Friday, May 20, 2016

Interview With Lauren Belfer


1. What inspired you to write your book, And After The Fire (Harper, May 2016)?
Some years ago, I took a class on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. What I learned surprised me. Bach’s music was more magnificent than I’d ever imagined. But the sacred music, exquisite as it was, sometimes carried an edge of religious contempt, of lashing out against Catholics, Muslims, Jews. Not a shock, given the era when Bach lived, but hard to come to terms with after World War II, and after my own family’s devastating experiences in the Holocaust.  Perhaps because of my family’s history, I’ve always been fascinated by stories about works of art stolen during the war. One evening as I was walking to the subway after class, I suddenly thought, what if I found a work of art stolen during World War Two—not a painting, which is what people usually find, but an unknown choral masterpiece, a cantata, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and what if its libretto was, by modern standards, prejudicial?

2. What is the novel about? And After the Fire opens with an American soldier discovering a mysterious music manuscript in Germany at the end of the war. Then I shift to present-day America, where he bequeaths the manuscript and its mysteries to his niece, Susanna Kessler. Susanna’s investigations into the manuscript’s history led me back in time to a remarkable real-life woman of Berlin: Sara Itzig Levy. She was born in 1761 and lived for ninety-three years, dying in 1854. Sara was a brilliant harpsichordist who hosted a musical salon that brought together the cultural leaders of her day. Sara was also the great-aunt of the composers Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who both became central figures in the novel as I follow the story of my fictional musical masterpiece from the 1780s through the Holocaust and into the present.

3. What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book? First and most importantly, I hope readers will feel that they’ve experienced a compelling story, and that the novel’s characters have taken them on an engrossing and thought-provoking journey through time. I also hope they will gain an understanding of the challenges faced by creative women of the past, women such as the gifted Fanny Mendelssohn: her celebrated brother Felix published her work under his name. In addition, I hope readers will discover the astonishing music that inspired me as I wrote the novel. I’ve created a playlist on Spotify, to guide readers in case they’re curious to experience this riveting, consoling, and thrilling music firsthand. You can access the list from my website,

4. What advice do you have for writers? Frequently young writers hear the advice write what you know. I believe the opposite: Write what you don’t know but feel compelled to learn about. This is what brings passion to the work. In addition, I believe that persistence is the most important trait any writer can have. The first short story of mine to be published was rejected forty-two times before it found an editor who loved it. My second short story to be published was rejected only twenty-seven times, which felt like a great success!

5. Where do you think the book publishing industry is heading? I believe that people will always crave new stories. Maybe the formats in which they receive these stories will evolve over time, but the basic need for narrative, and for insights into how others face the questions that life brings – this need will always be with us. And there will always be people who want to write books.

6. What challenges did you have in writing your book? Because several sections of the novel take place in Germany, I traveled there four times to do research. Given my family’s history, I was anxious as I contemplated my first trip. But from the moment I arrived in Berlin, I was surprised to find that I felt not only comfortable but very much at home. Only in Weimar did I feel awkward, when the concierge at my hotel refused to recognize the existence of Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp located just outside the city, and she claimed to be unable to provide directions to a place that didn’t exist. Why did she react this way? I try to explore the reasons in the novel.

7. If people can only buy one book this month, why should it be yours? This is a humbling question, because many terrific books are being published this month! I do think that And After the Fire offers readers an evocative, suspenseful story filled with intriguing historical figures who may be unfamiliar to many readers. The novel unfolds across several centuries, on two continents, with a broad range of characters, real and imagined, their stories presented through the prism of a problematic artistic masterpiece. All the individuals who come into contact with this masterpiece must try to grasp its history, and by connection, their own histories, and the struggles of their families.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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