Launch: Rebecca Rosenberg’s Madame Pommery: Creator of Brut Champagne
INTERVIEW BY LESLIE S. LOWE
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
Widowed at thirty-eight with a family to support, Madame Pommery revolutionizes champagne from a sweet dessert drink to the dry, crisp champagne we enjoy today. Despite the Prussian army occupying her home and country, Madame Pommery secretly excavates caves under the city dump and builds the most spectacular castle winery in the world. She shows courage and resilience and creates something miraculous.
What inspired and attracted you to writing historical fiction?
I’m inspired by unusual stories of extraordinary women who lived before us, whose stories have not been told. I can shine a light on their story and what they contributed to the world.
Is this a stand-alone story or will there be additional stories to follow?
Madame Pommery: Creator of Brut Champagne is the second ‘Champagne Widows Novel’ about the widows of France who created champagne empires in an exclusively male world. Women were not able to own businesses unless they were widows who needed to support themselves. So, these widows used the “widow loophole” to forge champagne empires. Veuve Clicquot in the early 1800s and Madame Pommery in 1860.
What difficulties did you encounter in writing it?
Madame Pommery’s experiences are unique. She was raised by her mother and spinster aunts and sent to finishing schools in Paris and England, where she met Scottish nobles and loved their castles. She had an arranged marriage and did not help in her husband’s business. When he died, she had to support a teenaged son and infant daughter. Without any experience, she started a champagne business and revolutionized champagne. She further shocked the world by excavating wine caves under the city dump and building a spectacular castle winery!
So, the “difficulty” is in imagining what motivated her to do these astounding things in the mid- 1800s when women were not allowed to own businesses, and not welcome in the business community.
Is there a key historical event you found in researching that inspired you to write this story and portray a key message for now?
The Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871 reminds me of the gut-wrenching Ukraine-Russian war. But the key historical issue in the ‘Champagne Widows Novels’ is that since women were not allowed to own businesses, when they became widows, they took advantage of the opportunity to create world-class champagne empires.
How did you balance the research with writing the story? Did you get to do any interesting interviews for your research?
The crazy part of history is that there are several versions of what happened, even from reliable sources! My most important interviews were with the head of heritage and patronage at Champagne Pommery. Still, many questions I asked could not be answered, such as the specific roles of Madame Pommery’s children.
It was challenging when I found conflicting information about the General-Governor who occupied Madame Pommery’s home during the Franco-Prussian war. Credible sources, such as the New York Times claimed it was Prussian General Frederick Francis, yet Pommery said it was Prince of Hohenlohe, but did not give any information on him. When I researched the Prince of Hohenlohe, no source claimed he was ever in Reims during the war. He was only reported in Paris. So I went with General Frederick Francis.
I consulted several champagne histories, biographies, and genealogy records to research the Pommerys, their main employees and associates. Many times I found conflicting information. In the end, I choose the most likely scenario.
Regarding the balance of fiction and fact, I use facts as the skeleton of the story and embellish with likely leaps of faith. For example, Madame Pommery created a Scottish castle winery in France, a totally unusual idea for 1878 when she opened it. Why she chose that design is unknown, but she did go to finishing school in England. She must have seen Scottish castles, specifically the two she used in designing her own.
I had written the entire book with Henry Vasnier portrayed as Madame Pommery’s assistant, yet I sensed there was more to their relationship. Pommery said there was no proof that they were anything but business associates. When I toured Vasnier’s mansion, the historian told a whole different story, claiming that Madame Pommery and Henry Vasnier, fifteen years younger, were long-time lovers and designed the home together. I had to rewrite the manuscript with that juicy tale!
How do you think the reader will connect with your characters?
Madame Pommery is courageous, ambitious, inventive, altruistic with her orphanage—all traits that make her likeable. I hope readers will love and admire her!
Every author has her own publishing journey. Tell me about yours.
I was published traditionally with my first novel, The Secret Life of Mrs. London, and that was great because I did not know anything about publishing. My publisher focused on twentieth-century historical fiction and all my current novels are nineteenth century. For the later books, I went with independent publishing, and have my hand in every part of the process, from cover to promotion.
What advice would you give to other aspiring historical writers?
Alfred Hitchcock said, “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.” That’s what I aspire to do. Thrill Me! by Benjamin Percy claims a reader needs to be thrilled when they read a book. When the reader is finished with one of my books, I hope they’ve learned something, were entertained by the story, and remember it was about a real woman who changed the world.
What is the last great book you read? Why?
Sisters of Leod Castle by Elisabeth Hutchison Bernard. What a fascinating story about real life sisters who could not be more different, and equally compelling!