Cincinnati is changing. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in our once-sleepy downtown. From The Banks to Over-the-Rhine, from Fountain Square to Washington Park, the urban core is alive with activity.
Zan McQuade arrived just in time to witness the Queen City’s shift in fortune. A native of Oxford, Ohio, McQuade lived and worked in New York City as an editor for Random House for more than a decade after graduating from Vassar College in 1999. Ready for a change, she and her husband decided to move to Cincinnati — partly due to the relatively cheap cost of living, and partly due to what she saw as a city on the verge of something special.
Intent on chronicling the place she’s called home since 2011, McQuade went about masterminding The Cincinnati Anthology, a deft, well-considered collection of essays, illustrations and photographs that represents, as she writes in her intro to the book, “the visions of those who have fallen madly in love with the city of Cincinnati, either for the first time or all over again.” Those include contributions from the well known (novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, photographer Michael Wilson and Reds pitcher Sam LeCure) to the less familiar but no less incisive. CityBeat recently talked to McQuade about her passion project.
CityBeat: How did you get involved with The Cincinnati Anthology?
Zan McQuade: I thought it would be a great thing to have a website that focused on essays and photography specifically about Cincinnati that was a little bit less journalistic than most of the websites that we currently have. So I had discovered that Belt Mag was a website in Cleveland that was very similar to what I had wanted to do. I wrote to the editor of that website and she said, “Do you want to do a Cincinnati book?” So I ended up doing the book instead of the website. It kind of fell into my lap a little bit.
CB: What was the biggest challenge in putting the book together?
ZM: The hardest thing for me — and I think this is more of a symptom of the fact that I’ve only been here for three years and I’m not a part of the greater literary community yet in Cincinnati — was that it was kind of hard for me to get the attention of a lot of writers and to have people sort of clambering at the doorway to submit.
It was the type of thing where I had to go after people and ask them to do it. Because Cincinnatians are so good at saying yes, apparently — which I learned through the process of this — I got a lot of people to say yes, which was a fantastic thing.
I thought the submissions would entirely guide the book, but I sort of had to see what I got in terms of submissions and then fill in where there were holes. That was possibly the most difficult but most interesting part, because I then had to go out and do a lot of research and find older pieces and contact the authors. It ended up being a really interesting discovery process in terms of what’s out there in writing, what literary sources there are for Cincinnati currently.
CB: As someone who is originally from the area, moved away to a bigger city and now has moved back and put this book together, I’m curious what you think about Cincinnati’s supposed conservatism.
ZM: What I’ve noticed, both from collecting the essays for this book and from living here, is that the conservatism in Cincinnati is actually more pragmatism in a lot of ways. It’s people sort of making decisions or weighing options or considering things based on something really specifically personal, weighing out all the options and not making a decision based on this firm, entrenched belief necessarily, which I find really interesting.
I think the assumption is that Cincinnatians are very set in their ways. I think everyone else thinks of Midwesterners that way. Just like, “Oh, simple people who won’t change their minds.” I think it’s actually quite the opposite. I think a lot of people in Cincinnati have a lot to consider, and they consider it in very much their own way.
In terms of artistic conservatism, it’s interesting because I’m also seeing a real dedication to the arts in this city. People are sort of fervent about it. People who support the arts are very loyal to that, and sometimes that can create waves if there is a controversial piece. So that brings out more conservative viewpoints, I think, just because people here are so loyal. I don’t know. It’s a hard question for me to answer, because it feels like more of a traditionally conservative city in ways from a New York perspective, but I just think it’s more complicated than that. It’s more complex than New Yorkers give us credit for.
CB: Could we see another edition of the book if this one is successful?
ZM: I hope so. I hope there is enough interest. There has been a lot of interest from writers. A lot of people have said, “Oh, I wish I had known about this, I would have submitted,” or “I didn’t have time to submit and I’d love to,” so it’s possible. It’s possibly something that comes out every few years because the city is changing so much, so I feel like there will be a lot of different approaches to how people feel about the city that need to be explored. I would love for it to be a continuing thing.
CB: It sounds like you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Do you see yourself staying in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future?
ZM: Absolutely. I have never felt as much a part of the city as I have with the launch of this book. Since people are really excited about it, it made me feel like I had really done something that was about this city, and it was what I had hoped to do when I moved here. I really wanted to make a contribution to the city somehow. I tweeted or something — I think I said, “Stake planted.” It really feels like home to me, and it feels like somewhere that will grow and change enough that can continue to be interesting for the rest of my life. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m here for life. ©
THE CINCINNATI ANTHOLOGY editor Zan McQuade will be on hand for a discussion and signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers June 12. For more information, go to beltmag.com/cincinnati-anthology.