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Telling the Buffalo story: A Q&A with editor of 'Right Here, Right Now'

Fifty-five writers, including many well-known former residents, and six photographers contribute to a new collection of stories about Buffalo.

The book is called "Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology" (Belt Publishing, 237 pages, $19.99). It's edited by Jody K. Biehl, who directs the journalism program at the University at Buffalo.

The book is the seventh in a series on Rust Belt cities by Cleveland-based Belt Publishing.

Biehl isn't from Buffalo; she grew up in Los Angeles, and received her master’s degree in journalism at New York University. Biehl worked as an editor at Der Spiegel magazine in Berlin and in Cambridge, England, before she, husband Peter, son Leo and daughter Olivia moved to Buffalo in 2008.

In 2012, they got a Portuguese water dog who is the subject of Biehl's essay, "Along Came Zeus: How My Dog Helped Me Find Home in Buffalo."

['Right Here, Right Now': An essential book about Buffalo]

Biehl and many of the book's contributors, including Julian Montague, who provided art direction and designed the cover, will be at a book release party from 4 to 6 p.m. Dec. 10 in the Market Arcade, 617 Main St. Copies of the book will be available. They can also be found at Talking Leaves...Books and other retailers, and beltmag.com and other online outlets.

Jody Biehl edited the new Buffalo anthology, "Right Here, Right Now."

Jody Biehl edited the new Buffalo anthology, "Right Here, Right Now."

Q: The book's title uses part of a famous exhortation used before Bills games by Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy. Was the book’s title your idea?

A: Most of the books in the series have basic titles, like 'The Cleveland Anthology,' but I wanted our book to have a title that said something about the project, and gave an immediate sense of what it was.

When I started this project, I didn’t know if the book would get any attention, or if it would resonate with the community enough to make people want to read it. So I wanted to give it a title that would make people stop and want to pick it up. I didn't come up with the title myself. The idea came from one of the other editors' son.

Q: Were other titles discussed?

A: I had three editors -- Luke Hammill, Mitch Gerber and Lenore Myka -- who helped me, and we batted around a lot of ideas. We knew we had to keep 'The Buffalo Anthology' in the title. But we were looking for something to go along with it.

One idea, which came from Mitch, was 'The Ugly Dog,' since he sees Buffalo as the equivalent of a beloved ugly dog -- the less attractive it seems, the more loyally people defend it. But we decided the title could be viewed negatively, and that people might not understand it.

Q: There are many familiar names in the book, but most are not well known.

A: I wanted the book to be representative of the city, and not be the same voices we always hear. I sought out people who were not known writers or public figures to tell some of the untold stories that make up the life of the city.

For instance, there is a marvelous 87-year-old woman who writes about growing up poor and black in the 1940s. There's also a woman whose family is Muslim, and was in the fifth grade when 9/11 happened. She, of course, didn’t understand, but the next day her classmates taunted her and called her a terrorist. That’s a story we don’t often hear in Buffalo.

Q: Were there writers you hoped to get but couldn’t?

A: We always aim big, right? Of course, there were. But in the end I’m quite happy the book isn’t filled with celebrity names. I am also so grateful for all of the authors who trusted me with their work.

Many of them, including people whose reputations far exceed mine, accepted my sometimes-prying questions and editing suggestions openly with great willingness. They adjusted their writing for a project that had no precedent, and was being published by a small Cleveland press they'd never heard of. It's quite miraculous when you think about it.

Q: The book is divided into five sections. Did you first decide how to organize the book, and then set out to find the writers and photographers?

A: No, it was the other way around. There was a call for submissions that the publisher put out. We asked people to submit by December 2015. Then, when I saw what we had, I sorted through it with the other editors, chose the pieces we thought we could use and started editing them. Later, I reached out to people to write directed pieces, such as a piece about Buffalo music or art.

When I was done with submissions, I sat for many weekends thinking about how to divide the book. I made lists and brainstormed with my other editors to figure out categories that would fit the diversity of pieces. We received an abundance of poetry, but sadly we couldn’t use as many as I would have liked, and which the city merits because the poetry community is so vibrant.

Q: You write in the book, “Buffalo, for all its messiness, is magnetic.”

A: The first thing about living here is you realize how beautifully laid out the city is. There is an ease and a grace of life that you rarely get in other cities, from the roundabouts to the long boulevards to the tremendous architecture and the glorious trees.

When I came to Buffalo I was a little unsure about the city. One of the places UB took us in trying to convince us to stay was Wegmans, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, if they’re showing us a supermarket as a hotspot, we’re in trouble.'

But as it turns out, Wegmans is a fundamental part of Buffalo life. After spending time here, we found Buffalo to be an accommodating and soulful place to live, offering  us a high quality of life and an intellectual and artistic community that's difficult to match in other cities.

Q: You describe "the real lake effect” not being the weather outside, but the warmth generated in homes and on streets by neighbors regardless of how far the thermometer dips or how high the snow mounts.

A: For me, the lake and the snow, and what happens to people when it snows, is one of Buffalo's great secrets. When you don’t grow up with it, as I didn’t, there is no sense of urgency or humility to the elements, which I think is crucial to understanding how Buffalonians operate.

I do not love the snow, but I do love what happens to people when it snows. I love when people help each other clear their cars out, or when drivers slow down or let a pedestrian cross because it’s blowing like crazy, because we can all empathize with what it’s like to be stuck out there.

Q: "Buffalo’s secret is that it’s secretly great," you wrote. "Not for everyone, of course, and not across racial divides, and sometimes, literally, as many authors point out, not east of Main Street.” Your book reflects, through some of the essays, that Buffalo remains in many ways two divided cities, separated by race.

A: Indeed, we sadly live in a city that is divided, and in a country that is divided, politically and racially. This book isn’t attempting to answer or solve any questions about that division. My hope is that the stories can bring us together.

Hopefully, by hearing each other's stories, we can get to know each other better as people, and maybe we can get along and integrate better as a city.

Q: Is this a book for everyone?

A: It’s for people who, like me, are outsiders coming into a place we are trying to understand. It's for people who have lived here a long time, and might see a reflection of what they love and hate about the city in the pages of the book. And it’s for people who love the city or have missed it, and want to curl up and remember stories from its past.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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