Shaping story and character with Jean K. Carney

Jean K. Carney is the author of “Blackbird Blues”. She spent eight years as an award-winning reporter and editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal, covering Children’s Court, City Hall, and Roe v. Wade. She’s also been in full-time private practice as a psychotherapist for thirty years, which certainly provides a rich foundation for understanding character. 

The first character who sprang to life in what was to become my novel “Blackbird Blues” was Benny, a young man who is the son of Maureen Rieger (before she becomes Sister Michaeline) and Lucius Claremont. I was watching a drummer at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago whose furious hand and arm movements threw me back 33 years earlier to the Children’s Home in Milwaukee to a boy who was “making music,” shuffling grit on the floor with his feet and sweeping his hair and hands across the table. A reporter at The Milwaukee JournalI was the only person besides his public defender who attended his court hearing and the only person who ever visited him at the Children’s Home, where he was held for years. After many conversations, I believed him when he said he had no idea why he had killed his teacher.

My character Benny does not kill his teacher and — other than his physical attributes — he is not modeled on the boy I covered as a reporter so long ago. But my work as a reporter had tremendous influence on the creation of the plot and characters of the novel. When I started at The Milwaukee Journal, the first thing my city editor told me was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The habit of checking and rechecking stuck with me as a novelist. In every exchange of dialogue, in every turn of the plot, I heard my city editor’s “check it out,” meaning, not only “Is this plausible?” but also “Is this exactly what this character would truly say at this particular moment?” I remember feeling the characters were truly becoming real when one night, while we were washing dishes, I asked my husband what he thought Lucius would think of Donald Trump’s latest tweet.

Looking back on my time since 1970, I feel privileged that literally many hundreds of people have confided their deepest secrets to me, first as a reporter and then as a psychotherapist. As a reporter, I put those secrets in the newspaper long ago. As a psychotherapist, I was bound and am still bound by Illinois law never to disclose them. I have not and will not use these secrets as materials in “Blackbird Blues” or any future novel. However, as a therapist, I had to listen very closely to the people who confided in me, let myself feel whatever I was feeling, and imagine my way into each person’s sensibility and experience. That was an invaluable experience. It greatly expanded my capacity for feeling and imagining. I owe my former patients a great debt of gratitude for that. I don’t think I would have been able to feel my way into the characters in “Blackbird Blues,” or imagine their lives as I was able to do, had I not been tutored, so to speak by my patients.

“Blackbird Blues” is chock full of historical data, including the 1960s Civil Rights movement, some of which I knew from reading newspapers as a child since the late 1950s. It was with great joy that I researched the life of Lucius, the 60-year-old jazz man, Benny’s father, and Sister Michaeline’s former lover. Lucius befriends the other main character, Mary Kaye, an 18-year-old Irish-American who must deal with an unwanted pregnancy just as Sister Michaeline, her mentor and jazz coach, dies.

Lucius was one of the African-American men who served under French military command during World War I because the American military did not mix races. Having killed a man in a boxing match, Lucius shoots over the heads of the Germans. As it happens, his commanding officer sympathizes with him, assigns him to learn cooking, and becomes his mentor in French culture. Lucius returns to Chicago from the war just in time for the 1919 race riot, memorialized in Carl Sandburg’s classic “Chicago Race Riots.”

On the subject of illegal abortion, I relied to some extent on my coverage of Roe v. Wade from my time at The Milwaukee Journal. I also found most helpful the following books: “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Feminist Abortion Service” (which took place in Chicago) by Laura Kaplan; “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America” by Marvin Olask; and “Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era” by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May.

Two books that were incredibly useful guides to the lives of nuns in Chicago were “He Sent Two: The Story of the Beginning of the School Sisters of Saint Francis” by Sister M. Francis Borgia, O.S.F., and “Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past” by Suellen Hoy.

It was important to me that the characters in the novel would be historically plausible in terms of time and space. And I tried incredibly hard to make sure references to historical events were as accurate as possible. As my city editor’s voice urged, I was constantly checking my memory and my hunch. I wanted “Blackbird Blues”to be a literary novel, but also truly a historical novel.

Many thanks, Jean, for sharing the background to writing Blackbird Blues. I now know who to consult when digging deep to understand character.

Blackbird Blues by Jean K. Carney ~~ With the help of sixty-year-old black jazz man Lucius, Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American woman and aspiring jazz singer in Chicago, finds her way toward dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the death of Sister Michaeline, her voice coach, jazz mentor, and only guide through the bedlam of her childhood.

Mary Kaye’s neighbor, Judge Engelmann, introduced her to the work of James Baldwin and the nuns exposed her to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person Mary Kaye comes to really know. They bond over Sister Michaeline’s untimely death. Over time, Lucius helps Mary Kaye launch her career as a singer in his jazz band. He also gives her Sister Michaeline’s diary from her early cloistered years, saying it was the nun’s wish. In reading the diary and in conversations with Lucius and Judge Engelmann, Mary Kaye discovers disillusioning aspects and secrets of her beloved mentor.

This is Mary Kaye’s coming-of-age story as she weighs her options based on the diary, her faith, and her music, set against the background of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. It is entirely a work of fiction, but in today’s political climate one could imagine something similar becoming real.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website




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