Buffalo-born author Lauren Belfer will have her third work of historical fiction – her first in six years – published on May 3.
“And After the Fire,” a suspense novel that spans centuries and continents with real and imagined characters, is partly set in Buffalo.
“I am grateful for all the support I have received all these years from the people in Buffalo,” Belfer said in a recent interview from her Greenwich Village home. “I wanted to give back something to the city by having a part of the book set there, so I could show how beautiful the city is and how wonderful the people are.”
The book idea came to her about 10 years ago, while taking a class on Johann Sebastian Bach’s music.
“It was really illuminating to me, and the music was absolutely gorgeous, but I also learned there was another side to some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s work, a side that I had never known about,” said Belfer, who took piano lessons as a girl, and had a subscription for years to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which shaped her knowledge of classical music.
Belfer said some of Bach’s sacred music lashed out against Catholics, Jews and Muslims, which may not have been shocking in Bach’s era but would be considered so today.
While Belfer was learning about Bach – and working on her second book, “A Fierce Radiance” – there were stories in the news about recovered artworks that were stolen or had gone missing during World War II.
“One day after class, it struck me: What if someone stumbled upon a work of art that had disappeared during the war, or maybe had never been known, and that was a piece of music, as opposed to the paintings and religious chalices I had been reading about,” Belfer said.
“I suddenly thought, what if this piece of music were an unknown masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach, and what if it had – to us – problematic content? That was the jumping off point for the book.”
Belfer’s foray into historical fiction began with “City of Light,” which told the history of Buffalo through the eyes of its residents in 1901, at the time of the Pan-American Exposition. The book was a New York Times Bestseller, and later named a New York Times Notable Book.
“A Fierce Radiance,” published in 2010, was a medical thriller about the advent of penicillin set during World War II. The book was named a Washington Post Best Novel and an NPR Mystery of the Year.
The flash of the idea for “And After the Fire” was not unlike the impetus for “City of Light.” Belfer, while in Buffalo to visit her parents in the 1990s, saw an exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum on Buffalo’s World’s Fair. It was a revelation. She had learned little about Buffalo’s past growing up, when the city was in a long decline and it’s once-proud history seemed forgotten.
“I remember walking out to Delaware Park and sitting down on the shores of the lake, and it was like a door opened inside my mind that said, ‘You have to write a book about Buffalo in 1901,’ ” Belfer said.
Belfer begins her current book in 1945, when an American soldier finds a musical manuscript in the ruins of Germany and brings the artifact home, as many soldiers did. The novel then goes back in time, following the musical score from its beginnings to Bach’s son, and then to a favored student who is Jewish and living in Germany in the late 18th century.
The student Belfer inserts into the story to first receive the cantata is Sarah Itzig Levy, a renowned musician and the great aunt of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Belfer played his pieces growing up.
Research for the book was extensive. Belfer consumed information on Bach and his family, the history of the Jews in Germany and the recovery of art looted during the war. She also traveled to Germany four times.
Susanna Kessler, another major character, is a Buffalonian who, like Belfer, left Buffalo after college and moved to New York City. She inherits the cantata from her uncle, the Allied soldier now back in Buffalo.
“I particularly wanted to bring in a Buffalo element because Buffalo is my hometown, and I love Buffalo,” Belfer said. “Susanna was part of the generation that felt she had to leave when she had to go to college, but still has in her heart a kind of yearning for the wonderful city where she grew up.”
One of the scenes describes snow beginning to fall downtown. “That’s one of my most treasured memories of Buffalo – a sparkling winter’s day, the sun shining and the snow falling,” Belfer said.