Q&A With Lauren Belfer
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Q&A With Lauren Belfer
Tonight I have the pleasure of doing a Q&A with Lauren Belfer who is the New York Times Bestselling author of “And After The Fire,” “A Fierce Radiance,” “City of Light,” and “Ashton Hall”. She is the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.
Q: So Lauren at what point in your life did you realize you were called to be an author?
A:I realized I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. Somehow I decided that making up stories was the best thing anyone could ever do. I count myself lucky because almost every week when I was young, my mother took me to our local branch of the Buffalo Public Library. She checked out several books for herself, and she encouraged me to explore the children’s section and check out books, too. I’ve had a library card for as long as I can remember.
I spent my early years as a writer crayoning short stories about heroic dogs and cats. By the time I was in high school, I was writing poetry, and my terrific English teachers encouraged me to submit my poems to literary journals around the country. I collected rejection letters from all the best places! Sometimes these impersonal, printed form letters had a handwritten “thank you” at the bottom, which I took as a sign of encouragement.
By the time I graduated from college, I still wanted to be a writer, but I also needed to support myself. I held a variety of jobs, such as a filing clerk at an art gallery, a paralegal at a law firm, a fact checker at magazines, but I always got up early in the morning, before going to work, to write. The first short story of mine to be published in a literary journal was rejected by 42 times before it found an editor who loved it. (This was before the days of self-publishing online.) The second short story of mine to be published was rejected only 27 times – this felt to me like a great improvement and a big success!
Throughout my twenties, I had ideas for novels, and I would begin working on them, but I was never able to finish. Although I struggled with the material, I simply couldn’t find a way to bring the plots to completion. Finally, when I was in my thirties, I realized that I should be writing historical fiction, and that’s when I found my true path as a writer.
Q: Where do you get the ideas to write all your novels?
A: I wish I knew! Often I feel that ideas come to me out of nowhere, in a kind of moment of insight. I’ll be walking down the street, and suddenly I’ll feel as if a door has opened in my mind, and I can walk through that door into a new world filled with characters and their stories. In retrospect, I realize that the components of this new world, of this potential novel, were in my mind all along, the result of an article I might have read in the newspaper at breakfast, a story I might have heard on the radio, a conversation I might have had with a friend at lunch, or a memory of something that happened when I was in tenth grade … but my mind hadn’t put all these details together until that moment.
I remember exactly where I was when I first had the ideas for all four of my published novels. (I also remember where I was when I had the ideas for my several unpublished novels!)
“City of Light” began when I was walking in a park after touring a revelatory museum exhibition about my hometown of Buffalo, NY, during its glory days in 190. All at once, I realized that I had to write about the extraordinary city where I’d grown up.
“A Fierce Radiance” began when my aunt by marriage told me about her brother, who died when he was eleven of a minor infection that would be easily curable nowadays with antibiotics. At that time, my young son was on and off antibiotics constantly for ear infections and so on, and what my aunt told me that day had a powerful impact on me, prompting me to write about the era before these medications existed.
“And After the Fire” began when I was taking an adult education class about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I took the class during the same years that the restitution of paintings stolen during World War II was big news in the press. Heading to the subway one evening after class, I wondered what if I found a work of art that had been stolen during World War II, and what if my work of art wasn’t a painting but a masterpiece of music, a lost work by Bach. That question was the spark for the book, and I began research the next day.
My most recent novel, “Ashton Hall,” began when I was in my early twenties and was invited to stay at an apartment an acquaintance was renting at a British stately home dating from the early 1600s, Blickling Hall. I found myself able to wander freely in the back corridors and attics of the house, walking deeper and deeper into the past, and my imagination took flight.
Q: What advice do you give to those who want to write? What’s your advice to those who struggle with writers block?
A: Traditionally fiction writers who are just starting out are told to “write what you know.” But I think much better advice is to write what you don’t know and want to learn about. Of course you’ll weave in themes that are important to you, themes that are very personal and reflect your innermost concerns, but maybe the setting is new to you, or the time period, or the profession of the main characters. I believe that a sense of discovery and exploration creates forward momentum and excitement, an enthusiastic, “I just learned this and I can’t wait to share it with you!”
I also think it’s crucial to force yourself to never give up, to keep writing, no matter how many rejections come your way, no matter how many days of writer’s block you experience, to make yourself try to write something every single day, if only a paragraph, wherever you are and at whatever moment you can grab.
Years ago I had a mentor who compared the fiction writing process to an old-fashioned, manual water pump: you push down on the leaver, and nothing happens. No water appears. You push again, and still no water appears. On the third try, a few drops might appear. On the fourth and fifth tries, a few more drops. Then all at once the water pours out in a deluge. I remind myself of this image whenever I’m having trouble beginning my work in the morning – and because I have trouble beginning work almost every morning, I think of this image a lot.
Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to any of your novels?
A: Over the years, there has been interest in my books from Hollywood. All four of my published novels have strong female protagonists, women confronting real-life issues, and I never give up hoping that someday, something will work out for a movie or a television series.
Q: Are you writing a new novel now? If so can you spoil a little bit of what it’s about?
A: I’m in the midst of a new novel, but I won’t say anything more. For me, a novel is an organic, living thing, always changing and evolving. I worry that if I begin talking about the plot, the characters, or the setting, I’ll lock the story into place before it’s finished, and I’ll no longer feel free to let the plot evolve. I want to be able to change every part of a novel on every single day that I’m working on it.
Q: If you were to collaborate with another author to write a book, who would it be and why?
A: This is an interesting question. Several of my friends have been collaborating on novels recently. Collaboration creates an opportunity to weave together different perspectives on the same story. I do have a few friends in mind for possible collaborations, and also a few plot ideas, but I don’t want to say anything more specific yet.