Cathleen Ouderkirk is the Creative Director here at AMACOM. Embarrassed to admit that she started at AMACOM two decades ago (when, as she points out, I was playing with Barbie), she started as a copywriter–writing press releases and jacket copy—and then moved to producing catalogs, sales sheets, and direct mail pieces, before moving on to design. She noticed that our book jackets weren’t as nuanced as they could be and so stayed late for three years, designing on her own and secretly showing them to the acquisition editors, slowly evolving her work into overseeing all of our jackets today.
What were you doing before you joined AMACOM?
I was copywriting for a tough old publishing maven named Pat Dickerman who published a continuing series called Farm, Ranch, and Country Vacations. The first edition came out in 1949! I helped with the the XXnd edition in 1989 and I just checked, she published another one in 1995—and when I say “she published,” I mean EVERYTHING—she solicited farmers and ranchers, wrote the copy, edited it, got it printed, sold it, and distributed herself. It was actually a great gig because I learned all about the awe-inspiring western parks we have in this country. Ever been to Glacier or the Tetons or Bryce?
Before that, I had tried advertising for two or three years—sheer misery, crushing pressure, and anxiety over what—Fried chicken! Tampons! Tissues! Frozen entrees! Jeez.
What are some of your responsibilities as a Creative Director?
I have one responsibility — to produce an appropriate and attractive “face” for every book. For some covers it needs to simply be clear and clean and reassuring, like The Other Kind of Smart, for others, like Food Fray, or All Customers Are Irrational you want something intriguing. I work with a team of between four and ten freelance designers from all over the country to create covers. I’ve worked with some designers for eight years and don’t even know what they look like.
What are the big challenges you face in your job?
Matching the right designer to the right book, and describing what we need clearly enough to get a first round that’s in the ballpark. Fortunately, we’re a unified team here at AMACOM — we have pretty similar tastes and Jenny Wesselmann Schwartz our Trade Marketing Director is clear about what she wants, which makes my job a lot easier. Yes, Wesselmann as in Tom Wesselmann, so yeah, she’s got an eye for color.
You’d think a really good designer could design in many different styles, but not so. One of our best, most conceptual designers cannot create a simple, handsome jacket to save his life. His work is either phenomenally interesting or ugly!
What AMACOM book are you really excited about right now?
I’m excited about Clintonomics: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution. I’m no economist (nowhere near), but I’ve always been under the impression that Clinton and Reagan were like night and day, like yellow and purple, like chocolate and brussel sprouts. At any rate, it’s fascinating to read about how interconnected their approaches actually were — and to learn something about our country and the forces that make it function…or not!
What book are you reading at the moment?
Just finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (not because there’s a movie version—my husband recommended it a year ago.) The observations of the hilarious and sad interactions within an intelligent but highly flawed couple really captured me. It was also the first book in a long time to get a unanimous positive response from all six members of my book club. Even Melanie, who doesn’t like “down” stories (and, yes, this one gets about as down as you can get at one point) found it really involving. Some call it “bleak” but we all found it brimming and fighting for life.
Question for any Revolutionary Road readers out there: Frank Wheeler (the husband) seems to me to be a highly selfish and small-minded man (made interesting by the contrast with his outward rep as a hip, enlightened dude), but some of my book club mates felt sorry for him. What? Anybody else have that reaction?
What book do you want everyone to discover?
Hmm, that’s a big question, but of course the must-read for me is Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. (yes, made into a film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson). Such an accurate, painful, but appreciative revealing of a small, faithful life. Reminds me of my dad–worked so hard, expected so little.
No final words — always have more to say. Can I write something next month? So many great books out there (and in here) to discuss.