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
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.
discovery rattled Gaffney, who has struggled with
depression as a teenager and an adult.
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."
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
result is Gaffney’s new novel, "When the World
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.
V-J Day that man broke off the relationship and moved
back to his hometown, prompting, Gaffney believes, the
woman to end her life.
has a deep, generational memory of life in New York
City, Brooklyn in particular," Kansas City novelist
Whitney Terrell, who joined Gaffney to discuss the novel
as part of his Writers at Work series, 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.
like to think of her as a Midwestern writer who has been
trapped in the East."
more information about Gaffney and the backstory
involving her great-grandmother’s suicide, go to