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Interview: Kathleen Rooney: Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

katherine Rooney

Hi Kathleen! I am excited to meet you. Are you looking forward to coming South to SC next week? Our book club is so excited because the organizer is having you sit with our book club. We can’t wait to hear about Lillian and her adventures, her life, and her work in NYC.  She was a gutsy lady!

Where did you get your inspiration for the novel, Lillian Boxfish?
KR: The dedication of the book is in part to “Angela, my archivist always.” That refers to my high school best friend without whom I would never have come across the inspiration for this novel. She was getting her Library Science degree at UNC—Chapel Hill and had an internship at Duke University at the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History where she got to be the first archivist to work with the papers of Margaret Fishback, the real-life highest paid advertising copywriter in America in the 1930s. Thanks to her, I got to be the first non-archivist to work with the Fishback materials, an unforgettable experience that ultimately led me to write this book based on her biography and achievements.
Did you mean to write a story about old age and memory? You are so young, I am just wondering where and how the story developed? You as a young person, I wouldn’t think you would be so wise in your young years to write a story about old age, and memory.
KR: The other part of the book’s dedication is to “Eric, forever my favorite flâneur.” That refers to my DePaul University friend and colleague with whom I take long, drifting walks through the city of Chicago. In order to make a compelling novel out of the Fishback material, I knew I needed to find some way to fictionalize her story, and walking became the key to that. It took me years of contemplating the archival material before my own lifelong love of walking paired with my habit of Chicago walks made me realize that a New Year’s Eve stroll around Manhattan would give Lillian the occasion she needed to look back from her old age of 85 years and meditate on her memories of her life in the city she had known and loved for almost six decades. I’m so glad to hear you found Lillian’s wisdom as an octogenarian convincing because one of my chief goals with the story, even though I’m only in my 30s, was to create a believable older voice.
Did you live in NYC? The story really had the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. But, the only thing I felt that you missed were the vendors at the corner of each block.  Here is a useful link of a map. I wish I had seen it before reading the book.
KR: Thanks! Especially because I know you lived in New York, your compliment is much appreciated. But nope: I never lived there. It was all historical research and the occasional trip to the Manhattan over the years. New York is one of my favorite cities to walk around and I also love the food vendors—I couldn’t find a way to work them in, sadly, because it didn’t seem plausible to me that Lillian would run into a lot on New Year’s Eve, so the best I could do was C.J. the bodega clerk, who was a character I liked inventing.
The story is very inspirational for the ” me too” movement, it is so timely with everything that is going on right now. What do you think Lillian Boxfish would say about the me too movement, and the feminist movement? She was such a gutsy lady. What would Lillian say today to the young ladies of today? What do you think your message is to the me too movement of today? What does memory say about Lillian? And her past? What our culture is like today?
KR: Lillian would absolutely be a supporter of the #MeToo movement and of feminism in general. I put the scene where she confronts her boss, Chester, for equal pay into the book because it seemed true to her no-nonsense outlook and to her sense of justice, first and foremost, but also because those issues are ones that I think about a lot personally and I wanted to show that the struggles women are going through today are connected to the ones they went through in the past. We’ve come so far, but we still have so far to go.
To the young ladies of today, Lillian would say: don’t underestimate yourselves and don’t let anyone convince you that you deserve substandard treatment, reduced compensation, or fewer opportunities because you happen to be a woman. I think she would also advise the young women of today’s feminist movement to keep fighting the good fight, and to fight it on all fronts: keep working for equal pay and an end to sexual harassment and assault, but also work intersectionally with women of all different racial and class backgrounds for bigger systemic and institutional fixes, including paid parental leave and free childcare.
One of the things that broke my heart in my research about the real-life inspiration, Margaret Fishback, was that she was forced to leave her job when she and her husband announced that she was pregnant, a policy that was standard at the time. I put that episode—being made to leave a career that you love and are immensely talented at for an arbitrary and unfair reason—in the book to be accurate, but also to show that sadly, things are not so tremendously different today. But the thing is, they could be. We all deserve better. If women get more chances and support, then all of society benefits.
The book is very light reading, but there were messages that were conveyed, what message was Lillian trying to convey?
KR: For fiction to be absorbing, it has to be a pleasure to read—in some sense, it must be entertaining above all. So I did my best to make Lillian someone you’d be delighted to listen to. But then in addition to entertainment, good fiction can also teach the reader something. So some of the ideas I hope Lillian helps my readers learn or think about is how civility is so important to creating a culture that treats all its members with compassion and respect. Lillian believes in good manners not because she’s some stickler for etiquette; she doesn’t care if you use the right fork. What she does want to do is treat everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, with kindness and interest—everyone she meets, she greets with an openness and a willingness to listen. It can seem like a clichĂ©, but if you truly treat people the way you would want to be treated, more often than not, you discover that they treat you well in return and you can have a wonderful conversation.
Do you think this story could have taken place in any city, or why NYC did you pick particularly?
KR: The only city this book could have been set in is New York. The advertising industry that Lillian (and her real life inspiration, Margaret) worked in, departmental advertising for the department store R.H. Macy’s, was headquartered in Herald Square, so that’s where she had to be. Plus, I wanted the book to be a sweeping catalogue of much of the twentieth century, and New York played a pivotal role in so many of that century’s defining incidents. Finally, I wanted to have the Bernhard Goetz / Subway Vigilante shootings playing in the background, and those happened in New York in 1984. Part of what I hope the reader finds impressive about Lillian is her courage and her refusal to abandon the city she loves out of fear, and I needed to emphasize just how threatening New York City had come to feel to many people by the early 1980s.
What research did you do before writing the book? I am surprised how much you knew about the city life, the crime, the culture of NYC.
KR: Research is my most beloved phase of any project and I did so much for Lillian. Besides all the archival materials from Margaret, I read exhaustively about the history of the city and also in books that were not just about but specificallyfrom the time periods (the 1920s through the 1980s) so I could get a sense of how people thought and spoke over the eras.
Was it difficult to go from poetry to writing a novel? What is your writing process? Was it different because you were a poet?
KR: Lillian Boxfish is actually my second novel, with the first being O, Democracy!, a political comedy, and I have a few prose nonfiction books as well, including Reading With Oprah: The Book Club that Changed Americaand Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Objectabout being an artist’s model. So while poetry is my first love, I also am quite fond of writing prose. But I do think that novels are, for me, the hardest genre, simply because there’s so much to hold in your head for such a long period of time: all these imagined people and their imagined lives and surroundings! It helped that Lillian as a character is, herself, a light-verse poet. One of the coolest things about writing this book was imagining how someone like with such an astonishing vocabulary and sense of rhythm and rhyme would have thought and talked.
Lillian is such a character with a lot of wit, did you have someone in mind while writing about Lillian’s character?
KR: Thank you. Wit is one of my favorite traits in a person and it was important to me that Lillian be witty. So often, you hear people (foolish people) say that women are not as funny as men, and that’s clearly ridiculous. Women can be hilarious. Margaret, the woman Lillian was based on, is in fact the person who pioneered the use of comedy in advertising. Before she revolutionized the industry, ads tended to be sober and self-serious. As models for Lillian, besides Margaret herself, I looked at the poet and writer Dorothy Parker, one of the wittiest women who ever lived, and also Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Were you trying to show older citizens still have something to share with younger society? Just because she was old doesn’t mean she doesn’t have something to contribute along the people she met along the way.
KR: Absolutely. I’ve always found myself drawn to older people for their life experiences and perspectives. And I was thinking, as I wrote this, about how old women especially tend to find themselves dismissed and erased—treated as invisible, really. I wanted to give visibility to that group of people because they have so much to offer, if people would just listen.
Is there anything that you want to say to the older generation reading this book? Were you speaking possibly to your grandmother, or listening to her voice while writing this book?
KR: Both of my grandmothers were fascinating and influential women to me, so I certainly had them in mind. In addition, I had my Great Aunt Georgi, my grandfather’s sister, in my head as I built Lillian. She was a smart, funny, kind and giving lady who never married, which was very rare for her era, but who nevertheless lived a fun and fascinating life. I loved seeing her whenever we’d visit Nebraska at Christmas and in the summertime. She was always respectful of other people but lived life independently and on her own terms and I will never cease to admire her for that; I’m grateful to her for being a sterling role model.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with me and my book blog readers?
KR: As a college professor at DePaul University and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, I like to recommend books both to my students and to general readers. So I’ll end by recommending two books I read recently that I really enjoyed and think that your blog followers might as well: first, the recently reissued classic novel from 1980 by the Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig, Basic Black with Pearls, a strange and funny feminist sort-of spy novel. And second, the just-released graphic memoir We Ate Wonder Bread; it’s a coming-of-age memoir about growing up on the West Side of Chicago by the feminist cartoonist Nicole Hollander, creator of the comic strip Sylvia.
Also Kathleen told me something interested. Here is the link to something interested about Kathleen, a B &B for publishers.Check it out. You should scroll down till you find her name.
Thank you Kathleen for stopping by. This was alot of fun! I had a wonderful time chatting with you. Wishing you a safe, and fun trip to Myrtle Beach. Unfortunately this year is still cool. This year we have unusual weather. I hope by the time you arrive it will be warmer. Happy Trails!
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