The Buffalo, N.Y., native, who is a featured writer in the series of events celebrating Linderman Library’s 125th anniversary, was visiting her parents when she happened to wander into a deserted exhibit at the Historical Museum that focused on the city at the turn of the last century.
"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," Belfer recalled.
Oddly shaken by the realization that her lifelong impression of Buffalo as something of a laughing stock was at odds with the city’s glorious past, Belfer went for a walk in nearby Delaware Park. And there, gazing at the rippling surface of the water on a late summer afternoon, Belfer was struck by the idea of setting her first novel in the city she thought she knew, and revisiting its fleeting moment of glory.
"I had not simply the desire, but the responsibility to recreate the history of the city," Belfer later wrote. "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 technologies, the fight of women and African Americans for equality, the question of the private vs. the public morality of presidents."
On the same page
Belfer’s historical novel, City of Light, which is narrated by a fictional headmistress who schools the children of Buffalo’s elite, debuted to critical acclaim in 1999. It also earned new appreciation by a Lehigh audience when it was selected for the first "On the Same Page, Lehigh" reading program, a key part of the library’s 125th anniversary celebration.
On Tuesday, April 1, readers of Belfer’s book, who had met at locations on campus over the past few weeks to discuss it, had the opportunity to meet the author, who delivered a talk at Linderman on the writer’s life.
An estimated 60 people gathered in the library to hear Belfer talk about the process that led to her first novel, her love of historical research, and the projects that now inspire her. Earlier in the day, she also dined with members of the library staff, representatives of the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries and a creative writing student.
"I just love libraries, and always felt that research was the best part of writing," Belfer said. "I’ve always felt that doing research was a little bit illegal, and got sort of that charge that some people must get from smoking marijuana."
In tracing the progression of the book, Belfer said that she wrote as she conducted research, and that the writing and the reading complemented one another.
"Ideas came to me in the writing that prompted more reading, and vice versa, in a kind of layering process," she said. "I’ve always loved research. I enjoyed 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."
The author as spy
In Belfer’s City of Light, Buffalo is presented as a glittering jewel, a progressive city that moves gracefully through the turn-of-the-century industrialization. The novel features a host of characters who reflect the socio-economic layers of that era.
It is narrated through the voice of Louisa Barrett, headmistress of a private school and outsider to Buffalo, who could discover the city’s allure with the same sense of wonder that Belfer hoped to inspire in her readers.
"Keeping that sense of separateness—that was an important part of the writing process," Belfer said. "In order to present the material successfully, you’re always looking in people’s windows—metaphorically and literally. You almost become something of a spy."
In fact, Belfer said she found herself doing exactly that when she happened upon a moving truck in front of an elegant Buffalo mansion. After gaining access to the home, she found that its spacious interior had been carved up to accommodate several apartments. But the top floor—a grand, light-filled space—eventually found its way into her book as the artist’s studio for one of her main characters.
"It all came about by chance, but it was typical of the process of this book," she said. "I would be driving around in rented cars, on all these seldom-traveled back streets, and had the most wonderful adventures."
Enthusiasm from England to Buffalo
To promote the book, Belfer embarked on a book tour that took her to several cities in the U.S. and to England, where she visited nine cities.
"It did very well in Britain, and I think part of that is that, although it’s such an American story, it parallels what happened to some of their cities as well," she said. "The decline of some of these older, formerly industrialized towns is a process that resonated with them. Whenever I was interviewed over there, there were constant references to Liverpool and Manchester and the unfortunate decline of those towns."
The gruelingly repetitive process of promoting a book—often dreaded by authors—was a heady experience for Belfer, who recalled going to an interview and reflecting: "After writing in a nightgown all day for six years and taking care of my son, here I am, walking into the BBC."
She was surprisingly well-received in Buffalo, where she said people embraced both her and her book.
"There was a great level of enthusiasm for a book that glorified Buffalo’s past," Belfer said. "We’re so used to put-downs, and here was a book that provided a completely different perspective. I would do booksignings there and four or five hundred people would show up. I’m even recognized on the streets of Buffalo, which is a very unusual experience."
She advised listeners at her Linderman talk to pursue their goals with relentless dedication, and to learn to deal with rejection. Belfer said she dreamed of becoming a writer since she was a child, but waited until more than a decade after she earned her undergraduate degree at Swarthmore to return to school to study fiction writing at Columbia.
A former documentary film producer, Belfer said that her first short story was rejected no less than 42 times before it was eventually published in a prestigious literary journal.
Now at work on another work of historical fiction, Belfer said she is still "amazed and humbled by all that’s happened since I finished City of Light."
"It was a labor of love," she said, "truly its own reward."
Although it’s not certain how many members of the Lehigh family participated in the campus-wide reading group, organizer Sue Cady said that the university bookstore sold 60 copies, and that another 20 were taken out on loan from the library.
Encouraged by the success of this initial program—which garnered attention from national NPR outlets—Cady said that a second book has been selected for fall: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed: On ‘Not’ Getting By in America, which chronicles the award-winning author’s experiences as a minimum-wage employee.
For more information about Belfer’s City of Light, visit the Web site dedicated to it at http://www.lehigh.edu/samepage/current.html
For other events associated with Linderman Library’s 125th celebration, please visit the Web site at http://www.lehigh.edu/Lind125/index.html