In my series of interviews with writers, I have been fortunate to talk to a wide variety of writers, including Molly Antopol, Anita Diamant, Dara Horn, Tatiana de Rosnay and many others.
Today’s interview is with Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California and Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. Welcome, Frances!
Diana Bletter: Towers of Gold is not only a personal history about your great-great-grandfather but also a book that covers so many fascinating topics from banking to Zionism, including information about finances, anti-Semitism and even the San Francisco earthquake. One of my editors once said that being a journalist means becoming an instant expert on a wide variety of subjects in a short amount of time.” Can you talk about that? Since you wrote the book, have you learned new information? With Americans’ interest in genealogy and family history, it is interesting that you hadn’t heard that much about Isaias Hellman. Can you talk a bit about stumbling onto this story, and how the work might have changed your view of your family and your own identity?
Frances Dinkelspiel: Your editor was correct in suggesting that being a journalist means becoming an instant expert in a wide variety of subjects. But writing a nonfiction book means becoming an expert on one subject or digging deeply into just a few topics. In Towers of Gold, I had to learn a tremendous amount about a few things, including Jewish life in Bavaria before 1860, how the frontier of California was transformed into a modern economy, the role Jews played in the development of California, banking, and details about my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman. The latter was the hardest since I had to piece together the chronology of his life and business dealings through letters, bills, business papers, photographs, and newspaper articles. The process took about eight years. I had a lot to learn and I also had to teach myself to write narrative, not journalism in the inverted pyramid style.
I had known about my great-great grandfather, mostly that he had come from Germany and had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank. I actually stumbled upon his amazing story. I was writing personal essays and decided I should weave some family history into them. I knew Hellman’s papers were at the California Historical Society. I thought I would spend an afternoon there and get some good tidbits for my personal pieces. Then the archivist told me there were 40 boxes of Hellman papers. I opened the first folder in the first to find his report card from the 1840s! And then a letter from his brother. I didn’t even know he had a brother. Other boxes held letters signed by people I had learned about in school, such as Collis Huntington, one of the builders of the transcontinental railroad, Mayer Lehman, the founder of Lehman Brothers, and Levi Strauss, whose jeans are still famous today. I was immediately hooked.
The best part about writing Towers of Gold was discovering how many Hellman connections there are in the U.S. and meeting many of them. The Hellmanns (the name had two nns in Germany) were a big clan in Reckendorf and most of them emigrated to the U.S. or England. They had to since Germany classified them as less than citizens and opportunities were limited. It was fun to connect with descendants of all those people. I now feel part of a large tribe.
I was also amazed to discover how successful Hellman became. He was the head of Wells Fargo Bank at the time of his death and in the early part of the 20th century he sat on the board of or served as president of 17 banks. He controlled $100 million. Yet he arrived in the U.S. in 1859 with practically nothing. That success is a testament to his business smarts and incredible luck as California was in midst of a great economic transformation.
Diana Bletter: Moving on to your newest book, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. (I love your titles.) After writing Towers of Gold, how long did it take you to find this subject? Some writers say their second book is more of a struggle than the first; what do you think?
Frances Dinkelspiel: Towers of Gold was published in October 2008. In the fall of 2009, I wrote a story for the New York Times about an upcoming trial of a man accused of setting an fire that destroyed 4.5 million bottles of fine California wine worth about $250 million. While writing the story I remembered that my cousin had sent some port made by Hellman in 1875 to the wine warehouse that burned. It was at that point that I thought I might have another book idea, one that explored this heinous crime and also looked at the growth of the California wine industry, which is huge.
Diana Bletter: Tell us a bit about you managed to write two best-selling, award-winning books while managing Berkeleyside, a news site that you co-founded. How does your work at Berkeleyside influence your book writing?
Frances Dinkelspiel: I wrote Towers of Gold before I co-founded Berkeleyside. The difficulty in writing that book was combining work with raising two young children. Tangled Vines was different. It was hard to juggle what were essentially two full-time jobs. But my Berkeleyside partners were great. They never grumbled when I said I had to take off a few weeks to dedicate to writing. And since I was writing so many daily news articles for Berkeleyside, my writing wasn’t “rusty,” so I was efficient.
Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?
Frances Dinkelspiel: Not sure. One idea involves oil and power and another family connection. But it will be a non-fiction book.
Diana Bletter: You went to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In the age of blogging, would you still encourage new writers to go to graduate school? You also worked on a small newspaper after graduating. Do you still encourage new writers to do this? Is there any suggestion about writing that you’d like to share with new writers?
Frances Dinkelspiel: In many ways this is a fabulous time to be a journalist and go to journalism school. Blogging, in my opinion, is on the wane, but there are hundreds of news and lifestyle websites looking for good stories and articles. Nowadays, journalists need to know how to shoot and edit video, do podcasts, take photos and crunch data. Journalism schools are teaching reporters those skills and graduates are getting jobs. To hone those skills it’s great to go to a place that lets you do a lot of writing so you practice, practice, practice. If you start as a clerk for the New York Times the chances of getting that practice are smaller than if you start at a smaller newspaper or a website.
Journalism is different than narrative or essay writing, however. The best thing I did to become a better writer was join a writers’ group. North 24th, our group, has been meeting for about 12 years. We critique one another’s work and help make it better. I trust those women completely.
Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog deals with how we can make each day part of the best chapter of our life. What do you do to take care of yourself each day, not only as a writer but as a person?
Frances Dinkelspiel: I like to spend part of each day reading as I find it rejuvenates me. I am the kind of person who carries a book everywhere she goes so I can dip into it while waiting in line. Of course, I can also use my iPhone now for that. I also like to hike in the hills around my Berkeley home. And eat well. Living in the Bay Area, it’s easy to eat well.
Thank you, Frances. Readers, check out Tangled Vines and Towers of Gold at your favorite indie bookshop or online. And keep reading — and writing.