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.

The creation of Sophia was informed, in part, by my own experiences. An aspect of my childhood that I found most terrifying and exhilarating was how invisible we often were, how the adults just barreled along oblivious to us. It was terrifying to me that they seemed to not register my presence and thrilling because this invisibility allowed me access to their whole selves-fraught, complicated, and conflicted as they were. Naomi, Sophia’s mother, is a performer both on and off the stage and Sophia is the only one who has access to who she really is, to the ever-shifting boundaries of her personality and her loyalties. Naomi is based, in part, on my mother. All my life I have registered what it’s like to stand in the wake of this beautiful, dynamic woman, to be rendered invisible by the sheer potency of her presence. And I saw her “audience” as my competition, recognizing a scarcity of affection that might, and often did, leave me wanting. I drew on this relationship in order to capture the interplay of two potent dynamics: 1) the performative aspect of female life and how it both frees women and fails them and 2) the female child bearing witness to it, at turns benefiting from it and being abandoned by it.

Another piece of my history that I gave to Sophia was the list-keeping that she does. My father was a contractor for Strategic Air Command during the cold war era. I spent many days at construction sites with him and saw firsthand the profound measures being taken in the interest of security against Russian intelligence-underground facilities, leaded walls, etc.-and it was well known that if there was to be a nuclear attack, SAC would be a principle target. My father tried to quell my anxieties about this by assuring me that we would survive even if no one else did. So my fear of nuclear obliteration was replaced by my fear of nuclear survival, and it seemed obvious to me that as a lone survivor, I would have to recreate the world as I knew it-microwaves, answering machines, plumbing, escalators-so I kept a running list of these things. I was nearly thirty before I learned that not every child did this.

As the story developed, I decided to set the bulk of the narrative in Chicago. Naomi is from Kansas, and for many aspiring musicians and artists in the Midwest, Chicago is the nearest metropolis, and by the 1950’s, it was a long established jazz mecca. It also was, and is, a tough place for a musician to make a name for herself. One climbs the ladder very slowly in such a competitive scene and I wanted to immerse Naomi in that challenge. As for the choice of making Naomi a singer, it is a world I know well, a vocabulary that is secondhand to me. My extended family is full of performers and I’ve performed in one capacity or another all my life. I love the world of the stage to be sure, but the idea that would become a crucial question for Naomi’s character was born several years ago during a conversation with a fellow singer, who was an amazing and voracious performer and would sing for anyone any chance she had. But she told me that once she fell in love, that insatiable need to perform abated. It was clear that the love of a crowd, for her, stood in for actual human intimacy and though the crowd-love was always available, it never quite satisfied her. I was very interested in pitting the performer’s relationship with the crowd against the actual relationships in her life, and that became a central conflict of the book.

While doing research in Chicago, I discovered photographs by the American photographer and historian Richard Nickel, on whom the character of Jim is loosely based. It had become clear to me that the Chicago of the 21st Century looked little like Chicago of the 1960’s and Nickel’s work gave me access to a city I would never really see. And his obsession with a world that was being swiftly obliterated by progress grew into a vital theme in my book, one that would echo Sophia’s fear of large-scale destruction.

The character of Idalia is an amalgam of many nuns and teachers I was lucky to have as a young woman. They were women who believed in love and the cultivation of the mind and in speaking truth to power. They taught me that passion was from God and should be cultivated and honored, not shamed. And they taught me that my sacred worth lay in my spirit and my mind. They were radicals as such and often punished, silenced, excommunicated. I have long been interested in writing the alternative (and for me, truer) narrative to that of the ever-popular evil nun.

And finally, there’s a question that haunts me of late and by extension haunts this book. In the last few years I lost my best friend, my grandmother, and my father. My daily life circled around these three people and their absence is a kind of emotional canyon around which I must now navigate. So my question, which is in no way new, is how do we live without the individuals who form our identity? What kind of people do we become at the lip of that canyon? And of course I also wanted to talk about the sacred paradox-that the larger the canyon, the greater the power of small things to save us, a song on the radio, an afternoon of laughter, a book. Every character in this novel is wrestling with these questions in some respect though the source of the loss is different for each.