Conversation with the fabulous Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney is a rock star, and don’t you doubt that! Rooney has written & published a gizzillion books, most recently FOR YOU FOR YOU. She’s also co-editor/publisher of Rose Metal Press.

Here’s the thing about Rooney: You see her and she’s got this inky hair, long, and she’s usually wearing black. She’s a bit intimidating from afar. (People in black are usually intimidating to me. You’ll notice I’ve mentioned attire for both Rooney & Jeremy Davies, yeah?) Then, you start talking to her & she’s chipper as anything. Then, you read her poetry & damn, if you’re not completely knocked far far away!

What I mean is: If this interview/conversation isn’t enough to make you fall in love, read any of her ten thousand books & you’ll be convinced. You can try them out here or here or here or here.

LH: You’re the Queen of Collaboration. How did you start collaborating? What value is there in collaboration, esp. in relation to authoring a text by yourself?

KR: In terms of poetical collaboration, all the credit for starting that goes to Elisa Gabbert. She was visiting Martin and me in Provincetown in early 2006, pulled Nice Hat. Thanks, off our bookshelf, and asked if I wanted to try collaborating, too, semi-Beckman-and-Rohrer-style. I said sure and we’ve been at it ever since. Although now that I think about it, my first successful adult collaboration was probably back when my high school best friend and I co-wrote a couple of plays while she was an undergrad at UT-Austin and I was one at George Washington University in DC. The full-length one ended up being produced at GW our senior year. And one of Martin’s and my New Year’s Resolutions (accomplished) for 2009 was to write a short zombie movie with my friend and writing partner Chris Weiher. And I’ve been working for years on a manuscript of poems based on the life and work of Weldon Kees, which is sort of like collaborating, too, but with a ghost.

And editing Rose Metal Press with Abby Beckel requires that we write a lot of stuff—introductions to books, grant proposals—as a team. So I guess what I’m saying is yes, your observation that I collaborate a lot is keen. Though I’d add that some genres seem to lend themselves to collaboration more than others. Poetry as well as plays and screenplays seem to work nicely as joint efforts, the former because of their line-by-line composition, and the latter because of their back-and-forth dialogue. Other forms, like the novel or the personal essay are difficult for me to imagine working on with someone else because they tend to rely more on a single, unified perspective.

Personally, the value to be gained by collaboration is that I fear being bored and I fear being lonely, and collaboration does an end run around both of those anxieties; you always have a project to work on, plus someone who wants to work on it with you. Also, I don’t like the feeling that I’m talking only to myself, and in collaboration you always already have a built-in audience of at least one. More generally, you can often get better ideas and details into said projects than you could by yourself, depending on the collaborator/collaboratrix. Mostly, though, the big value of collaboration is that it’s fun. In terms of how collaboration relates to flying solo, I’m able to get into a purer flow state when I’m working by myself. I never get into that single-minded, oops-forgot-to-eat-lunch rush when I’m collaborating that I do (sometimes) when I’m alone. Also, I never get as crushingly frustrated as I sometimes do by myself. The risk-taking in collaboration can be higher (nothing has to feel “perfect” and the success or failure of a piece does not depend entirely on you, so you can maybe go a little crazier/try more things that might end up being stupid), but for me at least the highs are higher and the lows lower with solo work.

LH: Tell me about your bicycle and helmet, and I’ll tell you about mine.

KR: My helmet’s pretty meh, but my bike, oh my god. I won it! Every June, the city of Chicago has Bike to Work Week, the idea of which is that you’re supposed to like, bike to work. Prior to the fateful BTWW of 2008, I had taken the L to work almost exclusively, because a) I hate driving, and b) I was afraid of getting run over or killed or doored or whatever if I tried to bike in. But the webmaster in our office is the Johnny Appleseed of bikes, spreading a love of cycling across the land, and he convinced me to rescue one of the abandoned Schwinns from the basement of my apartment building and participate on our office’s Bike Commuter Challenge team. Each year, on the Friday of BTWW, there’s a huge rally downtown in Daley Plaza where all the cyclists can go to get coffee and t-shirts and check out booths featuring cycling paraphernalia, and that year, the people at the Bike Chicago tent were raffling off a steed the webmaster called the Bike of His Dreams. So we both—along with hundreds of other rally-ers—put our names in. And I won: a 20-inch Trek Bike Path Hybrid 7100 in Nickel/Mocha. (I don’t really know what most of that means except that my bike is, as its tag line states, “A Little Mountain. A Little Road. All Fun.”) The webmaster was so sad that he tried to convince me that I’d actually said that if I won I’d give it to him. This was not the case. Even still, I felt a little guilty since I would never have been at the rally in the first place if not for his encouragement and support. But not guilty enough to give him the bike. So I should say here: thanks to the webmaster. Also thanks, Mayor Daley, for being such a cycling enthusiast, and thanks, Bike Chicago, for not only putting tourists who only kind of know how to ride on jaunts all up and down the crowded lakeshore path, but also for my sweet, sweet ride.

How’s the biking in Canada?

LH: I haven’t biked in Canada yet, having just moved there last week. But I have a bright yellow helmet, nothing fancy. My bike, however… well, I’ll just echo your OMG. (I love that expression. I use it mostly out of humor but also because it’s just so darn funny!) I have a Breezer Villager, equipped with light generator, etc. The whole package. My first day I took my bike out, three people rang their bicycle bells at my bike! Also, funny story attached to the bike: rather than get me an engagement ring, I asked my partner for an engagement bicycle. It’s like two rings, and so much more practical!

KR: Aw, engagement bike—I’d totally ring my bell if I saw you riding it. Additional story about why the webmaster’s a stand-up guy: he took me to the bike shop to get my bike all road-ready after I picked it up, post-raffle victory. He helped me get a water holder, kickstand, back-rack and attachable bike bag, plus a bell, which is probably my fave bike feature. I try not to use it excessively, and when I do, it usually means something like, “Hey, on your left! Get the fuck over!” but it sounds so polite and cheery.

LH: Quick story: I met Kathleen at Cornelius Eady’s house. Except Cornelius wasn’t there. Except I had his keys. So I went over to his house, to meet these crazy poet-people (some folks no one has heard of, like Joyelle McSweeney & Johannes Goransson), to let them into the house so Kathleen could give a reading. But long story short, at that salon-style reading, Kathleen read from Oneiromance (did I misspell that? I totally did, didn’t I?), which I loved & bought. Or maybe I traded. (Knowing me, I traded, except I probably didn’t have any copies on me so I probably promised to mail them to her, which hopefully, I remembered to do…) Anyways, Kathleen, can you tell me about the title? (I love this story!)

KR: You completely nailed the spelling of Oneiromance (an epithalamion). Martin came up with fifty percent of that title. I knew that I wanted to call it an epithalamion because that’s what it is: a book-length poem about getting married (which, by the way, I wish everyone who wanted to in this country was allowed to do). But Martin was the one who was all, “How about you make the first part of the title a play on oneiromancy?” And I was all, “Excuse me?” And he explained that oneiromancy is dream interpretation: using your dreams to divine the future, which worked since the poems in the book are framed as dreams. Thus, the most difficult-to-pronounce poetry title of 2008 was born. (And, brief p.s. You did offer to trade Parabola and Changing for Oneiromance and That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, and you did have to mail them, and it did take a while, and by the time they showed up I’d forgotten about the trade, but when I opened up the envelope, it was like Christmas had come early.)

LH: I love Rose Metal Press. I think you’re publishing some of the coolest, most interesting writings out there. I’m interviewing quite a few editors (& I’m also an editor), so I’m always curious to hear what influence you think being an editor has had on your writing. Like I want a quantified number, please. No, I’m kidding. But I would like to know… Does it change your process at all?

KR: Hey, thanks. Being an editor has improved my own writing by a conservative estimate of at least 50 percent. Though now that I’ve tossed that smartass figure out there, maybe that’s right? Revision is what I’ve learned the most about through editing, and perhaps that’s “half the battle”? Working with Abby to edit manuscripts for Rose Metal Press has made me much more comfortable considering radical editorial suggestions from the editors editing my work, or at least suggestions that may seem radical to me, the sensitive and very much attached-to-the-project author, at first, but that then turn out to be right on. Another lesson learned/gun-that-has-to-be-stuck-by for Abby and me is: although it can be tempting as an editor to publish yourself, don’t do it. Every manuscript that Abby and I accept for Rose Metal Press is a manuscript that has arrived to us in a condition that makes us agree that it’s awesome. That said, we’ve never not made something more so through our careful joint attention to it. It would suck to lose that chance for collaboration and improvement by putting out books that we had written ourselves.

LH: What kind of food do you think best fits your personality? Choose carefully.

KR: I’m not sure, but my sister Beth and I do plan on making a bunch of these tiny, sugary bird-shaped shortbread cookies for the launch of my latest book at Women and Children First in Chicago on January 20 since the store encouraged me and my co-reader Erika Mikkalo to “bring snacks.” I gather that some people find birds in relation to books/covers obnoxious, but I find them delicious.  Kidding! I’m a vegetarian. But I really like birds, and I really like to put them on book covers. So sue me.

Do you like to cook? How does your cooking or not cooking relate to your being a writer? Or does it? Whenever I interview people for Redivider, I always wrap up the questions with a request for a recipe. Share one?

LH: I love to cook, though I tend to make simple things: stirfrys, lentils, etc. Cooking is relaxing, which is what most people say, yeah? I cook to calm myself down, esp. baking! I love baking. Hmm… But a recipe. For breakfast today, I made aloo stuffed paratha (potato stuffed Indian bread).

Here’s the recipe:

(for the paratha) 1 cup flour + enough water to form a ball. Knead. Make finger indentations. Sprinkle with water. Let sit for 10-15 minutes.

While waiting: peel one potato, cut into squares, & boil until very well done (mashable). Drain. In a pan (or little pot, depending on your preference), heat oil + a tsp. of cumin, 1-2 cloves minced garlic, 1 green pepper (fairly spicy). Let it brown. Add potato + some salt + some pepper + some curry powder + some garam masala. Kind of mash the potatoes.

Now back to the paratha: Work the water into flour mixture. Knead for a while. (The longer the better.) Make balls the size of table tennis balls. Add two balls together. Make a little bowl. Add potato filling. Fold edges over. Flatten with your hands, and try not to let the potato mixture out. Slowly flatten with a rolling pin.

Fry in pan or griddle on medium heat until both sides are brown. Brush with either vegetable oil or butter. It’s magically delicious.

KR: Learn to Make Bread is one of my 2010 New Year’s resolutions; I’m going to try this recipe ASAP.

LH: You work a 9-5, which is something I find completely foreign. (I’m a totally bourgie—or I was at least—academic.) What do you do, and how do you think your writing fits in?

KR: Okay, I’m going to answer your question, I promise, but the whole writer-in-the-academy versus writer-not-in-the-academy dichotomy makes me feel all soap-boxy. I’ve been a professor of creative writing and I’ve been a 9-to-5-er, and I’m not singling anyone out, but many academics have the tendency to make an inordinately big fat deal about how “busy” they are, usually stated in semesterly terms, like “It’s the start of the semester, so things are really busy,” or “It’s almost time for spring break so things are crazy,” or “The semester’s almost over so I’ve got a ton of grading on my plate,” etc. Which no doubt is all true; work often crescendos in overwhelming cycles. (LH: I’ll add a side-note in here too! Most academics I know whine like crazy! Esp. the ones who have the lightest teaching loads! I’m just saying… I agree!) But other employed people, people with jobs outside academe, seem not to make such a production about it, maybe because it’s understood that everyone is pretty busy all the time and it’s not anything exceptional, but rather just the condition of people who have to exchange their labor to earn money in order to have the services and products they require? Also, all this demonstrative “busyness” strikes me as protesting-too-much; having been a professor, you’re busy, yeah, but usually you’re not as constrained as when you work a typical 40-plus-hour week that demands that you be physically present and constantly available/alert in a particular place with specific projects and co-workers. Also? When you are a 9-to-5-er? You don’t get “spring break.”

Anyway. I work in as a Senate Aide to the senior Senator from Illinois, and it is probably the best work environment I have ever experienced. The work feels meaningful, interesting, value-expressive, and cooperative, and keeps me from getting caught in the self-regarding echo chamber that I sometimes felt closing in on me when I taught (though I loved teaching and hope to return to it someday). In any event, I don’t want to go on and on about being a Senate Aide (partly since some of my best stories about it are already in For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs), but one more thing I have to add is that I am incredibly lucky to have sympathetic superiors who understand that people can be committed wholeheartedly to their jobs while also wanting to cultivate outside interests. One quick example: about this time last year, I was about to embark on a 25-city book tour behind Live Nude Girl with the lovely and talented Kyle Minor (Hey, Kyle! I bet you’re reading this! Wave if you’re reading this.). Lots of employers in these tough economic times might have answered my request for a two-month non-medical, non-maternity leave of absence with, “Sure, you can go but don’t come back because we can’t hold your spot,” but they not only let me, they were super-encouraging.

Anyway x2, having looked at this question from, as Joni Mitchell would say, both sides now, I think it’s challenging to be a writer in tandem with earning a living no matter what you do. But it also seems that whatever job you’ve got can potentially be fodder—or at least provide such resources as access to a laser printer, etc.—for your writing, and that if you have adequate time management skillz (which, by the way Lily, you clearly do since you’ve had like, 12 books accepted for publication between your sending me this question and my sending you this answer) (LH: Ha! Ha! You’re not so different!), you can probably get some stuff written, even if it’s during those intervals in the cubicle when you’re between assignments and trying to “look busy.” What do you think you’ll do next, job-wise?

LH: You’ve written & published more books than I have fingers. Ok, on one hand. But still! And you’re under thirty! What’s your favorite? What’s your least favorite? Because I don’t believe that shit like books are “children” and you love all your children “equally.” It’s totally b.s. and everyone knows it. For instance, I’m clearly my father’s favorite. No questions about it.

KR: My favorite is always the one that I’m currently working on but haven’t finished yet, because it’s still in the process of becoming. Right now, it’s the novel (whoa) that I’m trying to write, but that’s not because I think it’s great; it’s just that the inevitable difference between the ideal of it and my execution of it hasn’t been completely established. What about you? Do you consider yourself the “mom” of your books?

LH: No, I don’t mom my books, and I certainly don’t “mommy” them! In a dream world, I’d like my books to mother me. That sure would be nice, for a change!

Ok. That’s it. Thanks, Kathleen, & thanks, Giant fans, for reading! On to a new decade…