Books In Conversation
KATHLEEN ROONEY with Robert Puccinelli
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey
The controversy earlier this year over Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt (2020) made readers ask themselves anew whether writing across difference is always a form of cultural exploitation. When Oprah selected Cummins’s novel for her book club, Latinx writers protested, in part because Cummins identifies as white and her depiction of the Mexican immigrant experience is arguably rife with presumptions and stereotypes. Written across difference with sensitivity and nuance, the new novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is American Dirt’s polar opposite, demonstrating that producing fiction from a perspective radically different from one’s own can be done responsibly and to moving effect. As Kathleen Rooney builds to a closing line as powerful as Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” the reader is overwhelmed by the lived experience of someone outside ourselves. We understand difference as well as commonality and recognize our sisterhood, our brotherhood, our humanhood, even our animalhood. When you set the book down, it keeps resonating backwards and forwards across time, like Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010) or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). We understand what the writer is asking of her readers, and consequently our relationship with her characters, with her, and with each other, deepens.
The title characters, Cher Ami and Charles Whittlesey, were celebrities, famous as heroes of World War I, the war to end all wars. They were both members of the Lost Battalion, Whittlesey as a major in the trenches with his troops, Cher Ami as the homing pigeon carrying messages across the battlefields. Today they’re both forgotten. But as they take turns narrating successive chapters of Rooney’s novel, they each become unforgettable.
In the midst of the pandemic engulfing the globe, we are all learning how connected we are to each other. In this country, this awareness can lead us towards alienation (Asian-Americans experiencing racist attacks) or towards empathy (younger Americans making sacrifices to protect older Americans). Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey choose the latter, compassionate path as Rooney writes across gender, sexual orientation, and even species. This enchanting journey begins like a fairy tale, then descends into the horrific maelstrom of the first World War, then sets us free contemplating our interconnectedness across time, across history, across borders, and across biologies. It is not about the present moment, yet it is—very much so.
Robert Puccinelli (Rail): What do you think your novel has to say about the strange times we are living through?
Kathleen Rooney: We’re talking in the early days of April 2020 deep into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I did not expect 2020 to contain that outbreak, but here it is. I finished the book years ago because books get finished well in advance of their publication. So I wasn't thinking of it at the time of writing, but now as I get ready for the book to come out in August, I'm thinking a lot of how Major Whittlesey, one of my two protagonists, became renowned as a World War I hero for waiting. For a sort of passivity. We are sheltering in place right now. We’re staying six feet apart and we’re being told ‘Sit on the couch and save a life.’ There are a lot of battlefield metaphors about war and fighting the virus, but unless you're literally a medical professional, you really can't do that. Charles Whittlesey was an active soldier and I'm not taking anything away from that, but the thing he became most famous for was a five-day wait in the Pocket when he and his men were encircled behind enemy lines. The bulk of what he did and what he became known for was waiting as hard as he could, keeping the spirits of his troops up, and just sort of trying to endure this static, passive, terrifying situation with grace and bravery. We’re all getting a taste now of what it means to try and wait as best we can.
Rail: How are you handling the quarantine? What’s the waiting like for you?
Rooney: Like for a lot of people, it’s a process of grief, moving through those stages from denial to acceptance. At first it was hard to believe, but now it’s sinking in. I’m not a Pollyanna. I don’t think this is a good thing. But I am trying to look for the opportunities within all of this and trying to stay curious. We're just at the beginning so it's hard to say and I'm not going to make predictions, but something like this cannot help but transform the world. It's not the same but it's similar to 9/11. The world’s cracking open and there's going to be before COVID-19 and there's going to be after COVID-19, and I'm trying to look at what could be better in the after. The pandemic is bringing into sharper relief all kinds of pervasive and previously existing economic, class, and racial inequalities. My hope is that after enduring this we will be prepared to transform society so that none of us are as vulnerable.
Rail: I love that. I hope that turns out to be true. Hollywood made a silent movie about The Lost Battalion and cast Major Whittlesey as himself. How did watching the movie inform your writing?
Rooney: It influenced me a lot because it was so strange to me as I was doing this research on this guy who's been dead for almost 100 years to have the ability to actually see him on a screen: his body, his gestures, his demeanor. It also informed how I wanted to depict his post-traumatic stress disorder, because with veterans today that’s obviously still very much a problem. We understand it better now than we did 100 years ago, but our understanding is still imperfect and our treatment for people who suffer it is still imperfect, and it still shocked me that 100 years ago you would take a man who had been through unspeakable trauma and think it was a good idea to put him in a movie where he reenacted that trauma. Watching the movie was emotionally intense because I was considering what he must have been going through trying to act out something he had lived through.
Rail: You saw Major Whittlesey in the movie, but your other protagonist is a pigeon whose body has been preserved through taxidermy. What was it like visiting Cher Ami at the Smithsonian?
Rooney: The National Museum system is free. I wish we had more stuff like that in our society that anyone off the street could go in and take advantage of. I just waltzed into the history museum like anybody can and went to this exhibit called The Price of Freedom. And there she was. I’ve never written a bird’s perspective before, so she was a big challenge. Whether it's a bird or a person it’s really hard at first to get that embodied perspective. You want to not just make them a brain in a jar, you want to make them a body, and so seeing her tiny feathered taxidermied corpse was profound. This was the bird that flew all those missions, and you can see her injuries, you can see that she only had one leg, you can see she's been through a lot. That was the first step and it was crucial.
Rail: How did you determine Charles Whittlesey was gay?
Rooney: I cannot point to any historical documents or a diary in which he identifies as gay, but when I was doing the research, everything about him seemed to suggest that he was. I did a lot of research on queer existence in America in the early 20th century, particularly in New York City, which like many cities became sort of a hub for people who didn't fit in their small hometown, or wanted to be in a place where they could be more anonymous and live without judgment. Back then there were a lot of euphemisms associated with a queer lifestyle. And one of the euphemisms that’s kind of still with us today—though luckily we increasingly need it less—is confirmed bachelor. That's a phrase that’s existed for over a century for those in the know. If you had an uncle who was always alone and people asked, “What’s his deal? Why won’t he get married?” You’d say, “Oh, he's a confirmed bachelor.” It worked on a couple of levels like many things in queer subcultures did, where if you were not hip even to the existence of queer people, you might hear that and think, “oh, he hasn’t found a special lady.” But if you were in the know, you would think, “okay he's gay and he's not interested in pursuing a more conventional nuclear family lifestyle.” Even in his obituary in the New York Times, they were emphatic that he was a confirmed bachelor. When people were asking about his suicide, many leaped to the conclusion that he must have done it over a lost female love, but the Times corrected that by saying, “No woman involved.” Past that, since I'm not writing a biography, I thought it would be compelling for him as a character to be gay because one of the things that I hope the book does is complicate our notions of heroism and who can be a hero. Having a gay hero at a time when it wasn't even safe to be out was really interesting. Just like Cher Ami who was a female pigeon. She was a female pigeon every second of her life, but all through her life because of preconceived notions about who gets to be a hero, they said he did this, he did that, this pigeon is a man. Even in her afterlife, if you want to call it that, when they stuffed her for the Smithsonian, the taxidermist discovered she was female. But it's indicative of the resistance to the idea of who can be a hero that the Smithsonian decided, let’s just keep calling her he.
Rail: How did you change your style to write about the past and make us feel like we are with people who are both like us and different from us?
Rooney: People come to fiction for different things. Some people want a plot that thrills them, some people want historical content, some people want a setting that depicts a place they're fascinated by, and ideally a good piece of fiction will have all those elements. For me, as a reader, and therefore logically as a writer, I'm always interested in voice and character. Those are the things that fiction can give me in a way that other stuff can’t. I really love that magical—and I do think it's magical—power of interiority. Unlike any other art form, you're slipping into the heart and mind of another person. I think that's incredible, so I try to write that way.
Rail: Your book takes moral maxims and truisms seriously but simultaneously questions them. How do you celebrate concepts like duty and honor while challenging the manipulation inherent in those concepts?
Rooney: That gets at the heart of something that I was thinking about a lot as I wrote this, which is that I wanted it to be a book about war that didn’t glorify it. A lot of media that depicts war has the good intention of showing how dreadful armed conflict is. But I think most depictions accidentally do glamorize it. When the movie Saving Private Ryan (1998) came out, I still remember how everyone was so beside themselves with how realistically horrible the reenactment of the D-Day invasion was and how Spielberg had captured the truly horrific nature of these young men getting murdered in the ocean. And that's true. But then you watch the rest of the movie and by the end of it, it feels very pro-war in the sense that it’s, “ah, we Band of Brothers, we went through this, but you know we're on the other side and we're kind of superior to those who haven't had this rarefied experience of fighting and battle.” That's just one example but there are tons. I doubt Spielberg set out to say, “let's make everybody wish they fought World War II.” But that's kind of the effect it had. One of the ways that happens is the language, or if it's cinema the cinematic grammar used to depict it.
Rail: Do you mean like the passage in your book where the British soldier questions why friends are referred to as comrades, friendship as fellowship, horses as steeds, arms and legs as limbs, and the dead as the fallen?
Rooney: Yes. Depicting war in this heightened, elevated, extreme register. So I tried not to do that, and I hope that by the end of the book you realize that nobody wins a war. That could sound cliché unto itself, but humans keep having wars so I think we still need to consider why we're doing that. That being said, I do think that concepts like duty and honor and loyalty and sacrifice are beautiful and useful. And I hope the book shows that those things exist in people and animals, irrespective of whether they're in a war or not. I hope that I've created characters where you can see that even if they were somewhere else, they would still have these noble qualities. I don't think it's bad to say that people can be noble or that animals can be noble. It's too easy to be cynical or ironic or say everybody sucks, everybody's terrible. I don't think that's the case.
Rail: How did spending all this time back in the past alter your perception of the present?
Rooney: I kept thinking about communication and how wild it was that I was writing this novel on my computer and sometimes letting myself get distracted or checking Twitter or sending an email and people thousands of miles away from me could hear my thoughts right away. Whereas the whole problem with World War I was communications. The front wasn't that far from the rear, but you just didn't know what was going on, to everyone's detriment. That’s why they needed pigeons, they needed runners, they needed guys on motorcycles. Two-way radio didn't exist yet, the telephone lines were constantly being cut. I kept thinking about how profoundly different our life is now when we can communicate in a heartbeat, as opposed to communication being a literal matter of life and death.
Rail: How are people from the 1910’s different from us, and how are they the same as us?
Rooney: They’re different from us because whatever we consider ourselves—in my opinion, and in the opinion of many sociologists and psychologists—we are not a fixed and finite knot of qualities. The self is sort of this amoeba-like cloud. It can be weird to think that whatever I consider myself is not permanent, is not inherent, that it's all influenced by relationships. Without relationships, I don't believe anybody has a self. And that’s relationships to other people, friends, enemies, loved ones, parents, children, pets, but also relationships to the culture that you're in. All of us swim in this cultural soup. There is a desire in some people to think, “Oh, I just am who I am, the culture doesn't influence me, I'm not a sheep, I'm not doing stuff because of what's around me,” but I think that's incorrect. We can be aware of this external, cultural influence and we can resist or go with the flow, but we're all a product of our culture which is a product of our time and our history and our era. People do have definite qualities, some of them very noble, some of them less so. We can be petty, we can be jealous, we can be violent. So that’s how we’re the same as people from the 1910’s—we have this potential for this array of good and bad behaviors. But the people in the past and the animals in the past are different because the uses they’re being put to are different, the circumstances they are existing in are different. For example, the pigeon you see on the street pecking for seeds in Daley Plaza could be made into a homing pigeon. Any feral pigeon could be developed into a pigeon that would carry messages. You would just have to train it. But that pigeon in Daley Plaza is not a homing pigeon because that's just not usually a thing humans choose to do to pigeons anymore. Whereas that was Cher Ami’s life. She had no other existence.
Rail: Why do you think Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey were forgotten?
Rooney: Partly it’s that World War II arrived only 20 years after “the war to end all wars.” But also part of it has to do with changing attitudes toward pigeons. There's a real anti-pigeon prejudice nowadays that I find disappointing. People call them rats with wings, they say they have diseases, they say they're filthy, none of which is true. The relationship people had with pigeons in the 1910s was much more loving, almost like a pet dog. You would keep them, you would love them, you would train them and breed them and admire their plumage, and people don't do that as much anymore. Also I think Whittlesey’s suicide made a lot of people uncomfortable and I think—I don't know but I think—he wanted it to. The act was so meticulously planned out and it was so careful, it's hard to not consider that as some sort of final word on his opinion on war. When he's living, he's a very useful hero. When he has died in this extremely tragic and deliberate way, it's less easy to be rah-rah patriotic about him. So I think a lot of people prefer to forget him.
Rail: War is a ritual as old as history itself. Why does the cycle keep repeating? Why can’t we change?
Rooney: This might be a controversial answer, but I want to get specific and not abstract and I think that the answer is male supremacy. It's patriarchy. The conditions that make war seem necessary and even desirable are very much rooted in this system of male power and dominance and aggression and ownership. We see as wars play out over and over again that the people who tend to suffer the most are the people who don't choose to do it—the women and the children. That's why you see rape in almost every conflict being used as a weapon, and stunningly high casualties when it comes to civilians, families, and noncombatants. I think that even extends to the use of animals in war. This idea that man is the dominant, apex predator at the top of the pyramid is what allows this to keep happening and unless we have a pretty radical reshaping of the structures of power and who's in power, that's going to keep happening. I'm not trying to say that women are heroes who are never mean or who are never aggressive or acquisitive. I'm not saying that, but I am saying that there's something absolutely evil in the patriarchy, and that evil is what perpetuates violence and war.
Rail: In your book the generals are in luxury and the poor are in trenches. In one passage the generals order an advance for which they anticipate so many deaths, they don’t even order weapons for the new troops. The men will be able to use the weapons of their dead fellows. During the last recession homeowners were not bailed out but banks were. During this pandemic there are people—even CEOs and governors—implying that those at risk should sacrifice themselves to save the economy. Do you see any parallels between the world of your novel and now?
Rooney: World War I was fought with a classically pyramidal structure of the type Marx described. You have the base—the proletariat, the grunts, the 99%, however you want to put it—and then you have the management—the owners, the generals, the 1% who are at the top calling the shots. If you concentrate that kind of life or death power into the hands of a few people who have the luxury of being far away from the actual suffering, that's how it's possible to have a war like World War I, where 10 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died. Relatedly, that's how it's possible to have an economy like we're having right now where it's so unfair and it's so infuriating. The bailout packages that we're getting still insist on favoring this idea that if we save the businesses it will trickle down. I just don't think there's any reason to believe that people who are already on top and have no consequences will ever care about the people on the bottom unless they are made to.
Rail: Yet you seem hopeful.
Rooney: Stories exercise our imagination. They ask us to think about how things could be different. And sometimes, just that act of imagining can give us that little extra push to realize, “You know what? I can change my life.” Or, “I can live in a world where healthcare isn't tied to my employment. It can be universal for all.” Stories give us a chance to try things out in a safe test space. And then we take them into reality if that is possible. And with enough imagination, political will, and cooperation, almost anything is possible.
Rail: Does poetry serve a similar function? I ask because Whittlesey seems to take solace in Catullus.
Rooney: The poetry doesn't have to be the classic old dead white guys (even though that’s who Whit would have known and loved), but I think this connection to ideas and ideals and language that existed before us is something beautiful about the continuity of existence. My favorite definition of poetry is W.H. Auden’s—he called it “memorable speech”. Elevated language is aspirational in the best possible way. It makes us want to remember things, it makes us want to remember people, and also possibly to be memorable people ourselves and to do the most that we can with our short time being alive.
Rail: There’s been a recent controversy over the book American Dirt. Many felt the book was exploitative cultural appropriation. Yet you are writing across difference in such an empathic way. Did writing about something forgotten from the past make it easier? Are there stories that you feel you could not tell? How did it feel writing across differences of gender, sexual orientation, and even species?
Rooney: Cher Ami came to my attention through a passing mention in a student’s poem in 2014. I was intrigued, and knew I wanted to tell her story in a novelistic way, but it took me a while to figure out the point of view because I am not now, nor have I ever been, a pigeon. A writer has to look really, really hard at why they want to tell a story, and how. A thing that gets said a lot is, “I want to humanize,” or “I want to give voice to the voiceless.” And that gets tricky, especially for writers in a position of privilege, and I consider myself as a white person to have a lot of privilege. I would try never to say something like that because people from other groups are already human, so you don't need to be a savior to come and humanize them. Saying “I want to give voice to the voiceless” means that maybe you just haven't read enough books from other populations different than you own, and so maybe these individuals that you think are voiceless are not voiceless, you just haven’t heard their voices. Like so much of creative writing it's not just what you do, but how and why you do it.
Rail: Has anyone ever solved the mystery of how the homing pigeon is always able to find their way home no matter where you bring them?
Rooney: No, not entirely. I think the mystery is cool and kind of humbling. We know they're good at this. We even put them to use. But we don't fully understand how they're so incredible.
Rail: Your ending left me weeping uncontrollably. What’s your favorite ending?
Rooney: Ending a novel is so hard. I’ve had so many experiences of love love love love loving a book, and then getting to the end and being disappointed because they don’t stick the landing. I really wanted to stick the landing and I worked so hard on it, so thank you. It’s a cliché but my favorite last line in literature is The Great Gatsby (1925). It’s perfect. It's a summation. It's lyrical. It's poetry. It's an unapologetic effort at a universal truth that gives the reader something to consider even after they’ve closed that last page. For me that’s the gold standard of a final sentence.
Rail: Why is forgiveness so important for Major Whittlesey and Cher Ami?
Rooney: We're all part of the collective, but we're also individuals. Our life as part of the collective might be very stymied and frustrating. Whittlesey forgiving the Germans is him realizing, okay, I don't have control. I can't control the situation. But I do have a bit of power. And so just on this one-to-one level, just between me and this other guy, I can choose to exercise my power in a way that's compassionate and generous and sets us both free, as opposed to remaining stuck in this acrimonious damaging state. Similarly, it’d be easy for Cher Ami to hate humans for what they’ve done. But where would that get her? I’m going to quote Marianne Williamson, which might be controversial, but she says that rage is the white sugar of emotions. It's so delicious but it's so bad for you. It’s appealing and it's even fun and it's delicious to stay mad. But it's more beautiful and ultimately more healing to try to forgive.
Rail: While you were writing, did a pigeon family move in next to you?
Rooney: My spouse Martin [Seay, author of The Mirror Thief (2016)] and I live up on the third floor of a condo up in Edgewater [in Chicago] and we had this pigeon family who moved in under the eaves on our back porch. I engaged in the pathetic fallacy of ascribing human emotions and intentions to nature, which is a very human thing to do because nature doesn't necessarily care about us. But it almost felt like the natural world giving me the thumbs up and saying, “Hey, you're writing about pigeons? Here. Here are some pigeons.” I got to see their graceful way of life up close. Pigeons are so good at being egalitarian. I love that the male and the female pigeon co-parent and they both produce pigeon milk and feed the babies. One would fly off and go get food, the other would sit on the nest, and then they’d switch. It was beautiful to see this way of life that for humans would be so radical happening in this really chill way with a family of birds.