The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Kathleen Rooney

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“Idealism is itself a form of violence against the world.”

It’s a hard line to stomach, to get behind. You want to get out from it. You want to say, but idealism is important—the world can be a better place. Someone’s got to have the stuff to make it happen. What about Gandhi? What about MLK Jr.? You want to fight it. But it’s a valid point. This quote comes from a rather stunning portrait of the life of a twenty-something photographer working as a staffer for an Illinois senator in 2008—no, not that one who’s now our President, but he’s hidden in this novel somewhere, too.

I approached Kathleen Rooney’s O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press) as a novel that had something important to say, and while I found it to be that, it also was about the integrity of someone admitting that she’s not quite sure how to say it, if what she says is going to have any effect, and, then, if it’s going to have that effect she wants it to have. How can you control your attempts at political action once they become something that everyone has access to? Sort of like a poem—once you put it out there, it no longer means what it means only to you, it means everything anyone wants it to mean. Try your hardest for that poem to shout for you what you need it to shout, but, more importantly, accept that what others hear from it is just as valid.

I spoke with Rooney via e-mail after reading her book and looking at some of the interviews and reviews that had been published. I know her as a poet and essayist as well as one of the founders and editors of Rose Metal Press alongside Abigail Beckell. Rooney’s honesty and power of observation have always been qualities I admire in her, and I believe she used these skills to write a poignant debut.

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The Rumpus: The book is written mostly in the third-person limited, but there are these moments, usually between chapters, sometimes between scenes, where this disembodied first-person plural that seems like the voice of democracy itself is speaking about the protagonist Colleen, acting almost akin to a “chorus” in an ancient Greek play. Why did you choose this device?

Kathleen Rooney: This first-person plural voice of the ghosts of America’s dead Founding Fathers let me improve my story-telling camerawork—to expand my options in terms of close-ups and long shots.

One of my goals in writing this novel was to be entertaining—to provide interesting characters and character arcs, hence the majority of the book being in close third-person on the protagonist Colleen. But another of my goals was to take a bigger picture approach and explore the myths and stories that America tells itself about America, hence letting everyone from George Washington to Richard Nixon weigh in on the action of the 2008 elections. Walt Whitman was a big inspiration for this book (and its title comes from one of his poems), and I tried to keep these lines from “Song of Myself” in mind: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.” I wanted this book to embrace the idea of America as a vast collective enterprise made up of a bunch of flawed and baffled but basically decent individuals.

Rumpus: Do you think that it’s difficult to juggle the self as a writer and the self as a self when writing fiction based on reality? How do you separate the two?

Rooney: From a practical standpoint, one of the other reasons I settled on the inclusion of the Founding Fathers’ voices is that I’ve obviously written a book that was inspired by my own experiences with a protagonist whose circumstances are similar to what my own were. Therefore it was important to put distance between the Colleen character’s perspective and the perspective of the book, both in the course of writing it and for the benefit of the reader.

Rumpus: I ask the previous question because your fiction obviously, as from a previous book of your essays, For You, For You, I am Trilling These Songs, overlaps real life, and not just real life, but your real life. Do you ever have trouble sorting between the two? As in, do you ever confuse what really happened to you when you worked for the senator and what you changed enough to make your experiences into viable fiction?

Rooney: I never have trouble keeping fact and invention straight. Not to give too big of a spoiler, but I never find myself thinking, for example, Oh, remember that crazy time I stumbled on that closeted Republican candidate’s sex tape? 

As a writer who writes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, I think it’s important to always maintain a firm grasp on genre and ethics. The challenge in writing this book was less one of keeping reality separate from imagination and more one of style. The ingredients that make a good poem often differ from those that make a good essay and from those that make a good novel. In early drafts, one of the trickiest things for me to do was to realize that the techniques and devices that make readable and compelling nonfiction are not always identical to the ones that make good fiction. I had to reframe my use of everything from diction and syntax to paragraphing and the presentation of information to the balance of scene and summary.

Joan Didion’s 1984 novel Democracy was enormously influential in some of these decisions. My novel’s structure of short, flash-fiction-style segments surrounded by a lot of white space owes a considerable debt to her.

Rumpus: In many of the interviews you’ve already done regarding the publication of this book, the hosts seem almost overly interested in sorting the truth in the novel from the reality. How did you plan to deal with this obsession with pinpointing this fine line between truth and fiction in O, Democracy!?

Rooney: To be fair, the novel invites that kind of roman à clef game-playing. The hope is that that this interest in the blurred line between fiction and history can be turned toward productive ends.

People who don’t read fiction often characterize it as frivolous and as some kind of escape from the world, which it isn’t inherently, nor does it need to be. I’ve learned as much about the world and the people in it—and their motivations—from fiction as I have from nonfiction. Fiction is often a much-needed step back that gives you the distance to see things more clearly; it’s very often better at explaining why events happened as opposed to just what happened.

And if a reader believes that everything in nonfiction or history is just objectively true, I don’t really know what to tell them, except that at least in fiction, the choice of what perspective and bias to tell a given story from—which is always a deliberate choice—is foregrounded and clear.

Rumpus: I know you pretty well—so it was difficult for me to separate some aspects of your protagonist, Colleen, from you, Kathleen Rooney—you even have the same last four letters in your name! You seem to very carefully choose names—you name some people directly and purposely not name others, often people who readers will be able to figure out the names of themselves (the Junior Senator is obviously Barack Obama, for instance). Why—and when in the writing process—did you make these decisions?

Rooney: That’s an excellent close reading of the book’s approach to proper names. The rule I set for myself right at the outset was that individual people with relatively little power would get to have standard First-name Last-name names (Dézi Diaz, Andrew Eckhart, Steve Moon Collier, et al.), but that powerful higher-ups (The Senator, The Chief of Staff, et al.) and also corporations (The Rapacious British Oil Company), pop cultural phenomena, and institutions of all kinds would get descriptive referents.

My reasoning in doing this was threefold: first, I wanted to show how, in Chicago and Illinois politics, race and ethnicity are often significant factors in the kind of work political operatives get assigned and in how constituencies perceive them (as when Colleen is commended on her “good Irish name” or when Nia Bird does African-American outreach because she is black). Next, I wanted to play up the tension between individuals and institutions to better show how coercion and oppression are not merely caused by one particular person being a jerk (though that is a factor) but rather are also supported by a large and not entirely visible system or institution. And thirdly, I wanted the book not only to be a product of the zeitgeist of 2008, full of Obama and Harry Potter and BP references, but rather to be something that would hopefully endure past the moments it chronicles and the moments in which it was produced.

Rumpus: The novel addresses a lot of socio-political issues that existed in 2008 when it is set and continue to exist today, many in the workplace, that Colleen is frustrated about. Despite her position as a government worker, she often feels as though she can do barely anything to right these wrongs. You could have rewritten history and given her more power, but instead you make the fiction fit nicely into “didn’t happen—but could have happened”—why?

Rooney: Diminished and/or constrained possibility was one of the main things that I wanted to represent in the novel. While I, as the author, can—and did, dramatically—change what happened, I can’t really do so in a way that suggests that the systems—economic and political—in which the action is occurring allows for more individual agency than it actually does. To do so would be to undercut my own argument.

I did give Colleen more power than either I had—or than a typical low-level political worker would have—in the form of the sex tape (which she acquires out of dumb luck and not because of her position as a Senate Aide). But I did this a) because it was interesting; and b) to be the exception that proves the rule. Her discovery has the capacity to affect things, but it doesn’t affect the structure in which she is trying to have a career. She does not become a hero at the office for her actions.

Rumpus: I’d like to get into some of these issues more specifically, firstly the plight of the underpaid worker—I want to say underpaid female worker here at the same time that I don’t. It’s almost ironic that Colleen works for the government and suffers the same difficulty in making a comfortable living as many college-educated workers in the job force today do. My specific area of comparison would be the plight of the adjunct professor—though that’s a part-time gig, often adjuncts have to juggle a handful of jobs to make what Colleen perhaps is making in O, Democracy!. Even though you had experience being a staffer for a senator, did you make Colleen’s plight more general to align it with these other workers on purpose? Do you write her voice the unheard voice of so many struggling under Capitalism’s downsides, as I heard it as?

Rooney: I’m glad you heard it that way, because that was definitely part of my intention. Not to speak for the downtrodden masses—which I would not presume to do, both because people can and should speak for themselves and because to be that agenda-y would likely lead to bad writing—but to depict Colleen as a representative figure in the Whitman-ian sense that I mentioned above. I hope that it’s the particularity of her circumstances that make her if not sympathetic than at least interesting for the reader.

That said, I wanted the specificity of Colleen to speak more broadly to the situation in which workers of all kinds—not just political ones—find themselves here in start of the 21st century. Adjuncts are an especially heartbreaking case of a phenomenon that is widespread and appalling—talented, educated, enthusiastic people willing and able to work being exploited and underpaid as inequality becomes more yawning. Virtually every worker—with those comprising the one percent (who do not really qualify as “workers”) being the obvious and disgusting exception—is up against precariousness and injustices unprecedented in the history of work.

As Obama has been saying in the push to raise the minimum wage to a living one, “No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” And yet it’s not only possible, but fairly commonplace. That’s gross and it’s wrong and anyone who argues—in the name of the woefully mis-termed “free market” or otherwise—that it has to be this way is abdicating his or her own claim to humanity, and is either benefitting from the system’s deliberately maintained inequalities or aspires to do so.

The mid-career workers that one encounters in these workplaces who inform their younger colleagues constantly that they have to “pay their dues” or that their higher expectations aren’t reasonable are the frontline of capitalism’s repression of other alternatives and suppression of imagination. Why shouldn’t we dream of and create a better world? Why shouldn’t all of us have better lives? To say, as these mid-career workers often do, that things “just are the way they are” or “we know how things really work in the real world” is vile and is an indication of somebody mistaking (or re-casting) their own subjugation as knowledge and skill in order to make themselves feel better.

Rumpus: Another interesting issue here is Colleen’s aversion to child-bearing and all that comes with it. It’s not just that she doesn’t want to have her own child because she wants to focus on her art or fears over-population—she is literally disgusted by babies, pregnancy, and childbirth; this reminds me of some radical second wave feminist texts I’m familiar with though haven’t read, such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. While Colleen is clearly a feminist, she keeps many of her more radical opinions about child-bearing to herself when she can. Why?

Rooney: I’m so glad you brought up Firestone, because her Marxist-Feminist take on these issues in The Dialectic of Sex is one I greatly admire. Her bluntness on subjects—pregnancy, motherhood, the nuclear family—that are frequently sentimentalized and shrouded in mystification is refreshing: “Pregnancy is barbaric” and childbirth is comparable to “shitting a pumpkin” and childhood is “a supervised nightmare.” I also admire the bravery Firestone had—her courage to voice such unpopular opinions so explicitly and in such lucid and impassioned prose. For instance, she said: “Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.” In addition to being an idea well worth considering, that is a vivid and well-written sentence.

Dialectic came out in 1970, but the relative unpopularity of skepticism of and outright resistance to child-bearing and motherhood persists. The tendency to tell women that if they say they don’t want kids they’ll eventually get over it and change their mind and have them anyway is still very much with us. And the prevailing majority opinion—that to reproduce oneself and build one’s own perfect nuclear family should be an individual’s most impressive and all-consuming aspiration—is why Colleen as often as not holds her tongue when the subject comes up. She is in a field where one is best served by being diplomatic, so she tries her best not to say things that will only alienate people and cause them to dislike her, but sometimes she can’t help herself. She is appalled by the hypocrisy of a country whose politicians are continually insisting that something has to be done “for American families” and “for our kids” in a nation that has some of the worst parental leave and childcare policies in the world. And she believes deeply that families are not the only things worthy of the government’s attention, but rather that all people—single or familied—are citizens worth consideration and that policy-makers interested in being truly democratic should keep all people in mind.

Rumpus: I always shied away from internships as an undergraduate, thinking, I can’t afford to work and not get paid. Someone I’m close to recently became a part of a group in California that fights against this whole idea of interns, something I hadn’t really thought was as big of an issue as it’s now becoming. Considering the nepotism that is directly involved with who gets an internship as well as who might move up in the staff office where Colleen works, do you have strong feelings about interns and internships?

Rooney: To be clear, I had so much fun—and learned so much—as an intern back when I was one in Senator Dick Durbin’s Chicago office in the summer of 2000. To also be clear, I had an actual paying job at the same time as I was an intern, and the internship itself was structured to be part-time with the understanding that many of us interns would have to also hold down gainful employment. When later I worked in the office as the internship coordinator myself, I did my best to try to make sure that even though the interns were not getting paid, they were at least getting value: meaningful tasks to the extent we could provide them, field trips, guest speakers, the opportunity to form relationships that would benefit them in their professional lives, glowing letters of recommendation when applicable and so on.

That being said, I was then and remain still ambivalent about the culture of internships in America. A key feature about Durbin’s office was that it wasn’t a for-profit institution; there wasn’t a product, per se, that they could use free labor to minimize their cost of producing. It’s evident that in many cases these days, internships are replacing what should be paid entry-level positions and that many internships are no longer steps on a ladder, but dead-ends, as well as a means of increasing the anxiety and insecurity of the paid workers these interns work with and could potentially replace.

Rumpus: The last socio-political issue that this book raised would be LGBT rights issues. Colleen’s indecision in vilifying a political opponent by relying the public’s hatred of homosexual behavior is a great driver of the plot of this novel, yet it doesn’t seem to occupy many of the pages. It’s hard to ask a question about this without discussing key moments of the book that I want people to read for themselves, but can you talk about your protagonist’s mixed feelings here and how they relate to her opinions about LGBT rights?

Rooney: What Colleen would like to see is the Senator’s closeted Republican opponent publicly pilloried for being a hypocrite. But of course she knows that because the thing he’s hypocritical about is his sexuality—and the civil rights of those who share it, which he vocally opposes—that much of the opprobrium that results from the revelation will be anti-gay and not anti-hypocrite, which would in turn potentially hurt the cause of gay rights and true equality in which Colleen believes.

Basically, she’s obliged to consider whether it might be worth it to ensure the election of a pro-gay-rights candidate like her Senator and also whether she has the right to make that decision. Like all of us, Colleen herself has secrets, and realizes that it’s a big deal to out somebody, regardless of what a terrible person they may appear, superficially, to be.

Rumpus: Finally, I wanted to commend you on how well you wrote Colleen’s emotions. I understood and related to her guilt and her rage and her hope and the combinations of them she seemed to feel. How were you able to write these complex emotions so well?

Rooney: Thanks so much. I tried really hard to make sure that none of Colleen’s decisions were interpretable as either overly noble or overly pitiable. I wanted her to come off neither as a victim, nor as a hero, but as a human. I’m glad you were able to read her that way.


Kimberly Ann Southwick is the founder and Editor in Chief of the literary arts journal Gigantic Sequins. She has a chapbook of poetry, every song by Patsy Cline (dancing girl press, 2014) and has had work published recently by H_NGM_N, Two Serious Ladies, ILK, The Rumpus, Hobart, and elsewhere. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, the artist Geoff Thompson, and their dog, Jezebel. Visit her website at kimberlyannsouthwick.com and follow her on Twitter @kimannjosouth. More from this author →