Lauren Belfer   The Writing Life  
photo of Lauren Belfer


  Although I grew up in the Great Lake port city of Buffalo, during my childhood I knew nothing about the city's extraordinary history. Like many northern industrial cities, Buffalo was dying when I was young, and my friends and I talked only of how we would leave. All too often, Buffalo seemed like a national laughing-stock, as newspapers and magazines disparaged the city. "Snow!" often seemed like the only thing outsiders knew about the city. Like most of my friends, I left Buffalo in the early 70s when I went to college, and thereafter I returned only for brief visits centered on family.

Six years ago, however, when I was home to see my parents, I happened to wander into a deserted exhibit at the Historical Museum about the city at the turn of the century and the Pan American Exposition in 1901. What I discovered was like a revelation: a hundred years ago, Buffalo was one of the centers of America, the commercial gateway between East and West, a place of incredible wealth, sophistication, and innovation, the Silicon Valley of its day.

When I left the exhibit, I felt oddly shaken. What I'd learned was so at odds with what I thought I knew. To regain my equilibrium, I walked for a while in nearby Delaware Park, one of Frederick Law Olmsted's masterpieces. On that afternoon in early September, I was at a confusing juncture in my life. Several years earlier, with my husband's encouragement and financial support, I'd simply given up a decade-long career in television documentary film production to attend Columbia University's graduate program in fiction. I'd wanted to see if I could fulfill a dream I'd had since childhood--a dream postponed for years because of the necessity of earning a living--the dream of becoming a writer. Recently, after great expense, I'd earned my degree, but I felt as if I had very little to show for the investment of time and money. I'd had some short stories and essays published, yet I was feeling increasingly desperate to find a topic for a longer work, for a novel. For months I'd been making false starts. I'd begun work on a political thriller, an adventure story, a family story--indeed I'd explored a whole range of possibilities before giving each up in turn as unworkable.

Having made myself thoroughly depressed by contemplating these facts, I sat on a bench by the shores of Delaware Park Lake. I gazed into the calm water. The sky and its billowing clouds were perfectly reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake. And then all at once, unbidden, an idea came to me: I would write a novel about Buffalo at the turn of the century, when the city had been a monumental place. The idea suddenly seemed obvious, and yet no one had ever done it. Even in Buffalo few people knew anything about the city's past. When I think about that moment, I still feel a sense of awe. One instant my mind was blank, and the next, it was filled with the story that became City of Light, ideas catapulting over one another for attention. I felt swept up by a sense of purpose, a feeling that I had not simply the desire but the responsibility to recreate the history of my city--a responsibility to the city itself, to tell its story.

Predictably, I heard in my mind that little voice whose job it is to short-circuit good ideas, and it was saying, "Don't be ridiculous. How could you make the story of Buffalo into a novel? How would you structure it, who would narrate it?

Immediately--astonishingly--I knew the answers to these questions. Just up the street was my former high school, the Buffalo Seminary, a prestigious private girls school which I had attended on partial scholarship. My parents were the children of immigrants and by no means connected to Buffalo society. When I was young they had never considered a private school for me, and I'd learned about the Seminary only because an elementary school friend was going to attend. Because I wanted to be with my friend, I'd convinced parents to let me take the scholarship exam.

At that moment on the park bench, I realized that a fictional headmistress of the Seminary was the perfect person to narrate my book. Only such a woman would have the knowledge of every part of the city and reason to exploit her knowledge, to further her goals for her students. I'd heard many stories about the legendary headmistresses of the Seminary's past. Unbeckoned, the voice and character of Louisa Barrett entered my mind. She wasn't based on any particular person I'd ever met or heard of; instead she was completely herself, while still being an amalgam of so many striving and struggling women I'd known through the years, her voice, like theirs, pulsing through my mind.

Louisa Barrett, I realized, was an outsider, new to Buffalo, and in awe of what she discovered in the city--much as I, a public school girl, had been an outsider at the Buffalo Seminary, and was now an outsider exploring Buffalo's past. Louisa and I became tourists together, exploring a fabulous and heretofore unknown place.

So. . . in a matter of moments on that park bench, I had a setting, a main character, and lots of ideas, but, I admit, only the vaguest outline of a plot. All I knew for certain was that I wanted to portray my city in as many facets as possible. I decided to set the book in 1901, when the Pan American Exposition focused national attention on Buffalo and attracted visitors from around the world. That was all I knew, and yet I had a somewhat crazy notion that as I heard Louisa Barrett's voice more clearly, and as I learned more about Buffalo, the plot would take shape of its own accord.

And oddly enough, that's exactly what happened. I returned to my home in New York City and began to do research. I loved research, and when I was in graduate school I'd earned money by working as a fact-checker at magazines. I especially loved historical research. My father had been a history teacher, and when I was growing up, history was the one thing I could bring to him that would always get his attention. Although I knew next to nothing about America at the turn of the century, my initial thought was that the research would take about a month, and then I would begin writing the book. How wrong I was! For the research expanded ever outward as each strand of investigation lead to another and so to another, until I wasn't simply learning about Buffalo at the turn of the century, I wanted to explore the lives of a broad spectrum of women at the turn of the century, the history of women's education, the conditions in orphanages, unionization, industrialization, environmentalism, the lives of presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt--my research moving farther and farther afield in concentric circles. I craved details, details like the political issues Louisa Barrett would have considered, the curriculum she would have offered at her school and why she offered it, the stores where she would have shopped, the places her students would have gone on vacation. I wanted to be able to understand every facet of her life--the public and the private, the professional and the personal--and make her a living being with loves and hates and self-contradictions. One of the most rewarding parts of my research was a visit to the Schomberg Library in Harlem, where I investigated that remarkable figure in American history, Mary Talbert. I learned about her upper middle class milieu, and the many now-forgotten African-American women who were her colleagues, working to fulfill their motto, "Lifting as we Climb." Mary Talbert, I knew from the beginning, would become Louisa Barrett's best friend: After months and months of such research, I felt myself creeping towards the ability to recreate Louisa's world view and make it my own; to understand her frame of reference, what she loved and hated, and to give her a sense of humor about herself and her surroundings.

As I researched, I wrote, the writing and the reading contributing to one another. Ideas came to me in the writing that prompted more reading, and vice versa, in a kind of layering process. I had an outline that seemed to change daily, becoming ever more complex. For example, when I learned about Elbert Hubbard and his Roycroft movement, I began a quest to discover everything I could about the arts and crafts movement in the America, reading until I knew the material so well that Elbert and Louisa could make jokes about their lives; so that they could banter, as real people do. One day when I was reading about the financier J. P. Morgan, I found a very brief reference to his massive investment in hydroelectric power development at Niagara, and all at once the Frederick Krakauer plot line came into my mind--necessitating another reworking of the outline. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself obsessed with the history of hydroelectric power. I spent weeks at the library reading about the transformations electricity brought to American society, and about the opinions of people like Henry James on electricity (not surprisingly, James hated it). In obscure journals seventy or eighty years old, I was able to find information on the early days of America's electrical unions, one footnote reference leading to another and so to another. Through the repeated study of dusty tomes about the landmark Adams power station at Niagara, the first in America to use alternating current, I taught myself how a power station works. I created the character of the Irish showman Billy O'Flarity, who entertainingly explains the power station to his female visitors, because I never wanted readers of City of Light to become as bored by my electrical obsession as my friends and family were rapidly becoming.

I repeated this approach in other parts of the novel, as I learned through trial and error that all the history I was absorbing could only be interesting in fiction if it were presented through character--through the passions and concerns of individuals facing the challenges, joys, triumphs, and pleasures of their daily lives; through people pursuing their daily labors and fulfilling their ambitions.

Inevitably events in my own life began to take their place in the book. One autumn afternoon, I picked my son up from kindergarten as usual. A friend was with him, coming to our house to play. As we walked down the street, the trees tinged with yellow and red, my son's friend said matter-of-factly, "I wish I was dead. I am going to kill myself."

Shocked, I managed to keep my voice steady to ask, "What makes you say that?"

"Because then I'll be with my grandfather and he'll love me and people won't say I'm bad anymore. My grandfather never thought I was bad. Everyone else always tells me I'm bad," this five-year-old told me.

"That's a stupid idea, to want to be dead," my son interjected. "If you were dead, who would I play with?" My son has always been very practical.

As best I could, I tried to reassure both children about the value of life, and they turned to other subjects and enjoyed their afternoon. The next morning, I told the children's teacher about the conversation, and the school began a skilled and successful intervention. But the incident haunted me, especially because the child had been so calm and rational; this hadn't been an angry outburst during a tantrum, but rather sounded like a well-thought-out intention. A few days later, in my work, the incident was transformed into the scene that now opens the novel, when young Grace Sinclair tells Millicent Talbert that she wants to kill herself in order to be with her dead mother.

Events from my own childhood began to haunt the book, too. Once when I was about six or seven, I went to Niagara Falls with my grandparents. We wandered the Three Sisters Islands, above the Falls, and on the shores of Celinda Eliza, I spotted some gleaming pebbles in the shallows. I took a step or two into the water, which was not even a half inch deep, and I reached down to retrieve the stones. In an instant my grandfather was running to me, screaming, crying, pulling me back from the current. Ever since then, I have been terrified of Niagara, and I gave this same fear, from a similar incident, to Louisa Barrett.

I realize that what motivated me most strongly over six years was the desire to tell the story of a city, a city that for years had been maligned and made fun of, but that to me increasingly came to seem like a place of wonder, a place of magic. I could tell the story of that city only by telling the story of the people, real and imagined, who lived there and for their own reasons made it great. Of course those people acted out of motives which were not always the best; like all people, they combined the self-serving with the self-sacrificing, but each part of their lives contributed to my vision of the city at a pivotal moment of progress, prosperity, and transformation. I discovered this vision in increments, as Louisa Barrett discovered it. We discovered it together, you might say, each tiny revelation adding another strand to what became truly for me--for Louisa Barrett and I--a city of light.

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Copyright © 1999 Lauren Belfer.

Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger