Valerie Benton is releasing her first book, Greater Heights.
ALBANY, Ga. — During her off time, Valerie Davis Benton has been a fixture in Albany coffee shops over much of the past decade, writing out thoughts, plots and dialogue in longhand. On Saturday, she’ll be writing in a coffee shop again, but this time she’ll be signing copies of her just-released novel, “Greater Heights.”
Following her dream, it turns out, has been a better road for Benton, a former Albany Herald reporter, than it was for the protagonist of her novel, Riley Davenport-Westin. Riley, who is stuck in a dead-end existence after chasing fame as a New York City TV journalist and fortune as the trophy wife of an abusive, wealthy Ivy Leaguer before finding rebirth on what was arguably America’s darkest day.
Sept. 11, 2011.
“That’s why I wrote the book,” Benton said in an interview last week. “I think most of us remember where we were the day that happened. For me, I was working here, at The Herald. I was in the courthouse, in the sheriff’s department over in Lee County. It was court day. And I happened to walk into the sheriff’s office and all the deputies were standing around the television set, which was uncharacteristic of them.
“I meandered over to see what was going on and there it was — the televised news of the crashes. From that point on, when we were all brought into the news room and started working on the story, I’ve just been captivated by that whole historical event. It drove me to do research. Why did this happen on our soil? How did this happen on our soil? Granted, I didn’t lose anyone in the towers, but I felt like I did. I felt like a survivor as much as someone who had a loved one there. Even today when I see news clips of the event, I’m drawn in. I just can’t help myself.”
But while the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 were a life-changing point for many, including Benton and her fictional heroine Riley, it also kept her novel off the shelves. The setting “is one of the reasons it has taken so long to get into print,” she said. “When I would submit it to agents, they would immediately tell me without reading the book and without giving credence on its own merit that nobody wants to read about 9/11.”
The germ of the story had already been on her mind before the attacks, but eventually melding with what she experienced, read and saw about 9/11. Davis began writing in earnest in 2003. And she did it in a decidedly low-tech way.
“I did most of my writing by hand and I worked in coffee shops to do the first draft,” she said. “So, my first one (book signing) is going to be in Elements, where I spent a lot of time at the corner table next to the window.” The event is scheduled for 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at Elements, 2726 Ledo Road.
Asked whether the constant flow of coffee made her handwriting jittery, she laughed and said, “Well, It was fast. I had to go back and decipher.”
The book revolves around the character of Riley, a south Georgia woman who — from the public’s perspective, at least — has made it in New York.
Riley “is a strong, female protagonist,” Benton said. “She’s ambitious. She has a small-town, Christian upbringing — Albany, Georgia-like — but she wants more. And so that longing takes her to New York as a TV journalist.
“She marries an Ivy League husband who comes from old family money. But she finds out all her dreams are not what they were cracked up to be. He gives her a black eye one night when she confronts him about his infidelity. And she goes to work the next morning, dreading facing her co-workers, and she decides to take the day off and decide what she’s going to do. What are her options? She ends up in chapel, where she prays for a way out.”
While Riley is in the chapel, her life — and the whole world — changes. A jetliner crashes into the building where she works — one of the Twin Towers.
“That one decision changes her entire life,” Benton said. “Through her journey from there on, she finds rebirth and discovers what’s really important to her. It sort of parallels the fall and the rise again of the Trade Towers to greater heights.”
The pivotal moment of Riley’s life could have been any type of disaster — train crash, tornado, hurricane. But because of the profound effect 9/11 had on Benton’s life, reality and fiction meshed.
Benton says the character Riley shares more than that with the author who created her. Benton, now public relations manager at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, is a former journalist who won several Associated Press awards while working at The Albany Herald.
“I think there’s a little bit of me in the main character,” Benton said. “Just that journey of starting out and being ambitious, wanting to accomplish so much and putting value in things that don’t last and then through whatever you want to call it — a spiritual journey, God reshaping remolding you — finding out what’s really important and what is of value.”
Benton has two more novels she is working one — one in the “polishing” stage — and wants to follow those with a nonfiction book that she has just started to work on. The spiritual journey and her Christian background will be a recurring influence on her work, she said.
“I’ve wanted this for a long time,” she said. “I hope it’s the first of many.”
She hasn’t planned on any sequels for Riley, though. “I don’t know that I have a series in me,” she said.
But “Greater Heights” has plenty of authentic detail about the Big Apple. Much of that was due to the fact that her sister was fortunate enough to win a contest at the gym she was a member of — two plane tickets to anywhere in the United States. She gave Benton one of the tickets for Christmas and they flew to New York City.
“I talked to and interviewed every taxi cab driver and maid and anybody else that would listen to me and talk,” she said. “I took pictures of everything, because I knew I might not be able to go back, to document and to get the details I needed for my story.”
In many ways, 9/11 is another character of the story. And as the 10th anniversary of the tragic assaults on America nears, Benton says it is something that should always be on Americans’ minds.
“I think we should always remember what happened,” she said. “It brought America to its knees and they looked upward. They sought spiritual guidance and wisdom, answers to why it happened. They sought his (God’s) help.
“But when it was all over, everybody got up and went on with their lives. I don’t think we need to forget. We promised — there were banners all over the place saying, ‘We will never forget.’ But we did. And I don’t think that we should. We need to always be mindful that it could happen again, and it could happen close to home. That was close enough. The enemy is always working.”