Last Night at the Blue Angel

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.