Friday, May 14, 2021

Jane Rosenthal Interview - Del Rio

Photo Content from Jane Rosenthal

Former award winning radio journalist, poet and teacher, Jane Rosenthal lived for over a decade on a horse and cattle ranch in the Sierra mountains of California about 3500 feet above the Central Valley where her novel Del Rio is set and where she finally fulfilled her dream of being a western cowgirl.

Now having relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, she lives in an area called in the native Tewa language ‘where the heart water meets the canyon’. From there she can be found exploring the many cultural offerings her state is famous for — Ghost Ranch, the Taos Pueblo, the Santuario at Chimayo, the ancestral cliff dwellings of Bandelier, or just relaxing in the hot springs of Ojo Caliente where the early conquistadors were said to have taken the waters.

She loves wandering around the beautiful Santa fe Plaza and discovering stunning examples of Native American art in the many old shops that surround it. On Friday nights, she takes the gallery walk up Canyon Road and is always inspired by the exciting artists’ exhibits. She and her husband often end up at their favorite place, the historic watering hole, El Farol.

Come winter she heads to Old Mexico and to the many pueblos magicos like Oaxaca, San Cristobal, Patzcuaro and San Miguel de Allende where she attends the San Miguel Literary Festival held annually in that city. She always stops off in Mexico City to visit friends and soak up the culture of exciting and vibrant CDMX where her first novel Palace of the Blue Butterfly takes place.

Most of the time, though, you’ll find her in her office with its many windows overlooking the Georgia O’Keeffe landscape around her and writing those novels that have been kicking around in her head all these many years.


Greatest thing you learned at school?
Spanish. Hands down the most important thing I learned in school was to speak and read Spanish. I’m dating myself here, but French was THE language you learned if you were on the college track in my era, and boy, was I! However, I was lucky enough to spend time in Mexico in high school, and learning Spanish opened a whole world to me--- from the poetry of Garcia Lorca to the history of the conquest of Latin America. Suddenly, there was this huge, extraordinary, vibrant, magnificent world out there, and because I spoke the language I could open the door and walk right in. It was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
They’ve done studies that show that readers of fiction, storytelling in other words, are more empathetic than those who don’t read fiction. Empathy is something we all need in large doses if we are going to navigate the challenges—social, political, and environmental--- that we are facing in the 21st century.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
This answer is a bit different than what you might expect. Certainly, publishing with She Writes Press has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, one, for which, I will be eternally grateful. I have met so many fascinating, wonderful, inspiring women through She Writes. However, one of the most rewarding experiences for me came before I published and after I had finished my first novel Palace of the Blue Butterfly, which is set in Mexico City.

After I finished the last draft of that book, my husband and I traveled to Mexico City, stayed in the Roma neighborhood where the novel is set, and I walked him all over the city, showing him all the settings in the book, telling him the story from start to finish. I felt like Scheherazade spooling out a fascinating tale. That experience had nothing to do with getting the book published, and is one any writer can have. You don’t have to be published to derive a great deal of pleasure from this writing path.

Tell us your latest news.
My next book is set partly in the Yucatan in an old hacienda in the middle of the jungle. Pre-COVID, what I’m about to tell you might not have been news, but it sure is now. I just booked my flight to Merida and made arrangements to stay in a hacienda not unlike the one I am writing about for next January. Huge achievement! I can’t wait to lie under mosquito netting, listen to the howler monkeys in the trees, and write this book in its actual setting!

Can you tell us when you started DEL RIO, how that came about?
I always had in mind to write a series of books set in various regions in Mexico---Mexico City, the Pacific coast, the central highlands, and so on, books that would blend mystery/suspense with armchair travel. For Del Rio, I’d been kicking around plot ideas, focusing on the resort towns on the west coast of Mexico when one day, after I had moved to my ranch in the foothills above the valley, I was standing in line at the bank in my small, valley farm town and realized I was the only English speaker in line. It hit me right then and there that I practically was on the west coast of Mexico, and the first line of the book---“Fletcher wanted me to meet him at the Starlight Lounge, an old roadhouse set on a bluff above the San Joaquin River a few miles south of town.” ---came to me. It was one of those lightbulbs going off in your head moments. After I finished at the bank, I raced up the mountain, charged into my office and wrote the first chapter in a fit of inspiration.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
When readers think of California, they have postcard images---Hollywood, the Pacific ocean, San Francisco. Del Rio is not that California, but its orchards, cotton fields and oil wells represent a huge part of California’s economy. I think the length Central Valley is equal to the length of England, something like that. Because of the valley’s dependence on agriculture and agricultural workers, all of the issues about how we raise food, who raises our food, and how we treat them are issues I want my readers to think about. Every time you put oranges in a bag at your local supermarket, you are connected to this area and these people. What happens here matters. Justice matters. The land matters.

What part of Callie did you enjoy writing the most?
I loved Callie’s swagger, her wise cracks and her humor, her voice. She is a character, full of moxie and bravado, who becomes more tender, compassionate and loving by the end of the book. The moxie and bravado have turned into real courage and strength. It’s a character arc that I felt empowered by and a journey I hope I’ve taken in my life.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I consider my setting, the small farm town of Del Rio with all its inhabitants and its corruption to be a character in this book. I would love for my favorite PI in the world, Phillip Marlowe, to come to Del Rio and have a little look around, to lean against the bar at the Starlight Lounge, and slip the bartender a few bucks to get the scoop.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
In retrospect this wasn’t a distraction, but a privilege. For several years, I was the primary caregiver for my father. He died at age 102 after living a remarkable life. Every night over our bourbon, he would regale me with stories---what the south was like in the thirties, how the small Jewish community in our southern town lived, what watching the rise of Hitler felt like, what living under Jim Crow was like. He gave me the gift of the book I’m working on now.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
That’s easy. Go to Paris. Everyone should see Paris once in their lives.

Best date you've ever had?
I met my husband when I was 20, and we were hippies on a commune in Vermont. Dating was too establishment for us then, unless you call Woodstock a date. There have been so many great dates with him since then--- Paris, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Colorado, San Francisco. Looking back on fifty years of marriage, it feels like one giant, blurry, fabulous date!

What is the first job you have had?
Besides babysitting, right? Waitressing in a mafia bar in Boston. I lied about my age to get the job, didn’t know the first thing about serving food and drinks, but I guess the bookie behind the bar had bigger problems. Besides, I caught on.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?
A rosy boa snake. This woman just let it wander around the house like a pet, which it was. I mean, the whole household talked to it like it was the family chihuahua. This was Berkeley, and it was a kind of goddess thing.

What was a time in your life when you were really scared?
Since I live in Georgia O’Keeffe country, I will quote her since she is one of my role models. “I’ve been absolutely terrified every day of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” Well, I haven’t been scared every day, but, you don’t reach my age without having many terrifying experiences. Like O’Keeffe, I have never let it stop me from doing anything. Well, one thing: I hope to never fly Cubana de Aviacion again, I can tell you that!

What is your most memorable travel experience?
My husband is a theoretical astrophysicist, and when he worked at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, my family had the opportunity to live there. The whole thing was memorable, from lining up each afternoon with all the elegant French mothers to pick up my daughter at school, to finding myself sitting at the Café Rotonde, eavesdropping on an actress gossiping about Luis Bunuel and Jean Claude Carriere, to finding myself seated next to James Clavell (of Shogun fame) at a tiny restaurant in Provence. What strikes me as memorable now is how normal all this seemed, culture all around me. I loved it!

First Heartbreak?
Summer camp in early sixties when I was thirteen. I was wooed by the camp lothario who then broke my heart. Later, he went on to marry a famous movie star (his third or fourth marriage, I believe) and, from what I gather, he broke her heart, too. So, I’m in good company.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
Living in California’s Central Valley, if that qualifies as an incident. Before we moved to our ranch in the Sierra foothills, I had a typical San Francisco attitude about the Central Valley---it was just a vast wasteland one had to drive through to get to Los Angeles. By the time we sold the ranch and moved to New Mexico, I found the Central Valley with its incredibly diverse population and fascinating history to be one of the most exotic places I ever lived. Check out the NYT article on the Punjabi food trucks in Bakersfield!

  • I am a fragrance lover and even created my own signature perfume at Parfumerie Fragonard in Grasse, France
  • I studied Classics in Greece with Phillip Sherrard, a famous translator of the poet Cavafy
  • I met my husband fifty years ago at the mafia bar I spoke about. My first words to him: What can I get you? I guess it was me, because he came back the next day.
  • I helped build a house in the mountains of Puerto Rico
  • I camped on a beach in Baja, and swam in the Bay of Cortes at night with all the plankton lit up like stars.
  • Frances Mayes author of Under the Tuscan Sun was one of my poetry teachers at San Francisco State
  • I bought a fifty-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills where I learned not to be afraid of rattlesnakes.
  • I won an American Academy of Poets Award in college
  • I worked as a journalist for a short time in Poland
  • I won an American Women in Radio and Television Award for a feature documentary on women composers.
Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from DEL RIO
I’ll stick to the first chapter. It’s a mystery, and I don’t want to give anything away
1. I love my opening paragraph, the picture that it paints of the Central Valley.

“Fletcher wanted me to meet him at the Starlight Lounge, and old roadhouse set on a bluff above the San Joaquin River a few miles south of town. I knew the place, knew as well as any rancher girl or campesina, for that matter, that the Starlight was as close to big-city glamor as we’d ever get down here in the dusty Central Valley. At night, when the bar’s revolving, neon star scattered light over the tumbleweed and drooping locusts, you could forget for a while where you were . . .”

2. I love the scene with Chief Karkanian and the undercover cops in Callie’s office. Why? Because it’s a slice of my real life. The ‘Con Camp’, as we called it, was a low intensity prison camp three miles down the road from my ranch, so this whole encounter was a ‘write what you know moment’ for me. The neighboring 80- acre ranch was empty for years, and during that time, various buddies of the inmates did use it to throw contraband over the fence--- hooch, weed and sometimes a set of civilian clothes in case someone decided just to walk off the grounds.

          “The Chief nodded at the heavily tattooed inmate. ”This here’s Manny Garcia. He ain’t what he looks like. He’s undercover on the force.”
          Garcia lifted his chin and rattled his arm shackles in a greeting.
          “You can’t undo the hardware?” I asked.
          “Nah,” Karkanian said. “We’re supposed to be doing a transfer up to the Con Camp in Miramonte. Someone’s using the neighboring property to drop contraband. Gotta look like the real deal.”

3. The scene with the county staffer in the Starlight is another favorite. Here’s why. For seven years, a group that my friends and I formed, called Save Jesse Morrow Mountain, worked relentlessly to keep Cemex Concrete Company from leveling a small mountain on the route to Kings Canyon National Park. During that time, we met with a lot of county staff—the good, the bad and the ugly. It was a real eye-opener on rural, small town politics.

          “. . .What are you doing these days, McCall? Aren’t you supposed to be over at the courthouse, prosecuting pot growers?”
          Okay, so I couldn’t help myself. This guy was so deep in the cartel’s pockets he could be lint. “Freemark, you know something? I’m after the big guys. . . You know, the ones in the county government who make it all possible. . .”

Del Rio, California, a once-thriving Central Valley farm town, is now filled with run-down Dollar Stores, llanterias, carnicerias, and shabby mini-marts that sell one-way bus tickets straight to Tijuana on the Flecha Amarilla line. It’s a place you drive through with windows up and doors locked, especially at night—a place the locals call Cartel Country. While it’s no longer the California of postcards, for local District Attorney Callie McCall, her dying hometown is the perfect place to launch a political career and try to make a difference.

But when the dismembered body of a migrant teen is found in one of Del Rio’s surrounding citrus groves, Callie faces a career make-or-break case that takes her on a dangerous journey down the violent west coast of Mexico, to a tropical paradise hiding a terrible secret, and finally back home again, where her determination to find the killer pits her against the wealthiest, most politically connected, most ruthless farming family in California: her own.

You can purchase Del Rio at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you JANE ROSENTHAL for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Del Rio by Jane Rosenthal.