Kathleen 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, “I’ve always loved reading” or “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 Winfrey’s 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. I’ll pitch a piece and write it.” The Nation said yes and they paid me and I still remember it wasn’t 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 Oprah’s Book Club as a whole?
KR: Yeah, a piece on, I guess you would call it cultural criticism, where it wasn’t journalism, it wasn’t just ‘Here’s what happened’ but ‘Here’s my analysis and what it means.’ Not that $300 is enough to live off. I didn’t 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 I’ve 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 I’ve published that I’m very interested in secret histories or things that are undiscovered. Not to say that Oprah’s 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 women” or “She picks the sappy struggle-and-redemption books” or “She gets people to read stuff that’s bad” or “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, it’s not what you think it is. It’s something different.” I like to hold stuff up to the light and say, “A) Look at this if you’ve never seen it and B) Look at it again. You think you know it, but you don’t 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 didn’t 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 it’s literary, and it’s 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: That’s a great question. So far, I think I’ve written most about my twenties. I’m interested not just in my own life in those times, but in that time period. I’m currently teaching a class now called Youth and Malice – and it’s not a class on young adult writing, although I respect young adult writing and have nothing against it. It’s 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 that’s why I’m, 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 don’t 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 everyone’s life is when people are like, “What are you going to do [with your life]?” I’m like, “Argh, stop asking [laughs]…I’m thinking about it, but I don’t want to talk about it.” I think a lot of times I write about it because there’s 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 it’s not a phase, maybe it’s who I am. Maybe we would all be better if we didn’t 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, “You’ll get over that. You’ll get your mortgage and your kids, and you’ll settle down, and you’ll see that this is just the way the world is.”
AH: Yeah, and ‘phase’ has such a negative connotation to it. You know, it could be a phase where it’s confusing and you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.
KR: You’re right. The connotation of phase…it would be so much better if it was like your poetics, or your politics, or your aesthetics. But they don’t even give it that much credit – they make it seem like it’s this unconsidered chaotic thrashing, which sometimes it is! And that’s what draws me too. It’s this idea of refusing to accommodate yourself to a world that could be better than it is. Instead of saying, I’m going to change and get used to the way the world is, you either say, “I’m going to continue trying to be who I am” or “I’m going to try to change the world to not just accept that income inequality is growing, or that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar, or that people in Englewood are dying disproportionately.” It’s 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] stuff…not 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, you’ll start shifting to [writing about] your thirties or do you think you’ll stay in your twenties?
KR: That’s a good question. I think it’ll probably shift, because I have more experience. The knowledge that you have shifts and interests shift. Also, I feel that I’ll have a chance to get to some of the interests I haven’t gotten to yet. I’m really interested in walking. I’m really interested in WWI. I have a lot of ideas about stuff. So, there are interests that I’ve had for years, and years, and years that I haven’t 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 didn’t come to it late; I loved it as soon as I could read poetry. I’ve always loved it. I went to Downers Grove North High School; the literary magazine was called North Wind [laughs]. So, I haven’t 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: It’s both. You know, the past self often feels like another person, which is something we talked about a lot in Youth and Malice—how even if it’s not that far in the past, you often look back at your child self, your adolescent self, and you’re just like, “Oh, you…what 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. I’m 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, I’m not someone who sits down and is like, “Oh my goodness, here’s a character. Let’s see what crazy stuff he wants to do.” I think that’s cool, but I just can’t write like that. That doesn’t happen to me. I don’t have characters talking voices to me; I just don’t 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 that’s in the book and this doesn’t spoil anything because it’s based on a true story. We know how the 2008 presidential election turned out — I’m 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 doesn’t 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, let’s just end at the rally.” So that’s what we did and it was such a good decision; I’m 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. You’re writing 400 pages, what if you’re 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 I’m writing poetry I don’t 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 it’s not like I had just sat down [with it]. It was something I had been meaning to do and I was like, “Well, today’s the day!” I outlined and outlined because it had a complicated structure. It’s 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. There’s that cliché of “Well begun is half done” — I don’t know if you’ve heard of this; it’s 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, I’m 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.” I’m excited about that thought because I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Few people probably sit down and think, “I want to change the world for the worse.” But there’s so many instances of people trying to help where things go wrong. You know, now I’m watching the Nigerian schoolgirl situation and how Obama has offered to help; it’s like, I understand that. It’s idealistic, of course. It’s horrific to think of these girls, but it’s also like, “Wow, what would U.S. help look like? Does that mean more drones, does that mean more military escalation?” So, it’s the [notion] that idealism comes from a good place but very often leads to unforeseen circumstances that we can’t 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 didn’t 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, “Don’t do that! Stay on target, stay on target, move forward!”
AH: In your English classes, you’ve mentioned from time to time the ways in which we can ‘steal’ moves 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 I’m an outliner, that was a device that wasn’t in my outline. I knew I wanted to [write it] mostly from Colleen’s 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 didn’t 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 you’re reminded periodically that it’s 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 isn’t just about any one person. It’s about systems, it’s about structures, it’s 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 you’re commenting on the reader as well.
KR: Yeah, I like second-person a lot but since it’s 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. I’m a draft saver so I have all of them, but I’ll probably never do anything with them — I’m 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? It’s extraneous to the plot, it goes nowhere. Save it for an essay. I cut mostly stuff like that, really digressive stuff that didn’t move the plot along.
AH: Was there something that you wish stayed?
KR: There actually isn’t! I had to think about that. I mean the Fermilab thing I mentioned was a scene, and I really liked it, but I’m so glad it’s not in there.I look at where it would have been and I’m just like, “Phew! So glad.” [laughs] But my editor told me to cut it because it’s not that it was inherently bad, it just didn’t 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, who’s 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 doesn’t 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, “It’s [the book] pretty good.” But now I’m 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 I’m able to pick it up and not be like, “Oh, man, I wish I…” No regrets.
AH: It’s crazy what a difference it is if you use that white space versus back-and-forth, line after line, phrasing. It’s like a different effect, right?
KR: Yeah, we just talked about that in my poetry class this morning. We’re doing prose poetry today.Paradoxically, white space makes something longer physically, versus if you condense things, and you’re 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 can’t get through it.” With the white space, it’s like snappy; it clips along, the pace is different, it just breathes better. So I think I’m very lucky that Eric was like, “Let’s 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 didn’t 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 shouldn’t just picture Barack Obama, I should picture anyone who’s 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 can’t tell you how many times I walked into meetings and said, “I’m Kathleen Rooney,” and people would just react with joy and be like, “Oh! What a good, Irish name!” My dad’s side of the family came over in the 1840s. I’m so not Irish; I do not identify as Irish at all! My mom’s people are Czech; I just don’t identify that way. I identify as American, but Chicago is still very much a place where that kind of thing matters. You’re not going to have an African-American community liaison who’s not Black. You’re not going to have an Asian-American outreach person who doesn’t have ties to the Asian community. I mean, you might, but in Durbin’s 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, you’re 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 didn’t want to shy away from was an honest depiction of how race affects people’s lives and people’s opportunities. I think names are so important. I’m working on this second novel, and it’s based on this woman, Margaret Fishback. In my book, though, I’ve 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, that’s a great thing about the Internet. I love being a writer in the Internet age. As much as people complain it’s distracting…you know, people go on these residencies and are like, “It’s so great! I have no internet.” I’m 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 didn’t want people’s names to be like, “Colton.” It’s 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] I’ll give you three examples. I’m 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. I’ve read both books before, but reading The Big Sleep again just made me realize how much I love similes because you’ve got Phillip Marlow who’s 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 you’re just like, “Wow!” So, my take-away is that similes are not just for poetry. I’m reading right now, also for book club, a book called Speedboat by Renata Adler. She wrote it in the 70s but it’s very disjointed. It’s in these short sections, so I’ve read stuff like that before but it’s reaffirming for me the idea that [since] I’m a publisher too, sometimes people are like, “Oh, you publish experimental stuff that’s doing new things” and I’m like, “Yes, we are, but also, a lot of the stuff is not as new as we think.” So with Adler’s book, it’s like this fragmentation is almost a Twitter-esque sense of, “Dude, I just pinged your consciousness” that 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! It’s 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, it’s not like the Bowery and the Lower East Side with Patti Smith (though all that’s 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 boue’ which means ‘a yearning for the mud.’ That’s 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 there’s a lot of people who are sort of urban tourist thrill-seekers who are like, “I want to live in this crummy, dive-y place” for some sort of exoticism. It’s not an original idea, obviously, but it’s 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. That’s the thing. I’ve got this crazy work ethic where I’m really happy when I’m working. It’s not like I’m a drudge; it’s like when I’m working on writing, I’m learning stuff and I’m appreciating the world more. It’s like that James Bond theme song, “You Only Live Twice.” In that case, it’s real life and your dreams. But in a writer’s case, I think it’s real life and then your writing. I feel like it’s work, but it’s making my life better in a way that maybe all work wouldn’t. So, it’s not as exhausting as working at a factory, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t be happy if all I did was write; I want to be a part of the community. I feel like it’s really important to meet other writers and just meet people. People interest me. That’s what keeps the literary citizenship alive. Also, I take a lot of walks, I do a lot of yoga, and I cook. I don’t always just work. [laughs] Walking keeps me sane.