I am delighted to welcome Angela O’Keeffe to share the writing journey that produced new novella Night Blue. Plus, we share our review of this highly original debut.
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Night Blue: Angela O’Keeffe on living art
I was writing a different novel set in rural 1970s Australia and there was a scene in which the scandal regarding the purchase of Blue Poles was discussed by a family around a kitchen table. That novel petered out but my interest in Blue Poles continued. I had this image in my mind of the painting arriving in Australia and sort of shaking up the whole country.
I wrote little scenes in which people would be looking at Blue Poles and talking about it, and bits of these conversations ended up in Night Blue. But the writing really took off when I started to tell the story from the painting’s point of view.
The voice of Blue Poles came easily and was so immediate and alive, and I wrote the first chapters very quickly. Then I had some catching up to do in terms of research, and I read and watched youtube clips about Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, and about the painting’s life in New York before coming to Australia, and about the furore surrounding its purchase by the NGA.
National Gallery of Australia (Youtube)
I discovered that Pollock had died on my birthday, and that as a child he’d lost the tip of a finger in a backyard accident—something that had also happened to me. These coincidences were like charms that I carried around with me as I worked on the book; in an odd, very private way they seemed proof, to me, that the story was mine to tell.
The character of Alyssa, the other narrator in Night Blue, came after I travelled to New York to visit The Pollock-Krasner Studio and Study Centre on Long Island. Like the voice of Blue Poles, Alyssa’s voice was very immediate and I was pretty sure that the two voices were going to work together, each telling part of the story in turn. Some days I wondered if I could pull it off; it all felt quite risky. I felt by turns exhilarated, despairing, calm.
As I worked facets of my research found their way in, many of which I’d stumbled on quite by accident. A quote from Goethe, for instance, was something I came across in an article in Lit Hub as I drank my morning coffee, and it went straight into a scene towards the end of the book. From the start, I had a sense that the story was coming to me rather than that I was chasing it. Lee Krasner said a similar thing about painting. “Don’t will it, don’t force it, let it come through in its own terms.” Of course, the research and the writing were an enormous amount of work, but it was such enjoyable work.
Someone recently asked me what challenges I had in writing from the point of view of an object and I felt a little shocked by that question, and I realised that I had never for one moment thought of Blue Poles as an object. The painting was alive. It had its own life. That was the starting point.
Potent, haunting and lyrical, Night Blue is a debut novel like no other, a narrative largely told in the voice of the painting Blue Poles. It is a truly original and absorbing approach to revisiting Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner as artists and people, as well as realigning our ideas around the cultural legacy of Whitlam’s purchase of Blue Poles in 1973.
It is also the story of Alyssa, and a contemporary relationship, in which Angela O’Keeffe immerses us in the essential power of art to change our personal lives and, by turns, a nation.
Moving between New York and Australia with fluid ease, Night Blue is intimate and tender, yet surprisingly dramatic. It is a glorious exploration of how art must never be undervalued.
‘Intimate, sublime, this work shines.’ – Favel Parrett, author of Past the Shallows and There Was Still Love
‘Intelligent and poignant, Night Blue traverses the boundaries between language and art in a delicious tour de force. I found it impossible to put down.’ – Mette Jakobsen, author of What the Light Hides and The Vanishing Act
‘Miraculous … O’Keeffe gets under the skin of a painting we all thought we knew, giving it agency and voice, releasing a spirit that is by turns dreamlike, tender and ruthlessly true.’ – Michael Fitzgerald, author of The Pacific Room and Pieta
(Transit Lounge Publishing, May 2021)
Genre: Literature, Drama
What an intriguing read! As my reading tastes have matured, I’ve found myself drawn to interesting perspectives rather than plots. I enjoy first-person narratives and particularly so novels with alternating first-person character viewpoints. That’s the value of reading right… exposure to different perspectives? So, it’s unsurprising I was enthralled by Jane Rawson’ amorphous From the Wreck narrator and blown away by Chris Flynn’s Mammoth (narrated by objects that once lived and breathed), but Angela O’Keefe’s Night Blue is something quite different again.
I did not live the Whitlam political era but admired and benefitted from its reform agenda, so already had what I’d term glancing knowledge of the controversy surrounding Blue Poles’ purchase. I have not had the opportunity to see the artwork in person but understood it now embodied greater meaning than perhaps artist Jackson Pollocks’ original intention. So I found O’Keeffe’s exploration and then extrapolation of this ‘sponge-like’ quality (my term, hers are far more eloquent) of this artwork highly perceptive.
I am not in any position to judge. In fact, I lack judgement. I am made of feeling that constantly shifts, a continuum, an endless sentence. While judgement, as far as I can make out, is a full stop. Not am I suggesting that judgement is a bad thing – often I wish I possessed it. But for some it is an easy thing, and perhaps ease is its downfall.
Her consideration of ‘the artistic life’ at times on par with that in Heather Rose’ award-winning The Museum of Modern Love. That said, Night Blue requires more active participation from readers. The frequency with which O’Keeffe directly addresses the reader, such as this from Alyssa’s narrative:
… and this story is leading there. It is the very part of the story you want me to jump to now, but I can’t jump to that part any more than I can jump to the moon. Every story has its trajectory; if I give way to impatience, it is a long way down.
may not be to everyone’s tastes. For me though, this cultivated an appealing intimacy while reminding readers that they are unavoidably participants in the life of art and society more generally; that judgement has impact, as do words unsaid.
Angela O’Keeffe’s Night Blue is ambitious without any obvious strain; thought-provoking and progressive, yet at the same time conciliatory. An education in open-mindedness.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
Get your copy of Night Blue from:
More slim but engaging literature:
5 Ways to be Famous Now by Maurilia Meehan / Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls / The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman / Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto by Gianni Rodari / Anthem by Ayn Rand
About the Author, Angela O’Keeffe
Angela O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in South East Queensland and now lives in Sydney. She completed a Master of Arts in Writing at UTS and has had short stories published in literary journals. Night Blue is her first book.
* My receipt of a review copy from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.