AN INTERVIEW WITH KEN SALTER
Q: Why did you choose to tell the history of the California Gold Rush through the experiences of French immigrants instead of Americans?
A: There were many factors and considerations. French women were among the earliest to arrive and compared to Chilean and Chinese women, French women were considered “chic” and more desirable even if they had been lowly “street walkers” in Paris. Paris was the capital of world fashion and dictated what women must wear to be fashionable. Owners of the major gambling palaces were quick to appreciate the attraction of French women — their seductive dress and charming accents. By employing them as baristas, musicians, and hostesses to attract lonely miners to the gambling tables, the gambling palaces were guaranteed a roaring business. Also, French food, wine and liqueurs, like French couture and fashion, were considered the best in the world in this epoch. And lastly, as the majority of French and other Latin language speakers didn't speak much English, they were considered “outsiders” by the English speaking miners. This led to inevitable clashes between these groups over rights to mine. By following the saga of French immigrants, one can explore and highlight the social and cultural differences between the various groups as well as their attitudes and biases.
Q: What prompted you to choose French protagonists rather than Italians, Spanish or South Americans or other European groups?
A: Well, I studied French and Spanish in high school and was awarded a scholarship as the top foreign language student on graduation. I continued to study French language and literature at U.C. Berkeley and never lost my fluency as I continued to read French literature even after graduation from law school at Berkeley and embarking on a dual career as college professor and international lawyer. It’s prophetic that my high school French teacher from Strasbourg predicted one day I would have a deep connection with the French and probably live and work in France; these were her final words to me just before she returned to France after retirement. Lo and behold, I met my talented French wife in France and we have always lived together in both California and France.
Q: What piqued your interest in the California Gold Rush?
A: A friend took me bottle digging in an 1850’s trash dump in the Bay Area and one of the first of many major finds was a small pharmacy bottle and rouge or unguent pot embossed with the name “Pharmacie Francaise/ B. Lefevre & Companie.” I realized as I examined the porcelain pot with the tantalizing black transfer label that I had found a real and exciting piece of California history. I was determined to learn more of the origins of the artifact collection I was assembling. Together with my wife, we researched the French presence and collected the maps, books, letters, bottles, artifacts and ephemera that documented their lives during the Gold Rush.
Q: Was there one special bottle or artifact that determined you to write your trilogy on the Gold Rush?
A: It was really cumulative. We amassed such a large collection over many years that we determined to donate it for posterity to a French museum dedicated to portraying the history of the French in the New World. We gave our collection to Le Musée du Nouveau Monde in La Rochelle, France as they had fabulous artifacts documenting French Canada, the spice islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the trappers and slave traders of the 18th C., but few items on the French in California. Our donation is on permanent display in the museum including the one bottle that did spike considerable interest and intrigue. Among the hundreds of champagne bottles I’ve dug over the years, there was only one with an applied seal. It came out of an 1852 dump of mostly French material near the shoreline. The seal applied to the bottle was an embossed royal coat of arms. After much research, I was able to determine the coat of arms was none other than that of King Louis Philippe of France who was deposed in the riots of 1848. I reasoned that the champagne bottle was probably from the stock in the French consulate in Monterey or San Francisco. Was it drunk to celebrate or mourn the overthrow of the King?
Q: Why write historical fiction instead of a history of the French in the California Gold Rush?
A: To be honest, I’ve read so many history books and narratives full of wonderful historical accounts, but most often written in dry, professorial prose that turns off all but the most ardent fans of the period. By telling the historical story through fictional characters using dialogue, I believe an author can bring the history to life in a more interesting way and appeal to and interest a much broader audience to this exciting period.
Q: That brings me to my final questions. How did you arrive at the characters of Pierre Dubois and Manon Rousseau? Were they based on actual persons during the Gold Rush?
A: No,they are really composites of various personalities I have observed.
Q: It seems that in Part II, Manon plays a more significant role than in Part I. Is that intentional?
A: Yes, and that is due in large part to reader interest and feedback. While male readers seemed fascinated with Manon’s sexy looks, spunkiness and cooking abilities, women readers responded more favorably to her, as well as Teri and Giselle’s, quest for independence and demand to be treated as equals with males in a male dominated environment. California’s novel legislation granting women property rights to tempt them to marry and settle in California offers a unique opportunity to tell an important but little known consequence of the California Gold Rush.
Q: Will you continue to develop this theme in Part III?
A: That will depend on the feedback to Part II. I can tell you, however, you’ll meet some of San Francisco’s most interesting and famous visitors and settlers who left their mark on the City and State. We’ll meet the notorious Lola Montez, who charmed princes, became the mistress of the King of Bavaria and wowed audiences with her famous “Spider Dance.” We'll also make the acquaintance of Mammy Pleasance — the famous African-American cook and abolitionist; M. Boudin, the French baker who invented San Francisco's famous sour dough French bread; M. Ghiardelli, the Italian chocolate maker; Levi Strauss, the Bavarian tailor who invented jeans, the staple of the miners’ costume which endures to this day, as well as a host of other memorable characters — some savory and some not.