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The politics of fiction in O, Democracy!

Kathleen Rooney's debut novel is rooted in her disillusioning experience as an aide to a senator from Illinois.



Anyone aware of Kathleen Rooney's controversial exit in 2010 from Senator Dick Durbin's Chicago office might be disappointed that her new political book isn't a tell-all. An accomplished writer with several books under her belt—including poetry and a memoir, Live Nude Girl, about being an artist's model—Rooney published her first work, the autobiographical essay collection For You, for You, I Am Trilling These Songs, while working as a Durbin aide. When word of the book got back to the senator's D.C. office, its author was abruptly fired. A particular source of contention was a piece in which Rooney describes, albeit in third person, a complicated flirtation with her boss, Durbin's district director, to whom she gives the fictional title "chief of staff."

But while the Chicagoan's debut novel, O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press), is indeed a work of fiction, it's also thinly veiled autobiography. At the center is a young woman named Colleen (as opposed to Kathleen) working for an unnamed Democratic senator from Illinois in the spring of '08—not the hot-shit junior congressman poised to become leader of the free world; the other guy. Sound familiar?

O, Democracy!'s cast includes a handsy boss, and its protagonist is disenchanted with both American politics and facing late-20s malaise—also true of Rooney's experience. But she ratchets up the drama with other moral dilemmas, especially what to do with a shocking, potentially election-shaping secret.

Over tea at her neighborhood cafe, Metropolis Coffee Company in Edgewater, the 34-year-old visiting assistant professor at DePaul explained that she hopes that as a novel, the book will appeal not just to an audience of political junkies and policy wonks but to anyone interested in the inner workings of a democracy—however disappointing, however flawed.

  • Courtesy Kathleen Rooney
  • Kathleen Rooney

Initially, did the process of writing O, Democracy! seem like a chance to respond to your dismissal from Durbin's office? [Given her relatively lowly position, Rooney felt she had little power to contest the decision.]

It afforded me chances, but I'm not sure I took them. People who maybe know the situation of how I got fired might come to O, Democracy! like, "Ooh, she's gonna come with her knives drawn. It's going to be a hatchet job, and she's gonna settle some scores." I don't think the book reads that way. I bear no specific ill will to particular people.

As I was writing, I did have fantasies in drafts of staircase wit—in the moment, all you can think to say is "Well, screw you!" and then afterward you're driving home and think of some elaborate, sophisticated dart straight to the heart of the person who insulted you. But it didn't seem authentic. It's not just a political novel but a workplace novel. We all have fantasies of telling off a bad boss, but I think more and more with the precariat class, we've entered into this attitude of not just "Get a job" but "You should be grateful for any work you get. Don't complain."

Do you think the Durbin administration's issue with your writing was purely about you exposing your life as a Senate aide, or was it also that the book revealed politics wasn't your entire life, like how the protagonist of O, Democracy! is a photographer?

A little bit of both. In the novel, I compare [working for a senator] to all the people who cranked out those Nancy Drew mysteries over the years—the point is Nancy Drew, not [any individual] author. There's an element of that in a political office: You're anonymous, and this guy—unfortunately, it's almost always a man—is the star of the show. As an underling, you're not supposed to outshine the main guy.

Now I'm a professor. Recent graduates tell me that they kill off parts of themselves, don't let their employers know they're a musician or a painter or a yoga teacher. So it's not just in a political office, where outside interests aren't [valued] and the dominant attitude is "You work for us."

Were you anticipating having to defend your decision to turn your own experiences into a novel?

I needed to be able to fictionalize because real life just wasn't that neat and tidy or narratively arcing or interesting. But also, if that's the only way people read it, as this sort of roman a clef—"Ooh, it's Senator Durbin, and this guy is this guy"—which you absolutely could if you wanted, but you'd miss a bigger point, which is how conflicts play themselves out on an individual level, yet the good, the bad, the credit, the blame don't lie with any individual. A lot of the issues [in our democracy] are structural, systemic, institutional.

The book culminates in Obama's election night in Grant Park. A lot of us felt then like the country was changing. When I turned the book in to my publisher, I was nervous, knowing it was going to have a 2014 release date, that so many of the book's issues might not be relevant anymore—the closeted-gay-politician plot or the oil-in-Lake Michigan-because-of-BP plot. I guess the optimist in me, like the optimist in my protagonist, thought that things would get better. But just last week, BP dumped a bunch more oil directly into the source of fresh drinking water for seven million midwesterners. Dan Rutherford's [Republican gubernatorial primary] campaign suffered largely because of a rumor [of sexual harassment] that was ultimately not substantiated and that he denied, but that was it. Things are the same.

Did you choose to refer to people only by title—"Senator," "Chief of Staff"—to more broadly represent their power?

Part of that is tied into this founding father narrative—these foundational myths that run through the book. I wanted the names of people to suggest that they should be read as archetypes. Again, I'm not looking to be like, "This one guy was a huge jerk."

"This guy, Schmick Schmurbin—"

Yeah, exactly. [Laughter.] "Schmick Schmurbin was an OK guy."

Much of the press about your work mentions how striking it is that you write in different genres—poetry, nonfiction, memoir, and now fiction. Not to diminish the fact that to do that well is impressive, but how have we gotten to the point that it's so surprising?

It's [reflective of] the way capitalism has come to function: Don't be well-rounded. Don't be complex. Don't be a human. Be a fiction machine. Crank it out! I'm certainly not the only person who jumps genres. I also don't think everyone who writes fiction is secretly a poet who has been tricked. But there are market pressures—from agents to editors to publishers to bookstores—that are like, "Help us brand you. If you jump around all the time, no one's going to know what you do."

But being nimble and diverse could be the very thing that distinguishes a writer.

One of my yoga instructor's favorite facts is that humans have the same dexterity in their toes as they do in their hands—it's just underdeveloped. At first you're like "Come on. What are we, monkeys?" Some of what we think we can't do, we can't. But some of it we can, and just haven't tried.

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