In my research about the Kinzua Bridge for the story, I learned a great deal about how it was built and what a remarkable engineering masterpiece the bridge was when it was built. A friend of mine recently shared some of the details of its history. I thought this would be something to add to my blog. The bridge almost becomes a third character between Nicole and Tom — in fact, a few readers have even made that comment to me.
The idea to build what would be come the Kinzua Viaduct was the brainchild of General Thomas Kane, the Civil War hero who was a stakeholder in the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad. His idea was to find a way to cross the Kinzua Valley by rail versus a winding six mile route through the valley. He along with Octave Chanute, a civil engineer, agreed that a viaduct high above the Kinzua Valley would be the best choice. They hired the Phoenix Bridge Works Company, who later constructed the Pecos River High Bridge in Texas, to build the viaduct. Preliminary construction began in 1881 when the foundations of the bridge’s 110 stone piers were laid. To build the piers, 7,600 cubic yards of hard limestone was needed. The following year, construction of the viaduct itself began on April 10. 94 days later, the viaduct was complete. Immediately thereafter, word of the accomplishment spread throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast, and numerous excursion trains visited the Kinzua Valley over the next 30 years. Erecting the viaduct was certainly an accomplishment. Just shy of 302 feet high and at a length of 2,053 feet, the bridge was built without any scaffolding. When one wrought iron tower was completed, a wooden crane was built at the top of that tower to assist the construction of the next tower.
The 40 man crew used this process to build what was then the world’s highest and longest rail bridge ever built. The bridge cost the railway $167,000. As trains and their payloads grew heavier, the ability of the viaduct to handle such loads came into question. The bridge narrowly missed a devastating blow in 1889 when a train derailment saw three rail cars crash into the valley. High winds were also a concern. The winds were severe enough that a five mile an hour limit was in place. A new bridge was necessary, and in May of 1900, the iron viaduct was closed to traffic. Construction of a new steel bridge soon began. The construction of the new viaduct started on May 24th; the entire ironworks were torn down and replaced by the sturdier steel structure. Building the new bridge lasted only 105 days, and on September 25, 1900, rail service returned to the viaduct. The new Kinzua Viaduct was built by the Elmira Bridge Company. The new bridge retained the original height (301.5′) and length (2053′) of the original. However, the steel structure was much heavier. The new bridge consisted of 6,715,000 pounds of steel vs. the 3,105,000 pounds of iron used on the original viaduct 18 years earlier.
I just came back from a book signing event at the Kinzua State Park. I loved it. It was so great meeting people that also loved the Kinzua Bridge and those who were also saddened to see it fall. I found myself talking to people more about Tom than I did Nicole. As I have posted before, Nicole was loosely based on my own life. Tom was someone I made up, but with that said, I found many men relating to his character.
Writing about Tom reminded me of many men that I met in life, middle-aged, content in their lives and marriages yet longing for something more.
Tom was not looking to have an affair. He loved his wife, Rose, and the life that they shared together for 23 years. When Tom meets Nicole, something very deep stirs within him. As he becomes friends with Nicole, he realizes how he is falling in love with her. Like most men, Tom keeps his feelings bottled up. He retreats to the woods and his camp to find clarity. Alone, he tries to fight his feelings for Nicole yet, he feels helpless as he has never felt happier. He can talk with Nicole in ways that he can’t with Rose. Married men have often commented to me that Tom is experiencing that same internal dialogue and struggle that they have experienced when they meet a woman who they share so much in common with emotionally and intellectually.
Playing underneath all of this, Tom is middle-aged, and while he is content in his marriage, he feels less attractive then he once was. He is starting to gray, his hair is thinning, and while he is tall, he is pudgy in the middle, yet all that changes with Nicole. He has a hard time believing that she even finds him attractive. After being married for so long, like many people, he stopped feeling attractive and sexy. It is easy for men and women to get into their roles of husbands, wives, and parents. It is easy to forget what it is like to be attractive to someone after all those years together with one person, especially as we age and our bodies shift. Tom doesn’t realize how much he misses those feelings until Nicole.
Tom also represents what it is like to fall in love at an older age. A pivotal moment in the novel comes when Tom says “falling in love at this age is much deeper”. I believe it is fairly easy to fall in love when we are in our 20s with our lives ahead of us. It is a different experience in our 40s or 50s (or beyond). After our looks have faded and our expectations for relationships have evolved, falling in love takes on an entirely different meaning.
I am reminded of the quote from The Velveteen Rabit about becoming REAL. It goes something like this…
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I believe the older we become, the more real we become, so as Tom points out, this means that falling in love with Nicole at 44 is much deeper than compared to how he felt when he first fell in love with Rose at 21, as more of his hair has been loved off.
The hardest part about writing my novel was reliving my father’s death. I remember sitting at my kitchen table, it was winter, the snow was falling, and I thought about the actual day I first met with the funeral director. My father had died only months before I began writing my novel.
I used that as a starting point to create Nicole’s feeling after her father died. She felt like the only person in her life that had supported and understood her was her father. She felt guilty for not being more attentive to her father after she moved to New York and got involved with going to college and then off to working on Wall Street. Even then, her father supported her when she wanted to quit a promising business career, to go back to graduate school and teach. Her friends thought she should keep her job on Wall Street with financial potential, her sister always thought she should settle down because that is what she did, and Nicole’s boyfriend at the time thought she should try law school.
For Nicole, her father was the only person she really let in. It had been hard for her to emotionally connect with her sister, since they chose such different lives, and her friends did not always understand the choices she had made.
Nicole experienced a significant loss when her father died, being this rock in her life. The theme of loss runs through the novel as Tom struggles with the death of his daughter to leukemia. When we meet him, it has been six years since she had died. He still can’t bring himself to talk about her. He has a wall so deep that he can’t speak to his wife, Rose, about her death. Rose can’t bring herself to talk about their daughter and withdrawals from the marriage. As a psychologist, I see this is very common in couples. I wanted to write about tragedy that parents can face about losing a child and how this can impact the stability of a once happy marriage.
Tom is forced to finally deal with his loss and confront what he and Rose had been missing in their marriage since her death. This becomes a turning point, as it would be for any couple.
As I mentioned, The Eighth Wonder focused on how I came to be in Bradford after finishing my doctorate. Unlike Nicole, who graduated from NYU with her Ph.D. in Political Science, my doctorate was from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Clinical Psychology.
I felt the same struggles as Nicole. I was 30 years old and alone. It was not easy at first. I felt like a failure. Many of my friends from high school and college were married and many had children, while I did not have anyone. I had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend. I had marriage proposals. Like Nicole, at that time, I just couldn’t commit.
I also had student loan debt and I did not pick a career that was going to lead to big money. I gave up a business career to go into psychology. Again, like Nicole, at that time, I wondered if I did the right thing.
I look back now, several years later, I realize that I did do the right thing. The Eighth Wonder is more than a love story between Nicole and Tom. It is a journey that Nicole is forced to take when she questions why she had given up marriage and children, things that every woman should want. Triggered by her father’s illness, the one anchor in her life after her mother left the family, she senses how alone in the world she has become. She doesn’t have a husband to lean on nor does she want to feel that dependent upon anyone. We see her fears unravel the more she becomes close to Tom. It is the first time she has ever been that vulnerable with a man.
The story focuses on Nicole’s ambition to teach at an Ivy-League school, something I had thought about after I graduated with my doctorate. It wasn’t until I started teaching at a small college that I realized how much I loved it over any big university. Tom helps Nicole analyze her own ambition. Being ambitious himself before his daughter died, he realized that there was more to life after her death. We see this in Tom from the beginning with his focus on the community and giving back. Nicole is too wrapped up in her own issues.
Ultimately, The Eighth Wonder is a story about self-discovery as Tom helps Nicole realize what is most important in life, and that life is not always about money, status, or prestige but it is about being content at where you are in life and who you are as a person.
As a psychologist, I have counseled men and women struggling with extramarital attractions and understand the emotional conflicts those endure who deeply value fidelity but still feel the pull of falling in love with another, even when one party or the other appears to be happily married. These experiences led me to write my first novel, The Eighth Wonder.
The writing of the book took place while I was recovering from retina detachment surgery. I was housebound for 4 to 5 months. During this time, I was able to use my computer in large print. Like my main character, Nicole Benson, I had always wanted to write a novel. I finally had the time to do it. It started out semi-autobiographical about my own move to Bradford after getting my Ph.D., but then turned into a love story about two people struggling with grief and loss. While writing the novel, as mentioned, I was housebound. I needed a place for the characters to meet. I was not familiar with the region. I looked up landmarks – and that is when I discovered The Kinzua Bridge. I had not heard of it nor had I seen it before (or during) writing the novel. The title for the book came to me in a flash that day I wrote the entire story of the bridge and its description based upon web sites I found on it. The first place that I went to after being released from medical rest was to see the bridge in person.
The novel begins as on how I first moved to Bradford to be near my father who lived in Buffalo, New York, and he was dying from pancreatic cancer. Nicole’s personality and being a career-driven woman who does not have children is generally my story.
Like The Bridges of Madison County, the “bones” of a story portray the complexities of falling in love when one has been married for a long-period of time. It isn’t always easy to stay married and difficult choices must often be made to keep a marriage together. Sometimes, it means even leaving someone that you love in order to keep a family together. The novel also questions the role of commitment-phobic women who fear abandonment, a trend seen more visibly in women today. Like women portrayed in the Sex in the City series, how do they resolve their feelings of wanting to settle down and be taken care of by a man, yet place a protective emotional wall to keep men at a distance.
Instead of an Iowa farm wife (as in BRIDGES), this is a story about a strong, self-reliant woman. Instead of a rambling photographer, we meet Tom Ryan, a very stable and settled community-minded Bradford native who manages a large nursing home and is very content with his life.
While there may be some parallels to Bridges of Madison County, The Eighth Wonder takes on a fresh perspective. Tom discovers in his heart that he is in love with Nicole and the consequences of those feelings in relation to Rose. Nicole’s realization that she is in love with Tom is just as dramatic, due to her fears of abandonment and intimacy, plus, he is married. What is she doing? She can’t possibly be in love with someone who is not hers to have. They take on their own unique journey.
I enjoyed writing The Eighth Wonder. As my first novel, it is so amazing to have people tell me that they could not put the book down. Not just friends either, but strangers who have written to me after reading the novel. They told me how moved they were by the story. I am so touched to have written such a story. I cried writing it. I still tear up re-reading it.
I hope you enjoy reading The Eighth Wonder as I did writing it!
Nicole Benson is a self-made woman. She put herself through school, sacrificing marriage and children for her career. In the summer of 1997, at the age of 35, she finally graduated with a Ph.D. from NYU, but her life is thrust into chaos when her father, the only person she’s ever leaned on emotionally, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. After fifteen years in New York City, Nicole leaves everything and everyone she knows to teach for a year in rural Bradford, Pennsylvania to be close to her father in nearby Buffalo. Now, trapped in tiny Bradford, she has never felt more alone in her life. . . until she meets Tom Ryan.
At 44, Tom represents what Nicole longs to be: settled, secure, and clear about his purpose and direction in life. Emotionally scarred, he and his wife of 23 years survived the death of their daughter to leukemia. Tom and Nicole’s story begins as a journey of self-discovery for both of them but turns to bittersweet tragedy when their friendship becomes love. Nicole risks offering what she has never given before, her heart; and Tom has never felt happier or more conflicted when he falls in love for the second time in his life. Their lives become intertwined and changed forever when they both must make the most difficult decision of their lives.