Q and A with Kathleen Rooney, author of LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK
From the book jacket: "She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest paid advertising woman in the country. It was a job that, she says, “in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it.” Now it’s the last night of 1984 and Lillian, 85 years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough out for her mink coat and Manhattan is grittier now―her son keeps warning her about a subway vigilante on the prowl―but the quick-tongued poetess has never been one to scare easily. On a walk that takes her over 10 miles around the city, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be, while reviewing a life of excitement and adversity, passion and heartbreak, illuminating all the ways New York has changed―and has not.
"A love letter to city life in all its guts and grandeur, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop. Lillian figures she might as well take her time. For now, after all, the night is still young."
1. Your novel’s structure is both present-day, of-the-moment action interspersed with many detailed flashbacks; was this structure with you from the beginning or did it evolve as you progressed farther into the writing of Lillian Boxfish?
KR: Outlining is my jam. I can’t imagine writing a novel without an outline—to me, that would be like trying to build a house without any blueprint. So I knew from the outset that the book would be built around her New Year’s Eve 1984 walk, and I quickly made a Google Map into which I kept dropping pins for the major incidents of both Lillian’s past and present. The map that’s on the frontispiece of the finished novel is actually a (much more artistic and attractive) version of that initial map
2. Your title character is based on a real person, Margaret Fishback, a poet and highly successful ad woman who worked for many years at R.H. Macy’s—many of the scenes in the novel are imagined, i.e. works of fiction, I’m guessing—though perhaps I’m wrong: are most of them based on events you read about in Fishback’s journals?
KR: I got to be the first non-archivist to work with the archive of Margaret Fishback, the real-life inspiration for Lillian Boxfish. And while the majority of the incidents from the book’s “past” portions (from 1926- the early 1980s) are largely based on real incidents, a lot of them are not. For example, the scene where Lillian marches into her boss’s office and demands to be paid equally to the men at Macy’s is pure fantasy on my part. Ditto the cocktail party scene where she has her verbal showdown with her co-worker Olive. And all the 1984 walk encounters are totally made-up. The walk, really, was the fictional key that let me unlock the story, and write it in a way that would be engaging as fiction (and not just inert reportage of actual events).
3. There’s a great line that I keep thinking about, one that occurs at the end of Chapter 21: “The point of living in the world is just to stay interested.” Would you say this is as much your philosophy as it is Lillian’s?
KR: Heck yes. Curiosity is my favorite emotion, followed closely by wonder. If I ever lost the ability to feel either one, I fear it might be fatal. I teach and I love it when my students are curious, and I try to create an environment that rewards curiosity and wondering.
4. There are many terrific and surprising details in this novel, one of which is the story behind the Macy’s red star logo. What was something else that you were particularly excited to learn as you were working on Lillian Boxfish?
KR: Ah, research is my favorite phase of any project and I got to learn so many fantastic things. It’s so hard to pick just one other thing I was excited to learn, but I’ll go with another one that I ended up including in the book. The parks of New York City, back when Lillian Boxfish would have arrived there, had little signs reminding people how to behave that were rhyming couplets:
Let no one say and say it to your shame
That all was beauty here until you came.
This seems like an instructive guideline for when one is not only in a park, but just in general.
5. What was Anthony Antolini’s (Margaret Fishback’s son), reaction to this novel? I think you told me he read it before it was published.
KR: Antony Antolini is a bit of an angel, if you ask me. I’m grateful to him for realizing how important his mother’s life and work were and subsequently giving her archives to Duke University where people like me can come and work with them.
Back in 2007 when I first began to work with the Fishback materials, I dropped him a note to let him know what I was doing (but at that point, I didn’t really know what I was doing). A little under 10 years later, I wrote him again, on that very same email thread, to tell him that the project was a novel and would be appearing in 2017. Understandably, he expressed concern about how I had chosen to depict this character based on his mom. I offered to let him read it in advance of publication and he took me up on it, and to my immense relief, he enjoyed and wished me well with it.
Also, a fun side note: it was an un-copy-edited version, and he and his wife Anne Greenleaf were kind enough to find numerous errors and send me corrections. So if readers find the book particularly well copy-edited and error-free, I have to acknowledge that it’s in no small part to the two of them.
6. What are you working on now, if you don’t mind sharing a few details about it?
KR: I have a couple of projects that are close to completion, both of them novels, but the one I’ll talk about here is a manuscript about World War I, currently titled An Instinct. Like Lillian Boxfish, it’s based on a true story, or really two intersecting true stories: one about Charles Whittlesey of the Lost Battalion and one about Cher Ami, a messenger pigeon who helped to save Whittlesey and his men in October of 1918, just before the end of the war. During the 1920s and 1930s, every school kid would have known those names, but World War II came along and eclipsed the tragedy of World War I with even greater atrocities. It’s been fascinating to learn about and try to bring life to their forgotten histories.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press http://rosemetalpress.com/ and a founding member of Poems While You Wait http://poemswhileyouwait.tumblr.com/, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and the forthcoming The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018) . With Eric Plattner, she is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Married to the writer Martin Seay, she lives in Chicago and teaches at DePaul University. Follow her @KathleenMRooney