Alumna Update: Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney, a 2002 graduate, brings us much pride as a GW alum. Through my email exchanges with Kathleen, I have been continually impressed with how accomplished and gracious she is. Her thorough and insightful answers prove what a talented writer she is, and I’m sure many others will agree that we can all learn a great deal from her experiences and advice.

When did you graduate GW? Any memorable moments in English classes? Favorite professors?

I graduated from GW in May of 2002, and spent the 2000-2001 academic year at Pembroke College in Oxford. Like so many students, I arrived at GW absolutely certain that I wanted to major in poli sci. As it turned out, I ended up leaving with a degree in English and Creative Writing, a change that was due in no small part to the excellence of the English department faculty and classes. Among those, Jeffrey Cohen’s Literary Theory course was a standout because theory helps you frame the world and see things deliberately from perspectives that are not necessarily your own, or the ones you’d default to. This strangeness and displacement makes you a better thinker and potentially a more empathetic person. Tara Wallace helped me appreciate 18th century English literature more than I ever thought possible, and Margaret Soltan, my thesis advisor, challenged my arguments and forced me to defend them, thereby helping me break my undergrad habit of just assuming the sympathy of my audience. Jane Shore at GW and Kate Clanchy at Oxford gave me examples, through their lives and work, of how to “be a poet.”

What was the process like for you to get your thesis published?

In a word: hard. I was very young and thought that once you have an agent, you are made in the shade. You are not. Jane Vandenburgh generously put me in touch with an agent who was very nice and very helpful over the course of the lengthy revision process that was required to transform the manuscript from an interesting thesis to a full-fledged publishable book. Ultimately, though, the agent couldn’t sell it and gave up on Reading with Oprah (having realized that there was no longer a chance for serious money to be made off the venture), so I kept on shopping it around myself. Eventually, after many, many months and dozens and dozens of rejections, I got an offer from University of Arkansas Press, who have been amazing. Larry Malley, the publisher, has a fantastic vision for the press, and everyone there is thoughtful and receptive. As an author on a university press, I feel I have more input and interactivity than I would with a commercial publishing house; for instance, at the moment, I’m working on deciding on the cover for my next title with them, Live Nude Girl. I’m grateful to Arkansas for the respect they show their authors, and for their commitment to making books that are meant to last.

The more I work in publishing, the less I think agents actually know what they are doing, and the more I think that the author herself is her own best advocate. Steve Almond, a writer whose work and outlook I appreciate, used to be a big spokesguy for being your own agent, but now even he has an agent and a new book out with Random House, so I dunno. It may just be a necessary evil. But if you are an author and you can’t find an agent, or your agent can’t sell your work, persist persist persist, I guess, and don’t give up on yourself even if it feels like everybody else wants to.

The title of your book Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America sounds very intriguing. What can you tell us about your discoveries in your research?

When I began the project way back in 2000, I was of the opinion that maybe Oprah, as a TV talk show host, was not in a position to undertake the cultural work of being a literary gatekeeper or advisor. The more I looked into the Oprah’s Book Club phenomenon, though, and the more I read the titles she recommended, the more I realized that this was an immature, kind of half-baked mindset. I began to realize, and I still believe today, that Oprah is actually a new kind of public intellectual, and the cultural role she is playing with the book club—as a promoter of active literacy and readership in America—is crucial and beneficial.

You appear to have interviewed a number of popular writers for your research– as a young writer, was that a difficult challenge?

It was a challenge. Some writers were incredibly rude. Most, though, were incredibly gracious. The whole experience of approaching these people—people whose careers and success I admired—helped me realize that if I ever have the good fortune to be in a position of power and experthood, I will do my best to appreciate that position and be kind to everyone, regardless of how much power or experthood they may or may not have. I think some people like to help other people because they genuinely find such behavior satisfying and worthwhile, and others like to help people because it’s a power trip for them—they can be kind or they can be withholding—and I hope never to be the latter.

How would you describe the success of your book, and what future opportunities has it afforded you?

I think it’s hard to accurately describe the success of a book. Of course, from a career-path perspective, as someone who loves teaching and who would love, one day, to be a tenured professor, having a book is better than having no books, and having many books is better than having just one. So I’m full of gratitude for the doors that may be opened, hiring-wise, as a result of my having multiple titles published by reputable presses. That said, I’m not sure about how successful Reading with Oprah has exactly been, though I’m thrilled that it has done well enough to go into a second, revised, and updated edition. I think that sometimes, the perception of “success” in the publishing industry—in all aspects of American life, probably—are dangerously skewed to the point where we are encouraged to think that unless you sell the MOST copies, make the MOST money, get the MOST fame as a result of your efforts, you are not a quantifiable “success”. So I’m resistant to use a market capitalist model as a measure of creative or literary success. I think books are like messages in bottles in a way—you very often don’t know who you’ve reached or what your reaching them has inspired them to do. Your books go out on their own and lead their own lives and touch other people’s lives and it’s so exciting to think of that, but it’s almost impossible to measure numerically, or at least to measure numerically in a way that means anything.

I read that you are a co-founder of Rose Metal Press. What is the focus/niche of Rose Metal Press?

Abby Beckel and I founded Rose Metal Press in January of 2006 as a nonprofit publisher of work in hybrid genres. By hybrid genres, we mean works such as prose poetry, novels-in-verse, short short fiction, and other forms that move beyond the traditional categories of poetry, fiction, and essay to find other means of expression. I met Abby at Emerson College in Boston, and I could not ask for a better publishing partner; her knowledge and her energy are both apparently endless.

We chose to focus on work in hybrid genres because we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the many small presses already out there doing great work in traditional genres, and because we wanted to give writers opportunities to publish risk-taking, hard-to-categorize work that might fall through the cracks otherwise. Often, especially with the big commercial publishers, marketability is the biggest factor in deciding whether or not a work deserves to be published. Abby and I do not think that this should be the case. Again, just because something might not sell a million copies to an easily-defined audience does not mean that it does not deserve to exist. So much in commercial publishing is calculated toward not taking risks, so I like being able to operate on my own terms on a scale where risks are encouraged. We believe that there is a lot of entertaining and challenging literature that can be offered on a smaller scale, and it encourages us to see how many people appear to agree. I have so many indie publishing peers and heroes I admire and whose examples I look to for inspiration: Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, Justin Marks of Kitchen Press, Rope-a-Dope Collaborative in Boston, Featherproof and Switchback Books in Chicago just to name a few, but the list is really endless. All you have to do is hit the internet to see how many hard-working and dedicated people are producing beautiful and interesting books, books that are, in most cases, much more beautiful and interesting than anything I’ve seen lately from the trade houses.

You have had a number of poems published, including a chapbook of collaboration—how does collaborative poetry work for you and Elisa Gabbert?

Elisa Gabbert is a super-smart, super-funny person, as well as a super-smart, super-funny poet. She and some friends were visiting my husband Martin and me in Provincetown while we were there for Martin’s Fiction Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, and she was poking through the books on our shelves when she came across the collaborative poetry collection Nice Hat. Thanks. by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer. She suggested that she and I collaborate, and I said yes. That was in early 2006 and we’ve been at it ever since. All our collaborations take place over Gmail—never in person. We experiment with a variety of forms and approaches, including some of the rules and games set forth by the Oulipo movement, as well as forms of our own devising. There are many things we like about collaboration, but a couple of the big ones, I think, are the way that working together helps free us both up to have more fun and to put more playfulness into our work. When you are working with a partner, the task of writing a poem is less solitary—in a sense, you already have a built-in audience for the writing even as you are writing it. So we’ve gotten good at providing checks and balances to each other—killing each other’s and our own darlings, as they say. Also in collaboration, in addition to the freedom to lighten up a bit and be more funny (or at least maybe not to take ourselves too seriously), we’re freed to an extent from assumptions about the lyric “I”. Even though we write a lot of our collabs in the first person, there is an understanding that this particular “I” does not necessarily refer to the autobiographical experiences or impressions of a single real person.

Additionally, you have a forthcoming memoir, Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object. Another intriguing title! What can we look forward to about your new book?

Thanks—glad you like the title. It’s an occupational memoir about posing nude for artists, which my marketing guy (whose opinion I trust) says sounds “dry” so to put it in a tagline, it’s “One woman’s take on taking it off for art” or “A peep into the world of nude modeling,” or “An artist’s model bares it all” or “A revealing look at art modeling.” I don’t know—which one do you like? Seriously, it’s a memoir about the five years I spent—starting when I was a senior at GW and then continuing when I lived in Boston, Provincetown, and Tacoma—working as a model, very often a nude model, for art classes and professional artists. I started doing the job because it pays very well and I needed the money to pay for school, but then even after I’d settled into a “real” job as a creative writing professor, I kept modeling on the side, I think because I’m sort of addicted to it. More abstractly, the book is an exploration about the relationship between being made into an object and objectifying others. It’s a meditation on art and how art helps us record and make permanent people and things that will one day be dead and gone. It’s about erotic desire, and beauty, and the human desire to be a part of something bigger than oneself and to make a difference and be remembered. Basically, it’s about being paid money to take off your clothes and hold really still, but it’s also about so much more than that.

Since you write both poetry and prose, are your creative processes noticeably different for each?

Yes, the processes between the two are noticeably different, and I find that if I’m really absorbed in writing in one genre, it’s difficult to simultaneously work deeply in the other. I think I’m in kind of a prose phase right now (aside from the collabs), but it goes back and forth. I also think that in a way, short stories and poetry are very similar to each other, as are personal essays and poetry, or at least they can be. I think that there can be a lot of overlap among genres and I’m very interested in the places where these overlaps occur. Elisa and I have also been working on translations of the French poet Max Jacob, and translation is a totally different process from either prose or poetry. I also like to write plays sometimes, also in collaboration with a writing partner. I’m interested in almost every genre and hope I have time, eventually, to try my hand at all of them.

You have also taught Creative Writing. Has teaching been mutually beneficial in the ways you may now think about your own writing?

Last year I was hired to be a visiting assistant professor of creative writing with an emphasis on memoir and the personal essay. Even though my first book, Reading with Oprah, was nonfiction, it was criticism with a personal bent, not memoir or the personal essay per se. So when I put together my syllabi, I felt like I was taking the courses myself before I taught them to my students, which was an awesome feeling. I learned so much as I read those books—Joan Didion, Sarah Vowell, Phillip Lopate, Michel de Montaigne, Saint Augustine, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Mark Twain—and crafted those writing prompts. And as I presented that material to my students and read the writing they produced in return, I couldn’t help but get inspired. Even though I’d never really written what I’d consider a true personal essay before that time, I felt compelled to write a dozen in the space of under a year, largely because of the inspiration provided by the professional and student examples I was coming into contact with on a daily basis. Also, it was one of those periods when everything in my life seemed like something I should write about, so I did. Not all the attempts led to “finished” essays, but many of them did, and I feel so lucky to have had that experience. In short, I loved teaching. But I did not always enjoy the politics of the academy. Which is part of the reason why, at the moment, I’m in actual politics where people are at least honest about their politicalness. I’d like to return to teaching some day, but for now I’m enjoying where I am (putting my GW poli sci training to decent use).

Any advice for current English undergraduates?

Believe in yourself, make sure you really work at constantly improving, and never give up. As my friend Allen likes to say, go hard or go home.

For more info on Kathleen Rooney, please visit her web site.

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