It’s difficult to think of a contemporary writer more skilled and steadily productive in a dizzying number of literary modes than Kathleen Rooney. Among her many books as writer, editor or co-editor are the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize-winning collection “Where Are the Snows,” the novels “O, Democracy!,” “Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk,” “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey,” and works of nonfiction, “René Magritte: Selected Writings,” “Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America,” and “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs.”
If you live in Chicago, along with encountering her work in bookstores, you might have crossed paths with her at the Art Institute or other notable public venues, where she was seated behind a typewriter, composing poetry for passersby, as part of Poems While You Wait, an organization which Kathleen co-founded in 2011.
I’ve been an ardent fan of her poetry and prose for over a decade, since I first picked up her 2009 essay collection “Live Nude Girl” after we became colleagues at DePaul University, where she still teaches creative writing full-time for the English Department.
Her fourth novel, “From Dust to Stardust,” will be published on September 5, and it might be her best yet. Set in Hollywood during the silent film era, it’s definitely her most glamourous (although “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” is a close second).
Kathleen and I recently corresponded about her experiences writing and researching “From Dust to Stardust,” and she also answered my questions about other fixtures of her rich literary life, including Poems While You Wait and Rose Metal Press, the independent press of which she is a founding editor.
“From Dust to Stardust” is both an impressive work of imagination, based on the life and adventures of Jazz Age film star Colleen Moore, whose fictional incarnation Doreen O’Dare is the novel’s protagonist, and a carefully researched story about early Hollywood and the Fairy Castle housed in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (Moore’s brainchild and longtime artistic project). Would you comment on how this novel began?
Unbeknownst to me, the novel began when I first laid eyes on the Fairy Castle in the Museum when I was eight years old. Its image stayed in my mind’s eye for decades as one of the most enchanting objects I had ever seen. In late 2016, when I was feeling particularly disenchanted, that image came back to me as I was deciding what I wanted to write next. The frame of the book is that Doreen is at the MSI in the late 1960s, recording the audio guide for her castle.
In honor of that kind of spark that takes half a lifetime to kindle into a fire, I have a passage in chapter twelve that mentions the distant sounds of a school group that also happens to be there on the day Doreen reflects, “Into the silence that follows the recorder’s click, the kids’ voices from the corridor continue, with a slight shift in timbre: the nearly imperceptible difference of children who have been fed. Most of them will carry no particular memory from this day; one or two, perhaps, will have seen something that steers the course of their lives.” I didn’t know it yet, but seeing the Castle changed the course of my life and led me to write this book.
Doreen O’Dare called to mind your 2017 novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk”’s heroine. Doreen was Hollywood’s original flapper, and Lillian is based on Margaret Fishbach, who became the highest-paid woman in advertising in the 1930s. This is maybe a little corny, but I’m wondering, since you wrote both novels in first person, did you feel at any point as if these women were speaking through you? I ask this in part because Doreen believes in fairies, and there is a magical quality to this novel and to “Lillian Boxfish.”
It’s not corny. Making art of any kind takes a huge amount of spiritual energy. Some of that energy comes from within the artist, obviously, but some of it comes from actual spirits—the memories and traces of people who came before. Even as a little kid, I had an affinity for the past, I think because it’s so sad that we all have to die. I’ve always wanted to resurrect people and things that are beautiful and forgotten. It seems so unfair to be biased against someone just because they’re dead. Or to consign a prior way of living to obscurity just because it’s old.
Being a novelist who takes on historical subjects is a chance to haunt yourself—and if you are lucky to haunt other people. Doreen’s grandmother believes in the Celtic idea of “thin places” where the veil between this world and the eternal one becomes permeable. In a way, the magic is in that—by writing as these bygone people, I slip into their world and they slip back into this one.
Doreen is indomitable. She’s also a progressive thinker who is helped along the way by other progressive women. Her mother Agnes, however, is a wet blanket, never missing an opportunity to discourage Doreen as she works hard to become a success in Hollywood. How much of Agnes is based on Colleen Moore’s own mother? Or did you take a novelist’s license with Agnes’ characterization?
By all accounts, Colleen Moore’s mother was supportive and understanding, and quite proud of her daughter’s achievements. I needed to make the story more interesting, and also to convey what a radical rebellion against the repressive rules placed on women these so-called flappers like Doreen fomented. It seems quaint now, but flappers truly were scandalous because they were strong-minded young women making decisions for themselves, not just waiting around for some man to ask them to dance, then whisk them away. They were liberating themselves.
One of the first major movie stars, Doreen is also an astute observer of Hollywood. As she remarks near the end of “From Dust to Stardust,” “America obsessed over its girls but deplored its women. Nobody wanted you if you couldn’t stay young and eternally unthreatening, the feisty waif, the zany coed, the radiant dancer, the scrappy shopgirl.” She is never cynical, however. Did you find yourself having to rein in cynicism when characterizing her, especially in relation to the betrayals she experienced?
A general distrust in the motives of other people, or the belief that they are motivated only by self-interest and self-gratification is an outlook I find corrosive and do not subscribe to. If you expect the worst of people and things, they’re more likely to offer it, whereas if you expect the best, they’re more likely to offer that.
Underestimated though she often is, Doreen is a smart cookie. She sees quite clearly the negative forces at play in the film industry—the sexism, the greed, the materialism, and the vanity—but she never lets them blind her to the positive ones—the enchantment, the opportunity, the storytelling, and the fun. She’s a person who feels the blows of life but does not let them warp her or rob her of her essentially hopeful worldview.
Cynicism likes nothing better than to make people give up and accept that everything sucks. But everything does not suck. And if we remember that, we’re more likely to keep contributing to the magic of the world and not being ground down by its disappointments. Doreen’s retention of her ability to feel wonder was one of my favorite things with which to imbue her character.
This novel is set in 1968, when Doreen has been asked to provide the narration for her Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry before this exhibit opens. Doreen is interviewed by museum employee Gladys, and along with the practical details about the castle’s creation, she describes her trajectory from an unknown who moves to Los Angeles at age fourteen to major Hollywood star. Was this your narrative structure from the beginning?
It was. Novels are the most architectural form of creative writing. I have to have a blueprint before I can begin. I wanted the book to be organized chapter by chapter around the rooms of the real-life Castle—the Library, the Small Hall, the Drawing Room, and so forth—to provide a way to toggle between Doreen’s journey from the middle of nowhere to superstardom and this monumental work of visionary art that she ended up building.
The Castle is a masterpiece of intuitive art, and the fact that Colleen Moore (and Doreen) put it to use by touring it to raise money for children during the Great Depression is so moving. I like that ancient technique of the memory palace—an imaginary location that you build in your mind to store mnemonic images that let you recall information. So I thought it would be fun to have a structure where the Fairy Castle is Doreen’s memory palace incarnate.
You write poetry, nonfiction and fiction with remarkable skill and inspiration, and among your recent works are the poetry collection “Where Are the Snows,” “René Magritte: Selected Writings” (as editor), and of course, “From Dust to Stardust.” When you began writing, did you see yourself primarily as a poet or a novelist, or did you imagine yourself moving dexterously back and forth between genres?
There are probably as many ways to define literature as there are people who write it, but I like “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” An artist needs a lot of options to be “excellent” and “universal.” So I’ve always bounced from genre to genre and even blended them. That’s part of why my body of work is so formally varied, including the novel-in-verse “Robinson Alone,” for instance, and also why Abby Beckel and I founded Rose Metal Press in 2006: we saw other writers achieving excellence by hybridizing their use of form and wanted to offer a home for those works.
Could you also speak to the sort of work you seek at Rose Metal Press?
We held our most recent Open Reading Period from June 1 through 30, the first such opportunity we’ve offered since 2020. We’re quite small and selective, only putting out two books a year. We want to be sustainable—to not overwork ourselves as the editors and to give a ton of attention and support to the books we do put out. We don’t want to print a bunch of books annually and be like, “There, you’re published!” because being published is more than holding your own book in your hands—it’s being reviewed and interviewed (like this! thank you!) and doing events and festivals and panels and becoming a part, as the saying goes, of the broader conversation.
This year, we got a record-breaking 601 submissions, of which we can accept about five. Winnowing that down will be a challenging process because many of the manuscripts are strong. Like a lot of editors, we have a we-know-it-when-we-see-it intuition, but generally, we seek work that is hybrid out of necessity, not just a cleaning out of the rough drafts folder where somebody throws a poem next to a flash fiction next to an essay arbitrarily. We like things that are hybrid in their essence, that could not exist as beautifully in any other structure. We also tend to gravitate toward work that’s emotionally moving and intellectually curious, and often that’s simultaneously funny and sad.
“From Dust to Stardust,” like two of your previous novels “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” and “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” required considerable research. How do you balance the research with the writing? I’m guessing you do a lot of the former before you begin writing, or are you perhaps outlining and drafting scenes as you go?
I’m not a huge fan of the James Bond films, but I am a sucker for the James Bond theme songs. My favorite is “You Only Live Twice” performed by Nancy Sinatra. The lyric “You only live twice, or so it seems / one life for yourself and one for your dreams” is awesome unto itself but also makes me think: wait, if you’re a writer, then in a way you only live thrice: for yourself, for your dreams, and in your books.
When I research, it becomes like I’m living another life, a whole separate existence that I need to know everything about to understand it myself and convey it to an audience. My process tends to involve devouring heaps of material before I begin drafting. With “From Dust to Stardust,” I made categories like silent movies, Old Hollywood, Tampa, the Roaring Twenties, flappers, the Great Depression, Chicago in the sixties, railroad travel, and the Museum of Science and Industry, and got books and articles on each of them.
That way, in addition to knowing all I could about Colleen Moore, the silent star who’s the inspiration behind my fictional Doreen O’Dare, I could know as much as humanly possible about her childhood, her youth, her career, her love life, her old age and so forth. Even though I loathe cars and haven’t driven since 2010, I guess it could be likened to filling the tank as much as possible then driving as well and as far as you can. I have to get the tank pretty full before I start the trip of writing the novel.
In 2011, you co-founded the beloved literary collective Poems While You Wait with Eric Plattner and Dave Landsberger, which PWYW’s website describes as “a collective of poets & our manual typewriters whose mission is to appear around the city in public places… to provide our patrons with a magical, unexpected… encounter with poetry.” How did Poems While You Wait begin? Can you also share a favorite poem from one of the recent Poems While You Wait outings?
Chicago poet and fellow co-founder Dave Landsberger did a version on the streets of Miami when he was getting his MFA there. When he came back to Chicago and we became friends, he asked if I’d be into doing a version of it here. I said, heck yes. We did our first event in July of 2011 at Wicker Park Fest. From there, in November of 2011, Eric Plattner—my colleague at DePaul—joined. Thanks to his skill not only as a poet but as a typewriter repairman, we’ve been able to expand significantly.
We have about two dozen active poets in the collective at this point, all of whom are talented, smart and funny. A recent favorite is this one by Ola Faleti, a haiku from StoryStudio’s annual StoryBall:
new beginnings (for julie)
yesterday sucked, no?
today is for you, my friend
and so is tomorrow!
Along with writing, teaching at DePaul University, running Rose Metal Press, taking part in Poems While You Wait, you have a lively presence on social media, and among other threads, you post photos to #ManholeMonday and also write for the annual tournament of pop songs and essays, March Xness. How do you manage to fit so much into the day? I’m guessing that, unlike Popeye, your energy isn’t derived from spinach.
Actually, it’s kale. But really I think it’s the knowledge that tomorrow is not promised. Gotta live today.
What are you presently working on, if you don’t mind sharing a few details?
A revisionist Western about a woman who is a natural historian and taxidermist. Stay tuned!
“From Dust to Stardust”
By Kathleen Rooney
Lake Union Publishing, 285 pages
Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, most recently, The Virginity of Famous Men (stories). She’s the editor of the forthcoming short fiction anthology Love in the Time of Time’s Up, which will be published in fall 2022. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the Midwest, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and the New York Times. She lives in Pasadena, CA and teaches for the MFA programs at Northwestern University and Regis University.