By: Martin Russell
A Kathleen Rooney fan can barely finish spelling “prolific’” before their favorite Chicago writer has composed another book of poems, celebrates a new novel coming out or fine-tunes lesson plans for English courses at DePaul University where she teaches.
Cher Ami and Major Wittlesey, the latest offering by this wordsmith who churns out grand plotlines and fantastic missives is based on a true story of the Great War. The novel just came out from Penguin and is already garnering ecstatic reviews.
Cher Ami is a gripping true tale true story of a WWI messenger pigeon and the soldiers whose
Photos Courtesy of Penguin Books
lives she saved. It is both poignant and humorous, making for a grand end-of-summer read.
In addition to being a university prof in DePaul’s English department, Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary works and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. With this latter, she works with a team of poets who compose commissioned verses on demand.
With all this, Rooney has won as many awards as several Triple Crown literary thoroughbreds. Among them was the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine.
Her book credits include Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin's Press 2017/Picador, 2018), and is the author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including the novel O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press, 2014); the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press, 2012), based on the life and work of Weldon Kess; the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010); and the art modeling memoir Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (University of Arkansas Press, 2009). Her first book is Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (University of Arkansas Press, 2005), and her first poetry collection, Oneiromance won the 2007 Gatewood Prize from the feminist publisher Switchback Books.
Her reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Poetry Foundation website, The New York Times Book Review, BITCH, Allure, The Chicago Review of Books, The Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation and elsewhere.
With essayist/poet Elisa Gabbert, Rooney co-authored the poetry collection That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, 2008) and the chapbook The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Along with fellow DePaul Prof. Eric Plattner, she co-edited Rene Margritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), about the famed Belgian painter and author.
Perhaps her Irishness contributes to her literary skills.
“Almost everything that I know about my Irish ancestors is thanks to my Aunt Monica Mckay,” Rooney said. Her grandfather’s branch of Rooney's were originally from Co. Down. John Rooney came to New York in 1851 when he was 22 years old, arriving with his mother, Catherine, and his two sisters. The family had arrived in Hubbard, Neb., by 1857 from New York, traveling down the Ohio River, then the Mississippi, then up the Missouri to Dakota City, Neb,.
They eventually ended up in the small town of Hubbard. According to Rooney, the family her grandmother’s side, the Hogans, were some of the first settlers in northeastern Nebraska, as well. They left Ireland for Ontario on a coffin ship in the 1840s, and then went to Iowa, where a priest named Father Tracy organized a party of 13 Irish families to head to Nebraska, where they settled near Jackson. William Hogan, Russell’s earliest Nebraska ancestor had been born in Tipperary.
Rooney’s mother’s side of the family is Czech and also ended up in eastern Nebraska. Her parents met during pharmacy school at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Husband Martin Seay, author of The Mirror Thief, hails from Texas, with his background roughly a quarter Irish, but also Greek, English and Scots.
Although Russell hasn’t yet been to Ireland, a country visit is on her list. When the pandemic is over and she and Seay are able to travel again, she looks forward to visiting. “I’m eager to visit Dublin in general but especially because of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Walking in urban areas is one of my best loved hobbies, and that’s a terrific novel about city strolling,” she enthused.
She grew up “all over the place,” which she said was helpful to her as a writer. Changing locations and schools means one needs to learn to adjust and make friends frequently, and that requires curiosity about people and decent observational skills, both of which are traits that serve an author well, Rooney exclaimed.
Her mom is a retired pharmacist and her father currently is director of pharmacy at Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago. Russell was born in Beckley W.V, and grew up in Omaha, and Shreveport, La. But Illinois is the state she considers home. Her folks still live in the western suburb of Woodridge and Russell went to high school at Downers Grove North in Downers Grove.
Her husband Seay Martin, is also a novelist (she suggests that readers should check out his book The Mirror Thief). The couple live in Edgewater on the north side of Chicago. “We’ve got a lovely Irish pub, Cuneen’s, not two blocks away from us on Devon Avenue. Our friend and fellow writer Bill Savage used to tend bar there some nights, and it’s thanks to him that it’s our neighborhood spot,” she enthused.
Neither of her folks were in the arts but Russell pointed out that they were literary fans, reading to her and her two sisters as tykes. “Growing up in a house packed with books and where the knowledge and imagination that books foster was revered and celebrated made a deep impression,” she added.
One sister, Megan, is an academic advisor at Drexel University and the other sibling, Beth, is a professional photographer. “She’s brilliant and has done my author photos for me.” Russell affirmed.
When she decided she wanted to be a writer, Russell said that her family had the usual concerns about the challenges of making a living as an artist—because it is quite challenging to live off one’s earnings as a writer; almost nobody can do that these days. “They wanted to be sure that I had practical skills and would be able to support myself independently. Once they saw that I’d be able to work as an editor and teacher—as well as a lot of other things as needed—they felt relieved. But through it all, they’ve always encouraged my creativity and my writing,” she went on.
True to form, Russell composed her first stories before she could even write. Her mom recorded them with a tape recorder. “Since I was only 4- years-old or so, they were, I confess, fairly derivative. As a child of the 1980s, I included microwave ovens, My Little Ponies, and Michael Jackson. I’m grateful to my mom for the encouragement,” she laughed. “Sadly, I don’t think I still have any of my earliest poems, but I’ve been writing them since I was about 5.”
Her first book, Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America came out with University of Arkansas Press in 2005, and she admitted that she was over the moon about it. “My lifelong dream had been to be a writer with a book published by a respected press and to achieve it just as I was finishing graduate school was incredibly satisfying and affirming,” she offered.
That book made her feel like she was on the right path—that being a writer was something she could do successfully and that she wasn’t wasting her time. Russell was living in Boston at the time and did a launch reading at a wonderful independent bookstore called Newtonville Books. “As for a more casual celebration, I went for drinks at the Tam, a dive bar in Boston that – having just googled it in order to answer this question – I’m thrilled to see is still in business,” she said.
Lucky for Russell, she likes to be busy. “I find that the saying ‘when you have nothing to do, you do nothing’ applies and I thrive when I have more on my plate as opposed to less…I wear a lot of proverbial hats, so I tend to say I’m a writer, editor, publisher, and teacher.”
The change wrought by the covid challenge is daunting, however, DePaul did an all-remote quarter in the spring and wisely let the English faculty know that they’d be totally online this fall, too, which allowed them plenty of time to prepare. “I thought I would despise online teaching because I enjoy face-to-face classroom work so much. And I don’t love online teaching, I will confess, but I certainly don’t hate it. Online teaching has pros and cons, like anything else. A con is the absence of magic—it affords none of that serendipitous, accidental, in-person energy that can only happen from spontaneous human interaction in real space. And I miss that deeply,” she said.
For her, a pro with all this is that she really can deliver a high-quality education to each of her students digitally, and that everyone participates to a high degree—there’s no hiding in the back row and never speaking up online; everyone does the discussions and weighs in. “In some senses, I have to admit that it can be more inclusive and participatory. I cannot wait to be back to face-to-face instruction, but for now, I’m pleasantly surprised by how well creative writing can be taught virtually. When you think about it, imaginative writing is well-suited to being online because mostly reading and writing are solitary pursuits to begin with.”
Russell’s three favorite Irish poets are W.B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanaugh and Seamus Heaney. She took an Irish literature class when she was an undergraduate at George Washington University and learned about all three of them—and many more— and these are the three who’ve haunted her ever since.
Yeats is her all-time favorite Irish poet because of his gift for rhyme and because of his rhetoric. “Here’s a guy who’s not afraid to let a poem argue for something, or really lay out a case. Easter 1916 and The Second Coming alone would justify his existence, but he just has monster hit after monster hit,” Russell declared.
It’s tough trying to name what Irish authors she would invite to dinner because there are many to choose from. For the living ones, she would pick Sally Rooney and Sebastian Barry, the latter in particular because his World War I novel A Long, Long Way is a masterpiece and a model of what I hoped to do in my own WWI novel. I’d also add Paul Murray to the living list because his 2011 novel Skippy Dies is one that’s stayed with me. For the dead ones, I’d pick Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde because I think they’d both be funny, but in wildly different ways. Maybe, to keep with the Irish theme, I’d try to figure out some kind of vegetarian corned beef and cabbage (I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 15). I’m not sure what we’d talk about, but I imagine it would be any and every thing and I’d try to listen more than talk, to soak it all in.”
In Russell’s experience, great young writers are to be found in every class she teaches, and the thing that they all share in common—that they do not share with the mediocre to poor students—is that they are all readers. They love to read books of every sort and they know that good literary input is the key to good literary output. Some recent stars she’s taught who are now out in the world publishing their work include (but are not limited) to Logan Berry, Andrea Rehani, Caro Macon, Caroline Kurdej and KP Peters. “I love to keep in touch with my students and hear about their accomplishments. It makes me incredibly happy to hear of their successes,” she said.
The more a student can read from actual printed-on-paper books as objects, the better. “I’m a publisher, so I believe firmly in the power of books as objects—and science backs me up; people retain what they read better when they’re not reading on screens,” Russell stressed.
Russell said that Henry James recommends that a writer “try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost” and that’s as solid a definition of a great writer or poet as any. If you maintain an interest and curiosity in the world and the people in it, the attention you pay to observing and thinking about those things will let you excel on the page, she said.
People read for all kinds of different reasons, but for a story to meet her definition of “good” it needs to possess at least one extremely dynamic character, somebody we see learning and growing, somebody who is put into tricky situations and who we get to see making moral and ethical decisions, for better or for worse. Someone who ends up different at the end than they were at the start. I believe that people can change and I like seeing those transformations happen on the page, Russell said.
According to Russell, writers, whether they consider themselves poets or not, should study poetry because the control and attention to the smallest details of written expression—down to individual syllables and punctuation marks—that poetry requires can only serve to help in every other genre. Switching between poetry and prose feels natural to her because each one informs the other.
Her husband, Martin, is also a novelist (check out his book The Mirror Thief!). The couple lives in Edgewater on the north side of Chicago. “We’ve got a lovely Irish pub, Cuneen’s, not two blocks away from us on Devon Avenue. Our friend and fellow writer Bill Savage used to tend bar there some nights, and it’s thanks to him that it’s our neighborhood spot.”
Their home in a classic old Chicago building which has solariums on the front. Each apartment has one—a beautiful small room in which three of the four walls are almost entirely windows. We’re on the third floor, which I consider a writerly view: up amid the crowns of the trees, able to see the people going about their business below.
Russell performed extensive research for Cher Ami in every genre and medium possible. For the pigeon parts, she visited Cher Ami’s taxidermed body in the Smithsonian, which was a profoundly moving experience. She also read as many pigeon-raising books from the early 1900s as I could to make sure I understood the birds and also how their handlers would have seen and treated them.
For the human soldier parts, she did something similar, reading as much as she could not just about the era, but from the era—newspaper reports on the Lost Battalion published at the time, and (this might be the most unexpected artifact she encountered) a movie they made in 1919 called The Lost Battalion that actually starred several of the surviving men, including Charles Whittlesey. It was wild to me that they had these guys relive the trauma of their experience on screen as a form of public entertainment, and it was eerie and sad to see Whit himself moving around in black and white.
Both pigeons and WWI have always fascinated her, and when one of her DePaul students, Brian Micic (who is now an attorney in Chicago) mentioned the story of the Lost Battalion in a poem he wrote for one of our classes, she was smitten. She’d never heard the tale of how this heroic bird and saved hundreds of men from a friendly fire incident and knew instantly, just reading her Wikipedia page, that I needed to make it into a novel. “Pigeons really are remarkable creatures and I loved seeing them firsthand” she said. “We don’t have any pets, but while I was writing Cher Ami, a pigeon couple moved in under our eaves and raised their family and that was phenomenally educational.“
To her knowledge, none of her family were in World War I. But her maternal grandfather was an Army captain in World War II stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines. A lawyer before the war, he served with the MPs and the judge adjutant while in service. Her paternal grandfather was rejected by the draft board in Omaha because a wagon fell on him as a kid and crushed his ankle, but his brother served in the Navy Seabees. Her dad and three of his brothers (he is one of seven) were all in the military.
Russell cheerily bragged that has her wonderful agent, Lisa Bankoff, is also marvelous editor. “I appreciate that she not only sells, but shapes my work. That’s just for prose, though; for poetry, I am on my own.”
When Russell was just starting out as a writer, finishing grad school and shopping around her Reading with Oprah manuscript, I knew that the book’s scholarly angle would mean that it would likely find a home at a university press (if it found a home at all). University of Arkansas Press at that time was overseen by Larry Malley, a wonderful editor, and he accepted her manuscript. By doing so and by believing in her he changed Russell’s life and she said she would always be thankful for his editing and support. She loved working with the Arkansas press so much that it published her art modeling memoir, Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object in 2009.
“Martin, my husband, is my first and best editor. And then I have a circle of fellow writer friends who are also key early readers who give feedback on my work. Then, when a project is ready, I send it to Lisa, my agent, who has a keen and unsparing editorial eye,” she said, adding that if and when a book is accepted by a publisher, she works with her editor there. “As an editor myself, I am a big-time believer in the value editors add; no matter how good a writer you are, you will absolutely become better if a professional edits you.”
“The most fun aspect of writing is getting lost in a flow state. Few other activities allow me to become so absorbed and focused that I forget everything else—where I am, who I am, to eat lunch, to worry about the future, all of it. I adore the chance to slip into another mindset like that.” Russell said.
She pleased with the connections she’s made after a book comes out—hearing from readers and meeting people. On Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, her favorite unexpected connection so far is that one of Whit’s distant relatives, John Whittlesey Hasbrouck, found her novel in Pilsen Community Books, a local store, and looked her up on Facebook.
“We were able to meet so I could sign his copy and he’s come to a couple of my virtual events. He’s a musician and he’s given Martin and me his albums, which are a delight, and we look forward one day to hearing him perform live. Writing a book about a historical figure and then unexpectedly hearing that their relative enjoyed it is a thrill,” she said.
On her off-time, she and husband love to travel when it’s possible, as well as cook, ride their bikes, take long walks, bird watch and go to plays, readings and shows. She’s also all in for yoga.
Her next project? She hinted that it would be book about a once famous but now forgotten Irish-American silent movie star. Stay tuned!