Resilient Women, Figuring it Out as They Go

With The Vineyards of Champagne, Oakland author Juliet Blackwell writes another tale of women in France on the front lines of history.

New York Times bestselling author Juliet Blackwell doesn’t know what she’s writing about.

The artist, former anthro­pologist, social worker, and professional domestic design studio owner admits that she often is “writing by the seat of my pants.” Scenes in her four novels and three popular mystery series (Witchcraft Mysteries, Haunted Home Renovation, and the Agatha Award-nominated Art Lover’s Mystery) roll out like movies. “I respect the voices in my head,” she said in an interview.

Born and raised in the Bay Area, Oakland’s Blackwell holds a degree in Latin-American Studies from UC Santa Cruz, and Masters degrees in Anthropology and Social Work from the State University of New York, Albany. After teaching medical anthropology at SUNY-Albany, working in New York as an elementary school social worker, operating her design studio specializing in historical renovation in California — and with extensive travel in France, Italy, Cuba, Mexico and other countries — Blackwell brings an eclectic background to writing.

Which means categorizing her work — other than under the heading “mysteries, often with paranormal elements” — is complicated, even for Blackwell. “Some people call it historical fiction, some call it ‘women’s fiction,’ a term I don’t like,” she said. “What does that even mean?”

If the limiting terms means books whose strong, independent, intelligent, curious, and yet flawed and deeply relatable female protagonists combine with fascinating, less-known real life history, then Blackwell’s books are indeed aptly categorized. But the books and series are also tapestries in which history springs into contemporary relevance as Blackwell interweaves dual-era narratives.

Her newest book, The Vineyards of Champagne, the tale of Rosalyn, a modern day Napa wine representative who travels to the Champagne region in France to select vintages, lands deep within the area’s limestone tunnels. There, Rosalyn explores the amazing story of women and children who harvested the grapes and preserved them in wine cellars during World War I. Working despite German shellfire and the devastating destruction of their towns, villages and homes, their valiant lives and resiliency are revealed through a cache of discovered letters written by a soldier, his young wife, and marraines de guerre, “war godmothers” who wrote to soldiers on the front lines.

“I do start with setting and character, but there’s a reason I want to set it there,” Blackwell said. “There’s something that calls me. It’s bringing together motivation, bigger themes, character and setting that’s the hard part.”

The hard part is best approached after extensive research. For Vineyards, Blackwell said, “Google is a great tool: for example, I learned many soldiers lost their hands, which is how they lost their ID bracelets and there were so many unknown soldiers.” The factual detail effectively explains what happened to a major character, a soldier whose mysterious disappearance is finally understood, but only decades after he died.

Importantly, on-site research is a must. “I do it ahead of writing the synopsis. I travel to the setting and take notes and pictures. I never take enough; I always have to go back because I never know where the story is going.” A visual artist who admits she is “not high tech,” Blackwell uses pencil on paper to write notes and sketch images.

Back at home, in the early morning hours and quiet atmosphere she finds most conducive to writing — from six a.m. to noon — Blackwell knows her characters and where a story is headed, but allows herself to follow the “film.” Writing daily, the business activities relegated to afternoons, she takes long walks with her dog amid redwood trees in a nearby park to allow for mulling.

“I try not to think about the book and find that’s when I get a second wind,” she said. “It comes an hour into the walk. I come up with ideas, like a conversation my characters need to have or a connection that’s surprising to me. In the Vineyards book, I decide to make Rosalyn a widow. She hadn’t started that way, but I needed her to be recovering from a difficult grief.”

Long-held or fresh grief and recovery emerged as the book’s themes, much to Blackwell’s surprise. From an outsider perspective, it’s not surprising for the catharsis of writing to have driven her to personally resonant topics. Blackwell experienced a family tragedy four years ago and recalled during childhood her then-less-understood asthma limiting her interaction with other kids, and her mother’s freedom. “Any art is self-expression,” she said. “It’s more obvious in some works than in others, but as much as my boyfriend teases me about which romantic man in my books is him, I recognize they all have aspects of him. The primary female characters have aspects of me. It’s a product of my mind, so how can they not share aspects of me?”

Vineyards, she was quick to emphasize, is not a self-help book. Nor is it maudlin. Champagne, after all, is associated with celebration. The dissonance and coexistence of war, cemeteries, and death in a story that bubbles with love, births, and recovery is exactly what keeps the narrative believable. “I want people to feel and respect the grief, but also enjoy reading it. I don’t enjoy too many coincidences in mysteries, so I really work for a story to be organic.”

While promoting Vineyards at appearances in the Bay Area and beyond, Blackwell is already deep into her next novel, set on the tiny Isle de Sein, off the Cote Sauvage in Brittany. “It’s less than one mile up and down, a fishing village. In World War II, the villagers heard a call from Charles de Gaulle for people to come to England to join the Free Forces. Every man on the island got in their boats and came to England.” Fascinated by the story not told in history books — about the women left behind and the 300 Nazi troops who invaded the village after the men had left — the contemporary story woven into the book revolves around two sisters raised in a survivalist household. “They’re working out their relationship and overcoming their controlling parent childhood and scarcity.” Blackwell’s real-life sister, a historian, often provides information and fact checking for Blackwell’s novels. “It’s a sister story,” she said. “That’s what I know … so far.”

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