A Conversation with Frances Dinkelspiel by Sandy Ebner

Frances Dinkelspiel
Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning journalist who co-founded the local news site Berkeleyside. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, People magazine and elsewhere. Her first book Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and was named a Best Book of 2008 by the newspaper. Her second book, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California was published in October 2015.

Sandy Ebner: Hi Frances. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

tangled-cvrTangled Vines is the story of a massive warehouse fire in Northern California that destroyed over $250 million dollars in wine, which is interesting enough on its own, but it’s also the story of the man who committed the crime, and a history of the wine industry in California. His story, the crime itself, and the stories of the families affected by the crime, are all fascinating. What drew you to the story initially?

Frances Dinkelspiel: A few things. 175 bottles of wine made by my great-great grandfather in southern California in 1875 were destroyed in the 2005 warehouse fire. I wanted to better understand the significance of that loss and it took me on a journey to uncover the history of the vineyard the grapes that made the wine came from. I found out that five men were killed in a dispute over the vineyard that was eventually managed by the California Wine Association, a little-known monopoly that controlled 80% of the production and sale of wine until Prohibition.

Sandy Ebner: You spent many hours talking to the arsonist, Mark Anderson, both in jail and over the phone. What was that experience like for you? Was it more difficult than you expected?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I was working on a story for the New York Times about Mark Anderson’s upcoming criminal trial for setting the blaze when he called me from jail. That sparked a three-year long relationship. We wrote to one another, talked on the phone and saw one another at the jail and in court. It was interesting to talk to a man who had caused so much heartache – 90 wineries had lost 4.5 million bottles of wine in the fire – and to try and have an open mind. I wanted to understand Anderson, to tease out his story, so I could not be judgmental. I was never sure when he was telling the truth or lying. That part was difficult.

Sandy Ebner: Like you, I’m a native Californian. However, you’re a fifth-generation San Franciscan, which puts you in a very small group, to say the least. Towers of Gold tells the story of your great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, and how he helped shape California into an economic powerhouse in the 1800s (he also figures prominently in Tangled Vines). How do think the city has changed since he lived here?

Frances Dinkelspiel: From the time of the Gold Rush, San Francisco has been a bustling metropolis filled with different ethnic groups and people from around the world. The only change has been to degree. Of course everything is speeded up now. In 1905, my great-great grandfather decided to merge his bank, the Nevada National Bank, with Wells Fargo Bank. He was embarking on a three-month trip to Europe and intended to announce the merger on his return. That would never happen today in the world of instant communication. There would be a tweet immediately.

Sandy Ebner: Both of your books, Towers of Gold, and Tangled Vines, are wonderful historical narratives in their own right, but they also have a personal connection to your family history, particularly in Towers of Gold. Did that make the research process more, or less, difficult?

Frances Dinkelspiel: When you are interested in a project it is easier to do research. I often got a thrill when I went through the 40,000 pieces of paper related to my great-great grandfather Isaias Hellman stored at the California Historical Society. Of course there was drudgery, too. Doing historical research is time consuming, but it is made easier when you discover a detail you know you can use in your writing. For example, I didn’t know someone tried to assassinate Hellman on California Street in San Francisco in 1895 until I came across some telegrams his friends sent him after he survived being shot at. That woke me right up!

Sandy Ebner: Over the last few years my family has been doing a lot of genealogical research. Most of our history is in Louisiana and Mississippi. Consequently, much of my writing is set in the South, both fiction and nonfiction. How much does your family history influence your decisions about what to write about? Also, how did learning about your own history inform your writing? Did the discovery of an unexpected fact or incident, for example, cause you to change direction or to rethink the story itself?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I was born in California and have family roots dating back to the 1850s. Even though I have lived in New York and elsewhere, I feel connected to California. There is so much great history here with which people are not familiar and both my books uncover little-known aspects of the state. I like doing that. I do think that impulse is driven by my family connection. And of course you have to let your research dictate your story. For example, it turns out that my great-great grandfather and his brother got into a feud and didn’t talk for years. When his brother was dying, Hellman got on a train in San Francisco and rushed to Los Angeles to say goodbye. He didn’t get there in time. When I found that out, it gave me a great dramatic moment to build toward in Towers of Gold.

Sandy Ebner: Can you talk a little bit about Berkeleyside, the news site you helped to found?

Frances Dinkelspiel: In late 2009, two friends and I, dismayed by all the cutbacks in local news, started a website that focuses on Berkeley. A few years later we added Nosh, a site that covers the food scene in the East Bay. We began the enterprise as a lark, but it has turned into a serious journalistic endeavor. We have published more than 11,000 stories, have more than 200,000 unique visitors to our site each month, 20,0000 Twitter followers, and lots of community engagement. As a former newspaper reporter, it has been interesting to write for a site where people leave comments, correct you, encourage you, disparage you, etc. In newspapers, there is a distance between reporters and readers. That is not the case with Berkeleyside and it has been fun and fascinating to operate in the new media landscape.

Sandy Ebner: I would imagine that in some ways starting a newspaper is much like starting a literary magazine: long hours, uncertain outcomes, a steep learning curve, etc. What was the first year like for you, versus what it’s like now, six years later?

Frances Dinkelspiel: We still feel like a start up, working long hours for low pay and trying out different ideas. In the beginning, though, the stakes were lower since not many people were reading us. Now we feel a responsibility to try and provide the best coverage we can on Berkeley issues. It can be hard, though, with our tiny staff. However when we get a tweet late at night about shots fired in a neighborhood we reach out to police. People have come to depend on Berkeleyside to quickly tell them what is going on.

Sandy Ebner: The publishing world has changed dramatically over the last few years. Your books were both published through one of the Big Five publishers in New York. What are your thoughts on the differences between those publishing houses and smaller indie presses, in terms of advantages and disadvantages for a potential author?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I have only ever published with a big New York publisher, so my experience is limited. Large houses have great publicity and marketing departments, great artists to do cover art and design, etc. Smaller houses probably also have excellent teams. I know that large publishers have giant distribution systems that get books everywhere, while some small publishers may not have that reach. Budgets for ARCs are probably larger at the big houses, leading to more critics seeing the books early. But I have heard from many writer friends that they like the intimacy of a smaller house. They feel connected and cared for.

Sandy Ebner: For many people there is still a negative stigma attached to self-pubbing a book. While there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue, the truth is that it’s still extremely difficult to get your book out there. Do you have any thoughts on the choice between more traditional paths to publishing as opposed to other options that might be available to emerging writers?

Frances Dinkelspiel: Charting your own destiny is powerful. It is a slog to find an agent and find a publisher. I think that is the dream of most writers, but if it doesn’t work out I think it is great to self publish. It’s a lot of work and many bookstores won’t carry self-published books, but I hate the idea a writer must wait for a nod from the powers that be to get published. Also, you make more money per book with a self-published book. Of course, you must make your writing the best it can be before publishing it.

Sandy Ebner: You and I met at a writer’s conference many years ago. I found the experience overwhelming, at least initially, but also tremendously rewarding. Can you comment on your experience at Squaw Valley and what it did for your career?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I feel like I owe my book-writing career to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. The philosophy there is that everyone in on a continuum from newbie to fame. When you sit in a workshop with a bestselling author and that person critiques your manuscript with respect, it accelerates your feeling that you are a REAL writer. Squaw emphasizes writing, not publishing, and that is where the focus should be, I think. My agent, Michael Carlisle, heads up the non-fiction program. He was very encouraging about my project and told me to keep in touch. I did, and he eventually took me on as a client. So Squaw is a place to build those kinds of relationships. And they can last for decades.

Sandy Ebner: Writing is, for the most part, a solitary endeavor. You’ve written about your writer’s group and what it’s meant to you. How has the group helped your writing, and do you draw inspiration from the other members?

I have been with North 24th Writers for more than a decade. We meet twice a month. I could not have written either book without them. It’s a supportive, but tough, group of women and I trust their advice. We always find good things to say about a piece and areas to improve. When working on Tangled Vines, I had been writing it in third person. One day I brought an experiment, a first person account of meeting Mark Anderson in jail. The group loved it and encouraged me to explore that voice more. So I did. I knew they would not let me embarrass myself so I went with it. I highly recommend a writers’ group for every writer.

Sandy Ebner: Like most writers, you’re also a reader. What’s on your reading list right now, and who are some of your favorite writers?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I am reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Farm Citrus as I write this. It’s very good. I loved Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac. As for non-fiction I loved The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck, and Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles by John Mack Farager.

Sandy Ebner: Besides Berkeleyside, what else are you working on (assuming you have the time)? Do you have plans to write a third book, and have you ever considered writing fiction or memoir?

Frances Dinkelspiel: Yes, I am planning on writing a third book. But I am still actively promoting Tangled Vines, so I haven’t had enough time to poke around for an idea. I am also fiddling around with a family story about adultery, but I am not sure what I will do with it.

Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor
Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor

Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.

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