Kristen Harnisch is back with me today to talk with me about her book, The California Wife. Internationally published, Kristen drew upon her extensive research and her experiences living in San Francisco and visiting the Loire Valley and Paris to create the stories for THE CALIFORNIA WIFE and her first novel, THE VINTNER’S DAUGHTER. Ms. Harnisch has a degree in economics from Villanova University and currently resides in Connecticut with her husband and three children.
Welcome back to Layered Pages, Kristen and thank you for chatting with me today about your book The California Wife. Please tell me about your story.
Thanks so much for inviting me back! The California Wife is the stand-alone sequel to The Vintner’s Daughter, and tells the story of a Franco-American winemaking family at the turn of the twentieth century. In The California Wife, the Lemieux family strives to establish an American winemaking dynasty. Sara and Philippe’s ambitions carry them from pastoral Napa to the Paris World’s Fair and into the colorful heart of early 20th-century San Francisco. Marie Chevreau, the midwife, returns just when Sara needs a friend. Marie enrolls as the first female surgical candidate at the prestigious Cooper Medical College in San Francisco. The California Wife is rich with intrigue and drama, and culminates in San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
What is the mood or tone your characters portray and how does this affect the story?
The majority of my characters are earnest and action-oriented. This keeps the story moving at a quick pace. Back in the nineteenth century, the average life expectancy was below fifty years of age and there wasn’t a great deal of time for self-reflection. My characters know they have a short time to realize their ambitions with their God-given talents. They are hardworking—pioneers in American winemaking and medicine—but equally passionate about their relationships because they know that their time is finite.
What are Sara’s weaknesses and strengths?
Sara is a determined character, but she can be single-minded to a fault! She has suffered through the loss of two beloved family members and has worked tirelessly to reclaim her family’s nineteenth-century Loire Valley vineyard. These struggles have contributed to her determination to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. However, Sara is young and doesn’t have the business or relationship experience that Philippe has acquired and she’s so focused on her own family and farm in Vouvray that she often fails to see the big picture. In The California Wife, Sara is challenged by circumstance to grow and mature.
What is some of the research you did for your story?
For The California Wife, I continued my research in the vineyards of Napa, touring wineries like Hess, Beringer and Bouchaine, and sampling the wines of the area. Winemakers, historians and wine experts all reviewed the manuscript to ensure that I was accurately portraying Napa vineyard life from 1897 to 1906. Old photographs of Napa City, San Francisco and articles from trade papers, like The Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, offered insights into the layout of the downtown area, the damage from the earthquake and fire, the wine price wars and life in general back then. For example, in Chapter 8, the characters attend a grand party in Asti at the Italian Swiss Colony. Here, on two thousand acres of land, the Italian-Swiss immigrants cultivated all kinds of fruits and in May of 1898 invited over two hundred fellow winemakers and San Francisco notables to attend a party inside a gigantic underground wine cistern that they’d just emptied of Chianti. This actually happened, and it was so much fun to discover a full account of the event while conducting my research!
What fascinates you most about the period you write in?
Where do I begin? By 1900, after suffering through the devastation of the vines from the phylloxera louse, California vintners were determined to protect and bolster their wine industry. They made scientific innovations in grape growing and winemaking—and invented creative ways to brand their wines to compete with the Europeans. In the late 1800s, women traded in their kitchen chores for important roles in their family businesses or factories. They marched for better working conditions, fair wages, equal opportunity and the right to have individual bank accounts. Temperance advocates, who favored the prohibition of alcohol, were the early driving force behind the suffrage movement. In The California Wife, this creates trouble for Sara, who is a winemaker and women’s rights supporter. These are just a few of the economic/cultural shifts during this era that I explore in my novels!
Define your writing style.
My agent likes to describe my writing style as “literary-meets-commercial,” or “upmarket fiction.” Readers and reviewers generally describe my stories as fast-paced, rich in history and rife with conflict. Book clubs often choose my novels because they pair well with wine!
What are your goals as a writer?
As a writer, my goals are to captivate the reader and to share some memorable historical moments in a subtle, but entertaining way. It’s also very important that the reader feels like he/she is present in the scene with the characters—seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing everything as the characters do.
What are you working on next?
I’m finishing my research for the third book in the series, which will take the Lemieux family through World War I in France and Prohibition in California. I’m also writing a women’s contemporary novel about friendship and reinvention and mid-life survival, which is so much fun because it doesn’t require nearly the amount of research that I’m used to doing!
Where can readers buy your book?
Readers can buy my book at their local bookseller, at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million or anywhere! The California Wife is available in trade paperback and e-book. I also enjoy Skyping/FaceTiming with book clubs, if my schedule permits. Readers and book clubs can contact me through my Website .
Find Kristen Online:
Be sure to check out my interview with Kristen about her book, The Vintner’s Daughter, here!