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In Praise of Walking (and Witty Women)

Kathleen Rooney’s new book, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, takes its inspiration from the highest-paid female copywriter of the 1930s.

Photo: Clarissa Bonet

Since the title of Kathleen Rooney’s new historical novel is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and her author’s note thanks everyone who ever took a walk with her, it seems appropriate—if not very original—to suggest that she and I go for a stroll once our interview is over. The only problem is the cold, spitting rain. The weather, however, doesn’t faze the 36-year-old Woodridge native. “I’m a fall person,” Rooney tells me before we peel off our coats at Ellipsis Coffeehouse in Edgewater.

Before the walk, tea. In between sips, we discuss literature as well as lipstick. Rooney is loyal to Nars, but her protagonist prefers Helena Rubinstein’s Orange Fire (Lillian Boxfish buys boxes of it when she learns the shade will be discontinued). Brands play a role in Boxfish, which was inspired by the life of Margaret Fishback, the highest-paid female copywriter of the 1930s.

Rooney came to know her story when, in 2007, an archivist friend alerted Rooney to Fishback’s papers. “I was smitten—I couldn’t believe how cool she seemed,” says Rooney. In her time, Fishback was “stratospherically accomplished, she was proud of it.”

PREVIOUS Q&A with Kathleen Rooney on D.C. and ‘O! Democracy!’

In addition to advertising copy, Fishback also wrote poetry, prose, and children’s books, an eclectic portfolio Rooney can appreciate because she, too, moves among genres. Over the course of her career, Rooney has published poetry, a memoir chronicling her years as a nude art model, and the well-received O, Democracy!, a 2014 political novel inspired by her time working as an aide to Senator Dick Durbin.

Fishback offered a new challenge for Rooney, who pored over Fishback’s papers before settling on the novel’s conceit: She would send her fictionalized version of Fishback on a reflective walk through Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. “What if I took this real-life figure and added my own love of walking?” Rooney recalls musing. “That gave me the imaginative key to unlock her story.”

Rooney isn’t kidding about her own walking. She regularly goes on nine-hour jaunts as far north, south, and west as she can feasibly get, although she learned the hard way you can’t walk from Uptown to O’Hare—it’s too pedestrian-hostile near the airport. “I think it’s a failure of the imagination,” she declares of such obstacles. “You should be able to walk anywhere.”

That sounds like a tag line Fishback would be proud of. Boxfish is filled with her ad copy—for example, her proposal for R.H. Macy’s jewelry as a prescription for depression: “We’ve seen one of our diamond rings revive a young lady’s drooping spirit in half a second.”

A sly wit is the primary voice in Boxfish (January 17, St. Martin’s Press), a book Rooney fashioned as an homage not just to Fishback but to flâneuses—women who, as Rooney puts it, “encounter their cities with wonder on foot.”

The interview concluded, we gather our umbrellas and set out for a walk. I try to keep up with the fast-paced Rooney, but after a few blocks it proves too much. I say goodbye and watch as she strides off into the dark and wet Chicago afternoon.

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