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Explore the gritty, emotional side of Bethlehem Steel in Hamburg resident’s Buffalo-centered novel

Lizz Schumer
HAMBURG — A Hamburg resident’s putting pen to paper has paid off and Western New York has a new literary claim to fame.

Springville Journal Editor Lizz Schumer’s book “Buffalo Steel” hit bookshelves on Oct. 4, opening a world of lyrical stories, historical anecdotes and snippets of autobiographical content for local and international readers.

According to Schumer, “Buffalo Steel” leads the reader on a journey with Mary Catherine, “a suburban-girl-turned-world-traveler, as she follows the path that will feel like home to so many.”

The author described this novel as a coming-of-age story set in post-industrial collapse Buffalo. “It deals with the social and cultural ramifications of the collapse of Bethlehem Steel on the residents of Buffalo,” Schumer said. “It is based on the idea that Buffalo follows her wherever she goes.”

The “Buffalo Steel” narrator grows up two decades after that collapse, an event which “led to the citizens’ reliance on religion and the family to support them, through an economic and cultural depression,” Schumer said.

While “Buffalo Steel” is a work of fiction, its author pointed to parts that have been based on a true story and its ties to history and sociology. “It’s really a conglomeration of a lot of people’s stories into one,” she said. “It follows her through her entire life; hence, the coming of age.”

Mary Catherine attends college, studies abroad, comes back from school, “has a religious experience and then a rejecting of religion,” Schumer said. “She is really finding herself and finding her identity, within her context.”

While the main character is Schumer’s creation, the author said that many of Mary Catherine’s feelings and experiences came from Schumer’s own life.

“I drew from elements of my own experience to create characters that are grippingly, devastatingly real, and I placed them within contexts I knew intimately,” she said.

“Some of the things happened to me. Some of them happened to people I know. Some of them I made up. A lot of people will see themselves in it, but it’s not necessarily them, 100 percent.”

Mary Catherine also experiences her life in some of the very places Schumer has. “They say write what you know,” the author said. “A lot of people in our generation have gone different places, through their growing-up period. It is easier to create that leaving home, coming back home feeling, if you’ve actually done that.”

The book describes settings in Buffalo; Washington, D.C.; Italy, Ireland and more: all places Schumer spent time getting to know. The heroine attends an American college in Upstate New York, much like Schumer, a Saint Bonaventure University graduate, did.

Schumer said that she chose to set the book in Buffalo because the stories she had created had the upstate New York location as a common thread.

“I was thinking about how steel is such a central thing for Buffalo, so I needed something that tied together all of these different parts of living in Buffalo,” she said. “Since steel is a strong but flexible substance, it provides kind of a theme throughout the book.

“Steel has a high melting point. I think all of my characters are steel, in one way or another,” she added. “They go through a lot and come out stronger, at the end.”

While names have been changed to protect the guilty, Schumer said, “There are a lot of people who will look at it and see themselves, but none are completely based on a real person. Some of them are really close.”

The book explores the question “Are we the product of our environments, or are our environments skewed by the perspectives our experiences create?”

The author said that she believes “Buffalo Steel” will be compelling to readers of all ages, because “everybody is a product of where they came from: their family, school and what they’ve been taught, growing up. Teenagers can read it and think, ‘That’s my life.’ Adults can read it and go, ‘OK. That’s how my culture informs my current perspective.’”

Schumer said that, while “Buffalo Steel” is not a religious book per se, it includes a lot of religious elements.

“I took biblical quotations and used them to lead the story through, as kind of an interweaving of the religious motif,” Schumer said, describing Mary Catherine as having a “spiritual struggle. She is really rediscovering her spirituality.”

Schumer’s heroine ultimately “comes to an understanding of her place in the world as she understands it, at that point in time.”

But Mary Catherine is not finished. “It’s not so tied up that people are going to think it’s not realistic, because nobody comes to that firm of a realization about themselves,” Schumer said. “There are no real loose ends, but it’s also not super tidy. It’s open-ended in that anybody’s coming-of-age is open-ended.”

“Buffalo Steel” was Schumer’s graduate thesis at Goddard College; she finished her book while spending time at The Vermont Studio Center, where she researched Bethlehem Steel, checked census records, read old newspapers and explored Buffalo archives.

“Through the last year of grad school, I pared it down and created it into something readable,” she said, about her thesis. “It helped that I had advisors and editors who were giving me guidance.”

Schumer’s book was published by Black Rose Writing, a company the author said she felt comfortable with, right off the bat. “I got to work closely with the design department and had a lot of creative control over the process,” she said. “I even got to talk to the design team about the cover.”

STEEL YOURSELF — “Buffalo Steel” hit bookshelves and websites on Oct. 4. Photos used courtesy of Lizz Schumer and Black Rose Writing.
The “Buffalo Steel” artwork depicts the central terminal in Buffalo as it would have appeared in a poster from the ‘40s or ‘50s. “That’s appropriate, since the book has a historical context,” Schumer said.

“Buffalo Steel” is currently being sold on Amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com and more. “This is really exciting,” Schumer said, about seeing her creation in print. “It will be rewarding to see it published.”

An eBook is in the works and will be released soon.

For more information about the book or its author, visit www.lizzschumer.com or www.blackrosewriting.com or email press.buffalo.steel@gmail.com.

Schumer is a graduate of Immaculata Academy, Saint Bonaventure University and Goddard College. She is the former editor-in-chief of the “Pitkin Review” literary magazine.

She was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize and was published in “USA Weekend Magazine,” “Buffalo Spree,” The Sun, The Buffalo News’ NeXt, Business First, “Auxiliary Magazine” and more. She has also served as the publicity director for the Subversive Theatre Collective.

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