Research Notes · 01/20/2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Kathleen Rooney writes about Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk from St. Martin’s Press.

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The Margaret Fishback Papers

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.

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Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and has been recognized as one of Newcity Lit’s “Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2016.” Her previous work includes poetry as well as both fiction and nonfiction; and has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Allure, Salon, The Rumpus, and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches a workshop on The Writer as Urban Walker at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival. Kathleen is married to the novelist Martin Seay, author of The Mirror Thief.