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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Novelist's Interview: Rebecca Rosenberg

Bienvenue, Rebecca!

I met our featured author, Rebecca Rosenberg, at Story Masters: A Discussion of Story with Three Experts on the Art: Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and Christopher Vogler in Seattle. I am tickled to have her with us on Planting Cabbages this morning. 

About the Author

A California native, Rebecca Rosenberg lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where Jack London wrote from his Beauty Ranch. Rebecca is a long-time student of Jack London’s works and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian London. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is her debut novel. Rebecca and her husband, Gary, own the largest lavender product company in America, selling to 4000 resorts, spas and gift stores. The Rosenbergs believe in giving back to the Sonoma Community, supporting many causes through financial donations and board positions, including Worth Our Weight, an educational culinary program for at-risk children, YWCA shelter for abused women, Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center to provide performances for children, Sonoma Food Bank, Sonoma Boys and Girls Club, and the Valley of the Moon Children's Home. For more information, please visit Rebecca's website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook and Goodreads. Visit the Facebook page for The Secret Life of Mrs. London.

Thank you so very much for the opportunity to interview you!
First, some questions about your novel, and then about your writing life.

Planting Cabbages: What intrigued you about Jack London and his wife, Charmian,
to write this novel?

A (Gorgeous!) View of Beauty Ranch

RR: I live on our lavender farm in Sonoma, Valley of the Moon, where Jack (and Charmian!) London wrote 50 novels (in 20 years) from their thousand acre Beauty Ranch, which you can still see today. I have been hiking that ranch with my family and friends, soaking in the story of this brave, adventurous, genius couple, questioning how they lived, and what motivated them to work so hard on writing. Those questions led me to read the majority of their work, and start researching their lives.

PC: I loved all the great food scenes in TSLOML. They really paint a convincing
picture of being there. From Thanksgiving at Beauty Ranch to Tadich’s Grill to
Hawaii to NYC’s rooming house above a restaurant. How did your love of food
and your work with WOW influence this theme?  

RR: Food inspires us all, doesn’t it? That is one intriguing thing I remember about
meeting you, Dorette, is that you are a chef! The taste and smell and look of food
is a tangible thing that marks different times in our lives. I volunteer for, a culinary apprentice program for at-risk young adults.
The director, Evelyn Cheatham, transforms lives with the comfort of preparing
food. I love bringing food into the picture, because it makes it come alive for me.
And the meanings behind the food. Thanksgiving on the ranch is filled with local
specialties grown right on the ranch:

…ten-minute mallard, barely warm and bloody; wild turkey, quail, and venison accompanied by wild rice with forest mushrooms; baby pumpkins filled with curried pumpkin soup; Swiss chard sautéed with purple beets; chestnut gnocchi; brussels sprouts with piggery bacon.

And later, in New York, Charmian boards with a Romanian cook and enjoys
kreplach and goulash, foods that bring her comfort.

I’ve included one of London’s recipes for Lomi Lomi Salad below.

PC: I'd love to hear more about the wine industry as it was in Sonoma at that
time, especially at Beauty Ranch.

A Vintage Sonoma Winery Label

RR: Wine making started in Sonoma in the 1850’s, and was well established by 1915, when the novel is set. Our friends, the Kundes, still own Kunde winery close to Beauty Ranch, which Louis Kunde began in 1904.

The stone winery on Beauty Ranch was damaged in the 1906 earthquake. London used the foundation and built an upper story wooden building used as a carriage house and as a living quarters for ranch hands, rooms for his many guests and an office where his sister, Eliza Shepard, could manage the ranch.

PC: Can you visit his estate?

RR: Jack London Park is definitely worth visiting. You can see the cottage the London’s lived in, the stone Pig Palace, the fishing and swimming ponds, The great stone ruins of Wolf House, the vineyards, the eucalyptus groves, and Happy Walls, Charmian’s home, which is now a fabulous museum of the London’s belongings.

PC: Tell us more about the Hawaiian ingredients mentioned, such as the Hapu'u
fern sprouts.

Hawaiian Hapu'u Fern Sprouts

RR: From Hawaiian websites: Hāpu'u is also used as a food. Both the young core
and new leaves can be cooked.

PC: Have you eaten this?

RR: The hapu fern sprouts definitely intrigued me, but I have not had the
pleasure of eating them! My guess is they would be similar to hearts of palm.

PC: Might you share a recipe for any of these dishes?

RR: I’ve shared one of the London’s recipes, below.

PC: I love how you worked in such brilliant tension such as the bones in the
brook trout scene. Was a ten-minute mallard a favorite dish of Jack's?

RR: In Charmian’s biography she complains that Jack always eats 10 minute duck,
and she blames his gout and kidney disease on eating the undercooked fowl.
Charmian, herself, was a pescatarian.

PC: In the novel, the baby theme is a huge part of the tension between Jack and
Charmian, with plot tensions accelerating over the battle with their sexuality.
The baby theme is felt through the child-like qualities of Houdini’s wife, Bess,
and also in her doll collection. In some odd and charming ways it seems as
though Bess becomes Charmian’s baby.

RR: Both Charmian and Bess Houdini wanted children, and did not have them.
In the novel, I explore the different ways they manifested this thwarted desire.
Charmian turns to exploring the world, and writing. Bess collects dolls and pets.

PC: It’s been said that Charmian was a strong and feisty woman yet I often felt
her timidity and her deference to Jack and his work. Was this part of her interior
life, but not part of what she showed the world?

RR: Yes, you got that Dorette! Charmian is known as a brave courageous,
adventurous woman, and yet in her (auto) biography I found her a very
thoughtful person who thought a lot about the events of their lives.

Jack London and his wife, Charmian, writing.

PC: It really isn’t till later in the story that Charmian has the confidence to speak and write effectively. Was this true to life or part of the fictionalized story? Would you shed any light on how the woman’s movement during this time of history influenced the novel?

RR: Charmian dedicated herself to be Jack’s coach, mentor, muse, manager, editor.
She knew he was an extraordinary talent, but needed a strong hand to guide him,
and she was willing to do it. I don’t think she was weak, just focused on making
Jack London be the best he could be. Of course it was early 1900, women didn’t
even have the vote until 1920! Hard for us to imagine the difference in their
society. Still, Charmian and Jack were exploring an “equal” relationship,
calling each other “Mate”, and Charmian did write her own books and articles.
They both supported suffrage.

PC: Did Houdini really send Charmian a wooden puzzle box?

RR: I wouldn’t doubt it! Houdini owned every type of magic paraphernalia
imaginable, much which you can see at the Houdini Museum in NYC
or the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.

PC: Tell us more about the conflict/story regarding Houdini’s name. Was his name
really Erich Weiss?

RR: Houdini was born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, though he always told
reporters he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. He worked through childhood, to
bring money into his family, working as a street magician. At 20, he changed his
name to Harry Houdini after the French magician, Robert Houdin, and performed
magic at Coney Island, where he met Bess, and married her 2 weeks later.

Early and Rare Photo of Harry Houdini

PC: There’s a wild scene where Houdini levitates Charmian, what was your intention?

RR: Everyone who met Houdini thought he had supernatural powers. Even his good
friend, the famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt, asked him to restore her amputated
leg! What would it be like to have a romance with a man who could walk through
walls, make elephants disappear before your eyes, calm you down with a nice
levitation? See photo of Houdini levitating!

Harry Houdini Levitating!

About Your Writing Life!

PC: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

RR: Maybe ten years ago, I started a writing group in order to write my first novel,
the one that I’m still working on, called MATCHLESS, about the Silver Queen,
Baby Doe Tabor.

PC: Often the journey from being a writer to being a published novelist is a story
in and of itself. Tell us about yours.

RR: Once the writing bug bit me, that urge to tell a story well, I took every class,
workshop, and even a Stanford novel writing 2 year certificate. I have written 5
books, published a non-fiction, Lavender Fields of America, and this novel.
Lake Union Publishing was very excited by The Secret of Mrs. London, and they
have been phenominol to work with! I’m working on 2 other novels now.

PC: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers
you read now? What's changed?

RR: I confess, while I read a hundred books a year, for inspiration, I still go back
to the prose of Gone With the Wind, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and My
Cousin Rachel. Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

PC: How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

RR: Every sensation or experience one has in everyday life will come through
on the page one way or another, like the palette of paints an artist uses to
create a painting.

PC: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader
cultural or political movements?

RR: I write biographical historical novels, because I don’t want us to forget the
women who lived before us who forged new freedoms for us.

PC: What aspect of writing and working as a writer is the most challenging?

RR: Finding time and getting into the groove!

PC: What reading, other than fiction, is important to your work and why?

RR: I read TONS of biographies and related non-fiction to fuel my historical

PC: How is fiction relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in the
U.S. and/or at an international level?

RR: Good fiction causes thought and conversation about issues we face as humans.

PC: What writing workshops etc would you recommend to a struggling novelist?
What was your takeaway from the Story Masters Conference where we met?   

RR: Attend writing conferences, and follow writing experts that appeal to your
sensibility. My favorite writing guru is Donald Maass, and I’ve attended 5-6 of his
workshops, or classes at Writing Conferences. At the Story Masters, I focused on
structure of a novel, and the different approaches our instructors presented for us.
I also really like Larry Brooks for concept/premise and structure.

My advice for writers: Keep writing. Get a writers group and stick with it.

Merci beaucoup, Rebecca! I appreciate your time, as do your readers. I'm so glad to have had this chance to visit with you! And we can't wait to read your series on the Widows of Champagne! 

Five French widows (from 1800 to 1950) work through heartbreak, the restraints of a male-dominated wine industry, economic disasters, bad harvests and wars to head their own Champagne wineries during times when it was unheard of for women to hold such positions. Through their intelligence, perseverance and creativity, they create wildly successful champagne wineries and an explosive world-wide champagne market.
Barbe-Nicole Clicquot 1800, book one
Louise Pommery 1860, book two
Mathilde Emelie Perrier-Laurent 1890, book three
Camile Roederer 1930, book four
Lily Bollinger 1940, book five
Charmian & Jack London’s Hawaiian Salad
Serves 6 to 8

Lomi Lomi salmon is a dish that did not come to the islands until after contact with Haoles, (whites or Europeans). Salmon is not a Hawaiian fish. Hawaiians did not begin using it until traders brought salted salmon from Alaska to trade for Hawaiian goods. Lomi Lomi means to knead or massage. It was necessary to “lomi lomi,” the salmon in water to remove some of the salt, and that is how this recipe was developed. Actually, most of the ingredients used in lomi lomi salmon were unknown in Hawaii until after contact with Haoles. Lomi lomi salmon is raw, just like sashimi and the fish usually used on sushi. Today the dish is usually made with fresh salmon.

About 1 pounds of very fresh salmon
1 smallish white onion, diced very small
2 to 3 green onions, chopped small
2 to 3 tomatoes, seeded and diced small
1 small hot chili, seeded and minced or a pinch of dry chili flakes
The juice of 1 or 2 fresh limes
1 teaspoon Kukui not, or to taste
Red Hawaiian Salt to taste

Dice the salmon into about 1/4 inch dice, removing any bones and bits of fat of sinew as you do. Place in a colander and rinse under cold running water to remove any blood. Add the remaining ingredients and lomi lomi until well mixed. Place in a serving dish and set the dish on a larger dish filled with crushed ice. It should always be served very cold.

* You will most likely not be able to find Kukui nut. A reasonable substitute is roasted and pulverized peanuts or walnuts.


  1. What a fabulous interview, thank you so much for for hosting Rebecca!

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