Things Fall Apart: Kathleen Rooney on Sexism, Politics and “O, Democracy!”

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By Brendan Tynan Buck

Kathleen Rooney’s fifth book cost her job as a senate aid for Dick Durbin. An essay in “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs” mentioned a flirtation with her boss, the Chicago office district chief, and when that got back to Washington, she was fired. (He wasn’t.) Rooney’s recent novel “O, Democracy!” examines the firing of Colleen Dugan from the employment of “the Senior Senator of Illinois” during the climax of the 2008 election. Though based partly in autobiography, Rooney stresses it’s best to engage her book as standalone fiction. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathleen about structuring her novel, sexism in politics, and the presidential election of 2008.

How did your experience as a senate aid inform the creation of the novel?
Writing the book, I tried hard to use my experiences to create something that was definitely fiction, the reason being that I wanted events to be more interesting and logical than real events are. This is my first novel, even if it’s my seventh book. I’ve written memoir before, but I didn’t think that would be the best shape or form for the story that I wanted to tell. The separation between my actual self and my protagonist exists because I wanted to avoid the critique of self-absorbed navel gazing that memoirs often get. I wanted it to be a story that’s not just about one individual, but about a bigger system.

“O Democracy!” is told from the point of view of a Greek Chorus composed of the Founding Fathers. We also know at the start that Colleen’s going to be fired. Did you intend it to be an Aristotelian Tragedy?
I wrote a comedy in the sense that what happens is funny. Individual scenes have one-liners, comedic moments and irony. It’s hard to write about contemporary American politics without laughing, because if you didn’t you’d cry. So much about it is so upsetting. But even though it’s funny, it does have a structure of a tragedy because things fall apart. A true Aristotelian comedy wouldn’t end with Colleen fired. There would be this misunderstanding, but people would laugh and then society would come back together. In Colleen’s case it’s a tragedy since she’s cut out of a job she clearly loves.

But by the same token we have to remember this is a 2008 story. I’m not ruining anything to say that Barack won. So even though Colleen’s arc is of tragedy, the arc of society is a comedy that culminates in Grant Park. Of course, as soon as Obama finished his acceptance speech all the hope and belief in change began to fray. When something ideal becomes real the flaws creep in, but for a good thirty seconds in November of 2008, everything was good and harmonious.

At the rally, Colleen’s feeling of being “fucked and futureless” before experiencing a surge of hope reminds me of the nation’s mood at the time.  ODemocracy
That’s another reason I wrote this as fiction. Fiction doesn’t need to be justified in a way that makes it seem good for you like broccoli or kale, but a benefit of fiction is its aspirational aspect. To write it you need the ability to empathize and to picture things as being different than they are. In 2008 so many people were out of work, losing their homes, and getting bogged down by student loans. When we feel defeatist about it, there are people who say, “That’s just capitalism. That’s just how the world works.” I don’t think that’s true. Capitalism is really good at encouraging people to believe wrongly that there is no alternative. In the culmination scene I wanted to show what good can happen when people allow themselves to imagine an alternative. Because we can be better, try harder. We don’t have to just settle for mediocrity.

Were there any sorts of challenges that came unique to the novel?
People assume that the hardest part about shifting genres must have been the negotiation between truth and fiction, but really it was more in terms of structure and syntax and voice. I found that the digressive nature of essays doesn’t always work as well in fiction. In early drafts I had to cut back. I couldn’t insert research-based material in the way I would an essay because it doesn’t fit. That kind of digression cuts your energy down when you should be building it up.  Relatively late I settled on the structure of the book. Instead of extended passages, I have these little thousand-word micro-chunks that work to build up what I hope is the arc. I settled on that because I had been reading Joan Didion’s “Democracy,” which along with Walt Whitman, you can hear echoes of in my book. In that novel, she uses the white space of frequent starts and endings to build tension.

Do you think politics is an inherently sexist world?  
Absolutely. You can just look at Congress’ composition. It’s supposed to represent what America is, but it absolutely doesn’t. It’s a bunch of old, rich, white males. That’s changing. In the past few years we have achieved some of the most diverse Congresses in terms of gender and race, but those numbers still disappoint. I wanted to show how it isn’t just Congress or elected officials, but that the whole system has this sleazy casual sexism that’s unexamined and frequently treated like a joke. It’s not funny. I also didn’t want it to be just an indictment of political workplaces. A lot of workplaces are still fairly female hostile. Often the people who are being sexist or even harassing are those in positions of power. Sometimes from the outside people look at these situations and think, “Why doesn’t she just say something? Why doesn’t she just stop putting up with it?” I wish we lived in a world where the underling could speak up against her unjust supervisor and everything would work out, but unfortunately I don’t think we live in that world yet.

O, Democracy!
By Kathleen Rooney
Fifth Star Press, 416 pages, $24

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