When I began writing Cafe Insomniac, I began to collect the sights and sounds of the city at night, real and artistic. There were two things, in particular, that I wanted by my side: the early poems of T. S. Eliot, especially The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; and Nighthawks.
When I was a student, I had Nighthawks on my wall, along with a couple of other Edward Hopper paintings.
It's hard to look at it and not think that it was painted to show the loneliness that city life can impose on some people. When questioned about this, Hopper said he was unaware of thinking this at the time, but looking at his paintings later on, he acknowledged that isolation was a recurrent theme.
These people in the painting are hermetically sealed in that diner. They can't escape. But nor do they look like they want to escape. They look like they've always been there, that they belong in the diner and don't have the need to go anywhere else. In the diner, it's night-time, always has been, and always will be. Like all great paintings, Nighthawks is its own world.
All the characters are intriguing.
The couple facing us first grab our attention. The man has that rigid, awkward stance of somebody who's opening a conversation with a woman he doesn't know. And, much to his chagrin, she looks indifferent to his words; so indifferent that she's more interested in the object she's holding in her hand.
The server looks born to his role, his arched back a sign of servitude. He's looking up at the main characters of the painting, like a Victorian butler.
But the most intriguing character is the solitary man. The man with his back to us. He's shunning us, the viewers, doesn't want to be seen. There is an air of menace about him. He's set apart from the other characters, but we feel that he must be connected, perhaps in a sinister way.
All the characters look like lost souls who have finally found somewhere they are comfortable.
The lighting is dramatic, too. Fluorescent lights had only just been invented when this was painted, and all the characters seem uncomfortable in its indiscriminate glare.
For me, no other painting captures night-time in the city like Nighthawks. Thank you, Edward Hopper.
Nighthawks is at the Art Institute of Chicago. Some of the images that inspired Café Insomniac can be seen on its Pinterest board, which is at http://pinterest.com/markcapell/cafe-insomniac/.
The novel Café Insomniac is available from Amazon and Amazon UK.