Have you ever started reading a new novel and just couldn’t put it down? The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell is one of those novels. The story goes between the past where brave women and children of the Champagne region take refuge in the labyrinth of caves beneath the vineyards in WWI and the present day, where we meet Rosalyn, a grieving widow on her way to Champagne on the behalf of her employer. While on the plane to France, Rosalyn meets Emma, who shows her a cache of letters written by a French soldier, Emile Legrand to her aunt.
In addition to The Vineyards of Champagne, Juliet Blackwell is also the author of The Lost Carousel of Provence, Letters from Paris, The Paris Key, and three mystery series. In this interview, she shares about her writing process, how she develops the characters for her novels and a sneak peek into the novel she’s currently writing.
You have a degree in Latin American Studies and a Masters’s in Anthropology and Social Work. At what point did you decide you wanted to write novels?
I actually came to writing fiction relatively late in life — I didn’t publish my first novel until I was forty-one! I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life, but I honestly knew nothing about writing fiction and sort of backed into it. I was working as a decorative painter, and my sister (a professor of history) and I decided to try to see if we could manage to write an actual book. Feint of Art, a “cozy” mystery featuring an art forger-gone-straight, was the result, and it was published as the first in the Art Lovers Mystery series.
Where is your favorite place to write and have you worked on a novel in progress during any of your trips abroad?
My favorite places to write are 1) my kitchen table and 2) my desk looking out to an oak tree. Occasionally I write in cafes, and I really do like writing on airplanes and at airports!
Usually, when I’m traveling in Europe I do a lot of research and interviews, so I jot down a lot of notes, and even make sketches of what I’m seeing for later reference. Occasionally I’m inspired to write a few actual scenes, but my serious writing usually takes place at home – with a deadline breathing down my neck!
Tell me about a typical writing day…
I get up early, usually by 6, sometimes earlier. When I wrote my first book I was still running my own business and had a young child at home, so I used to wake at 4 a.m. to get a few hours of peace and quiet. Though I’m not *that* crazy anymore, I still find my mind is most creative very early, before I hear the news of the day or answer emails or engage in social media, or even talk to my boyfriend. I like to immerse myself in my fictional world while my mind is still fresh. Later in the day (after taking the dog for a walk) I’ll attend to other business-related writing things, such as giving interviews or corresponding with my agent or editor. Sometimes, when I’m reaching the end of a deadline, I’ll get a second wind in the evening and do some more creative writing. What’s always true for me is that I can NOT do anything creative at 2-3 in the afternoon, so that’s when I take a hike or do a little gardening!
Out of all the novels and series you’ve written, has there been a character or characters that it was hard to ‘let go of’ at the end of the novel/series?
My first series, the Art Lovers mysteries that I mentioned above, was canceled before I could bring it to a proper end, which frustrated a lot of readers. That was really hard since it still doesn’t feel complete to me – and I really enjoyed spending time with those characters! It’s always nice for me when writing series to return to known characters – it feels a lot like coming back to friends. But with regard to the standalone, my most recent, The Vineyards of Champagne, left me wanting to spend more time with Rosalyn and Emma and Blondine…perhaps sharing confidences over a bottle of champagne, of course.
I love how vividly you describe each character in the novel. Are any of the characters in The Vineyards of Champagne based on people you know or have met in real life?
I often do base characters on people I know in real life – though not people very close to me, interestingly enough. In The Vineyards of Champagne, Blondine’s father – Gaspard Blé—was based on a very entertaining (but cantankerous) vintner we stayed with while in the region. And I’m often inspired by historical figures, people who wrote journals, that sort of thing. I tend to “see” the characters in my mind, in a very cinematic way, but I always have to write for a while—a long while—before I figure out who they are, and then I have to return and re-write the beginning chapters when I wasn’t so sure of their characters.
Do you plan out each character in detail before you start working on a novel, or do you see where the individual characters take you during the course of the novel?
As I mentioned above, it always takes me a while to pin down my characters. It’s a lot like meeting people in real life – it takes a while to get to know someone, to hear their stories, or learn of their traumatic childhood or love life or grief. I do like to be open to characters going their own ways in novels, or what authors often call writing “by the seat of our pants”, versus plotting everything out. It makes them seem much more real to me.
How much research do you do before you start writing?
A lot. One of the major things I love about being an author is that I get to research what interests me – whether by reading, traveling, or interviewing people – and call it “work”. I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction relevant to whatever I’m writing, and then I like to spend time in the actual location, and (to the extent possible) talk with people who have first or secondhand knowledge of a time period or event.
Did you do in-country research for the novel, specifically visiting the wine caves in the Champagne region?
My boyfriend is from France, and he’s a wine importer (I know I know, it’s really tough to be me…!) He has to go to France often to meet with wine producers and taste vintages, so I get to tag along, listen, and learn. The Vineyards of Champagne arose from one of those trips, in which my boyfriend was visiting with a few of his champagne producers. I learned about the production of champagne, and we were able to visit many of the caves beneath Reims to see where people had lived. I also poked through museums and visited war cemeteries, and spoke with people about their family remembrances of the wars, stories handed down through the generations.
After one of your novels is released. Do you ever read the reviews of your work or do you prefer not to?
I do read the reviews. I probably shouldn’t – most of my author friends don’t, and I think they’re healthier for it! But I can’t seem to resist, and they often put me in a funk if I don’t feel that a reader “got” the book, or are really dismissive of it. I don’t mind constructive criticism, but some reviewers can be truly trivializing and cruel. Sooooo, I probably should stop reading them! But on the other hand, when people DO understand what I’m trying to say, it can be amazing to hear from them. In The Vineyards of Champagne, for instance, I was very honest about my own experience of grief, and it means a lot to me when I can connect with readers on that level.
Do you get to select who read your audiobook? Xe Sands has such a wonderful narrative voice.
Actually, I do request Xe Sands now, though in the beginning she was assigned to one of my mysteries by sheer chance. It turned out that we had lived strangely parallel lives: she went to the same high school I did, two years behind me, and then her parents retired to the same area as my parents did, in the San Juan Islands! We have since become good friends, and I am honored that she narrates my work.
Are you currently working on your next novel?
I am, yes! I can’t seem to stop. This one is based on the Île de Sein, a tiny island off the Côte Sauvage, or Wild Coast, of Brittany. In World War II every man of fighting age fled in their fishing boats to England to join Generale Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces. But then the Germans invaded, and the women left behind had to deal with them for the next several years. I’m always curious what happens to the women who are left behind – and how life manages to go on, even during the war. In my modern-day story, two American sisters with a traumatic childhood are reunited on the island and try to renovate an old guesthouse and learn about events that happened on the island during the war.