Mt. Prospect native writes history's epilogues
Owen Hurd loves story endings — not the endings that are presented in a book or newspaper, but the stuff that happens after those.
Like, what happened to famed federal agent Eliot Ness in the years after he tussled with feared Chicago gangster Al Capone? And what did Rosa Parks do after making history by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in the segregated South?
Hurd, a Mount Prospect native who now lives in Chicago, decided there might be a book in such historical epilogues. So he compiled some of his favorites into "After the Fact: The Surprising Fates of American History's Heroes, Villains and Supporting Characters," which came out in August from Perigee, a division of Penguin Books.
"I've always loved it when movies or books added that little bit at the end that explained what ultimately happened to all the characters," Hurd said. "It adds a bit of surprise to the whole story."
The book doesn't just provide epilogues for the main characters, but for some of the supporting players, also. In the Eliot Ness section, for example, we find out that Ness's post-Capone career included notable triumphs against police corruption and organized crime in Cleveland, followed by spectacular personal and professional failures, such as his involvement in a drunken hit-and-run accident. But then we also learn that Albert "Wallpaper" Wolff, a little-known member of Ness's "Untouchables" gang, died in 1998 after a long career as an undercover officer in New York and a stint as technical consultant on Brian DePalma's 1987 film, "The Untouchables."
"I wanted to provide as much information as I could about the people who surrounded these historical figures," Hurd said. "That's part of what fascinated me with this project — showing how the well-known people affected, and were affected by, the lesser-known people around them."
"After the Fact" is Hurd's second nonfiction book. His first, "Chicago History for Kids: Triumphs and Tragedies of the Windy City," came out in 2007.
Hurd started writing after spending years on the editing and marketing sides of the publishing world. He worked at several Chicago-area publishers after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1987. Before that he attended now closed Forest View High School in Arlington Heights.
"It was a different world when I started," he said with a laugh. "Some of the offices had computers, some didn't. I remember one time when we had a group demonstration on the use of a fax machine."
Those early publishing jobs taught Hurd about what makes a book idea marketable, and how to pitch such ideas to agents and publishers. It wasn't long before he felt the itch to write his own book.
Hurd pitched an idea for a nonfiction book to Chicago Review Press, a local publisher. The idea received a lukewarm response, but then the editors asked him if he'd be interested in writing a book they had in mind, a volume of Chicago history for young readers. That assignment became "Chicago History for Kids."
"It was a great break for me," Hurd said.
For his second book, Hurd wanted to write something that was for adults and wasn't tied to a specific region. He acquired an agent, and the two of them spent months crafting a proposal for what would become "After the Fact."
"There was a lot of time spent reworking and revising the pitch for that book," he said. "And once it was accepted, I had to work closely with the publisher on the manuscript. It was a hard process sometimes, involving lots of give and take. But I'm proud of the result."
Hurd is hard at work on his next book-length work, along with freelance editing and magazine writing projects. He hopes there will continue to be a market for writers like him in the future.
"I get concerned as I look around now because of all the technological changes," he said. "It seems like publishers are looking for shorter and shorter works, the kind of stuff that can be read on cellphones. I just have to hope that there will be continue to be readers who appreciate spending time with book-length works."
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