The Buffalo that Lauren Belfer will visit when she speaks at Larkinville on May 6 is far different from the one she couldn’t wait to leave as a young woman in the 1970s.
That Buffalo, the one she recalls, was filled with people unaware of the region’s luminous past as a proud starting point and a guide to a bright future. In those days, Belfer recalls, “So many people around the country, if you said you were from Buffalo, they would laugh, they would tease you.”
Belfer’s perception of the region as a place that had always been dull and declining was upended one day in the early 1990s. On a visit home with her small son, she wandered into an exhibit at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society on the Pan American Exposition of 1901, the dawn of hydroelectricity, and Buffalo’s status as a major city bustling with commerce, industry, innovation and philanthropy. This new view of her hometown shocked her.
“I didn’t know anything about this, and it just captured me and riveted me, because it came as a complete surprise,” Belfer said in an interview from her home in Manhattan.
The timing could not have been better. A recent graduate of Columbia’s fiction-writing master’s program, Belfer was captivated. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to learn more about this and I want to explore this more by writing a novel about it, showing other people how extraordinary it was,’ ” she said. “The story captured me in that way and wouldn’t let me go, as if I had a responsibility to the city itself that I had to portray this extraordinary history that was such a surprise and shock to me.”
Thus was born her best-seller and beloved 1999 novel, “City of Light.”
With both “City of Light" and her 2010 novel, “A Fierce Radiance,” which is set in New York City during the early days of World War II, when penicillin was being developed, Belfer constructed thrilling, romantic stories within a solid historical framework.
She will share some thoughts on the process of entwining fact and invention in an informal author’s talk May 6 in the Filling Station at Larkinville. The talk, “From History to Fiction, From Fiction to History,” is free and open to all.
Belfer said the creative process for both of her books began with an almost irresistible attraction to a liminal historical period when some discovery – electricity, antibiotics – upends life, social roles and relationships.
“For me, the most important thing in planning what to write about, more than the era, is to find a story, to find something that captures my attention, that surprises me,” she said. “I have heard writers describe this as ‘finding a topic that’s playing your song.’ It’s a very intuitive process: Through the whirlwind that we all live in from day to day, something is just there and you don’t know really why, but it captures your attention.”
With “A Fierce Radiance,” Belfer’s influence was two separate strands.
“I was reading some medical history, that’s something I was interested in, and I stumbled upon some information about the development of antibiotics, which I had never stopped to think about,” she said. Developed during World War II but not widely used in the 1950s, “they completely changed the way we look at the world,” she said.
And then a personal memory emerged.
“My aunt by marriage had a photo on her bureau of her brother when he was 11 years old, right before he died of an infection that today we would completely take for granted. I remember her telling me that her brother’s death changed her parents’ lives forever and her childhood was never the same. So I realized that I wanted to write a portrait of what society was like at that moment of shift.”
Next, Belfer said she decides “who is going to tell the story, through whose eyes am I and the reader going to see this story develop? So that’s how I start laying out the characters for the book and projecting myself into the story and figuring out the best way to tell it. Once I have that pivotal person in place, I can build an entire world around it.”
Belfer is immersed in just such a process now.
“I’m well into my third novel, but I’m very superstitious,” she said. “I just feel very insecure about discussing details. It’s a completely emotional reaction, that I want to guard it closely. Some writers compare this to giving birth, and I guess in a way that’s true.”
By not sharing details, she also leaves open the possibility that her work will evolve as she writes. “I think of a novel as something very organic, it’s always changing, always developing,” she said. “If you start talking too much about it, you’re locking yourself into something, and I may decide later that it has to be changed.”
Belfer has returned to Buffalo many times since “City of Light” was published, and has marveled at the improvements she has seen, Larkinville among them.
“What’s being done there at Larkin Square is so exciting,” she said. “I was lucky enough to be there for one of the kickoff events last year, and I thought it was thrilling. There was nothing like that in Buffalo when I was growing up, combining historic preservation and historic renewal in this gorgeous old setting with very modern touches. I’ve been so thrilled over the past 10 or 15 years to see how all these projects have developed, and people are now in touch with the city’s extraordinary history.”
But Belfer’s appreciation for her hometown has expanded far beyond projects like Larkinville. When she has walked the streets where she set “City of Light,” she occasionally strikes up a conversation with a resident, and has been surprised, even astonished, to find that all have been generous and welcoming to her. “People in Buffalo have been so kind to me,” she said. “They have embraced my novels and have embraced me in a way that I never dreamed possible.”
And, unlike herself as a young woman, she said people she meets in Buffalo today remember and cherish the city’s glorious past.
“I have the feeling that people in Buffalo have been waiting to be asked about their history, they love it so much, and the houses that they live in the care and attention that they give to their historic homes has been very moving to me. When I start talking to people that I meet on the street, they have such an eagerness to talk about the details that they notice about their neighborhoods and their homes. It’s pride, but more than pride, it’s really part of people’s hearts.”
And finally, Belfer has noticed that the reaction she gets when she tells people she’s from Buffalo has changed. “Now when I tell people I’m from Buffalo, they don’t start laughing. They usually say to me, ‘Oh, that’s a very interesting place, isn’t it?’ and I have to say, ‘Yes, it is!’ ”
Lauren Belfer: Belfer’s talk from 5 to 6:30 p.m. May 6 is part of the continuing Larkin Square Author Series, presented by Larkinville in partnership with Talking Leaves Books in the Filling Station, 745 Seneca St. It is free and open to all. Belfer’s books will be sold, as well as beer, wine and light fare.