Conversations in the Author's Corner: John Kropf
About the Author: John Kropf’s latest book, Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company (University of Akron Press), has been praised by Michael Dirda of The Washington Post as “well-written and, for those of a certain age, suffused with nostalgia.” John has also published a travel-adventure book based on his two years in the central Asian country of Turkmenistan, Unknown Sands: Travels in the World’s Most Isolated Country. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Middle West Review, and elsewhere. John currently works as an attorney in the Washington, DC, area and teaches at the George Washington University Law School. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife Eileen, cat Poppy, and dog, Caia.
Lena Crown: Can you summarize for our viewers your family’s history in Sandusky with the American Crayon Company?
John Kropf: The book is set in Sandusky, Ohio, which is a mid-size town on Lake Erie. It was originally part of the Northwest Territory, which was the foundation of the Midwest starting in 1787. From there, migrants from the Northeast settled in those developing states, and it was a period of tremendous innovation in Ohio, which really took off after the Civil War. You had the railroad, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford. My story fits into that because it was the creation of the very first color crayons that were practical and affordable.
At the time, they had this very rough-hewn chalk that the teachers were using on the school black boards, carved out of the cliffs of Dover in England. It made a terrible sound on the chalkboard. Once the first two founders of the American Crayon Company had developed an alternative, added pigment, and found success selling it to schools, the third family comes in: John Whitworth, who was my great-grandfather. He had nothing but an eighth grade education, but he was what you might call a venture capitalist, and he put up the money to create the American Crayon Company.
LC: I’m curious to know more about the research process for this book. It seems like you've done scholarly research, historical research, and of course archival research—was this already in your wheelhouse? What skills did you have to teach yourself or otherwise learn?
JK: I had a grandmother who was really into genealogy, and with the loss of my mother and sister, all these records were passed down directly to me. So that was the core of my research. The hardest part was that there were not a lot of people left in my immediate family to talk to. I actually reconnected with a third cousin who was part of the Curtis line, and it turned out she had her own treasure trove. I also found that my hometown library in Sandusky was invaluable—there was an archivist and a historian there who could quickly confirm things. I also consulted social media groups dedicated to Sandusky and to Rust Belt history, and I was able to do some phone interviews with folks through those.
LC: During the writing process in nonfiction, the world beyond the page is always actively changing – did you have to contend with or include any big changes in Sandusky or beyond while you were writing?
JK: The factory was scheduled for demolition years back, and that was part of the motivation for writing the book. It languished for a time while there were legal squabbles as to who was going to take on the liability for demolishing the building. I would go back and scramble around the vacant factory taking pictures. It felt like a race against time.
LC: The history of Sandusky is the history of the Midwest, which is also a history of increasing connectivity between places, globalization and eventual outsourcing of industry to other countries (in this case, Mexico). You could have written about an endless cadre of places; how did you determine or limit your scope?
JK: My scope was much wider, initially. There was so much innovation happening at the time in Erie Country, where the book is set: some of the very first electric commuter trains, and over 100 automobile startups in Ohio alone. But the editor advised me to focus on crayons, and they were right.
LC: In the epilogue, you reflect on what you’ve learned through the process of researching your family’s history. Did you always plan to write an epilogue?
JK: Yes, but for a while it was just blank pages. I wanted to remind the reader that the story is universal—we’ve seen this arc of boom, build and bust in many lives and companies, and this is no different from any other.
LC: We ask all our author’s corner authors to tell us a bit about their publication process and the journey to publishing this book. What was it like working with a small press?
JK: I can't say enough great things about the University of Akron Press. When I started sending this book out, I was very targeted with the presses I was sending to—I focused on either small presses or academic presses set in the Midwest. Akron had a wonderful process where they had a board of editors that then started to make some suggestions, and their feedback was invaluable. The marketing and promotions person has also helped me find all sorts of venues to try out. It’s a very personalized experience.
Watch the entire interview on YouTube here:
About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.