If you live in Chicago, you walk. Maybe it’s just a few blocks between home, work, and the CTA, but every day—whether it’s 97 degrees or 9—you step into the human rivers that ebb and flow through the city.
But for a flâneur (or a flâneuse), walking is more than a means of transportation: it is a way of life. Back in 19th-century France, the original literary flâneurs were writers who strolled the streets of Paris for inspiration—overheard conversations, architectural narratives, small miracles of sunlight—as well as exploration and exercise.
Today, Chicago has its own literary flâneuse, Kathleen Rooney. Her new novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, is about an elderly woman who walks from midtown to downtown Manhattan and back on New Year’s Eve, 1984. But Lillian Boxfish isnt just any elderly woman, she’s a fictional version of Margaret Fishback, the real-life female Don Draper of 1940s advertising and an accomplished poet. And Rooney isn’t just any writer: she walks hundreds of miles every year, exploring cities on foot.
The book bounces around the 20th century and tackles themes of work, time, motherhood, and what it means to be truly in love with a city. It’s one of my all-time favorite New York novels, right up there with Winter’s Tale, Invisible Man, and The Golem and the Jinni. I recently spoke with Rooney about walking, writing, Fishback, New York, and Chicago.
Adam Morgan: Why did you fall in love with Margaret Fishback? And what compelled you to tell her story through fiction?
Kathleen Rooney: At the moment, I’m reading the book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm, and in it, she describes the Stein scholar, Edward M. Burns by writing, “Burns has all the impulses of a biographer, though he lacks one crucial biographer’s trait: the arrogant desire to impose a narrative on the stray bits and pieces of a life that wash up on the shores of biographical research.”
When I first got to work in Margaret Fishback’s archive in 2007, I thought a lot about whether or not I had any biographer’s impulses. Because upon meeting Fishback through the boxes upon boxes of materials her son had donated to Duke University’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, I felt instantly that she and I would have been friends had we met in real life, and had one of us not been dead. Her wit as an advertiser and light verse poet, her ambivalence regarding marriage and family, and her deep commitment to her work throughout her life fascinated me.
I realized back then, almost 10 years ago now, that she was a remarkable figure who should be more widely known. And I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming, somehow, a biographer and just telling her life story straight. But realistically, I’m not a biographer—not at this point anyway. I love research, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to sticking strictly to the facts and making a narrative that way.
So after many years of thought and working, in the meantime, on other projects, I finally realized that what I really wanted to do with the Fishback material was to write a novel. I needed the freedom to not have to exhaustively know every little true and factual detail of this real person’s life.
I wanted to be able to get imaginative and creative and full on make things up and to bring in my own themes and concerns, such as walking and cities. I didn’t want, as Malcolm puts it, to have to “impose a narrative”. I wanted to simply fabricate one. So that’s what I did. Lillian Boxfish would not exist if it were not for Margaret Fishback, but Fishback is definitely a jumping off point, and not the place the story stayed.
Adam Morgan: What does flânerie mean to you personally? How has it impacted your writing and your relationship with Chicago?
Kathleen Rooney: Walking saves my life every day. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the world, simultaneously so basic and (ha) pedestrian, but also magical and transcendent. I despise cars (so bad for our health, our earth, and our society), but I adore mapping a place with my feet. Physically and emotionally, walking feels right to me in a way that being in a vehicle never, ever does.
I love the opportunities to read the city like a book in super-close detail—walking is near and slow enough to do that. And I love the chance encounters with people and places you get on foot that you don’t quite get from other forms of transportation, even on a bike (which I say as someone who also likes to bicycle around the city).
Chicago is a tough city to walk, I can’t lie, because it’s so huge and spread out, and because its neighborhoods are so unevenly resourced. But those are some of the reasons I love to walk here. My flaneur friend and DePaul colleague Eric Plattner and I often set out early in the morning and walk from 9 am to 5 pm, covering 10 miles, 12 miles, 15 miles. And doing that—traversing so many different landscapes—teaches you things about a city and the people in it, as well as its history and future. Who has power and who lacks it, who is remembered and who is forgotten, who is thriving, who is struggling—all of those things about who is at the margins and who is at the center.
I wish Rahm Emanuel would take more walks. I think all officials charged with planning for a city and its well-being—even good ones—would probably get better at their jobs if they saw the places they were in charge of by foot.
Adam Morgan: How did you approach field research for the book? Why was it important to include real-life locations like Delmonico’s instead of generic backdrops?
Kathleen Rooney: When we were in New York a couple years ago for a good friend’s 40th birthday party, Martin Seay (my husband who is also a writer) and I took a huge walk all over Manhattan to help me get ready to write this book. We didn’t do Lillian’s exact 10.4-mile walk, but we hit a few key points—apartments she’d have lived in, places that would and would not have been there in 1926, when she first got to the city, and then things that would and would not have been there in 1984. The physical research was fun and crucial, but I also could not have done this book without Google Maps. I kept the map of Lillian’s walk open pretty much the entire time I was writing and the Search Nearby feature was my gateway into deciding what real-life venues needed to—and could be—in the story.
As for why I wanted precise places and not generic ones, specificity is inspiring. So often, the grain of a tiny detail I’d happen upon in my research would make its way into the story and then the story would get so much better thanks to knowing, say, that St. Vincent’s Hospital was where they took the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
Adam Morgan: As a flâneuse, how is New York different from Chicago?
Kathleen Rooney: New York is so much more densely and consistently settled than Chicago is. Chicago has tons of vacant lots and open spaces and streets where you can walk for miles and not see almost anyone else, at least on foot. One of my favorite spots where you can experience this exquisite isolation is the US Steel South Works near the Calumet River and Lake Michigan at 87th Street and Lake Shore Drive. It’s a monumental latter-day ruin right on the waterfront of the third largest city in the United States and typically, aside from some brave fisherman, there’s pretty much almost never anybody else there. You don’t get that urban desolation and wilderness—prairies, birds, foxes, etc.—in Manhattan. The Steel Works has this real look on my works ye mighty and despair vibe about it that feels melancholy and instructive.
I am a huge fan of both cities, but they’re really not that comparable. But that’s what I love about cities—each one is different. City walking is endlessly variable and endlessly satisfying because every urban area is its own self-contained wonderland waiting to be discovered.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press
Published January 17, 2017
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and lives in Chicago, where she appeared on New City Lit’s list of “Lit 50 15: Who Really Books in Chicago.” Her previous works include the novel O, Democracy! (2014); Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (2009); and Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (2005). Other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, Allure, Salon, The Rumpus, and the Chicago Tribune.