an interview with Lauren Belfer      
photo of Lauren Belfer

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  Bold Type:City of Light can be described as a thriller, a love story, and a rich portrait of a city, Buffalo, New York, at the turn of the last century. Why did you choose to set City of Light in Buffalo, a place most of us think of as downtrodden and depressed?

Lauren Belfer: I grew up in Buffalo in the 1960s, a time when "Snow!" was the only thing people seemed to associate with the city. When I was young, I knew nothing about Buffalo's extraordinary past. But as I began to research the book, I discovered that a hundred years ago, Buffalo was a place of incredible technological innovation and immense wealth, the Silicon Valley of its day. This was when hydroelectric power was being developed in nearby Niagara Falls and electricity was beginning to transform the nation. In City of Light, I tried to recreate Buffalo in all its lost, multi-faceted glory and bring to life a past which has been forgotten.

BT: How did you get the idea for the story?

LB: One day six years ago when I was in Buffalo to visit my parents, I happened to wander into a deserted exhibit at the Historical Society about the city in 1901. The exhibit stirred and confused me, because what it presented was so different from what I thought I knew. Afterwards I went for a walk in a nearby park, and the story that became City of Light entered my mind in what I can only describe as a flash of insight.

BT: Didn't the city of 1901 seem remote and inaccessible?

LB: As I pursued my research, I was surprised to find that the city of 1901 took on tremendous immediacy. The turn of the century was a time of incredible change and upheaval. The issues which riveted people then turned out to be the same ones which transfix us today: environmentalists battling with industrialists over the control of natural resources; controversies about the application of revolutionary new technologies; the fight of women and African Americans for equality; the question of the private vs. the public morality of presidents. Dealing with these familiar issues made me feel close to the time and the characters.

BT: You're 44, and City of Light is your first novel. Did you always want to be a writer?

LB: I dreamed of being a writer since childhood, when I was always creating fantasy stories and making notes on novels that never got written. After college, though, the necessity of earning a living took precedence over my childhood dreams. I worked for over a decade in the area of documentary film production, which was a terrific way to learn a sense of story. I felt blessed when my husband, who's a lawyer, encouraged me to take time away from film production to attend the fiction writing program at Columbia University. The program gave me a chance to focus on my writing and improve my technical skills. I began City of Light soon after finishing my degree, and the book took six years to write.

BT: Six years! Did you show the book to any editors or agents during that time?

LB: I showed drafts to a few friends, but I didn't show the book to anyone in publishing. I was so afraid of rejection that I never allowed myself to imagine that City of Light might be published. The book became a labor of love and truly its own reward. I've been amazed and humbled by all that's happened since I finished it.

BT: What was the research process like?

LB: I've always loved research. My dad was a history teacher, and some of my best childhood memories are of discussing history with him. So I enjoyed (mostly) the hours and hours I spent at libraries pouring over microfilm and dusty tomes that looked as if they hadn't been read in decades. But I was lucky enough to do other kinds of research, too; more than once in Buffalo I invited myself into homes that looked like settings for scenes in the book, and I'm happy to report that no one objected or tried to have me arrested.

BT: Are there autobiographical elements in City of Light?

LB: I think it's inevitable that concerns from a writer's life seep into the work. For example, one day I picked up my son from school with another child who was coming to our house to play. On my way home, my son's friend shocked me by saying, "I wish I was dead, I want to kill myself." Of course I spoke to the child's teacher about this, and the school began a successful intervention. The incident haunted me, however, and I transformed it in to the opening scene of City of Light, when young Grace Sinclair tells fellow student Millicent Talbert that she wants to kills herself in order to be with her dead mother.

BT: A number of actual people from the period figure prominently in the story. How did you go about blending these historical figures with fictional characters?

I made a decision early on that the main characters in the book (Louisa Barrett, Grace and Tom Sinclair, Franklin Fiske) would be fictional, and the historical figures would exist around them. This way, I could let the plot develop freely while still maintaining the basic historical truth. In presenting the real people in fictional situations, I tried to base their actions on what I judged to be their true personalities, so that real-life bad guys continued their evil deeds in fictions while the virtuous continued to hope for a reward.

BT: Hydroelectric power is not a subject that everyone would consider exciting, yet you managed to make it so. How?

LB: I love to explore work in fiction, the details of what people do with their time and why they do it. And I like to discover what people are willing to sacrifice themselves for. In City of Light, I tried to show the development of hydroelectric power through the visions of those who were trying to create it, just as I tried to show the motivations and passions of those who were equally determined to destroy it. This way, technology became more than just lifeless facts.

BT: Is Louisa Barrett, the narrator, modeled on a real person? How did you create her character?

LB: Louisa Barrett's voice came into my mind when I first got the idea for the book. Her voice, her instincts, her struggles, the decisions she makes within the confines of her world--these were with me from the beginning and totally her own. As I did research, I became more confident of how she would react to the changing pressures around her. But she shaped the book, and her personality dictated the story. On those few occasions when I, as the author, tried to urge her in a certain direction, I found that she insisted quite stubbornly upon her own goals and desires, so that I was writing down what she told me to say, rather than what I wanted her to say.

BT: What do you hope readers will take from City of Light?

LB: I want them to enjoy a story filled with suspense and love, tragedy and triumph, and along the way learn about a time and a place that I hope they'll find as amazing and remarkable as I did.

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    Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger