Monday, January 7, 2013

The Terroir of a Novel

by Rayme Waters

Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ] from terre, "land") is the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestow upon a particular product. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the product.

My debut novel, The Angels’ Share, takes place entirely in Northern California. From the craggy, wild coast of Marin, to the grand old money homes of Hillsborough to the wine country of Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, the settings of The Angels’ Share have inseparable influence over the story.

This puts me in great company. So many timeless stories cannot be separated from place. New Orleans is a character in Confederacy of Dunces, ditto the Mississippi River in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. James Joyce without Dublin would lose something in translation. As an author, I examine my writing to make sure all of the settings contribute to the richness of the story. If a setting isn’t absolutely vital to moving the novel along—building the character or creating resonance—I cut it. For example, here are the three main settings of The Angels’ Share and how I think they influence my debut novel.

San Francisco & Hillsborough
Small, but meaningful sections of the novel take place in a grand hotel atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill and at a formal, lonely Hillsborough mansion. The grandeur of Nob Hill gives us a sense of our heroine’s past, no matter how gritty her present may be. That she spends time in Hillsborough, a repository for much of San Francisco’s old money families helps color in the lines of her family and therefore her character. These settings represent the backstory of the novel: a grand age and a family in decay. The hotel, refurbished and reopened at the end of the novel is a metaphor for my main character—a phoenix reborn to live a better life: the ultimate California girl.

Western Marin & Sonoma Counties
The Angels’ Share started its life as a few chapters I wrote while staying at a charming, vintage Inverness farmhouse. Inverness and Bolinas are West Marin coastal towns: small, rustic with a fierce independent spirit. Early settlers there were cut off from the comforts of San Francisco and had to thrive in isolated circumstances. This quirky influence that has survived to modern day West Marin is palpable in The Angels’ Share. The gritty and rugged beauty of this Land’s End is the backdrop of novel’s opening scenes and sets the stage for the poignant and rocky struggle the main character will face until the resolution of the novel.

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County Wine Country
I borrowed details from many different Dry Creek Valley wineries when I dreamed up Trove Vineyards and the fictional wine caves where important scenes in the book take place. The process of winemaking and the history of this immigrant-settled region help provide plot and a series of complex metaphors that create depth to the novel.

At the turn of the 20th century, Dry Creek Valley was one of California's most prominent producers of Zinfandel, America’s grape. Prohibition created ghost wineries and decimated the vintners in this area for several decades. Much like the heroine of my novel, the fictional winery in The Angels’ Share had to be entirely rehabilitated. Brought back to life, both the winery and the girl prosper.

The Angels’ Share is the story of California, the story of the old money gone wrong, and the indefatigability of the wild west spirit that still can be found in pockets of the Golden State. It’s the story of healing and recovery, the story of the wine county, the story of a girl, a little bit of a mystery, a whole lot of love story and the ability of California’s land and people to reinvent themselves. Novels must be rich and resonate to be successful. As an author terroir is one of your tools to achieve these goals—make sure you use it.

Born in San Francisco, Rayme Waters grew up in Northern California and the city of Linköping, Sweden. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Dzanc Best of the Web Award. Most recently, her work has appeared in The Summerset Review, The Rumpus and The Meadowland Review. The Angels’ Share is Rayme’s debut novel.