To Love New York City is to Walk New York City
Bethanne Patrick in Conversation with Kathleen Rooney
Remember Margaret Fishback? Of course you don’t, but back in her day the real-life Fishback was a dame of consequence, the highest-paid woman in advertising in her post at R.H. Macy’s, and an admired writer of what was once known as “light verse.”
Fishback has been reincarnated as Lillian Boxfish, novelist Kathleen Rooney’s protagonist in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Rooney, whose books include the 2014 O, Democracy! and the 2005 Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America is the co-founder of Rose Metal Press, a visiting assistant professor at DePaul University, and is married to writer Martin Seay (The Mirror Thief). Rooney teaches a class called “The Writer as Urban Walker,” and Lillian Boxfish clearly derives from its author’s passion for city walks.
Lillian Boxfish is set on New Year’s Eve 1984 in Manhattan. Lillian herself is 84 that night, lonely and nostalgic, alarmed that while on a call to her only son Gian she mindlessly devours a sleeve of Oreo cookies. The only way to counter those calories and fight back against self-pity she knows is to walk—and walk Lillian does, from her Murray Hill home down to Delmonico’s and all the way north again to Macy’s at 35th and Broadway. Along the way (she’s sensibly garbed, don’t worry!), she passes buildings and parks she knows intimately and meets old and new friends. She also fills us in on the undocumented parts of her story, episodes that affect her still.
I spoke to Rooney by telephone from her Chicago home, about how she came to know New York City, how Iris Apfel influenced Lillian Boxfish, and what she thinks of carrier pigeons.
Bethanne Patrick: How did you learn about Margaret Fishback, the inspiration for your title character?
Kathleen Rooney: I owe a debt of gratitude to my high-school friend Angela. I still remember the day that she called me on the phone and told me about Fishback: Her career, her life, her proto-feminism. It all made me feel I had to know more about her. When I did, it felt as if I were meeting an old friend, even though it’s a friend I’ll never meet in person. In a way, Margaret Fishback is like my “ghost friend.”
Obviously, my character Lillian would never exist without Margaret, but for a while I tried to convince myself that I could be a biographer. I have such respect for biographers like Hermione Lee. Could I do that? The more I thought about it, the more I realized I needed to let myself just be the creative writer that I am and give myself permission to make stuff up. When I learned that, in her 80s, Margaret was in much greater decline than I wanted Lillian to be, I quickly figured out where I needed to depart from the real-life story.
BP: Clearly Lillian’s journey grows from your obsession with walking—but tell me how that obsession grew.
KR: I have always been someone who loves walking. I am always determined whenever I arrive in a new place, to map it with my feet. Even as a little kid, when I went somewhere different I wanted to roam around immediately; that mind-body connection was really strong in me. I felt that if I roamed a space I would understand it. Even as a child, I was a flâneuse! It was great to get to college and read Mrs. Dalloway and the works of Walter Benjamin and find out there was this sexy French name for my passion.
The first place I remember distinctly taking in with my feet was the tiny, tiny rural town that my paternal grandmother lived in. I grew up mostly in a suburban environment, but we would go to Grandma Marge’s house in this town of 230—Hubbard, Nebraska, right near Sioux City, Iowa. It was all bluff-y and hill-y. My parents believed that cities were dangerous and scary—a view to which I now object—but in Hubbard they felt they could turn us loose with our pack of cousins. We would run from cemetery to park to stables to wherever you like and back.
BP: You have Lillian’s family living in DC. Do you know that city well, too?
KR: I went to college in Washington DC at GW, because I really loved politics. At the time I thought: Maybe I can be the first female president! [Laughs] DC is a very, very walkable city, so small and on such a grid, and I got to know it really well. I spent my junior year abroad at Oxford and signed up for its walking society. This was a pivotal moment for me because I realized, after several long Wordsworthian countryside expeditions, that I am really an urban walker. The Cotswolds became boring to me; how many sheep can you look at? I’m much, much happier walking in cities.
BP: All right, you know Oxford, DC, Nebraska. But Lillian lives and walks in Manhattan, and she has an insider’s knowledge of its landmarks. How did you gain that for this book?
KR: I’ve never lived in NYC, but I did want to spend some more time on the East Coast, so I went to Emerson College for graduate school. When I learned about the Chinatown Shuttle I started visiting friends in NYC as often as I could, on weekends and breaks. Of course, this book is a love letter to New York, but to cities in general, too. To many people, New York is the epitome of what we think of when we think of city life and I hope that Lillian’s walk shows that the city is a wonderland.
Two books were utterly crucial to helping me conceive of New York in the past: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of New York—I love that book for its voice, it became a big model for Lillian’s attitude—and Luc Sante’s Low Life. Those two really kicked me off in how I needed to think about New York’s past as it interacts with New York’s present. I started building a Google Map, dropping pins in at places I needed to research. What do I need to learn? What memories might Lillian have? How fast could she realistically walk to Delmonico’s? We cannibalize our cities so much, but that cannibalization offers its own resonance, like the moment when Lillian looks at the Twin Towers, and—I hope—readers will recall their own memories of 9/11, what the spot looks like today, all of that.
BP: Still, why make Lillian a walker? She could just as easily take an Uber from place to place. Right?
KR: Walking is a form of time travel in the city, and it brings up Lillian’s past, which is why she had to be a dedicated walker and not just a delightful older lady having some nostalgia. One of the things that made me finally know how to integrate Margaret Fishback’s history into this story was the structure of a walk: A walk takes place in space, but also through time. It was just the right way for her to be able to take a mental journey through time and space: Her rise, her fall, her wild jump, to her final act. She’s an octogenarian who is trying to decide whether what happened has any meaning, and whether or not she’s at peace with it. Re-learning peace in your life, that’s not a failure, or a bad thing, it’s just a process.
BP: One thing Lillian has made peace with is her fabulous wardrobe. I loved her choice of mustard-colored tights for her New Year’s Eve ramble. Who inspired her style?
KR: I’m glad you used the word “style,” as it’s one I kept in mind as I created Lillian; she’s got some affinity with Iris Apfel, although Lillian is a bit more old-fashioned and conservative. I think a lot of times in our society the default tendency is to think that style is a trapping or an overlay that covers up the true core, but I think that’s a fallacy. In Lillian’s case, style is this entire phenomenological and philosophical approach to life, her staying interested in the world by putting on her beloved mink and her well-worn riding boots. It’s a form of expressiveness, and I wanted to say if you do it right, style can really be important.
The other word I kept in my head was “grace.” I wanted to make Lillian a graceful character, not just in self-presentation, but in the style of how she treats others. That really, really affects what she receives back. I’m a huge believer in civility, in kindness, in good manners. It doesn’t always work, but so often if you meet other people with curiosity and respect and genuine interest they’ll respond similarly.
BP: Lillian seems to at least try to connect with everyone she meets, no matter who they are or what they’re like. But it doesn’t always work—I’m thinking of her encounter with a man who has AIDS.
KR: That moment is quite important to me. I wanted, as a writer, to meet him with sympathy, and to have Lillian meet him thusly, but also to show that he, Jason, is too angry to respond with grace. One of the textbooks I use is Janet Berway’s Imaginative Writing. The best way to research is not just to read about the period, but to read in the period: To look at the era’s books, magazines, and newspapers.
BP: Why did you decide to keep Margaret Fishback’s poetry in your character? Did it serve a purpose?
KR: Light verse is an aspect of Margaret’s era that is mostly gone. At the time, newspapers and magazines had a generous amount of space for poetry, and a lot of it wasn’t good, but some of it was: Breezy, witty, quick, and keen. The heart of the matter is its sophisticated tone wasn’t exclusionary. Everybody is invited to this party! Yes, there would be things keyed to a certain ear, but there was also a sense that, if you reach a little bit, you can come over here and enjoy this thing. It was, I think, a generous impulse.
BP: Speaking of foreign cultures—most people of Margaret/Lillian’s time would find her attitudes to marriage and motherhood quite foreign.
KR: One of the themes I wanted to bring out in this book, and especially through Lillian’s marriage to Max, was to consider what kind of partnership a marriage is. In a perfect world, would it be a match of equals? Maybe. I wanted Lillian to be a little more powerful economically, organizationally, the one who calls the shots in the household. One of the bigger points this makes, I hope, is that Lillian is someone who truly looks at things, sees them, and decides based on what’s there. Even if she sets herself up to have an unhappy outcome, she does it because she wants to and not based on received ideas. Lillian realizes I’ve been who I am since I was 26 and I’m going to keep being that even now at 84. She sometimes seems tragic and sometimes seems heroic and that’s kind of in all of us.
I definitely did try to make the other characters tragic/heroic too. I was excited that it presented an opportunity to be that, even before the tragedy of our most recent election, I really really really believed in democracy and I really believe in the ability of people to be stronger together in the capacity for collective goodness that we harbor. I really like Norman Rockwell and I don’t think he’s the sappy sentimentalist he’s called often. I wanted to create a canvas of this city of people trying to figure out what they need to be. I really did want to show that everyone Lillian encounters has this complexity and has this ability to reach across difference. At its core it’s a story about how we really can connect and don’t have to be cut off from each other.
BP: Whether in 1984, or 2017.
KR: One of the things when I was reading in Margaret Fishback’s files I just noticed what a gracious and conscientious correspondent she was she was always very careful and deliberate in how she treated the relationships in her life from husband to editors to fans she just was so careful to respond to all of them. I don’t know a ton about Margaret Fishback’s childhood etc. but to sort of bridge that gap how does someone learn how to be so gracious? So one of the things I wanted the book to explore was the crucial difference between propriety/etiquette, which can be a little empty and a little exclusionary. Lillian doesn’t care about salad forks… she does care that you are trying to treat people as human—not less than not more than—I think that’s what I mean when I say civility.