Monday, June 6, 2011

Interview with Lauren Belfer, author of A Fierce Radiance

I recently read and reviewed a fantastic historical fiction novel, A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (see my review posted here). In that review I stated "Overall, A Fierce Radiance is a moving, intriguing, and wonderful historical fiction novel. I highly recommend it as well as Lauren Belfer’s first novel, City of Light."

I am more than a little excited to have Lauren Belfer on my blog today to answer a few of my burning questions. Thank-you Lauren for taking time out of your busy schedule!

LAG: How did you come up with the premise of your two very different historical fiction novels, City of Light and A Fierce Radiance?

LB: Although "City of Light" and "A Fierce Radiance" have historical settings, both feel very close to me personally and emotionally. As to "City of Light": I grew up in Buffalo at a time of severe economic depression, and my girlfriends and I spent a lot of time talking about leaving town. When I was young, I knew nothing about Buffalo's glorious past. One day when I was visiting the city to see my parents, years after I'd moved away, I happened to wander into an exhibit at the local historical society. The exhibit was about Buffalo in 1901, and what I discovered astonished me. When I began to write "City of Light," I tried to bring to life my discoveries about my much-maligned hometown. "A Fierce Radiance" also grew out of my own experiences. My dear aunt's brother died from an infection when he was boy, in the era before antibiotics. She never stopped mourning him. When I talked to friends about his death, I learned that almost every family has a story about a loved one who died too young because antibiotics hadn't yet been developed. I wanted to tell the story of how these essential medications transformed our lives.

LAG: I loved that you were able to make something that could have been a very dry read into an intriguing look into a world without antibiotics and what this could mean to society at large. What was your process for taking the dry science of penicillin and making it into a very fascinating story?

LB: I believe that if I can create compelling characters, readers will follow these characters anywhere -- even into the intricacies of penicillin development. From my perspective as a fiction writer, any topic can be made fascinating if it's presented through the eyes of someone who cares about it passionately. In "A Fierce Radiance," I started with my characters, and I tried to show what the coming of antibiotics meant to them, and why.

LAG: One of my favorite scenes was as follows:

“Nurse O’Brien, forced to step around Claire for the third time, confronted her by the window. ‘Doesn’t it bother you, to be taking pictures of them and never helping them? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ she asked, the lovely Irish lilt in her voice turned to anger. . .
Claire thought, Was she ashamed of herself? She had to believe that she was helping this people, if only by creating empathy in those who read their stories. Maybe inspiring others to help them. If she didn’t believe this, she couldn’t go on.”

I’ll admit that I’ve often wondered this myself about journalists. What compelled you to write this scene? Have you ever found yourself in such a situation in the past?

LB: I've never found myself in this situation, but I've wondered about it. Journalists do a vital job for our society, and they often risk their lives to report on important stories and issues. I'm filled with admiration for them, and for their courage. The journalists I know are careful never to overstep the boundaries of reporting, but this must be difficult for them situations which deeply touch their hearts.

LAG: Did you find records of people being “almost” cured by penicillin like in the opening chapters of A Fierce Radiance?

LB: When I was learning about the early days of penicillin development, I read many heartbreaking stories about severely ill individuals who were seemingly, and miraculously, brought back to health by penicillin, only to die when the medication ran out. I knew I had to recreate such a story for the opening of "A Fierce Radiance," to show the long, difficult path that led to the mass-production of antibiotics.

LAG: What was the most intriguing item that you learned in your research about penicillin?

LB: I learned so many intriguing items during my research that I've listed some of them in the P.S. section of the paperback of "A Fierce Radiance," recently published. Among the most intriguing was that penicillin was used in folk medicine for generations in Eastern Europe. Farming people would keep a loaf of stale bread in the kitchen, and when anyone in the family had a cut, they'd slice off the most moldy part of the bread and bandage it over the cut. They were harnessing the power of penicillin without even realizing it! But I keep wondering -- who first had the idea to put moldy bread on skin wounds to stop infections?

LAG: What are you currently working on? Any new historical fiction works in the future? I’ve loved both of your novels and can’t wait to read more!

LB: Thank you for your encouragement! Fiction writing is a lonely profession (I'm home alone all day, and I can't permit myself to answer the phone), so I much appreciate hearing that readers are waiting for the next book. I'm deep into my new novel -- but I'm extremely superstitious, so I won't say anything more than that.

LAG: What authors do you enjoy reading?

LB: There are so many authors I adore! But I find that the books I go back to again and again, year after year, are by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

Thank-you again to Lauren Belfer for anwering my questions, and for writing such a great novel. For more information about Lauren Belfer and A Fierce Radiance, check out her website at:

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