Chicago author Kathleen Rooney writes in many genres—fiction, non-fiction, essays, poetry—even Poems While You Wait. She has written several historical fiction novels in her own distinctive style. Heavily researched, novelized, written in first person.
Rooney appeared at the American Writers Museum this week for a conversation about her new book, From Dust to Stardust—a novel about Hollywood, fairies and that iconic dollhouse, the Fairy Castle, at the Museum of Science and Industry. Her interviewer for the conversation—a novelist in his own right—was Ignatius Valentine Aloysius. The event was in person and livestreamed. Many of Aloysius’ questions involved Rooney’s novelization writing style and process.
After introductory remarks, Aloysius asked Rooney to read an excerpt from her book. She read from a section early in the book, where young Doreen O’Dare, visiting her Aunt Liberty in Chicago, talks about Lib’s husband, Doreen’s beloved Uncle Walter. Walter was a reporter and tells Doreen the story of how he stumbled on the biggest story of his career. One day in 1903, he was walking through the Loop and saw a knight and three clowns emerging from a manhole. They were actors, escaped from the blazing fire at the Iroquois Theatre, which resulted in the deaths of 600 people, mostly women and children. Uncle Walter had a scoop; he filed his story and it went nationwide in the next day’s early editions. However, Uncle Walter was never comfortable in a theater after that, but Aunt Lib loved the theater. Part of Doreen’s story is about the day Aunt Lib took her downtown on the El to see Peter Pan. And that was the instant that Doreen knew she wanted to be—an actress!
From Dust to Stardust is the story of Doreen O’Dare and how she boarded a Hollywood train in 1916, at the age of 14; because of her drive, charm and beauty she became the preeminent movie flapper of jazz age silent films. In the 1930s, Doreen poured much of her wealth and a lot of creative energy into building a one-ton dollhouse, her Fairy Castle. She went on tour with it to lift the nation’s spirits during the Depression and later presented the structure to the Museum of Science and Industry, where you can see it today.
The character of Doreen O’Dare is, of course, Colleen Moore, silent movie star and creator of the museum’s actual Fairy Castle.
Rooney’s research and writing approach for her new book is similar to what she used for two earlier novels, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (2017), the story of a New York advertising pioneer and poet, and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (2020), which features a WWI carrier pigeon and the soldiers’ lives she affected. The books are all based on real-life characters and involved research into private papers and documents about their lives. Unlike most historical fiction, however (like the books of Hilary Mantel, for instance), the characters’ names are changed. Rooney said that “changing the names lets you be more free to change details of the story.” These are novels, after all, and Rooney’s novelization technique allows her to create more interesting stories.
Regarding the characters she chooses to write about, Rooney observed that she likes to write about females challenging social norms and about figures who should be better known. That definition describes these characters—Doreen O’Dare (Colleen Moore) of course, as well as Lillian Boxfish (Margaret Fishback), a pioneer ad woman who was the highest paid female copywriter during the 1930s, when she worked for Macy’s. And Rooney writes about Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon who saved the lives of the Lost Battalion of American soldiers who got trapped in enemy territory.
In all three of those novels, the protagonists (Doreen, Lillian and Cher Ami) are the narrators, telling their story in first person. When asked why she likes to write in first person and how her novels would differ if written in third person (the omniscient narrator), Rooney gave a thoughtful answer. One form is intimacy, she said; the other is information. “Writing in first person is respectful; you’re getting into the shoes of the person.”
Rooney is also the author of several books of nonfiction and poetry. She is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres. From Dust to Stardust is available from your favorite bookseller or on this website.
Ignatius Valentine Aloysius is author of Fishhead: Republic of Want (2020). He teaches creative writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Harold Washington College. He also is co-curator of Sunday Salon Chicago, a bimonthly literary reading series. Fishhead is available from your favorite bookseller and on the publisher’s website.
See our recent interview with Kathleen Rooney by Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch.
The American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave., is open Thursday-Monday from 10am to 5pm. The museum is closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission is $14 with discounts available.
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