Brooklyn novelist Elizabeth Gaffney didn’t learn just how her great-grandmother had died until she “first heard the story of what people in my family jocularly call ‘the baking accident.’”
Family legend long had attributed her death to a heart attack. In fact, as Gaffney learned in her 30s, Bessie Powell Dunlop committed suicide by placing her head inside an unlit gas oven.
This discovery rattled Gaffney, who has struggled with depression as a teenager and an adult.
“I had never heard the story; I didn’t know the first thing about it,” she said recently. “It would have been helpful to know as a young person.”
The revelation, Gaffney added, “made me want to try to reconstruct the real gravity and genuine pain my great-grandmother went through to get to that point.”
The result is Gaffney’s new novel, “When the World Was Young.”
Although it is not literally the story of Bessie Dunlop, it is set in the post-war world she knew. It begins in Brooklyn in the jubilation of V-J Day, when Japan’s formal surrender ended WWII. The novel, concerning a 9-year-old girl whose mother dies suddenly, includes circumstances similar to Bessie’s, whom the author believes had been the lover of a man who had rented a room at the family home.
On V-J Day that man broke off the relationship and moved back to his hometown, prompting, Gaffney believes, the woman to end her life.
Gaffney will join Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell on Thursday to discuss the novel as part of his Writers at Work series.
“Elizabeth has a deep, generational memory of life in New York City, Brooklyn in particular,” Terrell said. “Her work is distinguished by the care and attention she brings to New York’s past and her constant awareness of how that past affects the present.
“I like to think of her as a Midwestern writer who has been trapped in the East.”
Gaffney also will discuss the New York-based literary magazine, A Public Space, for which she serves as editor-at-large. Joining Gaffney and Terrell will be April Wolfe, one of three inaugural winners of “emerging writers” fellowships sponsored by A Public Space.
The discussion, sponsored by the Writers at Work Roundtable and the University of Missouri-Kansas City English Department, begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more info, go to KCLibrary.org.
For more information about Gaffney and the backstory involving her great-grandmother’s suicide, go to ElizabethGaffney.net/author.html.