The Writer’s Life: Frances Dinkelspiel

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

This Friday night is the vaunted Library Laureates dinner (tickets are still available), and one of our laureates is not only a major Bay Area literary figure, but has deep family roots in the state’s history as well.  Of course, she’s written about that!  Frances Dinkelspiel is the author of Towers of Gold, a regular blogger, and a contributor to The New York Times.

MEH: You have a wonderful blog, Ghost Word:  Ethereal Thoughts on Books and Writing, and you’ve been blogging for five years!  How did you become such an early adopter, and how has your relationship with blogging evolved over the years?

FD: I started Ghost Word on a whim one February evening after I had attended an authors’ dinner at the Berkeley Public Library. It was such a wonderful event that I wanted to write about it. I’m a newspaper reporter by profession and I loved the immediacy of a blog. I write about the Bay Area literary scene — readings, book deals, new books, big personalities — and about the process of writing and how to get published. When Towers of Gold came out, I started to write about what it’s like to promote a book. So Ghost Word has changed as my writing experiences have evolved.

MEH: Towers of Gold, tells the story of your great, great grandfather Isaias Hellman, who basically established the banking industry in California.  How did you come to understand that your own blood relative had played such a pivotal role in the history of the state — was this patriarch a constant ‘ghost’ presence in the family?  (How could he not be?)  Did writing the book dispel any myths as it uncovered other truths?

FD: I did not know much about Isaias Hellman growing up except that he had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank. I was writing personal essays and wanted to weave in some family history, so I went to the California Historical Society to look through Hellman’s papers. I thought I would be there a day, but was amazed to find 50,000 documents. I stayed about six years. It was only by going through all his papers and noting the amazing array of businesses he was involved in that I started to understand the scope of his importance and influence.

MEH: Hellman has been called a “Zelig” figure and his story is described as “retrieved” by you from the mists of time.  Why wasn’t he better known?  Is it a California thing — you know New Yorkers, especially in publishing, often intimate that anything that happens or happened here is not quite relevant.  Does anti-Semitism have to do with it?

FD: I am not sure why Isaias Hellman wasn’t better known. It might be because there are so many colorful characters in California history and Hellman was a fairly regular guy. It may also be that he was involved in so many areas – banking, transportation, wine, water, oil, land development, power, and education – that they sort of canceled on another out.  I don’t think anti-Semitism accounts for his lower profile, but his Jewish roots certainly do. He grew up in Germany where Jews weren’t citizens and they had to get government permission to do almost everything. California was welcoming to Jews, but Hellman was always wary about standing out too much.

MEH: You have lots of stuff going on.  You’re writing for The New York Times, and you’ve started a new blog, Berkeleyside.com.  How do you do balance all these ventures?

FD: I am way too busy but I can’t seem to give anything up. Writing for the New York Times satisfies my love for daily journalism.  Berkeleyside.com is a project I started six months ago with two friends. It’s a website devoted to news about Berkeley and it is an attempt to fill in the holes left by cutbacks by local papers. It’s rewarding and immediate. I can write light stories like where to find the best sandwiches in town, as well as serious stories like ones about the cutbacks at Cal or the recent deaths of two teenagers in a car accident.

MEH: Are you writing another book?

FD: I am working on an idea right now so I can’t say too much. But it is another narrative nonfiction book on California. It has a crime at its center.

One Response to “The Writer’s Life: Frances Dinkelspiel”

  1. Great interview, great book, great writer! I’ve heard Frances speak and she’s also a wonderful speaker, helping to keep San Francisco’s founding fathers and wonderful characters
    alive. More power to Frances and to Mary Ellen!

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