Art In Fiction

Historical Riches feat. Lauren Belfer, author of And After the Fire

March 01, 2022 Carol Cram Season 2 Episode 11
Art In Fiction
Historical Riches feat. Lauren Belfer, author of And After the Fire
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Join me as I chat with Lauren Belfer, author of several riveting historical novels including And After the Fire and A Fierce Radiance.   

Highlights:

  • Genesis of And After the Fire
  • Learning about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Salons of 19th-century Berlin and Fanny Mendelsohn
  • Role of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach in the novel
  • Fanny Mendelsohn's fraught relationship with her brother Felix Mendelsohn
  • What is so appealing about Bach's music?
  • Reading from And After the Fire
  • Using details in historical fiction 
  • Process of writing
  • Genesis of A Fierce Radiance
  • Parallels of the 1918 flu epidemic and COVID in 2021
  • The role of Life Magazine and photography in A Fierce Radiance
  • Advice for authors: write what you don't know

Press Play now & be sure to check out Lauren Belfer's novels on Art In Fiction.

Lauren Belfer's Website

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Music Credits

Intro: Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson
Ad: Celtic Calypso, performed by Lunar Adventures; composed by Gregg Simpson

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Carol Cram:

Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I'm your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts.

This episode features Lauren Belfer, author of two novels on Art In Fiction—And After the Fire in the Music category and A Fierce Radiance in the Photography category.

Lauren Belfer was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up in Buffalo Her second novel A Fierce Radiance was named a Washington Post Best Novel of 2010 and an NPR Best Mystery of 2010, and her third novel, And After the Fire, received a 2016 National Jewish Book Award. Lauren lives in New York City.

Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast. Lauren.

Lauren Belfer:

Thank you, Carol. I'm thrilled to be here today.

Carol Cram:

I'm so excited to chat with you today about two of your novels listed on Art In Fiction—And After the Fire and A Fierce Radiance. And first off, I have to tell you that And After the Fire, which features the music of Bach, was one of the novels I read a while back that inspired me to launch Art In Fiction. I mean, I remember reading that, I think, wow, this was a book, you know, inspired by music. I wonder how many other authors have done the same. And then the kernel of the idea of doing Art In Fiction, which brings together novels inspired by all the arts, started. So I credit your novel as one of my inspirations.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh, thank you. That's very touching to hear, especially because I have so much respect for your Art In Fiction website and how deftly you're bringing together books about so many diverse subjects, but always have this focus on some aspect of the arts. Your work is really inspiring to me.

Carol Cram:

Well, thank you. Yeah, it's been an awful lot of fun and I have benefited so much personally as an author because I have had the opportunity to meet so many authors and also, I've read way more books than I normally do. I mean, the trouble is, is to fit it in with also my own writing.

But let's start with And After the Fire. I remember picking it up initially because of its connection to Bach. And then I was just blown away by the sheer density of the novel, of both novels that I've read of yours. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Can you give us an overview of And After the Fire?

Lauren Belfer:

Whenever I think of how I came to write And After the Fire, I think of what led me to the topic because when I began, I didn't know very much about the music of Bach at all. I had taken piano lessons when I was growing up. I often, I almost feel, I should say I was forced to take piano lessons when I was growing up. And I remember very well my grandmother saying to me, when I insisted on quitting at age 14. She said, you are going to regret this. And of course I did.

Carol Cram:

Yes, she was right.

Lauren Belfer:

She was right as usual. So music hadn't played of very big part in my life. And then one day I received in the mail when we, you know, those were the days when we still received things in the mail, snail mail, I mean received in the mail an announcement for an adult education class about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And I had a very peculiar feeling inside that I ought to sign up and take that class. And I filled out the registration form and sent the check in that very day. And what I learned in the class turned out to be very important to me on many levels. First, because that's where I met my husband. So that was very important. And nowadays when friends say to me, you know, oh, I'd love to meet someone, I never meet anyone. I always say, well, you have to take an adult education class. That's how you meet people with similar interests. So that was a wonderful result of the class. 

And the class also led to this novel because what I learned in the class really surprised me that Bach’s music turned out to be more magnificent than I ever imagined possible. But the sacred music, that is, the music performed in church, carried an edge of religious contempt, of lashing out against Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and even against Protestants of different denominations who lived in the next town. Now this wasn't a shock at all, given the era when Bach lived, but it was hard to come to terms with after the Second World War and even harder to come to terms with because the music was so beautiful, and it was hard to reconcile that this beautiful music was carrying a message that nowadays we find very disturbing and very problematic.

So at the time I was taking the class, there were also a lot of stories in the news about the restitution of works of art that had been lost or stolen during World War II. And then one evening as I was taking the subway, as I was walking to the subway rather, after class, I suddenly thought, well, what if I found a work of art that had been lost or stolen during World War II. Not a painting, which is the kind of work of art that people usually find when they find an unknown masterpiece. But what if I found an unknown masterpiece of music, a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. And what if its libretto, so that its words. What if its libretto was by our modern standards unacceptable?

And that was the moment of inspiration for the book because I wanted to explore how a great work of art can be both exalting and horrifying all at once.

Well, I decided then that the main characters in the novel, both the real historical characters that I would portray and the characters I invented, that they would all be united by their relationship to this fictional Bach cantata that I would portray in the book. And so through the cantata, I'd be able to present several hundred years of history. 

And the first step for me in writing the book was to find a provenance for my fictional cantata, you know, where did it come from? What was its history from the time of Bach’s death through to what I decided would be its discovery in the context of the story at the end of World War II? And so in my research, I took off from there, and the research led me into some very surprising areas.

Carol Cram:

Really it is absolutely remarkable how you wound the development of this piece, when it was first composed and then all the way through it ends up with this whole thing about the salons in Berlin in the 19th century with your character, Sarah Levy, and also Fanny Mendelsohn is brought into that. So I was really fascinated with that, about the cultural salons in Berlin and the fact that women were such a huge part of them.

Lauren Belfer:

Well, that was astonishing to me when I discovered that and you know, everybody works differently, of course, and every writer will tell you a different story, but for me, the initial stages of research in a novel are very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's a kind of very intuitive process where I'm reading and reading and researching and just waiting for something, that elusive something, to strike me and say, yes, this is going to be the start of the story. This is the center of the story. And so I started reading about Johann Sebastian Bach and then about his children, but nothing was really striking me. The story wasn't really coming alive. And then I began to read about Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. And that he was a very difficult personality. Nowadays, he was someone we might diagnose as being bipolar.

He had a problem with alcohol. Toward the end of his life he taught a young woman in Berlin to play the harpsicord and that woman was Sara Itzig Levy. And as I learned more and more about Sarah Levy, I learned that she was the most amazing person who had a salon, a musical salon in Berlin for 50 years that was part of this salon culture that you just talked about. And this was the great surprise. She was the great aunt of Fanny Mendelsohn Hensel and of Felix Mendelsohn. So by portraying Sara, I had entree to an absolutely extraordinary way of life, to the cultural life that flourished in Berlin in the 19th century.

Carol Cram:

Yes, it was an absolutely remarkable time, and it was an opportunity, wasn't it, for women to be involved heavily involved in the arts and incredibly influential. Like, Fanny was very influential, even though she didn't get to be, or her compositions didn't get to be, as well-known as her brother’s, all of that is getting redressed, isn't it?

Lauren Belfer:

Well that's right. And you know, you're right, that it was women who took the cultural lead there, but they unfortunately had to be careful. And we see that in Fanny’s life that she ran a salon for many, many years. All of the great minds of Europe came to that salon at one time or another, but it was in her home and she was really circumscribed in terms of what kind of public career she could have. And it was interesting to me to realize that she wasn't limited simply because she was a woman. It also had to do with the fact that she was from the upper class. So there was a contemporary of hers, Clara Schumann, who did have a career as a composer and as a performer. She was very famous as a pianist and traveled all through Europe. Clara Schumann was from the middle class.

And so she had fewer, well, what they called in those days, protections around her, but poor Fanny was kind of trapped by her economic circumstances. And also to some extent by her brother, Felix, because toward the end of her life - and Fanny’s life was tragically short - So when she was in her late thirties, her mother and her husband pushed her to publish her music. And I have to believe that if both her mother and her husband were pushing her to do it, that doing so would not have adversely affected the family, but it was her brother, Felix, who kept saying, no, no, I don't want you to do that. 

And she would not go against her brother. They were very close and it just wasn't in her. I mean, it's heartbreaking to read the letters that circulated among the family members. They were tremendous letter writers. And even in the 19th century, there were printed in America, in English translations volumes of the letters of the Mendelsohn family. So you can read almost day by day, this family debate going on of Leia Mendelsohn, Fanny’s mother, writing to Felix, please give your permission, please do this. It would mean so much to her. And him writing back and saying, no, I can't, I can't do that. But if she wants to go ahead on her own, you know, okay. But I can't endorse it. 

Carol Cram:

Why was that?

Lauren Belfer:

Well, there's a lot of debate about why that was. And some people would say it was jealousy of her music because you know, he did publish some of her songs under his name.

Carol Cram:

Didn't Queen Victoria admire one of his songs and he did admit it?

Lauren Belfer:

Yes. That's a wonderful story that you are alluding to that Felix was invited to perform at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but Queen Victoria planned a surprise for Felix that she would perform her favorite of his songs in his honor, which she did. And it turned out to be one of Fanny's song that he had published under his name. And you give Felix credit. He did admit it then and there that his sister had written the song. 

But he seemed to think he was doing her a favor, doing his sister a favor, by publishing it under his name. You know, the relationship between the two of them was very, very fraught. They were so close, particularly as children. Both musical geniuses trained in the same way. But when Fanny was about 13, her father wrote her a letter and said that music for her could never be more than what he called an ornament to her life as a wife and mother. Whereas Felix would go on and be renowned throughout Europe as a composer. So it's very, very tragic and complicated. And even though I've studied it, I still can't quite get to the heart of it. That what, on the one hand, why was he so negative about Fanny stepping forward in her own right? And on the other hand, why was she so vulnerable to his opinion when she had the full support of her mother and of her husband? I just don't know. 

Carol Cram:

It's so fascinating and I just want to circle back to Bach because of course, obviously you have become a real Bach lover. I actually play Bach almost every day, badly. I've been playing Bach since I was about 10. And, uh, that's how I actually get into the mood for writing is I'll go down to the piano and play a few inventions. What is it about Bach? What do you think it is about his music that is so amazing?

Lauren Belfer:

For me, I just find it draws me in absolutely. That while it's playing, I can't do anything else. It's never background music. It demands your full attention. And I find that if I'm feeling sad, it's consoling. If I'm feeling good, it magnifies those feelings of happiness or contentment. It seems to answer every question and comfort every emotion. And also, I could listen to a Bach piece a hundred times. I'm sure you feel this when you play the piano music too. And yet the next time I come to that piece, it's as if I am hearing it for the first time. It's as involving and profound as if I had never heard it before.

Carol Cram:

It's so remarkable. I know. I couldn't answer that question myself. You answered it very, very well, but because there is something about Bach that is unique. I imagine you went to his museum in Leipzig when you were doing your research.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh yes. I've been to Leipzig a few times for the research and the museum is fascinating. And one of the great things about the Bach museum is that they have a room where you can go in and sort of program, you know, because the parts of it are very high tech now and you can program any given piece just to hear a certain instrument. So you can say, you know, I want to hear this piece, only the flute part or this piece, only the violin. And it's fantastic and it's fun, but also fantastic and awe inspiring. 

And then you find out these incredible things that Bach had to deal with. You know, he was the head of the school there for the, the boys’ choir at the church. And you know, it was a full school where they were getting academic instruction and they had the rules of the school and the rules include that the boys absolutely must not empty chamber pots onto the heads of the people walking below the school. 

Carol Cram:

Oh wow. So if they had to have a rule it's because that's what they were doing.

Lauren Belfer:

Right. So that must be what they were doing. I just think it's great to, you know, that these insights into what daily life was like in the past. We all tend to, I think, romanticize the past to one degree or another, but the daily life was that the boys at the school were throwing the chamber pot stuff onto people's heads.

Carol Cram:

You know, I, I don't know about you, but I think as historical novelists, that's one of the things that keeps us going. You never know when you're going to find one of those nuggets of information about the past. Isn't it like when you're doing your research, as you said earlier, you don't even what you're looking for sometimes? You're just hoping that something will jump out.

Lauren Belfer:

So I've written three historical novels that have been published so far. And I have a book in progress. What I think about first as I do the research is to forget about everything that I think I know about that period in the past and put myself into the shoes of my characters so that I am walking, looking through their eyes from day to day and realizing that they obviously don't know what's going to happen in the coming centuries. So I want to create that sense of anxiety as they face the future. 

And in order to do that, I try to read letters as, you know, the, then you get a real contemporary view. Diaries, if they have been published, you know, I read autobiographies and memoirs now in a memoir autobiography, the individuals are already looking back at their lives, but of course they don't know as much as we know from our perspective.

I also look at drawings, look at paintings, you know, to try to get a sense of what the people were wearing and, and how they carried themselves. So all of these little details to try to build this sense of living from day to day. And I know in a minute, we'll talk more about my second novel A Fierce Radiance which takes place during World War II. But I will say now that one thing I did to research that novel was to go to the library and read every single issue of Life Magazine from 1939, when the war began in Europe through to 1945 and the end of the war. And doing that gave me a perspective that was completely different from the perspective I had reading histories about the war that had been written in my era.

Carol Cram:

That's just fascinating. And I think now would be a good time if you would like to do a short reading of And After the Fire.

Lauren Belfer:

So I'm going to read a section toward the beginning of the book and in this chapter, which takes place in October of 1776, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who is the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, comes to the Palace Itzig to teach his student Sara Itzig. And as the book goes on, Sara Itzig will become the center of the novel.

Lauren Belfer:

Today, for the first time in his life, he felt like an old man. Yes, he—Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of the mostly forgotten master Johann Sebastian Bach—felt like an old man. Leaning upon his walking stick amid the Aubusson carpets and the French bric-a-brac that were de rigueur in palaces these days, he stared at the vivacious girl playing the harpsichord before him. 

“I finished the entire section without a mistake, Monsieur Bach,” she called to him, tossing her head and pleasure. Such high spirits, she had. She spoke French, mais oui, also de rigueur in palaces. The wealthy followed the example of King Frederick the Great, and the king worshipped French literature and language.

“Kindly concentrate on playing the piece through, mademoiselle.” He hated to curb her high spirits, but he must. He was her teacher by definition, teachers curbed high spirits. “We will discuss your supposed perfection when you've reached the end.”

Sara frowned. Her dark, thick eyebrows gave her an exotic look. He felt within himself, a cutting regret that he would never be more than an honorary uncle or father figure to her. She was 15. He was 65. And as she played, he felt a protective delicacy toward her. The fact that she lived in a palace contributed to his sense of restraint, he had to admit. The expansive music room with its two harpsichords and a pianoforte was on the second floor of the house and faced the river. At this hour of the day, sunlight poured in at an oblique angle through the long open windows. He heard the sound of water tumbling through the fountains in the gardens below. Paintings of voluptuous women decorated the walls. He recognized the styles of Rubens and Poussin, although he would never be so ill bred as to ask if he was correct in these identifications.

“And no mistake in the second part, either” she said, as if daring him to contradict her.

He did not respond to this outburst. He kept his face impassive, like the proper pedagogue he was. Today, Sara wore a satin gown covered with intricate embroidery, her leather shoes shone with their softness and polish. He'd never seen clothes like hers. These were not the type of clothes worn by his sisters or by his wife. His sisters, of course, were the children of Cantor Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran minister of music, somber and serious. And Friedemann’s wife was, well, she was his wife. Friedemann dressed in his very best on the days he came to the palace. He made certain that his clothes were clean and that he didn't give off a foul odor. The Palais Itzig was said to harbor that absolute height of luxury, a bath. No one, neither family nor servant gave off a foul odor here. 

Friedemann hadn't known what to expect when he was first invited to the Palais Itzig to hear Sara play. From their first meeting, he'd recognized her talent. And in Berlin, he taught no students, but her, No one else was worthy of him. Not even Sara's sisters, too numerous to recall their names, all of them playing musical instruments and engaging in family recitals for their private amusement. 

“A fugue is difficult,” Sara admitted.

“You're playing it well, don't stop.”

“Never stop,” she said mimicking one of his performance rules.

“Steady,” he cautioned her. “Don't pick up speed simply because you want to get through it.”

She nodded. She approached the Coda. He had embedded a little trick at the end. Would she notice it at the moment of the Streto, an inversion? She gave him a split second grin. Yes. She'd caught it, naturally. 

She was his darling.

Carol Cram:

Oh, that's wonderful. Thank you. I was totally transported back to that scene. Oh, that that's great. I just love your attention to detail too. I find it inspiring as an author myself. I'm learning a lot from reading your novels.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh thank you. But I think the detail is, I mean something that I love to bring in. I do so much research. Sometimes, I wonder if, you know, the research is so much easier than the writing. Sometimes I wonder if I bring in too many details because it's easier to bring in details to wrap in the research.

Carol Cram:

No, I don't think you do. I mean certainly some writers do, but when I say your novels are dense, they're like a tapestry and all those details just add to it. But the story is the paramount thing. And I think it's because of the way you portray your characters. Like, they are real people in both novels that I've read. So I want to know what's going to happen to them, but I love seeing them wrapped in this texture of detail that you add on.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh, well, thank you so much for saying. I'm really touched by that. It's reassuring you know, writing is such a long and lonely process. It's hard to know, you know, am I putting on the page what's in my mind? And is that anything that a reader is going to appreciate or find interesting?

Carol Cram:

Funny though, we can never really know that, can we? We just basically can write as well as we can. And then the rest, who knows?

Lauren Belfer:

Well then there's always that paradox too. I find that it seems like the passages that I think are sort of the closest emotionally and the most detailed and the most specific then seem for the reader to be the most universal. It's a paradox in fiction that I've never figured out, but I've often had cause to notice in terms of the comments that readers might make. That it is these tiny details that people somehow find most moving.

Carol Cram:

Yes. Because life is made up of one small detail after another, isn't it? Really, that's all we have is in the present.

Lauren Belfer:

That's a very insightful comment, Carol. I will think about that. I think that must be the reason.

Carol Cram:

Yeah. When you think of your day-to-day life, you're not thinking about, you know, the big picture so much as you're thinking about is your coffee cold or maybe because my coffee's cold, or, or just those little things that you're seeing and feeling and what the weather is. I don't know. But those little tiny details. Yeah. That's, that is life.

Lauren Belfer:

I was just going to say, when I sit down to my work in the morning, I'll think about what you just said. It's really answered some questions in my mind, so thank you.

Carol Cram:

You're welcome - that just came to me. Well, because I'm, you know, I'm also a writer myself, so I'm always like you striving to, to be better and to, you know, get at things and you know, because it is a very, very challenging thing to do. You think, why are we doing this? This is hard.

Lauren Belfer:

And yet when it works, when you feel those moments where you're just so swept up in it, then it's all worthwhile. But those moments, they're so unpredictable, you know, I can go, you could go for a few days and never feel you're making any headway. And then suddenly, it just all seems to come together. And that feeling is incredible.

Carol Cram:

It is. And so many authors have said that to me. And I agree myself. You know, 90% of the time it's hard work, but there's those flashes of when it just all comes together and you're in front of your computer or you're whatever, and you go, it's working. I got it. I wish it happened all the time, but hey, at least it happens.

Lauren Belfer:

Well. And then maybe also the process is the working into it.

Carol Cram:

Yes, it is all about the process. And it's also the success of being a novelist really is about getting to do it, isn't it, it's that process of actually sitting down and writing rather than publication and all that, which is nice, but that's not the real reward.

Lauren Belfer:

That's right. It's the day by day, you know, the mission, the sort of which I do think of it as a calling or a, that defines my day every day. I was going to say that, you know, as we just said, not every day is going to be fulfilling or satisfying, but then you still have to be there because there is somehow a cumulative effect. 

A friend of mine said it was like one of those old-fashioned water pumps where you pump and you pump and you pump and no water comes out and no water comes out and then suddenly there's a flood and you're rushing to catch up, to catch all the water. And that's how it often is for me.

Carol Cram:

Yes, it is, and you never know when it's going to happen. You have, you really do have to trust in the process. I mean, I've had people tell me that they're on their 25th novel and it's just as hard to write it, if not harder, than it was to write the first one and I'm going, really, I'm only on number five, you know?

Lauren Belfer:

Yeah. And they say, you know, it might be the 25th novel, but I never wrote this novel before.

Carol Cram:

Exactly. So I wanted to go on and talk about A Fierce Radiance, which is the novel of yours that I just finished and absolutely loved it. My goodness. I'm sure when you published that in, when it was published in 2011, you never realized how incredibly timely it is. 

So can you tell us the genesis of A Fierce Radiance?

Lauren Belfer:

So A Fierce Radiance takes place during the Second World War and it's about the people who were involved with the development of penicillin as part of the war effort. You know, nowadays we tend to take all the antibiotics for granted, but during World War II, you know, antibiotics hadn't been developed yet and penicillin was just some mold on someone's table and a big part of the war effort was to make it available for the troops. 

When I got involved in this story, it led me in a lot of directions that I hadn't expected. First of all, I should say that I started learning about the story through my - it was very personal, the genesis - it was through my aunt, by marriage, who kept on her bureau all through her life a picture of a little boy, blonde hair in a canoe with his father, about 10 years old.

And she would never talk about him, even though I often asked her who is this? And toward the end of her life, she told me that it was her brother. And it was the last picture she had of him because he died when he was 11, 12 years old of a very fast-moving infection that would easily have been cured nowadays with antibiotics. And I was very moved by that story. 

An extra reason I was moved by it was that my own son was young then. And he was on and off antibiotics all the time. I was confronted with this idea that, you know, what if he and I had lived in a world without these medications and something horrible had happened to him? And so I started wondering what would a woman's life have been like in those days?

And then I started reading about how penicillin was discovered in the 1920s by Alexander Fleming. A lot of people know that story, but they don't know that the technology did not exist for Fleming to develop it into a medication. That technology wasn't until World War II in the United States. And I thought, what an incredible story, because it involves, you know, life-saving medication and not just for the troops, crucial for the troops and for the war effort, but also for moms and dad like me, and what would've happened to our children without these medications. So that's what led me into the story. And I very quickly learned that many, if not all, of the scientists working in the Second World War to develop these drugs had been kids during the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. And it was that epidemic that inspired them to become scientists and physician scientists. You know, the influenza epidemic of 1918, for reasons no one understands, but it killed primarily people in their twenties, thirties, and forties. So it killed people in the prime of life.

Carol Cram:

I didn't know that until I read that in your novel. 

Lauren Belfer:

Yeah. And then of course they left thousands upon thousands of orphans who were often raised by their grandparents, because unlike COVID, which, you know, in the first phases killed older people, that flu epidemic spared the older people. They might get sick, but they didn't die, but instead they raised their grandchildren. So all of this is so tragic, and I portrayed it in the novel as best I could. And now to see, in the last year, so much of what I wrote about in 1918, you know, has come to the fore. We're dealing with these issues again, different as I say, but in so many ways the same and the novel has now been invited over the past year to do so many book events for this novel that was published 10 years ago because people are trying to understand now, you know, what is it like to have a pandemic and how have people in the past reacted? 

And I guess fiction, you know, allows you to come to an understanding, an emotional understanding in a way that non-fiction history books don't allow you to, you know, to put yourself in the shoes of people living from day to day and seeing what their lives were like from the inside. That's really a gift of fiction. And I think one of the reasons that I write historical fiction.

Carol Cram:

Yes. Because you can particularize the event. Talk about there was, there was an epidemic in 1918 is, oh yeah, that was awful. But when you also talk about how your main character, one of your main characters, James, his parents were killed and how wonderfully you described it and just how awful it was and how sudden, then I actually understood the 1918 pandemic better just from those scenes that you did. So it is a real gift of historical fiction that, that we can do that, you know, through story. Well, we like story, right? We're a storytelling kind of species, I think.

Lauren Belfer:

Yeah, that's right. That's exactly right.

Carol Cram:

I love that Pfizer was in it. I didn't know they were around that long ago.

Lauren Belfer:

I know. I, I mean, to think that Pfizer was one of the leaders in penicillin development, because they knew how to ferment and making antibiotics is a process of fermentation, they say not unlike making beer. I really learned things I never dreamed of. 

In A Fierce Radiance, I made my primary protagonist a photographer for Life Magazine. And you know, I went back and forth with the book that should I make one of the scientists the central character, or how should I handle this? And when I got the idea of making her a photojournalist, everything seemed to click into place. Photojournalism was an area back in the thirties and forties that was much more welcoming to women than actual written print journalism. And I'm not quite sure why that was. I've read different theories of why it was more welcoming in photojournalism. Nothing really struck me as, oh, this must be the reason. So there must be several different reasons that all came together. And I based my main character, Claire Shipley, on the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. She was a renowned photojournalist of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

And I wanted my character to have access to every part of the story developing around her. And I thought that as a photojournalist, she would have that access. And I made her a photographer for Life Magazine, the most widely read magazine in the country, because Life did employ women, many women photojournalists, including ,as I say, Margaret Bourke-White. 

But my Claire Shipley is different from Margaret Bourke-White in a very important way, which is that Claire Shipley had children and Margaret Bourke-White never did have children. And from what I've learned about her, apparently, she thought that she, for herself, would not be able to combine work with family life. But Claire Shipley wants to find that place where she can combine work with family life. And, you know, one of the most important parts of writing the book for me was to try to walk with her as she found the compromises that she had to had to make to do it, to raise her son.

Carol Cram:

Yes, yes. I love how you depicted the war years, you know, because it's not in my living memory, but it's in my mother's living memory. And, you know, I grew up with the stories. So it was great. And again, all the details, like the bad coffee, you know. I love that, right.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh right! The really bad coffee. But what I, you know, as I said before, I read all so many issues of Life Magazine and one thing that kept coming up over and over in Life were articles about what to do in case of a bombing raid. Now, when you read stories about the home front during World War II books that are written today about the home front during World War II, they never talk about the possibility that America or Canada might be bombed during the war because of course they're written from the perspective of knowing that America and Canada were not bombed during the war. 

But what I learned from reading the magazine week by week was that people did not know that they would not be bombed. They assumed that major cities and industrial centers would be bombed because they had seen what happened in Europe. They expected that that would happen, that Germany would bomb the east coast of the United States, that Japan would bomb the west coast of the United States.

Carol Cram:

I remember playing in gun emplacement towers on the beach in Vancouver when we were little. They were these towers that were, I don't think they're there anymore, but when we were little kids, we used to play in them sometimes. And my mother said, oh yeah, they were terrified that they were going to get bombed. 

Lauren Belfer:

Well, that's, I just, you know, feel chills hearing that. And because anything you read today, it will talk about the rationing and all of that, but it won't talk about the anxiety about the bombing raids. I remember one very touching story in Life Magazine was about what to do with your pets during a bombing raid because dogs and cats were not allowed in the, in the air shelters and Life had a photo spread showing how you should tie your dog to the foot of the bathtub. Remember those old-fashioned bathtubs with claw feet. So you're supposed to tie your dog's leash to the foot of the tub and put your cat in a box, you know, a taped-up box with air holes and leave them there in the bathroom while you and your family go to the air shelter. And at the time that I read that, my son and I had a big golden retriever, really wonderful dog, and we were very, very close to our Jasper.

I mean, anyone who's had a golden retriever knows how wonderful they are and the thought that there we are, New York City is going to be bombed. The air raid siren goes off. We're supposed to go to the shelter. And the first thing, the last thing rather that we have to do is tie our beautiful dog to the foot of the bathtub and leave. It's a small thing, but it really showed me how parents would've had to react. How do you raise children under that kind of pressure when pets are a part of the family for children? I mean, for adults too, but particularly for children. So a little detail like that, again, it's very little in the scheme of a world war, but in terms of one family and the life of one family, it becomes a big thing.

Carol Cram:

It would be a big thing for an eight year old boy. And yeah, absolutely. And, and the dog is actually quite a lovely character in the novel. I got very fond of the dog.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh, thank you. He's based on my dog though I did change the name.

Carol Cram:

You know, I'm so glad that you made your main character a photographer because that means I discovered the novel for Art In Fiction because having that art component against the science, because there's a lot of science in this novel, which I found fascinating not being a scientist although my father was, but to have the arts component in there, the way she was very artistic in the way she portrayed all of the different viruses and the various things that she was taking pictures of.

Lauren Belfer:

Well, but it was fun too because Life Magazine covered a whole range of stories. It allowed me to, through Claire Shipley, to explore so many different parts of life on the home front during the war, based on the stories that she covered. So she was covering the science, yes, but then the next day she might be down at the stage door canteen covering the young actresses, helping the enlisted men. And then the day after that she might be shooting a fashion spread on an aircraft carrier somewhere, you know? So she had so much flexibility in her work and that gave me an opening into all these different parts of life during the war years.

Carol Cram:

So your novels rely on an incredible amount of research and you were just talking about research. Can you share some advice for authors on your research methods?

Lauren Belfer:

First, whenever I think of, you know, the question, can I share any advice, the first thing I think of before the research is that there is a common piece of advice that young writers get, that I think is very destructive, which is the advice, write what you know. I think that's really bad advice.

I think you have to write what you don't know, but that you feel passionate to find out about. And then that leads you to the research. Each of the novels that I've written, you know, it stems from a passion. I feel very deep passion to discover things, to learn about things and then to give those things somehow to the reader through this vehicle of the novel. And so, you know, as we talked before, that I go back to letters and memoirs and photographs, whatever I can find to conjure up the texture of the past. Because that's what my passion is. It's all material I don't know. And that I want to find out about.

Carol Cram:

Yes, because what excites you will end up being translated onto the page and then will excite the readers. Right?

Lauren Belfer:

Well, I hope so. You never know for sure. Start with what your passion is and then that leads you where you have to go.

Carol Cram:

Thank you so much, Lauren, for chatting with me today, this has been just delightful.

Lauren Belfer:

Oh thank you so much, Carol. This has taught me a lot. I have to say talking to you and learning how you do your work it's very inspiring. Fiction writing I know is a very lonely process, so it's a wonderful thing to be able to meet someone we can talk to on the same terms. So thank you so much.

Carol Cram

My guest has been Lauren Belfer, author of two novels listed on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com, And After the Fire in the Music category and A Fierce Radiance in the Photography category. Be sure to check the show notes for links to more information about Lauren Belfer. You’ll also find the link to a 20% discount on a subscription to ProWritingAid, a fantastic editing tool for writers.

Please follow Art In Fiction on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to The Art In Fiction Podcast and give it a positive review or rating wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening!

 

 




Welcome
An overview of And After The Fire
Fanny Mendelsohn and women in the arts
The relationship between Fanny & Felix Mendelsohn
The music of JS Bach
The research process
A reading from And After The Fire
The genesis of A Fierce Radiance
The 1918 influenza epidemic, and COVID-19 in the 21st century
Women in photojournalism in the mid-20th century
Advice for authors
Summary