Behind the Book Essay

Last Night at the Blue Angel began for me after an evening shift at my local community college writing center where I was working almost exclusively with Sudanese refugees. I spent hours with these students on the very ground floor of our language, stretching for understanding, and it was beautiful, exhausting work.

Driving home one night, a paragraph appeared in my head, perfectly intact, so I pulled over and scrawled it on a scrap of paper. The next morning I woke very early to write (I was working on a different book at the time) and re-read the paragraph. It began, “My mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin…” and would later become the first paragraph of chapter one. It felt like this character (Sophia) was daring me to bring her to life, so I told her, “I’ll give you twenty pages.” I was suspicious, at first, because I’d never had any interest in child narrators. I felt like the “Scouts” of literature had been done and done well, and I had no compulsion to repeat that. But as I began to write Sophia, I quickly saw that this was not so much a story about a plucky child as it was a story about the unique way in which children bear witness to the world of adults.

Q&A with Rebecca Rotert

Paula McLain is The New York Times best-selling author of The Paris Wife. She currently lives with her children in Cleveland, Ohio.

Q: From page one, I felt you really knew your story and these fascinating characters inside and out, Rebecca. What hooked you and got you writing this novel?

A: Sophia’s voice appeared first and I immediately fell in love with her sensibility, her hyper-vigilance. Her mother, Naomi, demands an enormous amount of attention, and Sophia lives in the shadow of that appetite, like a riverbank constantly being shaped and re-shaped by Naomi’s currents. You could also say I’ve been thinking about this theme all my life. I was acutely aware from an early age of my own mother’s magnetism. In a way, the brighter she shone, the more private I got to be, and in that privacy my own internal world began - the reading, writing, painting, and music.