Kathleen Rooney is the author of the new novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Her other books include O, Democracy! and Robinson Alone, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches at DePaul University.
Q: You write that Lillian Boxfish is based on a real advertising woman and poet named Margaret Fishback. How did you decide to write a novel based on her life, and what did you see as the right balance between history and fiction?
A: [My friend Angela McClendon Ossar] happened upon Fishback's papers, she knew instantly that Fishback...would appeal to me as a person, and that her comedy in both her ads and her light verse would appeal to my sensibility.
Thanks to Angela, I got to be the first non-archivist to work with her materials. But it took me almost a decade to decide what form my work on Fishback would take.
The key that let me decide--and that also let me strike that balance between history and fiction--was my own love of flanerie: aimless walking through an urban environment. I knew that if I let my Lillian Boxfish be a city walker, I could free myself up to do the imaginative work necessary to make it a novel.
Q: What type of research did you need to do to recreate the decades you write about, and was there anything that especially surprised you?
A: I tried to follow the rule of reading not just about the decades I was writing about, but to read in them, meaning to read work from that era so I could see how people spoke and thought (not just what people in the future looked back and said and thought about them).
My favorite part might have been getting to read and think about the light verse of that time. All the poetry in the book attributed to Lillian is actually by Margaret Fishback, and I was able earlier this year to work with the Poetry Foundation to get some of her work in their archive. You can see it here.
Q: How did you come up with the structure of the book, which involves Lillian taking a long walk on New Year's Eve 1985 and reminiscing about her life?
A: The structure was crucial. Once I decided that I'd make Lillian a flaneuse, I knew I had to get her route down perfectly. The first thing I did was make a Google Map and start dropping pins into both the 1984 locations and the ones from her past, ranging from 1926 on up through the early ‘80s.
I consulted it often, and am so happy that my publisher, St. Martin's, was able to put a version of that map on the inside cover of the book.
Theoretically, if a reader wanted to, they could do Lillian's entire 10.4-mile walk through Manhattan on their own. To me, walking is a form of time travel--you move through space and time, and also notice the layers of your city. You see what was there, and what's gone, and what's coming soon. That complexity is a huge part of why I decided to use an epic walk as the story's frame.
Q: How unusual were women in advertising during this period?
A: That's one of the things that pleasantly surprised me as I was doing my research. Well before the better known Mad Men era, advertising was one of the few white-collar fields in which women could--and did--work and make an impressive living. The 1920s and 1930s were full of smart, funny, hard-working women like Margaret Fishback who revolutionized the industry.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The project I’m working on now—what I hope will be my third novel—is a World War I book about a heroic Army officer and an equally heroic messenger pigeon. I'm almost done with that, and am also in the very early stages of a novel set in contemporary times about a couple of eerie and precocious tweens.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope that this book helps to inspire people to get outside and walk around more, so maybe now that you're done reading this interview, go take a walk!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb