Feature Book By Jean K. Carney

Blackbird Blues

Blackbird Blues

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.

 From Sister Michaeline’s 1940’s diary:

 “The best gift you can give a child is your own happiness. Otherwise, the little muffin is always worrying what has he done to make Mommy unhappy. A mother should do everything she can to please herself and to avoid doing things she does not want to do. If she is happy, the little one may have a fighting chance.”

An Interview with Jean K. Carney

 Jean K. Carney

JEAN K. CARNEY is the author of “Blackbird Blues” (Oct. 1, 2019, Bedazzled Ink Publishing). 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 earned a Ph.D. in Human Development at the University of Chicago and trained at a large Chicago inner-city psychiatric hospital. She taught psychology at St. Xavier University, was director of a clinic that provided low-cost psychoanalytic treatment, and supervised psychologists in training for 13 years. In full-time private practice as a psychologist for 30 years in the Chicago Loop, she saw patients from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. After her husband died of ALS, she edited his last book, “Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination,” stopped publishing in professional psychoanalytic venues, and turned to fiction. She has since remarried and is the mother of a son and a son and daughter by marriage.

An Interview with Jean K. Carney

Q. Where do you think your novel fits in the conversation regarding controversial topics like abortion and racial inequality?

A. It is possible that “Blackbird Blues” may become part of the public conversation about abortion and racial inequality, but I did not write it for that purpose. The novel is fiction. I wrote it as a work of art. It is a product of my imagination. People will have whatever reactions they have to it.

 Q. You previously worked as a journalist, most notably covering the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. How did that experience play a role in writing “Blackbird Blues?”

A. Covering Roe v. Wade for the Milwaukee Journal involved interviewing many women for what are called “reaction stories.” The women I spoke with came from a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. What struck me was that, whether they had had an illegal abortion, wished abortion had been an option for them earlier, or felt that they would never have an abortion, most were pleased that abortion was now legal. As a group, they did not want other women to risk their lives getting illegal abortions. The gravity of that risk and how it weighed on those women stayed with me and emerged years later in my imagination as a potentially powerful undercurrent for a novel.

 Q. You also had a career as a psychologist. How did your background in that field assist you in writing this novel?

A. My work as a psychologist listening to patients in psychotherapy doesn’t translate directly into my work as a novelist in the sense that I do not get ideas from former patients or use material I heard from patients. It’s a different kind of influence. Listening carefully and letting myself feel whatever I feel as I’m listening has expanded my capacity for feeling and imagining. As a therapist I had to imagine my way into each person’s life and experience. Doing that greatly opened up my own personal ability to imagine and to feel. I am grateful to my former patients because I don’t think I would have had the capacity to feel my way into the characters in “Blackbird Blues” or imagine their lives had I not been tutored, so to speak, by my patients.

 Q. What kind of research did you do to help you portray the characters in the book as historically and culturally accurate as possible?

A. I’m 70 years old. I’ve been reading at least two newspapers a day most years since 1955. I was a news junkie as a child, which is why I became a newspaper reporter. So I remember the Civil Rights Movement and the 1960s vividly. However, I needed to do a good bit of research for my character Lucius, who is 60 and a jazz man. He was one of the black Americans who served under French military command during World War I because the American military didn’t mix the races. Lucius’ mentor was French. He returned to Chicago in time for the 1919 race riot, memorialized in Carl Sandburg’s classic “Chicago Race Riots”.

I relied on many sources on the web and from the library. Among the most important were: Louis Rosen’s “The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood, Adam Green’s “Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago 1940-1955,” Le Roi Jones’ “Blues People: Negro Music in White America,” Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens’ “Jazz,” and Gunther Schuller’s “The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945.”

On the subject of abortion, I found the following books most helpful: “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service” (which took place in Chicago) by Laura Kaplan, “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America” by Marvin Olasky, and “Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era” by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May.

Q.  After researching, how has society’s thinking changed regarding abortion since the 1960s? How is it still similar?

A. In the 1960s, people didn’t talk about abortion. The subject was strictly taboo. I think anyone who would say they knew what people were thinking would only be guessing.

Q. Tell us about the title of your book, “Blackbird Blues.”

A. In the decades in which the novel is set—Sister Michaeline’s 1940s diary and Mary Kaye’s 1963—nuns were dressed head to toe in black garments. So nuns were often called “blackbirds,” sometimes as a term of endearment, sometimes as a slur. When the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council ended in 1965, most religious orders made many changes in their rules, including modifications in clothing, so “blackbird” no longer applied. “Blues,” of course, refers to the music, as well as the sorrows in the novel, many of which revolved around Sister Michaeline, who is Mary Kaye’s mentor, Lucius’ lover and Benny’s mother.

Q. While reading “Blackbird Blues,” it becomes very clear how vital music is to everyone, how it can cross cultural, religious and socioeconomic lines. How did music become so important in your own life?

A. In grade school I was tapped to sing in the adult choir at church because my voice had a range from alto to soprano. I also took piano lessons in grade school. But singing was my forte. I was in a glee club in high school and a church choir in college.

 Q. Do you listen to music while you write?

A. Never. I let whatever is within me bubble up without direction. That requires silence, which I treasure. But I made a point of often listening to jazz and blues during the time when I wasn’t actually sitting at my desk writing. I especially listened to Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis because they figure in the novel.

Q. Nuns are prominently featured in your novel. Did you have nuns as teachers when you were growing up?

A. I am the oldest of five children born in six years. My family moved 10 times before I was 9 years old. Every time but once there was a nun there who swooped me up, took me under her wings, and looked out for me. They were from different religious orders, but what they had in common was a tenderness and generosity that prompted them to give me not just the education I needed, but the extra mothering after school. I spent my high school years in a convent, and they are among the happiest years of my life.

 Q. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

A. A new thought. And perhaps a new question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

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