The central figures of Kathleen Rooney’s two most recent books have more in common than one might imagine. The protagonist of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” inspired by real-life Margaret Fishback, was born only a year apart from Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter whose writing is showcased in “René Magritte: Selected Writings.” Both made their living in advertising before expanding into, respectively, poetry and painting. Rooney answered my questions about both factual and fictional history via email.
The character of Lillian Boxfish is inspired by a real poet and ad woman. How do Boxfish and Fishback diverge?
Without Margaret Fishback there wouldn’t be a Lillian Boxfish, but they’re not the same person. Lillian has aspects of Fishback’s biography, but the events of the novel are invented and imagined. I was the first researcher in the Fishback archive at Duke University in 2007—it took me years to figure out what to do with that material. My own love of flânerie ended up being the key. Lillian’s orientation toward the world is that of an inveterate urban walker, a decision made totally for the novel. I believe that Fishback herself is worthy of greater attention—I worked this December to get her long out-of-print light verse included in the Poetry Foundation archive and wrote an essay detailing her innovations as a pioneering ad woman—but the line between the inspiration and the creation is pretty thick.
This isn’t your first time taking a historical figure as your protagonist. In your novel in verse, “Robinson Alone,” you took up the fictional character of Robinson, created by poet Weldon Kees. How are these projects similar?
My friend Mitchell has a blog whose tagline is “Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn’t just disappear.” That preservationist attitude is part of what drives me too. History is full of forgotten, under-rated, and under-explored figures who have astonishing relevance to how we live today. I love discovering people like Kees and Fishback and figuring out ways to bring them to the attention of the twenty-first century through fiction and poetry. The project I’m working on now—what I hope will be my third novel—is in a similar vein. It’s a World War I book about a heroic Army officer and an equally heroic messenger pigeon.
I loved the device of Lillian’s long walk prompting her recollections on New Year’s Eve night. Her journey kept me as eager to return to the present of the novel (1984) as I was anxious to understand what delivered her to that point. How did you build those different versions of New York so vividly?
Like L.P. Hartley says, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Writing a historical novel feels like being a detective-archaeologist-fantasist. You have to hunt down clues of how people acted and what would have existed when your characters would have been alive, but you also have to know when to step away from the research and make sure you’ve made up a compelling character and a propulsive plot. As you observe, writing about the past can give you a chance to make points about the present—such as Lillian thinking about the West Side Line, which we now know as the High Line. One of my models for Lillian was the great urban author and activist Jane Jacobs, so I wanted Lillian to be pretty outspoken in her beliefs about why cities—with their density and mixture of all types of people—are such crucial sites of human potential.
In 2016, you also edited “René Magritte: Selected Writings” with Eric Plattner. I was surprised to discover Magritte’s advertising background. How is advertising connected to art and poetry?
Whatever else they may be, poems and paintings are brief and self-contained communicative acts, which is something they share with ads. In advertising, the aim is not mystification, but persuasion. The kind of writing and art I most enjoy are, to a greater or lesser extent, communicative and persuasive. The best poems and paintings are typically witty and memorable. The same can be said about the best ads.
The Magritte book is arranged so that the reader might track “the evolution of Magritte’s ideas and attitudes over time.” How do responsibilities change when you’re presenting a narrative through historical documentation, rather than a fictional take on a person’s life and work?
Technically and ethically (contrary to the troubling assertions of John D’Agata and others), I understand the way truth operates in nonfiction and fiction to be completely different. Nonfiction has to be factually true. Fiction can be made up. I love both genres, but confusing the two either accidentally or deliberately is irresponsible and perilous, especially now that we have a pathological liar as our president.
“Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk”
By Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $25.99
“René Magritte: Selected Writings”
Edited by Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner
University of Minnesota Press, 336 pages, $29.95
Kathleen Rooney reads from “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” on January 18, 7:30pm at Women & Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299; January 19, 6pm at DePaul University, 2350 North Kenmore, (773)325-7862; and January 25, 7pm at Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 West Jefferson Avenue, Naperville, (630)355-2665.