By BILL BUELL
SCHENECTADY — When Niskayuna High School alumna Elizabeth Rosner decided to set her third novel in her hometown of Schenectady, she had no idea what a fascinating personality she was going to be working with.
“Charles Steinmetz is perfect material for a fictional character,” said Rosner, whose new book, “Electric City,” takes us back to the Schenectady of Steinmetz’s era — the early 20th century, when the General Electric engineer was one of the most famous scientists in the world.
“I found him fascinating, brilliant and eccentric. I had never heard of Steinmetz, and I also discovered some other things I hadn’t known about my hometown.”
Rosner, now a longtime resident of California, talked about her book at the Schenectady County Public Library’s McChesney Room on Nov. 9. After, she sold and signed copies, often pausing to talk with visitors about their shared memories and acquaintances in Niskayuna.
While her first two novels were set in northern California, Rosner, who lives in Berkeley, decided to put her third book in upstate New York after hearing another author talk about the importance of “place” in one’s life.
“Before that I was more concerned about the effect of my parents’ life on me, and that meant more about their European lives before coming to America,” said Rosner, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1976 and went on to get a degree at Stanford University.
“It was like a light bulb went off. I thought, ‘what a great idea.’ I called my father and he suggested I do some research on Steinmetz.”
Rosner’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and her father Carl, a GE scientist himself who helped create the MRI machine, still lives in Schenectady.
“Of course, my father knew a great deal about Steinmetz, and that was a great source of inspiration for me,” said Rosner, who lost her mother in 2000.
“My first two novels were, at least emotionally, autobiographical for me, but they were set in California. Digging into Steinmetz and learning the significance of Schenectady’s history, in terms of native Americans, Colonial New York and right up through modern times was very interesting for me.”
Rosner opens “Electric City” with the great Northeast Blackout of 1965.
“I remember it; I was 5 at the time, but I wanted my characters to be more aware of what was going on at the time, so they’re in their teens,” she said. “The Vietnam War is looming, they’re looking ahead to the draft and those kinds of things.”
Included as a character in that section of the book is Steinmetz’s adopted granddaughter, Midge Hayden, who died on her 97th birthday, Jan. 24, 2006.
“I never met her, and she was the last character I added to the book,” said Rosner. “All I know about her is the bare bones from reading her obituary, but I made up some stuff about her being Steinmetz’s favorite. I don’t know if that was the case, but I do know that she lived in Vischers Ferry and that she played golf and was a member of the Mohawk Club. Her relationships with the other characters in the book are fictitious, all imagined by me.”
While Rosner is guessing her book will be a hit in Schenectady, she’s hoping it has universal appeal.
“I’ve been adopted as a California novelist now, so I do have quite a following on the West Coast,” she said. “But obviously it is a book that I would think would appeal to anyone from upstate New York. It’s going to be wonderful to be back there promoting it. I think of the book as kind of a love letter to the town I grew up in.”
Rosner’s family lived on Van Rensselaer Drive in Schenectady when she was born, and moved to the Rosendale Estates when she was in third grade. She graduated a year ahead of her scheduled class, and spent most of 1977 in the Philippines as part of a Rotary exchange.
“Half-jokingly, I would say that I got as far away from home as I could without leaving the planet,” she said. “When I came back I went to Brown [University] and then transferred to Stanford. I always had this grand vision of living on the West coast in the California sunshine, and my parents insisted that if I wanted to go to school in California, I had to go to the best school, and that was Stanford.”
By the time she was 18, Rosner had a good idea of what she wanted to do with herself. “I wanted to be all kinds of things when I was young,” she said. “A painter, a singer, an actor, all different types of artists. I had also wanted to be a writer, and that stayed with me.”
After graduating from Stanford, Rosner got her MFA in creative writing at UC-Irvine, and went on to teach that subject at various schools, including Contra Costa Community College, where she continues to offer occasional workshops and seminars.
Rosner’s first book, “The Speed of Light,’ was published by Ballantine Books in 2001. The story of Holocaust survivors and the effects that experience has on their children, the novel has been translated into nine languages and may possibly become a movie.
Her second book, “Blue Nude,” was inspired by her involvement in a project called “Acts of Reconciliation,” which brought together second-generation Germans and Jews in order to confront their shared legacy from World War II. It was named by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the best books of the year in 2006.
Along with “Electric City,” Rosner had copies of “Gravity” on sale following her talk at the library. A collection of personal poetry by the author, “Gravity” explores the “deep complexities of inherited grief,” according to her website.
“I am so looking forward to visiting Schenectady,” she said before her visit. “I can remember going to Jay Street to go to the Junior Bootery to buy my ballet slippers, and The Open Door is my all-time favorite book store.”
Rosner retired from teaching, at least on a full-time basis, following the success of “The Speed of Light.”
“I’d been working on that book for 10 years while I was teaching, and as I was finishing my sabbatical year came up at Contra Costa, so I kind of took the leap,” she said.
“The first book did well, so I got a wonderful deal with Random House for my second book, so I happily retired from teaching. I still enjoy doing some workshops, but it was nice to be able to turn all my attention to being a full-time writer.”