Jennifer Niven Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s Interview Series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Jennifer Niven. Jennifer is the author of the popular Velva Jean series; Becoming Clementine is the latest release in the series. Her other books have received high praise as well; the true story Ada Blackjack is optioned for film, her memoir The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town is optioned for a television series, and The Ice Master was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year in 2000 by Entertainment Weekly and has been translated into eight languages. Jennifer and her works have appeared in several magazines including Newsweek and the New York Times Book Review, also on Dateline NBC and the Discovery Channel, and she has been featured in several foreign television programs. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of Becoming Clementine simultaneously with the hardcover on September 25, 2012. Jennifer, thank you for joining us today.
JENNIFER NIVEN: Thank you for having me.
GG: Tell us a little bit about this wonderful character that you’ve devoted three books to now, Velva Jean. What was the genesis for this marvelous person?
JN: Well, she was born a very long time ago in a short story by my mother, who is also an author. I was in film school at the American Film Institute years ago and I needed to find a subject for my thesis film. I remembered reading, a long, long time ago, short stories my mother had written about her small North Carolina hometown. I remembered one in particular called Velva Jean Learns to Drive. It was a very short story, so from that little glimpse of Velva Jean, I turned it into a short film, which won an Emmy Award. I knew then that I wanted to do something more with it, but I didn’t know what. Then, about six or eight years later, I started thinking about doing a novel. That led to one novel, and that has since led to four. The third one comes out next week, and the fourth I just handed in to my editor this past weekend. So who knew when it started with a short story that it would become this?
GG: There’s a fourth one?
JN: Yes, there’s a fourth one. That’ll be—
GG: How exciting.
JN:—next year. Yes, exactly.
GG: The new one coming out shortly, Becoming “Clay-mon-teen,” I assume we say. Is that right?
JN: I just say, “Becoming Clementine,” but you’re saying it the way she would pronounce it, being in France.
GG: So she takes on the personality of a French resistance fighter.
JN: Yes. When she crash-lands in France, she is left with a team of agents. She wants to become part of their mission as she’s trying to follow her own mission, which is to search for her missing brother. In doing so, she has to take on the personality of this other person.
GG: In the fourth book do we meet up with her after the war?
JN: We meet up with her just as the war is ending, and she goes to Hollywood in 1945, (laughter) which I love writing. I live in Los Angeles and I just absolutely love that era in Hollywood, so I was happy as could be doing the research for that.
GG: Now, your mother is a writer. Notably a biographer—
JN: That’s right.
GG:—of Carl Sandburg, Edward Steichen. And she has a new book coming out soon herself, about Thornton Wilder, which I know I’m going to be dashing to the store for. Your first book was nonfiction. Was this inspired by her writing? Why did you start with a biography yourself?
JN: It’s funny. I had recently graduated from film school when I came across the idea for the first book, so I was thinking in terms of film. I was not thinking in terms of books, and when I started doing research on the idea and becoming more and more excited about all the firsthand resources and materials, I of course told my mom about it and she said, “You know, the movie can always come later, but you really should write this as a book.” So that’s how that happened. I just fell in love with the story, and I’d never thought about writing a book before, and suddenly I thought, “All right. It’s something I would love to read.” So that’s how I fell into doing it that way.
GG: This is The Ice Master that I’m referring to. Was it difficult to write a book?
JN: It was. Writing a book is one of the hardest things I think that you can do (laughs) on this earth, but I’ve loved to write since I was a little girl, and because I grew up watching my mother write, I saw how difficult it was and how challenging it could be. Because of that, I started trying anything else. Acting—not that that’s not hard—but I’ve tried other things because basically, she scared me away.
JN:—Just by seeing how tough it was. But I couldn’t help it because I love writing and I’ve always loved it more than anything. So it was a joy to write because it’s my passion, but it was tough too. Very tough.
GG: And then the movie came along, the Velva Jean movie, and that inspired you to turn to fiction.
JN: That’s right. I had actually done two nonfiction books. After Ice Master, I did Ada Blackjack, which was a sort of sequel to that.
JN: So I was very much in the nonfiction world. I love the nonfiction world. In fact, I get the urge to go back to it frequently. I will at some point write more nonfiction, but I was trying to find another nonfiction idea after Ada and I couldn’t find one I loved so much that I wanted to do a book about it. The thing I really wanted to write was Velva Jean and so that’s why I decided to go in that direction.
GG: You’ve also written a biography about growing up in southern Indiana.
JN: (laughs) Yeah.
GG: And I know a lot of people might think, “Well, that’s in the North,” and I know that you consider yourself a Southern woman, but some people might not know that southern Indiana has a very strong Southern identity and culture.
JN: It does, but if you were to ask any of my relatives in the South, they would say, “Of course not. That’s Midwestern.” But I think in terms of Indiana, it does, but you know the main reason I consider myself a Southerner is that both sides of my family are all from the South. My dad’s side is from the mountains—Velva Jean’s mountains—and my mom’s family is from just outside Charlotte, in a tiny little town. I was born in Charlotte and we spent every summer and every holiday with my cousins and my grandparents. And then I was raised very Southern, so even though we lived away from the family and the South, I still feel like that’s in my bones.
GG: How do you say the mountains down there?
JN: The mountains?
JN: Well, the hills and the hollers and the—
GG: The Appa-latch-ans or the Appa-lay-chians?
JN: The—oh, the Appalachians? I tend to say Appa-latch-ans, although my dad was really from the Smoky Mountains and my mom, the Smokies and the Blue Ridge.
GG: Now, you’ve got some film, television adaptations coming?
JN: Well, Ada Blackjack was optioned by Gene Hackman and he was going to write the screenplay himself with a writing partner. He’s done some books, but he decided in the end that it was more challenging than he expected. (laughs) So that ended up not happening. Warner Bros. optioned The Aqua Net Diaries, which was my high school memoir, as a television series. My best high school friend, Joe Kramer, who’s very much a character in the book, and I were hired to do the pilot. We worked with Charlie Sheen on that one, which was a very interesting experience. But then, when Charlie broke ties with Warner Bros., that kind of fell through.
GG: Oh, the TV series?
JN: That’s right.
GG: So it’s on hold right now?
JN: It’s on hold. That’s right.
JN: That’s Hollywood. It’s what happens.
GG: Well, I hope they revive it. We want to hear more about Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town. With the nostalgia craze for the fifties and sixties right now, I would think it would be very popular.
JN: I would love to see it myself, selfishly.
GG: Do you ever listen to audiobooks?
JN: I do. I love audiobooks and not just my own. (laughs)
GG: Do you have time? Where do you do your listening?
JN: In the car. I live in Los Angeles, so I’m always driving.
GG: What kind of things do you like to listen to?
JN: I love a range of things. I love memoirs and fiction and nonfiction. I read everything and I listen to everything. It’s just a matter of what I’m in the mood for at the time. I will read or listen to books simultaneously, sometimes juggling three or four at a time.
GG: What’s the best thing you’ve heard or read lately?
JN: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. (laughs)
GG: (laughs) Pretty entertaining.
JN: Absolutely. It’s refreshing because I’ve been so entrenched in Hollywood in the 1940s. I’m kind of a method writer, so I like to surround myself with everything of the time—the music and the movies and the reading material—just to stay in the mindset, so I’m finally starting to break away from that since I just handed the book in. So I’m getting to read other things, which is fun.
GG: You narrated your first book, right?
JN: I did, and what a scary experience that was.I mean it was wonderful but daunting because I have such great respect for the people who do the narration of these books, and I just felt like, “Me? Really? Okay, well, I will give it my best.”
GG: Now, apart from your mother, who are some of your influences, especially when you turned to fiction? Who inspired you or influenced you?
JN: Probably the primary person is Flannery O’Connor, who’s my favorite writer next to my mother. I just love her work and I lived in Georgia for a while a couple years ago and not too terribly far from Milledgeville, which is where her farm was, where she wrote and lived. And it was great to go out there and spend some time. I think she’s brilliant. And Harper Lee—To Kill a Mockingbird—I probably read fifteen times while I was writing the first novel. And I love, oh gosh, I love the Brontës and Jane Austen and Shirley Jackson, who wrote The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She’s wonderful as well. Then I learned so much about the writing process from things Hemingway said. He had some of the best advice to writers of anyone. Those are some of the influences.
GG: You’ve been named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer. Has that affected you?
JN: It was wonderful. That was for The Ice Master, and it was so amazing for my first book. To get that honor was really wonderful. They were great in the promotion that they did, and I always will have a soft spot for Barnes & Noble because of that.
GG: Right now the film and TV things are on hold, but have you thought about creating a screenplay— putting it out there? How do you feel about screenwriting?
JN: It’s funny that you ask that. Screenwriting as an art form is not my favorite because it feels, for me at least, it feels very confining. I love the freedom of books. You know the book feels like kind of a wide-open landscape to me, and the screenplays and television scripts just feel very…I guess “confining” is the best word. That said, I do have a producing partner and while I was working on this last book I was working with her on an idea that we had for an original television show and right now it is being developed with a big-time director, so we’re hoping that that will come through. We can’t really talk too much about it, but we’ve got our fingers crossed.
GG: Well, that’s good news.
JN: Yes, exactly.
GG: We’d love to see something of yours on the screen and it certainly would be a treat to see Velva Jean brought back to life.
JN: And I do get inquiries about Velva Jean frequently, so I’m hoping that will happen.
GG: I hope so too. Well, it’s been wonderful talking with you today and we appreciate your time and being with us and telling us all about Velva Jean and some of the new projects coming up.
JN: I truly appreciate it and it’s been wonderful for me as well, so thank you for having me.
GG: You’re very welcome. Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Jennifer Niven. You can find Becoming Clementine and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in September 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Summer 1944, Paris, a secret mission, a dangerous passion—a spellbinding story you will never forget
After delivering a B-17 Flying Fortress to Britain, an American volunteers to copilot a plane carrying special agents to their drop spot over Normandy. Her personal mission: to find her brother, who is missing in action. Their plane is shot down, and only she and five agents survive. Now they are on the run for their lives.
As they head to Paris, the beautiful aviatrix Velva Jean Hart becomes Clementine Roux, a daring woman on a mission with her team to capture an operative known only as Swan. Once settled on Rue de la Néva, Clementine works as a spy with the Resistance and finds herself falling in love with her fellow agent Émile, a handsome and mysterious Frenchman with secrets of his own. When Clementine ends up in the most brutal prison in Paris while trying to help Émile and the team rescue Swan, she discovers the depths of human cruelty, the triumph of her own spirit, and the bravery of her team, who will stop at nothing to carry out their mission.