Q and A with Kathleen Rooney, Author of O DEMOCRACY!
Tell us a little about your novel.
My friend Chris Weiher made a fantastic trailer for the book that you can watch here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mxLg63iHjA&feature=youtu.be, and you can read the jacket copy below the trailer.
But my favorite description of the book so far has been from one of my DePaul students who said it was “like House of Cards meets Girls,” which struck me as right on: a behind-the-scenes political book with a comic sensibility that follows the story of a frustrated young female staffer.
This is a political novel and naturally also one about human frailty. I found it both engaging and entertaining too. How did you balance the entertainment factor with the serious themes that inform the book’s plot?
One of the keys to striking a balance between exploring ideas about democracy itself and trying to tell an engaging, character-driven story was the point-of-view. The book is narrated by the ghosts of the dead Founding Fathers, which most of the time means a close and fairly sympathetic third-person spotlight on the flawed protagonist, Senate Aide Colleen Dugan, but which also allows for periodic zoom-outs to a more sweeping and philosophical perspective on the flawed system in which she works.
Did writing O Democracy! clarify some of your ideas about democracy, and about the way we’re governed? If so, how?
Writing any novel—not just this one—is an experience of considering a diversity of points of view, which makes it a little bit easier to see past the crusades and misdeeds of specific individuals toward a more general critique of institutions that radically limit what it’s possible for us to achieve.
At its most basic level, democracy is simply a form of government in which all citizens participate equally. The institutions that determine the way we’re governed have succeeded not only in preventing large numbers of people from participating in the political process—e.g. recent rollbacks of the 1965 Voting Rights Act—but also ensuring that the majority of those who can participate in it become disinterested in the process because there’s very little of consequence for them to vote for. Now more than ever, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in both Citizens United and McCutcheon, voters who are unable to make vast monetary contributions early in the campaign process can be reasonably assured that their interests will not be reflected on the ballot on Election Day.
I want to live in Whitman’s America, hence the title of the book, but that, sadly, is not where any of us live.
The book is broken into relatively short, fast-moving sections. Why did you decide to structure it this way? (For the record, I think it was an inspired choice.)
Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. I decided to use small, flash sections and a fair amount of white space both to keep the pace quick and to emphasize how limited and incomplete our picture of anything is, but especially in politics where information is, often, currency and power. Also, a big inspiration for this book was Joan Didion’s Democracy, and I admire how her use of white space invites the reader into the story.
If you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel, this one based on the life and work of the ad copywriter and poet Margaret Fishback who was the highest paid advertising woman in the world in the 1920s and 1930s, before she experienced a heartbreaking fall into domesticity, obscurity, and mental illness. Fishback was a wit in the mold of Dorothy Parker, and the tone of the book is frequently funny even in the face of its darker subject matter.