Erik Brady: Lauren Belfer’s Latest Novel Isn’t Set Here, But Like All Her Books, Buffalo’s Role Is Huge | Books-and-literature


You might be wondering how Lauren Belfer creates her reveal fiction. Well, it’s eyes closed. That’s thanks to a typing class a long time ago at Buffalo Seminary, where she learned to type without looking.

Today, Belfer composes her luminous novels with her eyes closed and wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat. It may make her sound like an eccentric character in one of her own books, but that’s not an affectation: it’s how she’s able to tap into her subconscious when she writes.

“So I can let these fictional worlds go where I want,” she says. “I just put my hands on the keyboard, close my eyes – and I’m off.”

Her new novel, ‘Ashton Hall’, makes its Buffalo debut today when she appears in Larkin Square, at 5:30 p.m., chatting with Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media critic and former editor of The Buffalo News.

Macaulay School—which is and isn’t Buffalo Seminary—makes a return in the new novel. We first knew Macaulay in “City of Light,” Belfer’s beloved 1999 novel, which brought the Buffalo of the Pan Am Exposition era to life.

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Louisa Barrett, the narrator of this book, was principal of Macaulay, an exclusive girls’ school on Bidwell Parkway – which, of course, is also Sem’s address. “Ashton Hall” narrator Hannah Larson graduated from Macaulay, just as Belfer graduated from Buffalo Sem. But Belfer is quick to say that they are not really in the same place.

“I try to keep Sem and Macaulay separate in my mind,” she says, “so I always remember that I went to the real school, Buffalo Seminary, which was wonderful, and the fictional school, Macaulay, has a life of its own. I never want to mix up what’s fictional and what’s real.

It’s funny that Belfer speaks like that, since that’s precisely what his novels do: they mix fiction with history to create new living worlds from old pasts. The result is fiction that feels real. This comes at the cost of years and years of historical research that Belfer puts into each of his books.

“City of Light” is set in Buffalo. “Ashton Hall” is set in a centuries-old mansion in England and only briefly mentions Buffalo as Larson’s place of origin. Even so, feel free to consider this one another of her Buffalo novels, because everything Larson tells us is informed by where she grew up and went to school.

“That’s exactly how I saw it,” Belfer said. “The main character is the daughter of a science teacher at Macaulay School, and she grows up in one of the dorms where her mother is the equivalent of a stay-at-home mom. I imagine my main character, Hannah , reading on the dorm window seat overlooking the trees of Bidwell Parkway.And so it shaped his imagination — Buffalo’s Olmsted legacy shaped his imagination, as it shaped mine.


Author Lauren Belfer visiting Buffalo Seminary in 2011.

Buffalo News file photo

Belfer says she’s thought a lot about Buffalo’s Olmsted legacy following last month’s murders at Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue that authorities say were committed by a white supremacist. “Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway – two miles long, 200 feet wide, with six rows of trees – was destroyed to make way for the Kensington Freeway, and this desecration of a masterpiece of the “Landscaping has destroyed a vibrant and historic black neighborhood. I support community efforts to cover the Kensington Freeway, restore Humboldt Parkway, and reunite the neighborhood.”

Belfer lives in New York, where she maintains friendships with several Buffalo transplants, including Sullivan.

“I met Margaret, oh, 20 years ago now when ‘City of Light’ came out. She later asked me to write an article for The Buffalo News. But we became close friends when she moved to New York and became the editor of the New York Times. And the Buffalo bond is really, really strong between us. It’s something that, well, I think it never leaves you. You always have that in common. It’s the basis on which we stand. I am very grateful to her for her friendship and the connection she gives me with our hometown.

Larson, the narrator of the new novel, is a New York art historian who comes to stay at Ashton Hall, a historic mansion in England, with her young son, Nicky. The fictional mansion is a museum with magnificent public rooms, although Larson’s Uncle Christopher lives there in private quarters. This is similar to an arrangement Belfer discovered when she was in her twenties and stayed with a friend at Blickling Hall, a historic National Trust mansion in Norfolk, England. Belfer could explore the hidden hallways and dusty attics there after hours – and that’s when the plot for ‘Ashton Hall’ began to take shape in her mind, even though she wouldn’t write it for decades later.

Nicky, Hannah’s son, is 9 years old. One day, he goes exploring and finds a hidden room where he discovers the skeletal remains of Isabella Cresham, who lived in the mansion in the 16th century with her wealthy family. What was she doing there? Why was she abandoned?

Larson begins a search for answers. An important tool is a ledger that tracks which books were borrowed from the mansion’s library – and by whom – all those years ago. Belfer assembles for its readers a mansion library based on real books from the Tudor era. It is precisely the kind of plausibility that is part of the great pleasures of all his novels.

That the story revolves around what can be learned from a list of libraries is only fitting, given that Belfer developed his passion for books at the old North Park Branch Library, then in Delaware and at Hertell. She remembers her mother taking her to the small brick building when she was about 10 years old. Then she started cycling there, from the family home in Delaware, between Nottingham and Middlesex.

“I think, based on my own life experiences,” she says, “if you collect lists of all the books people have read in their lifetime, that tells you a lot.”

What about Belfer’s Lifetime List?

“I still remember some of the books I looked at” when I was a child, she says, although she refuses to name names “now that we’ve discussed how book lists can be revealing”.

However, she reveals this: “It’s embarrassing, but I’ll tell you anyway. I decided, when I was 12 or 13 and could take the bus, that I was going to read all the books in the biography section of the downtown library. So I started with ‘A’ and started reading all the books, and ended up with ‘C’. ”

She stops to laugh at her own audacity. “What a thing to do,” she said. “I’m an only child, so that’s what I did.”

The library shelf of his own books now has four novels. ‘City of Light’ came first, in 1999, and ‘A Fierce Radiance’, in 2010, then ‘And After the Fire’, which won a 2016 National Jewish Book Award. And now his novels have a place on the shelves of the same central library where she tried to read everything.

“Oh, that’s very, very emotional for me,” she said. “The first time I went to this library after ‘City of Light’ was released and saw it there, well, I get teary-eyed thinking about it, even now.”

Hannah Larson, as we know, graduated from Macaulay. And Susanna Kessler, narrator of “And After the Fire,” is a City Honors graduate.

“All but one of my novels have a connection to Buffalo,” Belfer says. “The one that doesn’t work is ‘A Fierce Radiance,’ the second one, which is set in New York during World War II. It has a lot to do with New York. Now I regret not having bonded with Buffalo in “A Fierce Radiance.” I think including Buffalo in my stories is a way to show my respect for the city.

So come back for appearances like today’s. Belfer and Sullivan will have their conversation, and then Belfer will sign books and make time to meet his readers.

“I’m happy to sign all my books, not just the new one, and talk to everyone who comes,” she says. “I get so much out of it. Writing fiction is a lonely process, because you have to escape into your own mind. Then finishing a book, going out into the world and telling people about it, and thinking that the story could have resonated with someone, is very moving for me.

Belfer will also sign books and greet readers at 1 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 4401 Transit Road, Clarence. She won’t wear that sun hat.

Belfer happens to have started wearing it while writing years ago because his home office desk faces a bank of sunny windows.

“Now I always have to wear a hat when I write. What would you call that, a talisman? It helps you jump into another world? Even when I work before dawn and it’s still dark, I put the hat on. There’s a part of writing fiction that I find magical. You can’t really describe what’s going on. Just let the words flow through you. And sometimes a book takes an unexpected turn for me.

This was the case in “City of Light”. Louisa Barrett talks to Dexter Rumsey, Buffalo’s real-life banker of the Pan-American era, near the end of the book when she gets a sudden glimpse of the power Buffalo’s town fathers wielded over her life. It is a linchpin of the novel, yet Belfer did not foresee it in his original design of the book.

“It came to me then, writing that scene, as Dexter Rumsey and Louisa Barrett were walking. Then I had a choice: ‘Do I say, that’s not what happened, because I never planned it?’ Or should I say, what I said, ‘Oh, wow, now I get it. That’s what happened.’ So I experienced this discovery as Louisa Barrett experienced it, and I think that adds a lot to the novel, because Louisa and I were both so shocked.

“Then I had to go back, because nothing can come out of nowhere in a novel. The reader doesn’t believe it if it comes out of nowhere. So I went back and put some clues in progress of road, so when you get to that part, the reader will be like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’ Yeah, that’s what happened.”

The new book, too, offers such clues. And when those heralded flashpoints arrive, they always land as surprises: you don’t see them coming, but you could have. Such moments are also part of the pleasures of reading Belfer’s beautiful books.

Read them with your eyes open.

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