Kathleen Rooney & Her Debut Novel, O, Democracy!

Kathy-019Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Her seventh book and first novel, O, Democracy!, has just been released by Fifth Star Press. Booklist has called it “shrewdly involving and acidly witty,” Chicagoist says that it’s “Well crafted with quick witted characters as well as an absolutely enthralling plotline and narrative voice,” and the Onion A.V. Club says it’s “a real rumination on what it means to be a patriot and how to reconcile that with remaining true to an established set of ideals.”

AH: At what point in your life did you decide that you were not only interested in writing, but were going to pursue it seriously and professionally? Can you pinpoint that exact moment in time? What was going on? Where were you? 

KR: Yes! I mean, I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I think in that cliché way most writers say, Ive always loved readingor My parents read to me.” But the moment when I was like, This is the thing that I know I want to do and that I could do,was when I sold my first freelance piece to The Nation magazine, which is a magazine I still admire. I like their politics—they’re progressive, they’re leftist, they’re based in New York. It was a piece on Oprah Winfreys Book Club, which my first book was about. This was before the book was finished. It was when I was still working on it and it was at this point where she had just announced that she was revamping the club,  sort of canceling it. Then she did that thing where she came back to the classics. So anyway, long story short, this happened and I was like, Oh, I have a unique perspective on this. Ill pitch a piece and write it.The Nation said yes and they paid me and I still remember it wasnt very much, but I still have the check. They paid me $300 for this little piece and I was like, Okay, I can do this.” 

AH: So, it was just an article about Oprahs Book Club as a whole? 

KR: Yeah, a piece on, I guess you would call it cultural criticism, where  it wasnt journalism, it wasnt just Heres what happenedbut Heres my analysis and what it means.’ Not that $300 is enough to live off. I didnt think that I was going to make a living as a writer, but I was like, This is going to be a part of my professional practice.I love to write creatively, but I also consider cultural criticism to be really important too. This was back in 2002, so that has shaped what Ive done since then. 

AH: Why write a piece on that specifically? Why were you drawn to it in the first place?

KR: I think throughout my career, you can kind of see in the work Ive published that Im very interested in secret histories or things that are undiscovered. Not to say that Oprahs Book Club is secret – it was huge! But I think what was undiscovered about it, and what kind of interested me, was that people seemed to have opinions about it, but I thought those opinions were uninformed and incorrect. A lot of times people would be like, Oh, this is for womenor She picks the sappy struggle-and-redemption booksor She gets people to read stuff thats bador She gets them to read in a stupid way.I thought a lot of that was coming from a place of sexism and probably some racism; people looking at her and who she was and saying, What right does she have?The more I studied it, the more I wanted to be like, Guys, its not what you think it is. Its something different.”  I like to hold stuff up to the light and say, A) Look at this if youve never seen it and B) Look at it again. You think you know it, but you dont know it.

AH: Did you have to read some of the books she promoted, as far as research is concerned? 

KR: Yeah, I read all of the books that she picked for her book club [laughs]. I quit eventually, like I didnt read the Edgar Sawtelle one, but I read all of them before that. Even when she brought [the book club] back again with things like, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. But these are good books. Oprah is not the only person who thinks Cormac McCarthy is a good writer. But I think a lot of people were shocked when she picked Cormac McCarthy. I was like, No, she picks a ton of stuff, and its literary, and its good.” 

AH: Which period of your life do you find yourself writing about or referring to, directly or indirectly, unconsciously or consciously, the most? 

KR: Thats a great question. So far, I think Ive written most about my twenties. Im interested not just in my own life in those times, but in that time period. Im currently teaching a class now called Youth and Malice – and its not a class on young adult writing, although I respect young adult writing and have nothing against it. Its a class more about how to write young people for an adult audience: books like The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford and Ghost World by Dan Clowes. I think thats why Im, so far, most interested in my twenties. My book Live Nude Girl is about being an art model, which is something that took place chiefly in my twenties. I did a bit of it in my thirties and I still sometimes pose for friends, but I dont do it anymore out of a need for money; I do it when people ask. But I very much did it through my twenties as a way to actually support myself. Also, my book of essays, For you, For You, I Am Trilling These Songs is kind of about what it’s like to be a young woman wanting to make a difference in America. 

One of the things that interests me, not only in that time in my life, but in everyones life is when people are like, What are you going to do [with your life]?Im like, Argh, stop asking [laughs]Im thinking about it, but I don’t want to talk about it.I think a lot of times I write about it because theres a lot to figure out about that time period. And with the Youth and Malice idea, the malice part comes in where a lot of times adults forget what it was like to be young and confused, and they attribute behaviors or viewpoints to a phase. But maybe its not a phase, maybe its who I am. Maybe we would all be better if we didnt grow out of these phases. Often, people in their twenties are very idealistic and very unsatisfied with the world, and they look around at older people (or just the world) and think, This is so mediocre; it could be better.It drives me crazy when people are like, Youll get over that. Youll get your mortgage and your kids, and youll settle down, and youll see that this is just the way the world is.

AH: Yeah, and phasehas such a negative connotation to it. You know, it could be a phase where its confusing and you dont know what youre doing and thats okay. Theres nothing wrong with that.

KR: Youre right. The connotation of phaseit would be so much better if it was like your poetics, or your politics, or your aesthetics. But they dont even give it that much credit – they make it seem like its this unconsidered chaotic thrashing, which sometimes it is! And thats what draws me too. Its this idea of refusing to accommodate yourself to a world that could be better than it is. Instead of saying, Im going to change and get used to the way the world is, you either say, Im going to continue trying to be who I amor Im going to try to change the world to not just accept that income inequality is growing, or that women make 77 cents to a mans dollar, or that people in Englewood are dying disproportionately.Its the ability to be like, This should change.” 

AH: When you were in your twenties, did you write about your twenties? 

KR: Yeah, I did. I wrote Live Nude Girl. I was doing art modeling in my twenties and then I wrote that book. It came out in 2009, when I was 29. Then For You, For you, I Am Trilling These Songs came out just as I was turning 30. So, I did a fair amount of writing about [twenties] stuffnot as it was happening because I do believe in distance, but I also believe in immediacy. It was definitely a way to figure stuff out and also hopefully be of interest to other people [who were] figuring stuff out. 

AH: Do you think, as you get older, youll start shifting to [writing about] your thirties or do you think youll stay in your twenties? 

KR: Thats a good question. I think itll probably shift, because I have more experience. The knowledge that you have shifts and interests shift. Also, I feel that Ill have a chance to get to some of the interests I havent gotten to yet. Im really interested in walking. Im really interested in WWI. I have a lot of ideas about stuff. So, there are interests that Ive had for years, and years, and years that I havent had time to get to yet.

AH: What was the first piece of writing that you ever got published, what was it like, and how do you perceive it now?

KR: The Nation was the first official piece, but I think the first piece I got published was for my high school literary magazine. I was very much that girl who was into poetry. I didnt come to it late; I loved it as soon as I could read poetry. Ive always loved it. I went to Downers Grove North High School; the literary magazine was called North Wind [laughs]. So, I havent looked at those poems in a while, but that made me pretty happy.

AH: Does it make you nostalgic to think about what you wrote years and years ago, or is it a little bit embarrassing? 

KR: Its both. You know, the past self often feels like another person, which is something we talked about a lot in Youth and Malicehow even if its not that far in the past, you often look back at your child self, your adolescent self, and youre just like, Oh, youwhat a weirdo.[laughs]

AH: As far as O, Democracy! is concerned, what is the last scene or section that you wrote? This question also goes along with the way in which you write; for instance, do you write in chronological order from beginning or end, do you write particular scenes that you feel necessary to flesh out in a given time, or do you have a pre-book outline that you like to follow?

KR: I almost always have an outline, and I think that partly becomes just a way I keep myself on track. Im someone who likes to have a plan, both in my personal life and in my creative life. But I think it originates in the fact that I write almost all genres. So, Im not someone who sits down and is like, Oh my goodness, heres a character. Lets see what crazy stuff he wants to do.I think thats cool, but I just cant write like that. That doesnt happen to me. I dont have characters talking voices to me; I just dont have that. I have ideas. I always sit down and note, Okay, this is a poem, this is an essay, this is fiction.I think as a result of already knowing what form something is going to take, because it could take any form, I have an outline. O, Democracy!  took me a long time to write but I did have an outline. I made a list of characters, did story mapping for them, figured out my main plot and sub-plots, and decided what beginning, middle, and end each of these major and minor characters was going to need. 

The last scene that I ended up writing was actually the last scene thats in the book and this doesnt spoil anything because its based on a true story. We know how the 2008 presidential election turned out Im pretty sure we know. It ends with Barack Obama winning, in Grant Park in Chicago on election night, with the protagonist and her co-workers and friends as part of this big crowd of people who are celebrating ecstatically. The funny part of that is just because I have an outline doesnt mean everything comes out perfectly. I did write past that and the book had an ending scene that went just a little beyond the rally. But then, as I revised and once my publisher gave me feedback, it was too much and he was like, No, no, no, lets just end at the rally.So thats what we did and it was such a good decision; Im so happy that I cut the false ending. 


AH: Does the outline help with you not being repetitive? I feel like that would be really difficult. Youre writing 400 pages, what if youre writing the same thing twice? How do you look back; how do you refer back to your pages?

KR: Totally! Yeah, absolutely, an outline is key and, I think, when Im writing poetry I dont outline in the same way. With fiction, for me, an outline is critical (especially for a novel) because it is so much information to hold in your head. I just finished a second novel (or what I think will be a second novel) and I outlined that too. I started it on the first day of the Polar Vortex and then I finished a draft.

AH: You did?

KR: Yeah! [laughs] Well, school got cancelled and I was like, Okay, time to start a new novel.But, in fairness, I had been thinking about this idea for seven years so its not like I had just sat down [with it]. It was something I had been meaning to do and I was like, Well, todays the day!I outlined and outlined because it had a complicated structure. Its like, historical; it takes place in the twenties and thirties and also in the eighties. I had to keep it straight, otherwise it would have been a mess. Theres that cliché of Well begun is half done” — I don’t know if youve heard of this; its like a little Ben Franklin kind of proverb. I very much live by that and do the same thing with my pitches. When I pitch stuff for freelance, I try really hard to have my pitches be stuff that I could almost just adapt into the essay. So, yeah, Im an outliner. 

AH: What particular phrase in the book are you most proud of? The most difficult part to write?

KR: One of the phrases that I like the best is from the Chief of Staff character who watches the protagonist  talk about how she really came to the office wanting to make a difference and change the world for the better, and how she was a huge idealist. He says something to the effect of, What she didn’t realize was that idealism was itself a form of violence against the world.Im excited about that thought because I think its important to keep that in mind. Few people probably sit down and think, I want to change the world for the worse.But theres so many instances of people trying to help where things go wrong. You know, now Im watching the Nigerian schoolgirl situation and how Obama has offered to help; its like, I understand that. Its idealistic, of course. Its horrific to think of these girls, but its also like, Wow, what would U.S. help look like? Does that mean more drones, does that mean more military escalation?So, its the [notion] that idealism comes from a good place but very often leads to unforeseen circumstances that we cant always feel good about. 

The hardest thing to do was not necessarily anything to do with content, but how I wrote, because this is my first fiction, and I really wanted to make it a novel. I didnt want it to be too bogged down with nonfictional details. It was just about wanting to shift gears and write something that would be plot-y and entertaining, as opposed to meditative and digressive, or full of facts. So I had to be like, Dont do that! Stay on target, stay on target, move forward!”  

AH: In your English classes, youve mentioned from time to time the ways in which we can stealmoves made by other authors and implement those moves in unique ways into our own work. What authors did you steal from over the course of writing O, Democracy! and how?

KR: The two big authors that I stole the most from, for O, Democracy! were Joan Didion, who I love so much. I love her fiction and I love her non-fiction, but she has a book called Democracy, which is very, very different. The way that my book is divided into little flash fiction chapters, in these little chunks, was an idea that I had very much gotten from her— the use of white space and the use of gaps to let the reader fill stuff in. And then, Walt Whitman was a huge one. In those sections, I also tried to adapt that kind of cadence of his poetry, his free-verse, especially in the voice of the Founding Fathers and in the crowd scenes. What I admire so much about Whitman is the way he talks about himself, of course, like in his Song of Myself.He is very much in there, but he does it in a way that is extremely egalitarian and extremely democratic, and he really does try to bring everybody in. So, those are my two guiding lights. 

AH: Why do you periodically use the perspective of the Founding Fathers throughout the text and what overall effect do you think it offers?

KR: As much as Im an outliner, that was a device that wasnt in my outline. I knew I wanted to [write it] mostly from Colleens perspective. And I wanted it to be a close third-person perspective, as opposed to a first-person, because the novel is very much drawn from real events, so I didnt want to get into the trap of making it just about me. I really wanted it to be a character, and I knew it had to be third-person to get that distance, so that we could see her somewhat objectively because I wanted her not to just be a heroic character but to be a flawed character, someone who makes mistakes. I recently wrote an essay about how bad decisions make good protagonists and I wanted her to make some bad decisions. 

About half-way through the writing process, I had this eureka moment where I thought that the real perspective of the book could be this first-person plural perspective of the dead Founding Fathers watching Colleen do stuff. For all intents and purposes, the book of the book is close-third. But then youre reminded periodically that its close third as told to you by George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Richard Nixon [laughs], whoever! And the reason I wanted to do that, too, is to do this Whitmanic thing of saying, This isnt just about any one person. Its about systems, its about structures, its about the stories we tell ourselves as people, the stories we tell ourselves about what kind of country we are” — that kind of creative nation building. 

AH: Did you ever consider second-person? Because I think second-person also has that distance, but youre commenting on the reader as well. 

KR: Yeah, I like second-person a lot but since its a 398-page book total it could get exhausting. 

AH: What did you edit *out of* O, Democracy!?

KR: I had to cut quite a bit of non-fiction stuff from my first draft. This book went through so many drafts, probably at least a dozen. Im a draft saver so I have all of them, but Ill probably never do anything with them Im like a draft hoarder [laughs]. Fortunately, they are not printed out. Most of the editing I was doing was structural, so I think I cut out set-pieces, things that were like, Oh this is a really good write-up of what an Earmark meeting at Fermilab is really like,but who cares, right? Its extraneous to the plot, it goes nowhere. Save it for an essay. I cut mostly stuff like that, really digressive stuff that didnt move the plot along.

AH: Was there something that you wish stayed? 

KR: There actually isnt! I had to think about that. I mean the Fermilab thing I mentioned was a scene, and I really liked it, but Im so glad its not in there.I look at where it would have been and Im just like, Phew! So glad.[laughs] But my editor told me to cut it because its not that it was inherently bad, it just didnt go anywhere. It would have been like a growth, it would have been like a weird weed in an otherwise lovely garden. 

AH: When you pick up your book now, is there a sense of, Okay, no regrets. I think everything is in there the way it should be

KR:  Yes, there is. I have a number of people to thank for that. I have my readers of drafts, but Ian Morris, whos my editor at Fifth Star, was a very good editor and very helpful at pointing out those spots where he was like, You know what, this doesnt make sense. This has to go, this gets bogged down, speed it up.His edits were great, and then Eric Platner, who teachers here [DePaul University] in the WRD department, also was one of my first readers and he was instrumental in helping me settle on that flash structure and using more white space to really let the story breathe. Had it not been for the two of them, I would have been like, Its [the book] pretty good.But now Im like, No, I did everything I could. This is the book it was supposed to be.People still might like it or not like it based on subjective factors, but Im able to pick it up and not be like, Oh, man, I wish I…” No regrets. 

AH: Its crazy what a difference it is if you use that white space versus back-and-forth, line after line, phrasing. Its like a different effect, right?

KR: Yeah, we just talked about that in my poetry class this morning. Were doing prose poetry today.Paradoxically, white space makes something longer physically, versus if you condense things, and youre like, Look, it all fits on half a page!Weirdly, you can read that half-a-page chunk and be like, Oof, this is so dense. I cant get through it.With the white space, its like snappy; it clips along, the pace is different, it just breathes better. So I think Im very lucky that Eric was like, Lets get some white space.

AH: How much weight do you give to the names of characters, either in this book or generally? Is it just an arbitrary process or something that you need to research, insofar as making the name fit with the character/personality? 

KR: Well, one of the things with O, Democracy! was a lot of the characters are based on actual people or are composites of people that I encountered. This is a book about public figures, like the Senior Senator (obviously Dick Durbin), the Chief of Staff, the junior Senator who becomes president (obviously Barack Obama). But a decision I made in O, Democracy! was to try not to use proper names for famous people and figures because I wanted it to exist not just as a book of 2008 but kind of out of time, and as a book that you didnt have to care specifically about Chicago in 2008 to be into, but that you could just be like, Okay, I get it. This is about politics more broadly; this is about democracy more broadly. I shouldn’t just picture Dick Durbin, I should picture any Senator. I shouldnt just picture Barack Obama, I should picture anyone whos as ambitious and successful as him who wants to run.” 

As far as the other characters, too, one of the interesting things that I tried to show is that Chicago is still very much a city of neighborhoods and ethnicities, and, for better or for worse, this matters a lot. I cant tell you how many times I walked into meetings and said, Im Kathleen Rooney,and people would just react with joy and be like, Oh! What a good, Irish name!My dads side of the family came over in the 1840s. Im so not Irish; I do not identify as Irish at all! My moms people are Czech; I just dont identify that way. I identify as American, but Chicago is still very much a place where that kind of thing matters. Youre not going to have an African-American community liaison whos not Black. Youre not going to have an Asian-American outreach person who doesnt have ties to the Asian community. I mean, you might, but in Durbins office, we absolutely matched people to their constituencies. 

The book, I think, reflects that. You have people who are dealing with their constituencies because, if you can speak Spanish, youre probably going to speak to the people who need to hear Spanish. In the book, people have names that reflect that and one of the things that I didnt want to shy away from was an honest depiction of how race affects peoples lives and peoples opportunities. I think names are so important. Im working on this second novel, and its based on this woman, Margaret Fishback. In my book, though, Ive named her fictional counterpart Lillian Boxfish because I wanted to retain that old-timey Margaret and then also, the absurdity Fishback/Boxfish. And that weird, iconic sounding name. I think really hard about my names.

AH: Do you use something to brainstorm or do you just sit there and think?

KR: Yeah, I sit there and think and do research. For Boxfish, I wanted to make sure it was a name that somebody might actually be called. With Lillian, I went back to the Social Security records you know, thats a great thing about the Internet. I love being a writer in the Internet age. As much as people complain its distractingyou know, people go on these residencies and are like, Its so great! I have no internet.Im like, That sounds like hell on earth.That sounds like a waking nightmare.” I guess I have enough self-control that I can avoid  Twitter/Facebook when necessary, but I need research. I research all the time. So, I just hopped on the Social Security website and was like, Top Hundred Names for Baby Girls Born in 1900.And I did that for other characters, too, because I didnt want peoples names to be like, “Colton.” Its like, no, he probably would have been named Chester in 1933. 

AH: Have you read something recently that made you think differently about writing in general, whether it be poetry, prose, and everything in-between? A particular phrase or quote that struck you as unique to traditional writing?

KR: Oh, man, so many things! [laughs] Ill give you three examples. Im in a book club and so is my husband, Martin. We recently did a double-header of detective fiction. We did The Maltese Falcon and we did The Big Sleep. The Maltese Falcon is third-person, The Big Sleep is first-person. Ive read both books before, but reading The Big Sleep again just made me realize how much I love similes because youve got Phillip Marlow whos always comparing stuff or making these comparisons: He looked about as inconspicuous as a spider on an angel food cake,or, His face looked like a snow bank with two holes punched in it.Stuff like that, and youre just like, Wow!So, my take-away is that similes are not just for poetry. Im reading right now, also for book club, a book called Speedboat by Renata Adler. She wrote it in the 70s but its very disjointed. Its in these short sections, so Ive read stuff like that before but its reaffirming for me the idea that [since] Im a publisher too, sometimes people are like, Oh, you publish experimental stuff thats doing new thingsand Im like, Yes, we are, but also, a lot of the stuff is not as new as we think.So with Adlers book, its like this fragmentation is almost a Twitter-esque sense of, Dude, I just pinged your consciousnessthat has been around for a while. 

The other book that I read that actually has some phrases I really like was Low Life by Luc Sante, which you should read! Its a history, kind of like a social/cultural history of the Bowery in New York but he kind of goes back around to the 1830s up to WWI. So, its not like the Bowery and the Lower East Side with Patti Smith (though all thats cool). [Sante] is way before that and shows how it became what it is now. He uses this phrase, at the end, about gentrification and why gentrification happens, and he uses the French phrase, nostalgie de la bouewhich means a yearning for the mud.Thats how it gets translated, and that attraction to “low life”like why so many artists are bohemians or why they are edgy people who come to parts of the city that are beneath them.A part of it is economic too; a lot of times it is artists who, even though they might not be of the ethnic or working class make-up of a neighborhood, are like, I do need to live somewhere cheap.But theres a lot of people who are sort of urban tourist thrill-seekers who are like, I want to live in this crummy, dive-y placefor some sort of exoticism. Its not an original idea, obviously, but its good to know that nostalgie de la boue is a term/phrase – the French have a word for it. The French have a word for everything!

AH: Final question: how do you juggle everything? You seem so heavily involved in all aspects of the writing world. How do you balance your life? 

KR: Well, I like to be busy. Thats the thing. Ive got this crazy work ethic where Im really happy when Im working. It’s not like Im a drudge; its like when Im working on writing, Im learning stuff and Im appreciating the world more. Its like that James Bond theme song, You Only Live Twice.In that case, its real life and your dreams. But in a writers case, I think its real life and then your writing. I feel like its work, but its making my life better in a way that maybe all work wouldnt. So, its not as exhausting as working at a factory, you know what I mean? I wouldnt be happy if all I did was write; I want to be a part of the community. I feel like its really important to meet other writers and just meet people. People interest me. Thats what keeps the literary citizenship alive. Also, I take a lot of walks, I do a lot of yoga, and I cook. I dont always just work. [laughs] Walking keeps me sane. 

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Amanda Hanna

Amanda Hanna earned her Bachelor's Degree in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing, from DePaul University in June 2014. She plans to pursue her MA in Writing & Publishing, from DePaul, beginning in the fall of 2015. She was born in Chicago, but has lived in a variety of places throughout Southern California, such as Riverside, Orange County, and San Diego. Post high school, she attended a nineteen-day trip to Europe and visited Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, England, and France. On her free time, Amanda loves to draw and paint, attend symphonies and plays, peruse museums, visit farmers' markets, and, of course, read and write. One of her favorite collections of short stories is J.D. Salinger’s, 'Nine Stories'.

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