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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Interview with Jennifer Niven

Today I have the opportunity to welcome author Jennifer Niven to The Maiden’s Court.  She has written several books and the most recent, Becoming Clementine, the third book in the Velva Jean series, was released September 25th.  Read on for a look at the Velva Jean series, a little backstory on her earlier books, and more!

becoming clementine

Your newest release, Becoming Clementine, in the third book in your Velva Jean series.  When you starting writing the first book, Velva Jean Learns to Drive did you know it was going to be a series or was it originally intended as a stand-alone novel?

I wanted it to be a series, and I pitched it as such to Penguin. My editor said we would need to see how the first book did before they could commit to additional books, so it’s probably more accurate for me to say that I hoped it would turn into a series. I originally wrote the first Velva Jean book because I’d carried her around with me, in my heart and head, since film school. I wrote the first book and the second book because I wanted to read them. I also wanted to pay homage to the daring girls who appeared in their own adventure stories of the 1920s and 1930s, inspiring girls like Constance Kurridge and Flyin’ Jenny, who were comic book heroes. These were young women who spied and flew and acted and sang and fought crime and bad guys and fell in love and did exactly what they wanted to do and were well ahead of their time. I thought it was time for another series along those lines, one that women and girls of all ages (and men and boys too) could enjoy and, hopefully, feel inspired by.

I did not know that there were female pilots in World War II.  How did you come across this subject and what about it called out to you to write this story?

I first heard of the WASP when I was at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, for a reunion of the 101st Airborne. I had watched and loved Band of Brothers and was fascinated by the real-life heroes. While there, I met a lovely, lively woman who told me she had been a pilot in World War II, and I was immediately intrigued. My heart literally started pounding the way it always does when I come across an idea I love. I asked her question after question, and then I went home and started to dig until I discovered the WASP, or Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. I was riveted by these brave women who had left their homes and, in many cases, their families, to fly planes for the military as their war contribution. They flew the largest bombers and endured prejudice, harassment, and often sabotage at the hands of the men who didn’t think they should be flying. I thought they were some of the most courageous women I’d ever heard of and I knew I wanted to write something about them...

Were there a lot of resources available to you about female pilots and spies from the World War II era?  How did you conduct your research?

I was lucky enough to interview members of the WASP while writing Velva Jean Learns to Fly. Two particular women did much to inspire and inform Velva Jean’s story in the newest book—Hélène Deschamps, a member of the French Resistance who was later recruited by the OSS, and Virginia D’Albert-Lake, an American in Paris who worked for the Resistance while also helping to free Allied airmen on the Freedom Line. I was also fortunate to get to know Dr. Margaret Emanuelson, a former agent of the OSS, who was generous in sharing her vast knowledge and the memories of her experiences.

Although this is a novel, I examined numerous resources and conducted extensive research in an effort to make the events, the setting, and the period as authentic as possible. Perhaps the greatest resources were the members of the OSS Society and its president, Charles Pinck, and Roy Tebbutt and the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum (a.k.a. the Harrington Aviation Museum), in Harrington, England. Espionage expert Linda McCarthy, founding curator of the CIA Museum, was a terrific resource as well. I also owe much to the comprehensive (and recently declassified) National Archives and Records Administration OSS Collection, and the Churchill Archives Centre.

Do you have intentions of writing more Velva Jean novels or are you planning on moving onto new subjects?  Are you working on anything new at the moment?

I recently handed in the manuscript to the next Velva Jean novel, in which she goes to Hollywood in 1945, just as the war is ending. I’m also working on some TV projects with my producing/writing partners. And I’m beginning to think of what book might come next… As my literary agent would tell you, I am always, always writing.

To change gears for a moment – your two earlier books, The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack are based on two disastrous expeditions on Wrangel Island in the Arctic – a very different subject that those of the Velva Jean novels.  How did you decide to write about this subject?

It all started with The Ice Master. Because I had recently graduated from the American Film Institute, my mind was in movies. I was actually searching for ideas for a screenplay and I was glancing through the TV schedule and read about a documentary described as "Deadly Arctic Expedition." Immediately, I was intrigued. I love that kind of story—filled with drama, adventure, edge-of-your-seat action! So I taped the show, promptly forgot about it, and stumbled across the tape again a month or two later. I watched it and immediately fell in love with the idea.

Then I did as I always do with stories or topics I am interested in—I tried to find out everything I could about the subject. I read an account by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, in which he mentioned the ship Karluk only as a footnote to his discovery of the three last uncharted islands of Canada. But what about that ship? I wondered. What happened to those men he left behind? And the woman? And her two little girls?

And so I began to research, and I couldn't believe it when I discovered that there were only two accounts written about the expedition—both first-person narratives, and both then out of print. Someone must write this story, which was all I could think at the time. But how to write it? As a screenplay or as a book? I'd never written a book before, but somehow the story seemed to demand it.

The idea for Ada Blackjack came out of The Ice Master because two of the men involved in that first expedition were involved in the second one. The story was a kind of sequel, which made it a natural next book to do.

On your website you describe some of the various roles women in your family have had, from spies in the Revolutionary war to piloting airplanes.  Have any of these women shaped your life or the stories that you write?

The women in my family have spied in the Revolutionary War, run plantations and defied various enemies during and after the Civil War, raised ten or twelve or fourteen children on their own, flown planes, taught school, run organizations large and small, written books, and been crowned beauty queens. So I hail from a long line of strong Southern women who believe nothing is insurmountable, that you should always dream as big as possible, and that you can be or do anything you want to be or do. They also believe you can and should be a good, kind, gracious person while surmounting and dreaming and doing and being. Because of that influence, Velva Jean is the person she is.

But the main person who has shaped my life is my mother, Penelope Niven, who is an author as well. From a very early age, she told me I could be or do anything. She taught me not to limit myself. She taught me to be kind and loving to others. She passed along the research gene to me. She taught me the importance of being silly. She is a positive, gracious person, and imparted that to me. In addition, she shared her love of reading and writing. Ever since she instilled “writing time” into my childhood routine, I have loved a good story. While she sat at her grown-up desk, I sat at my little one, crayons in hand, composing fanciful tales about ordinary people who did extraordinary things. From her, I learned to find the story in everything, to appreciate wonderful characters, and to discover that I could actually realize my dreams of being a detective, an astronaut, an archaeologist, and an actress because a writer is adventurer, explorer, researcher, scholar, and chameleon in one.

When you are not writing or engaged in some aspect thereof, what do you like to do for fun?  I noticed on your website there are many recipes – do you like to cook?

It seems these days as if I’m always writing or researching something I’m planning to write. That, for me, is fun. It’s hard work, of course, but I absolutely love what I do. That said, I try to stay a balanced person, as much as I can while under intense deadlines. This means time with my boyfriend and cats, time with my friends and family, talking on the phone with my mom (who lives across the country from me), traveling, exploring, adventuring, exercising, dancing, going to movies, watching something fun on television, reading. I do like to cook, though I don’t do it often. My dad was a terrific chef, and many of the recipes on my website are his or are contributed by family, friends, and, most of all, my assistant Phoebe, who truly is an amazing and talented cook!

Photo Credit: Louis Kapeleris

Jennifer Niven lives in Los Angeles (where her film Velva Jean Learns to Drive won an Emmy Award and she once played the part of Shania Twain in a music video). Even though she's always wanted to be a Charlie's Angel, her true passion is writing, and her first book, The Ice Master, was released in November 2000 and named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year by Entertainment Weekly

With her mother, author Penelope Niven, Jennifer has conducted numerous seminars in writing and addressed audiences around the world.

When she isn't writing, Jennifer studies belly dancing, yoga, and electric guitar; explores her inner bombshell; hikes the great outdoors; immerses herself in the movies and culture of Hollywood's golden age; rabidly follows her favorite TV shows; comes to the rescue of homeless animals; reads three to four books a week when her cats aren't lying on them; and sees as much of the world as she can.

You can visit Jennifer at the following locations:



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