Rebecca Rotert on Chicago, Music, and Love's Failings
With the Cold War dangerously looming and segregation tensions rising, many Chicago citizens find comfort in the smooth jazz and sultry voice of Naomi, a singer at the Blue Angel club, who has been poised for stardom for years. As fame beckons, Naomi’s self-destructive tendencies threaten to ruin everything, including her relationship with her 10-year-old daughter. Here, debut novelist Rebecca Rotert talks with us about the importance of focusing on what we can learn from unhealthy relationships and why she chose to feature them in Last Night at the Blue Angel.
Bookish: What drew you to mid-’60s Chicago the setting for your first novel?
Rebecca Rotert: As the protagonist is a singer, one who is particularly compelled by fame and attention, I needed to place her somewhere where the competition would be steep and the stakes high—many great musicians found their careers in Chicago. But it also had to be a plausible destination for a poor young woman from rural Kansas.
Bookish: You go into great detail about everything from the racial strife to the Chicago architecture. What was your research process like?
RR: Many, many trips to Chicago. Cheap hotels and long hours in libraries [and] museums. Wandering the city, attempting to construct a kind of transparent overlay in my mind of how the city was and how it is now. The online Encyclopedia of Chicago was a great jumping-off point. Conversations with friends, [with] “shut up and listen” as my mantra.
Bookish: Music is important in Last Night at the Blue Angel, and you’re a musician yourself. Is there any correlation between your process as a musician and your process as a writer?
RR: Oh, in some ways music is so much easier. I always worked with a really talented band, so I could take this half-baked song—some rough lyrics, a dumb little melody—and they’d create an incredible song from those scraps. By the end of the night, you’d have an actual song that never existed before and that was thrilling and energizing. (Long-form fiction folks so rarely get the pleasure of finishing anything—once every few years if you’re lucky.)
The other side of that is that I’m by nature more of a lone wolf than a collaborator. In the long run, I think I’d like to go really deep into my own strange questions than share the process with a group. The part that is the same: A little tune and a giant novel both get triggered by some nearly microscopic bit of life—the tiniest errant feeling.
Bookish: Sophia, at ten, is the main narrator of the book. She’s obsessed with the prospect of nuclear war. Did the Cold War have an influence on your life that inspired this book?
RR: Yes. In my childhood, the enemy was Russia and my father built buildings for Strategic Air Command, so the prospect of nuclear war was ever on my mind. Sophia’s list-making was pulled straight from my childhood. I was 30 before I realized not every kid spent their childhood making lists in preparation for a post-apocalyptic America.
Bookish: Was it challenging to write from a 10-year-old’s point of view? Did you have any tricks to help you get into character?
RR: Well, it’s not a strict 10-year-old point of view. There’s certainly a layer of an adult sensibility over her voice. But I listened to my niece a lot—her sense of sarcasm and irony coupled with her innocence and anxiety was so interesting to me. She is at once 10 years old and 65.
The challenge in writing Sophia was to keep stripping away my own judgments so they didn’t sneak in. I always tried to remember that she was a whole, complex human being with a wide range of expression and feeling. This saved me—I hope—from making a saccharine/sentimental little heroine.
Bookish: Sophia’s mother Naomi is completely self-obsessed. Why did you choose to focus on the fragile relationship between a self-destructive mother and her daughter for your first novel?
RR: Well, the older I get, the clearer it is that the sick, broken, failed relationships teach us more about ourselves and our capacities, both good and bad, than the healthy ones. The stories gleaned from them stick with us longer, [and they] haunt and humble us. There’s just so much more to learn from where and how love fails us, than from when it trucks along nicely.
Bookish: Issues of sexual identity flow through the novel. How did you learn about what the LGBT experience was in mid-’60s Midwest?
RR: Some research [and] many conversations with people I love who braved being themselves when there was virtually no structure in place to support the community.
Rebecca Rotert received an M.A. in Literature from Hollins College, where she was the recipient of the Academy of American Poets prize. Her poetry and essays have appeared in a range of magazines and journals. She’s an experienced singer and songwriter, who has performed with several bands, and a teacher with the Nebraska Writers Collective. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska. This is her first novel.