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A Novel Approach to Illinois Politics

CBR_Logo2O, Democracy!
A novel

by Kathleen Rooney

Chicagoan Kathleen Rooney is no stranger to either politics or publishing, and she launches an excellent one-two punch with her novel O, Democracy, a compelling story about a young politico in the midst of a quarter-life crisis.

In this emotionally impactful novel, Rooney has written about what she knows, and that insight shines brilliantly in these pages. A former staffer for Senator Dick Durbin, Rooney has expertly captured the inner workings of government, the wizardry behind the curtain, the stuff most of us are afraid to look too closely at: the glacial pace of change, the two-faced personas of glad-handing politicians, the overly idealistic young hopefuls who staff offices while jockeying for position as close to their favorite politician as possible. Indeed, the novel is autobiographical, and in crafting this story, Rooney clearly has drawn on her experience in Durbin’s office.

o democracy rooney coverRooney, who also is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, knows how to tell a good story. Her publishing acumen is evident in O, Democracy, which is tightly written in colorful detail rich with emotion. Indeed, the story rings true and feels authentic in just about every aspect.

O, Democracy traces the professional coming-of-age of Colleen Dugan, a twenty-something junior staffer who (like Rooney once did) works in the office of “the Senior Senator from Illinois.” Dugan works in the Senator’s press office, one of many young staffers who long to do something important with their lives. But, far removed from any position of power, Dugan finds herself driving all over Illinois advancing poorly attended media events, answering phone calls from obstinate constituents, writing first-draft press releases, and handling other menial tasks, much the same as the even younger interns in her office do, day in and day out. Making policy, setting strategy, driving political agendas—all of that is way above Dugan’s pay grade.

Set in 2008, when the “Junior Senator from Illinois” is running for President (Rooney never actually names either Barack Obama or Dick Durbin at any point in the novel, though their identities are very thinly veiled and therefor clearly recognizable), O, Democracy captures the “Yes We Can!” optimism that Dugan and her colleagues feel toward liberal politics in general as well as the individual professional angst that Dugan herself feels. And it is this paradox that largely provides the tension in the story.

Struggling to make herself recognized as a valuable asset in the office of the Senior Senator from Illinois while honoring the office and his position, Dugan finds herself in possession of information that might or might not advance the Senator’s election bid. What she does with that information will seal her fate.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, O, Democracy captures the angst and antics of Dugan and her colleagues as they navigate the muddy waters of Illinois politics. Much of this angst is palpably cringe-worthy. Indeed, watching Dugan make false steps and missteps, her earnestness and eagerness overwhelming any sense of political savvy she might possess, is painful, like watching someone trip badly on the sidewalk, tumbling face-forward, knees and hands bloodied and bruised.

It is in capturing the behind-the-curtain reality of politics and in drawing Dugan as an imperfect, multi-faceted person that Rooney shines. Several other characters also are compelling in their authenticity, and these people come together to create a rich cast that drives the story forward.

Rooney does well weaving subplots into, through, and around the main storyline, creating a world that is easy for readers to identify with. In addition, with its insider view, O, Democracy feels somewhat voyeuristic, as though readers have been given a back-stage pass to Illinois politics. In this, Rooney has crafted a novel that is nearly a real page-turner.

Nearly. Rooney has a distinct, unique writing style. It is a style that readers will likely either love or hate. Her writing is peppered with oblique references to people, places, and things, many of which go unnamed. Instead, readers are left to puzzle out what or whom Rooney is referencing. For example, in describing one of the main characters, she writes that “Sometimes he gets taken for the mononymic lead singer of a reggae-inflected British rock trio popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s.” Music fans of a certain age may well know who this is supposed to reference; others, however, are left in the dark.

Similarly, Rooney later describes a selection of food at a picnic as “potato chips from a Chicago vendor whose mascot is a snackbag wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone.” Locals and/or junkfood aficionados might get this reference, but others might not.

Such descriptions at first feel funny and clever, but soon begin to feel snarky and long-winded. What is the point of such obfuscation? Instead of saying “They pull up in front of the hotel where they always stay when they attend the [State] Fair, rising like an air traffic control tower above downtown Springfield,” why not just write that they pulled up to the Springfield Hilton? Why make readers work so hard to cipher out the author’s meaning?

This intentionally enigmatic style seems at odds with several interludes peppered throughout the book. Whereas oblique descriptions force readers to figure out whatever it is that the author is talking about, a dozen or so italicized interludes apparently designed to guide the reader toward a better understanding of the story pop up here and there throughout the book. These strange passages feel as though they come from a second omniscient narrator (ostensibly the country’s Founding Fathers), one who needs to make sure that readers fully understand where the story is going and what is happening with Dugan, as though readers are somehow unable to figure this out on their own and need a little extra guidance in order to comprehend the full story.

These unnecessary interludes, coupled with the long-winded, enigmatic descriptions peppered throughout the book do, unfortunately, serve to slow down Rooney’s otherwise well-paced story. But, in the end, these are stylistic issues, and whether they work or not will depend on the reader’s preference.

At bottom, though, O, Democracy is a winning tale built on strong characters living authentic lives in a richly drawn world. It is in these aspects that Rooney’s story shines, and they alone make the novel a worthwhile read.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, Fifth Star Press
Fiction
$24, hardcover, 397 pages
ISBN: 978-0-98465-109-2

 —Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Chicago Publishers = Book Love

CBR_Logo2The Society of Midland Authors this week hosted four local publishers—Victor David Giron of Curbside Splendor, Ian Morris of Fifth Star Press, Emily Clark Victorson of Allium Press, and Sharon Woodhouse of Everything Goes Media—to talk shop on a cold winter night, and it was heartwarming not only to hear about the positive state of publishing in Chicago but to witness the engaging conversation among publishers, writers, and other attendees who braved the brisk winter night to come up to the cozy Cliff Dwellers Club for the event.book love story

It’s no secret that Chicago is home to a number of great publishers (how many? Come on, say it with me: 125!) who are doing interesting and creative things—much of which is breaking with convention, publishing in formats and print runs that so many New York publishers wouldn’t dream of. And, despite the ongoing blather about the demise of books and publishing, these four local presses show no signs of letting up. Indeed, Giron notes that Curbside Splendor, which was founded in 2009, published twelve books last year and will publish twenty books this year—no small plans for the relatively nascent house.

curbside splendor logoGiron isn’t alone when it comes to big plans. Woodhouse is expanding her publishing reach with Everything Goes Media, which builds on the success of Lake Claremont Press and Woodhouse’s other imprints to publish in a variety of subjects, from local history to gifts, lifestyle, hobby, business, current events, etc., etc.

“This is a time when small publishers can thrive—and are thriving,” says Ian Morris of Fifth Star Press, which publishes nongenre fiction and nonfiction, with a particular eye toward work concerning Chicago and the region.

allium press logoThat Chicago focus is something that runs like a golden thread through many local publishers, and it underpins much of the philosophy at Allium Press. Victorson notes that part of the reason she started Allium Press was because she kept hearing—much to her dismay—that Chicago titles were “too regional” and wouldn’t play elsewhere. (Wha—? Seriously.) This year, Allium Press celebrates its fifth anniversary of “rescuing Chicago from Capone … one book at a time.”

Victorson is making it work, even though her “regional” house continues to focus on titles with a Chicago connection. The success of Allium Press proves that “you don’t have to have a big Manhattan office” to make a go of publishing, says the publisher, who is based in Forest Park. In fact, Chicago’s literary scene is just one benefit that makes publishing here worthwhile. “It’s a real community here,” says Victorson.

These publishers agree that small presses can boast a number of benefits for authors that big houses elsewhere can’t match, from more creative control to increased collaboration to the face-to-face contact that so many large publishers can’t provide. Add in a thriving local literary scene that offers numerous author events and book signings, and small presses can be the perfect home for just about any author.

fifth star logoMorris of Fifth Star Press also notes that small presses can be much more nurturing for young or new authors, and even for authors who are looking for a second chance. Small presses, he says, can look beyond the “one and done,” “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” mentality that precludes so many big publishers from taking a chance on unproven authors, authors without enormous platforms, or authors whose previous books may not have met sales expectations.

EGM-Logo-Wordpress-Small6Indeed, working closely with authors to make the most of their books is something local presses can do well—and maybe even better (at least in some ways) than big houses who can’t afford to focus marketing efforts on midlist titles. Woodhouse notes that partnering with authors is part of what they do best. “We help our authors make a cottage industry out of their books,” she says.

That said, the four publishers agree that they also understand the allure of publishing with “a big New York house,” and would encourage authors to go that route if they have the chance. But with these houses—and others throughout Chicagoland—expanding their reach, branching into new genres, and publishing more and more titles, authors local and otherwise would do well to consider publishing small, which could be just the big break they’re looking for.

—Kelli Christiansen

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Guest Post: Society of Midland Authors Talks Chicago Indie Publishing

CBR_Logo2Chicago has a thriving scene of small companies publishing books. Just check out all of the tables featuring these publishers at events like the Printers Row Lit Fest or the Chicago Book Expo.

Four of the area’s leading book publishers—Victor David Giron of Curbside Splendor, Emily Victorson of Allium Press, Sharon Woodhouse of Everything Goes Media and Ian Morris of Fifth Star Press—will talk about their craft and their business in a Society of Midland Authors panel discussion on Tuesday, February 11, at the Cliff Dwellers Club, 200 S. Michigan Ave., 22nd floor, Chicago.

Admission is free, and the event is open to the public, with no reservations required. A social hour, with complimentary snacks and a cash bar, begins at 6 p.m., with the discussion starting at 7 p.m.2869_183662100485_2900751_n

The Society of Midland Authors was founded almost a century ago—in 1915—and the group continues today with more than 300 members in 12 Midwestern states. The society gives out annual awards for the region’s best books, and it also holds public literary events at the Cliff Dwellers Club and other venues.

The companies taking part in the February 11 discussion include Curbside Splendor, which was recently praised by NewCity for the “Best splash made by a local press in the last year.” Known as “a hotspot for emerging talents,” Curbside Splendor publishes literary fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and art that “celebrate the delicate point where gritty urban life and art intersect.” Titles include Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby, Zero Fade by Chris L. Terry, and Let Go and Go On and On by Tim Kinsella.

The Society of Midland Authors’ newsletter, Literary License, asked Curbside Splendor’s Giron how a new small publisher can carve out a niche. “By having a sound mission statement, sticking to it, and operating like a big publisher would,” he said. “Meaning, if you’re going to be taken seriously, then you need to adhere to production and publication schedules, and produce work that is of high quality from a design and editing perspective, and be true to what you’re branding yourself as.”

Allium Press of Chicago was founded in 2009 as a small, independent press and publishes literary fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers, and young adult fiction, all with a Chicago connection. Recent titles include Des Plaines River Anthology, Tim Chapman’s Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, and Barbara Garland Polikoff’s Her Mother’s Secret.

KP-Cover-front-198x300Everything Goes Media has three imprints: Lake Claremont Press (publishing nonfiction books about Chicago for 20 years, including the upcoming second edition of Graveyards of Chicago by Ursula Bielski and Matt Hucke), Everything Goes Media (gift, niche, and lifestyle nonfiction), and S. Woodhouse Books (a new line of thought-provoking nonfiction that will publish its first book, For the Kingdom and the Power: The Big Money Swindle That Spread Hate Across America by Dale W. Laackman, this spring).

Fifth Star Press is an independent, not-for-profit publishing house devoted to Chicago’s publishing past, present, and future. Recent books include The City’s Maw:  A Henry Blake Fuller Reader and a reissue of MacKinlay Kantor’s 1928 Chicago novel Diversey.

For more information on the Society of Midland Authors, visit http://www.midlandauthors.com.

—Robert Loerzel, vice president, Society of Midland Authors

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