Guest Blog Post: The Margaret Fishback Papers by Kathleen Rooney


85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is out for a stroll — of over 10-miles! New York City!! New Year’s Eve, 1984!!! Alone!!!! In the middle of the night!!!!!

Wondering and worrying how the best-seller historical fiction novel would end was plenty to keep me turning the pages of “Lillian Boxwood Takes a Walk.” All the more enticing is that author Kathleen Rooney modeled Boxwood after the country’s real-life highest-paid advertising woman of the 1930s, Margaret Fishback.

Here, with Rooney’s permission for Happiness Between Tails to re-publish her article from this site, she describes the inspiration behind her book…

Kathleen Rooney, poet, professor, and author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.”

The Margaret Fishback Papers by Kathleen Rooney

Back in May of 2007, thanks to a tip from my best-friend-from-high-school Angela Ossar, I got to be the first scholar ever to work with the newly acquired papers of the poet and advertising copywriter Margaret Fishback at Duke University’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History in Durham, North Carolina. I didn’t know it at the time, but Fishback would end up being the model on which I based the protagonist, Lillian Boxfish, of my second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, which would end up coming out just slightly less than 10 years after my visit to Fishback’s archive.

Through an internship she held as part of her Library Science degree program, Angela got to be one of the first archivists to process and organize the Fishback materials. As she did so, she quickly realized that Fishback — a proto-feminist who was, at one point, the highest-paid advertising copywoman in the world, as well as a successful and well-published author of light verse — was a figure after my own heart. I love re-examining and rediscovering unjustly obscure figures, so getting a travel-to-collections grant from the university to check out the Fishback material was pretty much a dream come true.

While I was there, I connected with Fishback — her joy in her job and the identity and satisfaction she clearly found from her employment, as well as how she balanced creative pursuits and family demands with monetary ones — immediately. But it took me a long time to figure out what to do with my newfound encyclopedic knowledge of her life and times. In that spirit of not-quite-procrastination, here’s one of the poems from her 1932 collection I Feel Better Now, called “Getting Down to Work”:

Now, almost exactly a decade after I first worked with her archive, my novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk — based loosely on what I learned at Duke back in 2007 — is coming out from St. Martin’s Press. I hope that it will call more attention to this overlooked person and her role in shaping advertising as we know it. As the divisional copywriter at Macy’s, where she first worked in 1926, she revolutionized the house style and the style of advertising generally by adding humor to her ads. The humor of the ads is present in the poetry as well, even as it tends to take a slightly more world-weary and melancholy bent, like in this poem “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” also from I Feel Better Now:

Fishback’s books, as one can probably see by the fact that these are photographs of photocopies, are sadly long out of print and almost impossible to get a hold of.

But some of my most treasured acquisitions from my research that are now part of my own archive here at home include bound Xerox copies of every single one of her poetry collections, as well as her etiquette guide and guide to motherhood.

Her etiquette guide came out in 1938 and is called Safe Conduct: How to Behave and Why

And her guide to motherhood came out in 1945 and is called Look Who’s a Mother!

Both of these books, as well as each of her collections of witty verse, including her final one, Poems Made Up to Take Out, dating from 1963 —

— are delightful examples of Fishback’s voice.

Without the spirit and intelligence I found while doing my research in the papers of Margaret Fishback, I would never have been able to create Lillian. These photocopies — along with everything else I discovered in the Fishback archive roughly one decade ago — make me so happy to have gotten the chance to unearth her exceptional life and work thanks to Angela.

About Kathleen Rooney: she is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches in the English Department at DePaul University, and her most recent books include the national best-seller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her World War I novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is forthcoming from Penguin in August of 2020, and her criticism appears in The New York Times Magazine, The Poetry Foundation website, The Chicago TribuneThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. Follow her at @KathleenMrooney
Do walk in your city for fun?…

16 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post: The Margaret Fishback Papers by Kathleen Rooney

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