You might wonder how Lauren Belfer creates her eye-opening fiction. Well, it’s with her eyes closed. This is thanks to a long-ago typing class at Buffalo Seminary, where she learned how to type without looking.
These days Belfer composes her luminous novels with her eyes shut while wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat. That may make her sound like an eccentric character in one of her own books, but it is no affectation: It is how she is able to tap into her subconscious as she writes.
“Then I can let those fictional worlds go wherever I want,” she says. “I just put my hands on the keyboard, shut my eyes – and off I go.”
Today her new novel, “Ashton Hall,” makes its Buffalo debut when she appears at Larkin Square, at 5:30 pm, in conversation with Margaret Sullivan, media critic of the Washington Post and a former editor of The Buffalo News.
The Macaulay School – which both is and isn’t Buffalo Seminary – makes its return in the new novel. We first came to know Macaulay in “City of Light,” Belfer’s beloved 1999 novel, which reanimated the Buffalo of the Pan-American Exposition era.
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Louisa Barrett, that book’s narrator, was headmistress of Macaulay, an exclusive school for girls on Bidwell Parkway – which, of course, is Sem’s address, too. Hannah Larson, narrator of “Ashton Hall,” is a Macaulay graduate, just as Belfer is a Buffalo Sem grad. But Belfer is quick to say they are not really the same place.
“I try to keep Sem and Macaulay separate in my mind,” she says, “so I always remember that I went to the real school, Buffalo Seminary, which was wonderful, and that the fictional school, Macaulay, has a life of its own. I never want to blend what is fictional and what is real.”
It is funny that Belfer should put it that way, since that’s exactly what her novels do: They blend the fictional with the historical to create vivid new worlds out of time-faded old ones. The result is fiction that feels real. It comes at the price of the years and years of historical research that Belfer puts into each of her books.
“City of Light” is set in Buffalo. “Ashton Hall” is set in a centuries-old manor house in England and makes only fleeting mention of Buffalo as the place where Larson is from. Even so, feel free to think of this one as another of her Buffalo novels, because everything that Larson tells us is informed by where she grew up and went to school.
“That’s exactly how I looked at it,” Belfer says. “The main character is the daughter of a science teacher at the Macaulay School, and she grows up in one of the dormitories where her mother is the equivalent of a house mother. I imagine my main character, Hannah, reading in the window seat of the dormitory looking out over the trees of Bidwell Parkway. And so it shaped her imagination – Buffalo’s Olmsted heritage shaped her imagination, the way it shaped mine.”
Belfer says she has been thinking a lot about Buffalo’s Olmsted legacy in the wake of last month’s murders at the Tops market on Jefferson Avenue that authorities say were committed by a white supremacist. “Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway – two miles long, 200 feet wide, with six rows of trees across – was destroyed to make way for the Kensington Expressway, and this desecration of a masterpiece of landscape design destroyed a vibrant, historic, Black neighborhood. I support community efforts to cover over the Kensington Expressway, restore Humboldt Parkway and reunite the neighborhood.”
Belfer lives in New York, where she has friendships with more than a few Buffalo transplants, including Sullivan.
“I met Margaret, oh, 20-some years ago now, when ‘City of Light’ came out. Later she asked me to write a piece for The Buffalo News. But we became close friends when she moved to New York and became public editor of the New York Times. And the Buffalo bond is really very strong between us. It is something that, well, I think that never leaves you. You always have that in common. It’s the base that we stand on. I’m very grateful for her friendship, and the link that it gives me to our hometown.”
Larson, the new novel’s narrator, is a New York art historian who comes to stay at Ashton Hall, a historic manor in England, with her young son, Nicky. The fictional manor is a museum with magnificent public rooms, though Larson’s Uncle Christopher lives in private quarters there. This is similar to an arrangement Belfer came upon when she was in her 20s and stayed with a friend at Blickling Hall, a National Trust historic mansion in Norfolk, England. Belfer could explore the hidden hallways and dusty attics there after hours – and that’s when the plot for “Ashton Hall” began to take shape in her mind, though she would not come to write it until decades later.
Nicky, Hannah’s son, is 9. One day he goes exploring and finds a hidden room where he discovers the skeletal remains of Isabella Cresham, who lived in the manor in the 16th century with her well-to-do family. What was she doing there? Why was she abandoned?
Larson begins a search for answers. An important tool is a register that tells what books were borrowed from the manor’s library – and by whom – all those years ago. Belfer assembles for her readers a manor library based on real books of the Tudor era. This is just the sort of verisimilitude that is among the great pleasures of all her novels.
That the story turns on what can be learned from a library list is only fitting, given that Belfer developed her passion for books at the old North Park Branch Library, then at Delaware and Hertel. She remembers her mother taking her to the little brick building when she was 10 or so. Then she began riding her bike there, from the family home on Delaware, between Nottingham and Middlesex.
“I do think, based on my own life experiences,” she says, “that if you collect lists of all the books people have read in their lifetime, it tells you a lot.”
What of Belfer’s own lifetime list?
“I can still remember some of the books I checked out” as a child, she says, though she declines to name names “now that we’ve discussed how revealing lists of books can be.”
She does reveal this, though: “It is embarrassing, but I will tell you anyway. I decided, when I was 12 or 13 and could take the bus, that I was going to read all the books in the biography section of the downtown library. So I started with ‘A’ and began reading all the books, and I got through ‘C.’ ”
She pauses to laugh at her own audacity. “What a thing to do,” she says. “I’m an only child, so that’s what I did.”
The library shelf of her own books now runs to four novels. “City of Light” came first, in 1999, and “A Fierce Radiance,” in 2010, and then “And After the Fire,” which won a 2016 National Jewish Book Award. And now her novels have a place on the shelves of the same Central Library where she tried to read everything.
“Oh, that’s very, very moving to me,” she says. “The first time I went to that library after ‘City of Light’ was published and saw it there, well, it brings tears to my eyes to think about it, even now.”
Hannah Larson, as we know, is a Macaulay graduate. And Susanna Kessler, narrator of “And After the Fire,” is a City Honors grad.
“All of my novels except one have a Buffalo link,” Belfer says. “The one that doesn’t is ‘A Fierce Radiance,’ the second one, which takes place in New York during World War II. It is very bound to New York City. Now I regret that I didn’t weave in some link to Buffalo in ‘A Fierce Radiance.’ I feel that weaving Buffalo into my stories is a way of showing my respect for the city.”
So is coming back for appearances such as today’s. Belfer and Sullivan will have their conversation, and then Belfer will sign books and take time to meet her readers.
“I am happy to sign all my books, not just the new one, and to talk to everyone who comes,” she says. “I get so much out of that. Fiction writing is a lonely process, because you do have to escape into your own mind. To then finish a book, and to come out into the world and talk to people about it, and to think that the story might have resonated with someone, is very moving to me.”
Belfer will also sign books and greet readers at 1 pm Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 4401 Transit Road, Clarence. She won’t be wearing that sun hat.
As it happens, Belfer began wearing it while writing years ago because the desk in her home office faces a bank of sunny windows.
“Now I always have to wear a hat when I’m writing. What would you call that, a talisman? That helps you leap into another world? Even when I am working before dawn, and it’s still dark out, I put the hat on. There is a part of writing fiction that I think is magical. You can’t really describe what happens. You just have to let the words flow through you. And sometimes a book will take a turn that is unexpected to me.”
This was the case in “City of Light.” Louisa Barrett is talking with Dexter Rumsey, the real-life Buffalo banker of the Pan-Am era, near the book’s end when she has a sudden insight about the power that Buffalo city fathers have held over her life. It is a linchpin of the novel, yet Belfer did not plan it in her original conception of the book.
“It came to me in that moment, writing that scene, as Dexter Rumsey and Louisa Barrett were walking. Then I had a choice: ‘Do I say, that’s not what happened, because I never planned it?’ Or do I say, which is what I did say: ‘Oh, wow, now I understand. That’s what happened.’ So I lived that discovery as Louisa Barrett lived it. And I think it adds a lot to the novel, because Louisa and I were both so shocked.
“Then I had to go back, because nothing can come out of nowhere in a novel. The reader doesn’t believe it if it just drops out of nowhere. So then I went back and put in some clues along the way, so that when you get to that part, the reader will say, ‘Oh, yes, of course. Yes, that’s what happened.’ ”
The new book, too, offers such clues. And when these foreshadowed flashpoints arrive, they still land as surprises: You don’t see them coming, but you could have. Such moments are also among the pleasures that come of reading Belfer’s beautiful books.
Read them with your eyes open.