Chicago writer Kathleen Rooney recently released her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. A fictional retelling of the true story of World War I’s “Lost Battalion” (though mostly regarding its physical and emotional aftereffects on the protagonists), we hear the tale from the perspective of the two titular narrators—one human and one not. A professor in DePaul University’s English Department, Rooney’s previously published work includes the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte, in addition to several other works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We spoke with her about her new book, writing and the importance of research, war and peace, and getting inside a bird character’s brain.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, your writing career, and such like.
Genre fascinates me—the idea of what you can do in a poem that you can’t in an essay, or what approaching something as fiction affords you that approaching it in nonfiction wouldn’t, and so on. And that genre fascination is a huge part of why in 2006, after graduating Emerson College’s MFA program, I co-founded Rose Metal Press with my friend Abby Beckel. We publish literary work in hybrid genres, including prose poetry, flash fiction, book-length essays, and image and text works among many other things, because we like to support authors who are blending genre elements to find new forms of expression.
An example of this is Monster Portraits by Del and Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American brother and sister illustrator-author team who use drawings and words to explore their own childhoods growing up mixed-race in America, but also the category of “monster” more broadly to look at questions of belonging and bigotry, acceptance and otherness. And in my own work, I write in all the genres, including hybrid ones. Cher Ami is my third novel, and I have several books of nonfiction, as well as collections of poetry.
I like deciding what form is ideal for my various ideas and then being able to put it down in that form. An example of how the genres feed into each other for me is that when I was co-editing Rene Magritte’s Selected Writings, I learned so much about the artist and his wife and pets that I ended up also writing a book called The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte made up of prose poems and flash fictions from the close third-person perspective of Magritte’s wife and their shared set of Pomeranian dogs, all called Loulou.
What inspired the writing of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey? Some chance encounter or a passage you read somewhere?
In addition to being a writer and editor, I’m also a professor of English and Creative Writing at DePaul University, and my work in the classroom often connects with or otherwise inspires my personal work.
In the case of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, that connection is unusually direct. I teach an upper-level mixed genre workshop called Writer as Urban Walker, which draws on my lifelong fascination with flânerie, psychogeography, and walking aimlessly through cities (à la Lillian in my novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk). In fall of 2013, one of the students in that workshop, Brian Micic, turned in a poem about an old man sitting on a park bench surrounded by a flock of pigeons, containing the line “but this was no Cher Ami story (look it up!)” I laughed out loud because I am always and forever telling my students to look stuff up. Taking my own advice, I looked up Cher Ami and became captivated. Simultaneously—because you can’t hear about Cher Ami without hearing about the Lost Battalion—I became captivated by Charles Whittlesey. Tumbling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I knew I needed to tell this story because I’m obsessed with World War I, with incidents of animal intelligence and courage, and with people who used to be famous but are now almost entirely forgotten.
The book is notably told by two different narrators: one a soldier and one a carrier pigeon. Care to explore this and why you chose to write it this way?
“Animal lover” is a common way to describe oneself, and I suppose I’d describe myself as an animal lover as well, so I was magnetically drawn to this monumentally heroic and tenacious bird. But at the risk of alienating some readers, I question the category of “animal lover,” too, because often, when people identify that way, they mean that they love their own property—as in they love their pet, their particular dog or cat, and that’s largely it. They still eat meat, they’re still either overtly or unconsciously buying into the hierarchy of domination that puts humans above all other lifeforms, and they still don’t think that much on a daily basis about how wildlife now accounts for only 3 percent of the biomass on the planet (which includes all organisms), with humans, livestock, and domestic pets taking up the remainder, and how tragically out of balance that is.
So saying one is an “animal lover” because one loves one’s pet is nice, no doubt, but pretty limited because it’s easy to “love” the things and objects that one possesses and spends money on the maintenance of. It’s harder to expand that love to beings that one has never seen or touched or that don’t have a vested interest, like dogs or cats, in returning our love in exchange for food, protection, and comfort. So the story of Cher Ami—the story of how the massive armies of world super-powers used animals to prop up their imperialism and perpetrate their violence—was one that seemed inherently moving but also thematically powerful. Cher Ami, as a pigeon, is in a strange middle territory in a number of ways in that she’s a wild animal who has been domesticated and trained, her instincts to home and be fast, brave, and loyal, bent to human purposes, and in that the Army considered animals (dogs, pigeons, and horses) to be less than “people” but more than “equipment.”
Whit struck me as a stunningly smart, compassionate, and well-intentioned person whose life got utterly wrecked by the violent impulses and mandatory masculinity of the culture he happened to be living in. He was a Harvard-educated Wall Street lawyer. By all accounts quiet, thoughtful, and peaceful—he even had a pacifist and Socialist stage when he was in college—who went on to become one of the greatest and most famous heroes of the Great War. And the way he was turned into a piece of propaganda by the media, the government, and the military after he came back from his truly horrific experiences struck me as a tragedy we see play out over and over and over, war after war, and one that was worth exploring.
What was the research process like for the book? Did you travel anywhere? Any interactions with pigeons?
Research! I could do it forever. The first thing I did when I knew I was writing this book in earnest was travel to Washington DC in the summer of 2014 to visit Cher Ami in the Smithsonian. She, like Whit, was turned into such a monument, such a propaganda piece, that when she died in 1919, they stuffed her and placed her in the museum. Seeing her small, feathered body in person, through glass, felt simultaneously profound and absurd—like how incredibly moving that such a tiny creature suffered so much to save a group of human soldiers! But also how incredibly ridiculous in the most touching way that she was so grievously wounded in doing so—losing an eye, being shot in the chest, and losing a leg, which was then replaced by a tiny wooden one—and that the powers that be decided that this would be her resting place for all eternity!
I also visited the World War I Museum in Kansas City where I got to see firsthand so many material trappings of the war effort, most notably the pigeoneer equipment—baskets they would have carried the birds in, message canisters, pencils, the thin paper they would have written the notes on in code, and all the rest of the accoutrements that let humans use animals in this ingenious and not undisturbing way.
In Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey you support the idea put forth by Sophie Wunderlich that Charles Whittlesey was likely gay. Did you know this going into writing the book?
I did. Very early in my research, it became clear that Whit was a closeted gay man, and that was one of many rhymes or resonances between his story and Cher Ami’s. Cher Ami was misgendered her entire life, labeled a male bird in all the write-ups of her heroism, then when they stuffed her, they discovered she was really a female. But the Smithsonian didn’t bother to correct the error, I think in large part because as a culture, the idea of being a war hero was—and still remains—stubbornly tied to notions of manhood. Similarly, the fact that Whit was leading a life that he couldn’t be open about with his colleagues and family let alone the military struck me as having relevance with attitudes about masculinity at the time and to this day.
Over and over in my research, I found this obsession with what it meant, in the 1900s, to be a “real” man, and this obsession was mixed with massive anxiety in the US and in Europe over the—almost comically phallic—idea that Western manhood was “going soft.” The populations of the West were shifting from rural to urban, and more and more men were getting white collar office jobs and the leaders of Europe and America were wringing their hands about how this shift might feminize men (because then as now, misogyny was rampant and the idea that men should become more like women was anathema). So the opportunity to go to war was treated as this jolly, jaunty, Boy Scout-style adventure, when of course, in reality, it was hell on earth. Both back then and today, I think the globe would be better off if people were less quick to turn to violence and less afraid of traditionally “feminine” (aka peaceful, kind, collaborative, noncompetitive mutually supportive) behaviors. The repression and secrecy Whit experienced seems tied to standards of dominance and hierarchy that I wanted to explore—this idea of manliness being greater than femininity, of violent and armed shows of force being greater than overtures of peace or alternative ways of resolving problems, of humans being greater than all other lifeforms.
How does an author put herself into the mind of a pigeon?
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison writes “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” I had to do a ton of research to put myself both in the mind of a bird and in the mind of a gay soldier from 100 years ago, and I hope that all the research I did is what helped me pass that test.
World War I is a century past, everyone who fought in it is dead, and there are adults alive now who have never known a time when the US wasn’t in a conflict overseas. Is the Great War still relevant today, and does your book address this?
World War I is the war I return to most often because of how vividly it illustrates the futility and self-annihilating stupidity not just of all war but of all violence of any type. At the time, they billed it as “the war to end war” with little apparent awareness of the irony of such a notion. How can you end war by fighting a war? How can the same tactics that got one into a problem get one out? If violence is bad—and I think it unconditionally always is—then how is more violence a solution to that violence?
Like Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. If, as a culture, we want to live in a more just and restorative way and to end all forms of oppression everywhere (which, by the way, I think many people do want, but I don’t think everyone—the Republican party, the 1 percent, the cops, etc.—does) then the answers would seem to lie not in adopting the same tactics of the oppressors, but in putting forth new strategies. Like, if I’m afraid, say, of white supremacists with guns, then the last thing on earth I should do is buy a gun for myself because that’s a step toward escalation and the very violence I purport to fear and despise. It’s a monstrous self-own. So I hope that maybe the novel can help people see nonviolence as an alternative in every situation, not merely in literal all-out army-against-army war.
But I also consider it a book about climate change and global warming, even though none of those words appear in the text. Humans are not outside of nature; we are nature. There is no outside; there are no others. To harm the animal world is to harm ourselves because we too are animals. The way the armies of the world dragooned pigeons and dogs and horses and on and on into their conflict feels relevant to how we’re proceeding, as a species, on climate change. We know it’s wrong, we know it’s bad, we know it’s killing us, and we know the only answers are massive and collective, but we’re still not putting them in place. Not because the majority of people don’t want to fix the issue (again, I think they do) but because—like in WWI—the masters of empire refuse to give up their unearned advantages or to consider the welfare of the people they see as beneath them. Like the generals on all sides in WWI, the majority of global elites remain content to continue to murder and self-murder in the name of profit and property.
I always ask authors what they’re reading lately and what they recommend that others read. Besides their own books, of course!
Being asked for book recommendations is one of my favorite requests. My first official, punch-the-clock-to-earn-a-wage job was when I was 14, in the Woodridge Public Library in Woodridge, lllinois, and in college I worked over summers and holiday breaks as a bookseller at Anderson’s Book Shop, first in Downers Grove and then in Naperville, and through grad school in Boston, I worked in the bookstore of the Museum of Fine Arts. Hand-selling titles to customers was a thrill. Recently, I read the 1965 novel Hog Butcher by Ronald L. Fair, the story of two police officers, one Black and one white, shooting an innocent Black teen athlete on the city’s South Side. It’s brilliant and should replace To Kill a Mockingbird on syllabi everywhere because instead of exceptionalism and white saviors, it depicts systemic racism and how power’s highest aim is always to preserve itself, and how collective action is the best hope against the system.
I also just read Sumita Chakraborty’s poetry collection Arrow and was impressed by her emotional range, spanning grief and sorrow to humor and wonder, and to her dynamic use of white space and hybrid forms.
A real underline-almost-every-sentence reading experience I had last month was with The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Franco “Bifo” Berardi in which he argues, among other things, that “as deregulated predatory capitalism is destroying the future of the planet and of social life, poetry is going to play a new game: the game of reactivating the social body.”
A former student of mine, Gin To, recommended the book Trans Girl Suicide Museum by Hannah Baer to me and it, too, was a take-a-million-notes sort of read. Baer runs the meme account @malefragility on Instagram and the way she chronicles her own experience of transness and transition is smart and self-reflective and her disclosure of her own positionality right at the outset is refreshing: “A lot of people who are as rich as my family (e.g. ‘upper middle class’) seem to be confused about this and don’t refer to themselves as ‘rich,’ which I think is both evasive and also delusional. In particular, I think this evasion makes upper middle class flavor rich people experience the delusion that class oppression (and injustice and poverty etc.) isn’t their responsibility, when actually it is.”