosen anonymously by Cornell and two of our choosing — in addition to the editor at Cornell, and none of them made suggestions that we thought we couldn’t easily accommodate and in fact made the book stronger.

Q. What advice do you have for journalists who have ideas for nonfiction books like yours?

A. Pick a story that you won’t grow bored with, because you’re going to spend a long time with it. Set lots of small goals; focus on getting an interview done or answering a question, and eventually everything will come together.

And consider taking a leave of absence to focus on the writing, though that’s not always possible in the environment we work in now. I was fortunate to have a partner with a more flexible schedule.

Buy “Where the River Burned” and follow Richard Stradling on Twitter.