I’ve always loved the feeling that reading gives—like the author is letting you in on some mystery, big or small: the mystery of a huge world event or the mystery of a private individual consciousness.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author, most recently of the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake, 2012) and her debut novel O, Democracy!has just been released by Fifth Star Press. She lives in Chicago. Her latest chapbook with Elisa Gabbert is The Kind of Beauty that has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Follow her @KathleenMRooney.
Web site: http://kathleenrooney.com/
Novel: O Democracy!
Novel in Poems: Robinson Alone
Essay at Poetry Foundation: Based on a True Story. Or not.
Project: Poems While You Wait
5 Poems with Elissa Gabbert: Five Poems
How Kathleen Rooney Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Kathleen for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
Mysteries. Not like mystery novels, but the mysteries of the world—supernatural, mysteries-of-the-unexplained type mysteries, the mysteries of why people act the way they do, religious mysteries, mysteries of history, especially those that involve once-popular things that have long since been forgotten. From the time I learned how to read up until the present day, I’ve always loved the feeling that reading gives—like the author is letting you in on some mystery, big or small: the mystery of a huge world event or the mystery of a private individual consciousness. Also from the time I learned how to read I wanted to do that, too—to have that sense of discovery you get when you are trying to write about something, either through research or through the act of trying to sort your ideas out on the page.
I’ve always wanted to be a detective, like a private investigator a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe and since that seems not to be in the offing, being a writer seems like the next best thing. Private detectives and investigators have always intrigued me, at least as they’re depicted on shows like or The Rockford Files or Murder She Wrote or Magnum P.I. Columbo, I guess, is the exception, in that he is an official—a police detective and not a private one—but he’s so unrealistically so—I mean, he’s basically an angel—that he makes the list too.The Wikipedia page for Sam Spade says that he is notable for his “detached demeanor, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.” All three of those seem like writerly traits—the degree of removed observation necessary to understand how people act, the intention of getting the details right, and the impulse to shape a story into the form or outcome you desire.
This is not an original answer, but: I read. A lot. Everything. I still do. All genres from poetry to fiction to cereal boxes to nonfiction to comics to newspapers to magazines both high-minded and trashy. Formally, I studied creative writing from high school through grad school, and that formal education was certainly important in terms of becoming a writer, but I’m not sure it was more important than just trying to “be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” like Henry James recommended.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
This, too, is probably not such an original answer, but I had brilliant English teachers when I was in high school: Beth van Es my freshman year, Irv Lester (RIP) my sophomore year, Jane Rice my junior year, and Linda Augustyn my senior year. They were supportive and encouraging to me at an early age—all four of them took my aspirations and my earnest dorkiness seriously and at face value and went out of their ways to help me become a better reader and writer. Essentially, they treated me like an adult and a whole human, not like someone to condescend to. The same can be said of my undergraduate teachers, especially Margaret Soltan (whose excellent blog you can find here http://www.margaretsoltan.com/) and Tara Wallace. And of my graduate teachers John Skoyles and Bill Knott (RIP), the latter of whom taught me how to be a contrarian when necessary and how to be a teacher—he was so sincere in his love of poetry and so incapable of bullshit and so determined to try to help everyone be a better reader and writer and thinker. He died earlier this year, and that was a huge loss, I think, to everyone who knew and read him.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
The poet and writer Weldon Kees’ biography—from his Midwestern roots and early promise to his likely very sad and mysterious demise (Did he run away to Mexico? Or did he jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?) inspired me so much I wrote a book about him, Robinson Alone. In his introduction to Kees’ Collected Poems, Donald Justice writes that Kees is “one of the bitterest poets in history,” and that “the bitterness may be traced to a profound hatred for a botched civilization, Whitman’s America come to a dead end on the shores of the Pacific.” I like his bitterness, because it is also smart and sad and sharp and funny. Kees was an optimist, and his capacity for deep disappointment came from his equal capacity for deep hope. I admire that.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Indirectly, from Fred Leebron, “Writing is a game of attrition; don’t attrit.”