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Family Secrets, Betrayal and Second Chances Shape Kristin Harmel's Historical Novels

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JB: What a story, Kristin! Secrets, vulnerability, estrangement and the emotional baggage we inadvertently pass from one generation to another keep cropping up in your books. How do these issues block us from being the best we can be in our relationships with others as well as within our own families? What about missed opportunities and second chances?

KH: Yes, I find myself really fascinated by the secrets and emotional baggage that shape families--particularly the idea that if we refuse to deal with the things that haunt us, we will inadvertently pass them on to our children--and maybe even our children's children. That's certainly the case in The Sweetness of Forgetting, and in my more recent novel, The Winemaker's Wife. In both cases, the grandmothers are carrying secrets that tremendously shaped their lives, and because they weren't honest about the past, their granddaughters are still searching for their identities (in their late 30s and early 40s, respectively).

You asked how the failure to deal with issues blocks us from being the best we can be. I think the simple answer is that anytime we refuse to deal with our problems, they become a piece of us--and they begin to fester and grow. As time passes, these problems begin to influence who we really are, and inevitably, they shape the way we deal with others, in small ways and large. I think that most people think of dealing with their ghosts in terms of moving on in their own lives--but do we think often enough about how the things that we haven't dealt with shape the lives of others, too? If we're not working to be the best people we can be, we're not going to be the best parents, spouses, siblings, sons, and daughters we can be--and that affects everything.

As for missed opportunities, I think that life is full of them--and we often don't even know it. I do believe, though, that fate gives us second chances all the time. We just have to keep our eyes--and our hearts--open to whatever comes our way.

Cover art for
Cover art for 'The Winemaker's Wife'
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JB: Your latest book, The Winemaker's Wife , just came out last month. Congrats! What can you tell us about it?

KH: Sure. Thanks for asking--and thanks for the congratulations!

The Winemaker's Wife is a novel of forbidden love, secrets, and lies, set amid the champagne houses of northern France during the darkest days of World War II. In 1940, we meet Inès Chauveau, the new wife of Michel, the owner of Champagne Chauveau, a prestigious, small champagne house in Ville-Dommange, a tiny winemaking village just outside Reims. She is lonely and underestimated, especially by Ce'line Laurent, the wife of the head winemaker Theo, who is himself cold and removed. Both Inès and Celine feel very alone and isolated, but they dislike each other, and when war comes to Champagne, they both turn in different directions to seek comfort, which leads to a chain of destruction and sadness. They become connected with the French Resistance, along with Inès's best friend Edith. And in the present day, a 99-year-old spry and sassy Grandma Edith arrives in New York to summon her recently divorced granddaughter Liv to Champagne to reveal a deep family secret that involves the Maison Chauveau. Ultimately, the two stories will converge in a tale of betrayal, resistance, and hope.

JB: Sounds great, can't wait to read it! Many of your books, including this one, take place, at least partially, in Europe. Your settings always seem so authentic. How much of the research is actually done on foreign shores and how much from home? Is it all just a good excuse to travel abroad?

KH: I lived in Paris for a little while in my early twenties, so that has given me a great jumping off point for setting books there, but I always return for additional research and to nail down details. For example, The Sweetness of Forgetting was set largely in Paris, which was very familiar to me, but I wanted readers to be able to see, feel, hear, smell, etc., right along with the characters. That necessitated a trip, simply to consciously soak in details. And since portions of the book were based on real events, I needed to research those historical events, too, so I had meetings at the Memorial de la Shoah, the Grand Mosque of Paris, and other locations. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of my characters in every way possible to bring the setting alive for the readers. I've done the same for my other novels, including the most recent, The Winemaker's Wife, which involved a trip to Champagne to spend time at large champagne houses in Reims, to visit a small, family-run champagne-house in Ville-Dommange (where much of the book takes place), and to interview historians and winemakers. I don't think there's any way to do research like that without leaving one's desk. I used to relish the opportunity to travel abroad, and while I still enjoy it, it's a bit trickier (and more emotional) to leave home now, since I have a preschool-aged son. I hate leaving him behind, but bringing him along isn't necessarily a great solution either. I'm still trying to find the balance.

JB: Good luck with that! Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

KH: Thanks so much for the great chat, Joan. It was a pleasure speaking with you!

JB: It was a pleasure speaking with you as well. And again, congratulations on The Winemaker's Wife. I'm looking forward to reading it.


Kristin's website

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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