The novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” by Kathleen Rooney, was first published in 2017, but reading it feels strangely poignant today. In it, an elderly woman takes a long walk around New York City on New Year’s Eve 1984, stopping at shops and restaurants, making connections with strangers — something that we, reading at home while sheltering in place, can only envy.
“When I wrote it, I wanted Lillian to seem realistic but also sort of heroic … someone who was doing something appealing that we would see as, if we’re not doing it, we could do it: going around talking to strangers, not being afraid of your city, not staring at a device all the time,” said Rooney, in a telephone interview last week from her Chicago home (where she is, of course, sheltering in place). “Now it’s become even more aspirational.”
The April selection for Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club (we’ll discuss the book online April 15), “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” was a national bestseller upon its arrival three years ago. It’s fiction, but is inspired by a very real woman who once walked the streets of New York: Margaret Fishback (1900-1985), a poet and popular copywriter for Macy’s department store. Her brief New York Times obituary mentions her “clever, breezy” writing style and her popular light verse, noting that in her 1930s heyday she was known as “the highest-paid advertising woman in the world.”
Fishback is little remembered today, but Rooney stumbled upon her life by happy accident after an archivist friend, in 2007, alerted her to the arrival of Fishback’s papers at Duke University. Intrigued, Rooney applied for a grant that allowed her to immerse herself in the archive.
“It really felt almost like an archaeological discovery, King Tut’s tomb — you can’t believe that this thing has been hidden for so long and nobody has paid attention for decades,” Rooney said, of discovering Fishback. “I think a lot of writers have a similar experience, even if your subject is long dead and you never met them, you feel like they’re your friend or a friendly ghost who’s haunting you. As I started reading her letters and poetry, I felt like a kindred spirit was in the room with me, and I knew I wanted to share her with other people.”
Rooney considered but ultimately rejected the idea of writing a biography of Fishback: “If you’re writing a biography, you have to be very careful to get everything right. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to have the space to take Margaret’s legacy and go somewhere more imaginative.” So Margaret became Lillian, whose life shares much with Fishback’s: the advertising career, the Italian husband, the son, the love of New York City. And the character also took on a trait of Rooney’s: a love for city walking.
“It took me years, kicking around the material, to realize that the key that would unlock all this great truth and let me get creative with it was to give the Lillian character my own deep lifelong passion for just wandering around cities,” Rooney said. From there, the book’s structure flowed: Lillian’s stops along the way are gateways into stories from her past; by the time her walk is over, we know her biography. The book contains a map, so readers can track the walk — one that Rooney tested herself.
Though she’s never lived in New York, she’s always loved to visit the city and “map it with my feet.” While writing “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” she kept a Google map of the city open at all times, “dropping virtual pins, being very careful with anachronisms to make sure I didn’t put something there in 1935 that wasn’t there until later.” Partway through the book, Rooney went to New York to visit a friend, and while there did Lillian’s walk herself, reporting that it’s about a 10-mile circle, from Lillian’s Murray Hill apartment and back again. (Lillian, though an octogenarian, is in excellent shape.)
Since the publication of “Lillian Boxfish,” Rooney has completed another historical novel: “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey,” due for publication in August, is inspired by true events during World War I. Its title characters are two little-known heroes: a British carrier pigeon and an American army officer. “If people enjoyed ‘Lillian,’ they might find this in their wheelhouse,” Rooney said.
And she’s delighted to hear that Lillian, several years after publication, is still finding new friends at book clubs. “Book clubs — I’m in one too — are a great reminder that literature is the people who read it and the conversations that get had about it, and literature cannot exist without people doing what book clubs do, whether virtually or in physical space,” she said. “I think that’s very cool, and I’m grateful.”
Moira’s Book Club will discuss “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” at noon on Wednesday, April 15, at seattletimes.com/books.