A standing-room only audience of more than 100 people on Saturday listened to author Lauren Belfer tell the back story of “City of Light.”
Belfer took the City of Tonawanda Branch Library audience from the book’s inception in Delaware Park through the painstaking research in the libraries of New York City, where she would begin to paint Buffalo in its moment of glory.
“The libraries of New York City were bursting with information about Buffalo,” she said. “I found 19th-century guidebooks for the city. I found newspaper clippings of all manner of important events taking place here. I found collections of photographs of the Olmsted parkways. Among the most useful things I found were books of photos of prominent Buffalonians.”
Belfer’s husband, Michael Marissen, sat by her side, operating the accompanying Power Point presentation from his laptop.
At his touch, photo after photo on the screen showed the city’s historic architecture and prominent founders, all key figures in Belfer’s first novel, published in 1999.
Images of Ansley Wilcox, Mariah Love, Dexter Rumsey and John Albright flashed on the screen, but it was Grover Cleveland who sparked a question from a woman sitting in front.
“What gave life to Grover Cleveland?” the woman asked about the former Erie County sheriff, Buffalo mayor, New York State governor and U.S. president who seemingly had a scandal in every closet.
“Here was a man who married a woman he pushed as a baby in a carriage down Delaware Avenue. She had been his ward,” Belfer said. “Here was a man who would visit Buffalo on weekends as governor and get into fisticuffs with newspaper reporters.”
Belfer’s research molded the character, she said.
The author’s first book of historic fiction was followed in 2010 by another, “Fierce Radiance,” which takes place in New York City during World War II. It touches on the development of antibiotics.
Both came during a period when historical fiction was gaining respect from readers and critics, and winning major literary awards around the world. Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” took the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and Hilary Mantel won for “Wolf Hall” in 2009 and “Bring Up the Bodies” in 2012.
Belfer’s first short story was published after 43 rejections, she said. Her second short story was more successful, she joked.
“It was published after only 27 rejections,” Belfer said. “But through this process I never gave up. That was something I learned from living in Western New York. You never give up.”
Audience member Milt Ehrenberg remembered being on the 10th floor of the now-closed Millard Fillmore Hospital on Gates Circle. He looked out the window onto Delaware Avenue and beyond.
“I looked out the window, and your whole book came to life,” said Ehrenberg, sparking a round of applause.
Today, Belfer said she is working “very hard” on her third novel.
“As some of you know, I am very superstitious, so I just don’t talk about work in progress,” she said. “There’s always a danger: You talk about your work, you never do your work.”