OCTOBER 16, 2020
KATHLEEN ROONEY AND I first met four years ago at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Her spouse, Martin Seay, and I were on a panel promoting our debut novels, and Kathleen, in the audience that day, would within the year be promoting her best-selling novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s, 2017), an uplifting work of historical fiction based on Margaret Fishback, a 1930s career woman who rose to become the most highly paid female advertising executive in history. As I got to know Kathleen, it became clear that what made Lillian Boxfish such an interesting book is what makes its writer such an interesting person — as well as what makes her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, such an enchanting work of art. Rooney and all of her books are infused with contradiction. Rooney’s new novel is historical but also otherworldly, cutting but brimming with compassion and intelligence, idea-driven, but also profoundly connected to the visceral world of image and voice. Writers today are frequently told to stay in their lane, to build a brand, to identify their particular audience and establish a platform. As a novelist, poet, memoirist, critic, teacher, and publisher, Rooney is the rare writer who refuses to stay inside any box and embraces hybridity and moral ambiguity in all her work.
Her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, explores the emotional landscape of World War I through a strange, moving, and ultimately redemptive relationship — a battlefield connection between man and carrier pigeon. Such a trans-species friendship might seem implausible to readers at first glance, but equally implausible is the historical context in which it takes place, a World War in which an entire generation of men were sacrificed at the altar of state-sponsored, mechanized mass murder for reasons that, even a century later, remain opaque. In this new novel, as in so much of her work, Rooney juxtaposes human fantasy and reality in a way that illuminates the beauty, irrationality, and absurdity of both.
KIM BROOKS: I’m not sure if you remember, Kathleen, but the first time we went out for lunch, you volunteered, quite casually, that you believed the world is doomed. To be clear, it wasn’t just that you were concerned about the environment. “I really think we’ve passed the point of no return,” you said. “The earth cannot be saved.” Later I learned that despite your apocalyptic convictions, you enjoy walking miles across the city each day and typing poems for strangers in public parks. Some might call this odd behavior or a woman who thinks she is living in pre-apocalyptic times, but I’m always drawn to the juxtaposition of light and dark, the coexistence of hope and despair. In Cher Ami, all these elements exist at once, creating a tapestry of human feeling. Can you talk about the challenges of creating emotional complexity in a work of fiction? Readers tend to want hope. How do you offer hope when you don’t feel it yourself? Or what can you offer them instead?
KATHLEEN ROONEY: There are a lot of scenarios where “hope” or “optimism” can lead to conclusions that insult the intelligence of anybody with a grasp on the reality of the situation. Like that false tweet back in March about dolphins returning to the formerly squalid canals of Venice thanks to reduced traffic during the pandemic — it got tens of thousands of likes even though it was ridiculous. Some guy commented in his retweet that “Nature just hit the reset button on us.” If only it were so simple. But it’s not. Climate catastrophe and the irreversible mass death of countless species with which we share the planet are a monumental set of obstacles and they’re not going to be solved by a couple months of not driving cars or boats or airplanes. They’re colossal, collective problems that can only be solved with colossal, collective solutions. That being said, a lot of people are still trying to do what they can in the face of impossible odds, and I admire that.
As a noun, hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen,” and I guess what I’ve got is half-hope. In fiction, I’m fascinated by characters who have that kind of half-hope, too, who really desire things, but have — or come to have — a dawning awareness that these desires — noble or not — might go unfulfilled. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard is one of my favorite examples of this; she’s brilliant at showing complicated but essentially decent people doing the best they can with incomplete information and intentions not always clear even to themselves. So I try to do that in my own work.
It’s clear in Cher Ami that you’re invested as a novelist in the depth and complexity of your characters, in giving them not just something to do on the page but also a rich inner life, even if one of those characters is a pigeon. I’ve read books before that dip fleetingly into the point of view of animals but never one in which we stay inside a central, nonhuman character. Can you talk a little bit about this choice and how you came to it? What are the particular aesthetic challenges of writing form a nonhuman point of view, and what were you hoping you could accomplish by fully inhabiting Cher Ami that wouldn’t have been possible were you to write only from a human perspective? Did you have any models or inspiration for this choice?
Fiction can be an antidote to alienation — it can take experiences and visions otherwise alien to us and make them accessible if not familiar. If we believe in the power of language, of fiction, to convey the dimensions and capacities of other humans, then why not of animals? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about — obliquely at first and then directly — ever since I read Charlotte’s Web as a kid. The point of view of that book is third-person omniscient, and the way E. B. White slips gracefully among perspectives both animal and human has stayed with me.
Too often, stories about animals in general and stories in animal points of view in particular, are dismissed as being for kids — something automatically uncomplex and inferior that’s to be indulged in when one is young and then abandoned when one matures, and that’s both a failure of imagination and a failure of compassion. Cher Ami — a pigeon so beloved in her day that she was fitted with a tiny wooden leg by the Army she served to repair the injury she suffered while saving the Lost Battalion — seems as interesting to me as any human participant in World War I. She was the point of entry by which I found my way into this story. I visited her — or rather, her taxidermied body — in the Smithsonian when I began this project. Standing in front of her physical remains while considering what it must have been like to be her when that body was alive and inhabited by a consciousness was intense.
Increasingly, we’re learning how hubristic we humans have been as a species, assuming dominion over the earth and its creatures. When you look at where that presumptuousness has taken us in terms of the climate and even the pandemic — both of which connect to humanity’s proclivity to raise and kill millions of animals for food and to encroach on wilderness habitats — it’s clear that it’s been a deadly mistake all along to see animals as “somethings” rather than “someones.” I get that some people will think using an animal point of view is silly, but Cher Ami is awesome. I love pigeons and I love her. And what I hope the move suggests is not only that animals are not somethings, but that they may be someones on a level with ourselves, and always have been.
This idea of the “presumptuousness” that has landed us where we are right now in terms of the pandemic and climate change makes me think about the wider canvas of Cher Ami, the mechanized carnage of World War I, the “presumptuousness” of men in positions of power presuming they had the right to massacre an entire generation. Tell me how you became interested in this era and this war and what kind of research you did to better understand not just the events that took place but the nation’s mood and values.
Yes! That arrogance on the part of people in charge — people who had power and abused it by using it unthinkingly, or by operating in mass abstractions rather than considering concrete, individual lives — is one of the things that drew me to World War I in the first place. It’s morbid to say World War I is my favorite war, but I suppose it is the war that most fascinates me because its wastefulness and futility are writ larger than almost any other. My father was in the military and taught classes on military tactics and history, and when he told me that in World War I the men would live in muddy, water-filled, rat-infested pits dug into the earth that stretched on for miles and then periodically go “over the top” at the generals’ orders to run straight into bombed-out fields full of barbed wire and tanks and landmines and enemy mortar and machine gun fire to be mowed down in almost unfathomable numbers only to gain maybe a few inches of ground, I couldn’t believe it. Like I couldn’t believe that people in charge said that this was what had to be done and that millions of people obeyed them. It defied comprehension. It still does. But it happened. And the reason it happened has a lot to do with what you’re pointing out, about a certain kind of top-down, patriarchal callousness on the part of elected leaders and military ones, and also a certain kind of cultural attitude among some of the people that they led who bought into various ideas about how it was noble to die for one’s country, or how war was a big adventure, or about how “real men” should welcome the chance to do something so brave. One of the things I found in my research was that because of the urbanization of Europe and the United States in the early part of the 20th century, various elected leaders and pundits began wringing their hands about how European and American manhood was “going soft” (with all that phrase’s phallic connotations). Now that all these men were moving to the cities and working white-collar office jobs rather than doing red-blooded, blue-collar labor, they needed to be hardened back up, and how better to do that than by sending them to the front?
But then, of course, the reality of the war differed drastically from what people expected, and by the time the regular soldiers realized what a raw deal they’d gotten, it was sort of too late and they had to go through with it. That’s kind of what I’m trying to show in this part when Whittlesey thinks about how:
The hoary generals remained well behind the line, preserved and protected in their sumptuous headquarters, with minimally inconvenient access to hot food and mistresses. They treated the war like an abstract game, as if they were avid schoolboys learning craps, gambling for inconsequential stakes. Advances and retreats — safe at Bar-le-Duc, safe at Rampont — they indicated with candy-colored stickpins, stabbed into pretty maps. They’d clap one another on the back when the pins inched forward, and make a show of concern if the pins reversed, but they didn’t comprehend the mud-covered men who became their own memorial statues on the spots where they fell. The boys who died so the pins could move.
Also? A more fun answer about how I got into World War I is that I was obsessed — obsessed! — with the corny but extremely well-produced and at times super-moving short-lived TV Series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, in which Indy enlists in the Belgian Army and goes through a serious disillusionment when he realizes how violently his ideals about battle fell short of the reality. So my dad got me to read important books about World War I like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, and the TV show added another layer of interest and I’ve been fixated on World War I ever since.
I love that you were inspired by Indiana Jones. It reminds me of something else I love about this book and about your writing in general, which is your ability to challenge constructs of masculinity and femininity with both playfulness and humor. You’ve described yourself to me as the “no-fun” kind of feminist who believes that misogyny has poisoned our bodies, our minds, and our culture since the dawn of agriculture, and will continue to do so until both men and women commit to the eradication of old ways of thinking and old power structures.
In addition to Cher Ami and Whittlesey, I kept thinking how these old power structures are the third, unnamed character in your book. Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country.” And so what are women to do? Women writers? Women citizens? The past five years have in many ways been a great disillusioning where we see that so much of our so-called feminist progress has been a mirage. So as feminist writers, what do we do now? Who are we writing for, and where do we begin?
Also, can you suggest a cake recipe that would go well with a book club discussion of Cher Ami?
Even beyond the question of gender is the extent to which patriotism is always an avoidance of morals and ethics. Maybe at its core, feminism is the expectation and the demand that people will behave ethically — that we treat other beings, including, as this book says, animals — as ends in themselves instead of as means to an end, and that we apply that standard of ethical behavior to every individual and to every circumstance. Fascism, obviously, and nationalism, certainly, are always ways to fudge on that. You can convince yourself, as Whit does, that you’re acting out of some mystified and purely defined “greater good” but there’s no actual calculation of good or benefit, and in fact, patriotism, nationalism, and fascism rely on mass damage and detriment to women, the poor, people of color, and animals and even to the men who think themselves the beneficiaries of this kind of power structure.
bell hooks has said it better than I ever could in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center that feminism “is the struggle to end sexist oppression” and that “[t]herefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.” I admire this definition because ending sexist oppression benefits everyone — women, men, queer people, nonbinary people, trans people, all people. And I appreciate her intersectionality in her definition of the struggle that needs to take place. As for what feminist writers should do, this idea of margins and centers seems crucial — that whenever possible, we should try to make that gap between who is centered and who is marginalized smaller until one day, we can eradicate that ideology of domination. But! To be clear, even though we as feminist writers can and should do that in our work, art is no substitute for politics or direct action. We need to go out and do stuff; we can’t just write about it and call it a day.
Also, I’m so glad you asked about a cake recipe! Usually, when I have my book launches, I bring some kind of themed homemade food because I do love to bake and I’m a dork like that. For instance, for the launch of The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte, a book that focuses in large part on the dog co-owned by the Belgian surrealist painter, René, and his wife, I made Puppy Chow. For Cher Ami, I’d probably have made this simplified version of Italian Easter Dove cake, and I think it’d be great at a book club discussion as well.