Sunday, January 19, 2014

Interview with author Jennifer Niven

The beautiful woman you see above is author Jennifer Niven. I am so happy to have author and friend Jennifer Niven here today for an interview. First I want to share her biography so those of you who are not familiar with her can get an idea of what a wonderful writer and woman we have with us today.

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. A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer, Jennifer has ten different publishers in ten separate countries, and the book has been translated into eight languages, including German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, and Icelandic.

Jennifer and The Ice Master have appeared in Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Talk, Glamour, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Book Review, The London Daily Mail, The London Times, and Writer's Digest, among others. Dateline NBC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel have featured The Ice Master and Jennifer in hour-long documentaries, she and the book have appeared frequently on the BBC, and the book has been the subject of numerous German, Canadian, and British television documentaries. The Ice Master has been nominated for awards by the American Library Association and Book Sense, and received Italy's esteemed Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002.

Jennifer's second book, Ada Blackjack — an inspiring true story of the woman the press called "the female Robinson Crusoe" — was released in November 2003, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, has been optioned for the movies, was recently translated into Chinese, French, and Estonian.

Jennifer’s third book and first novel, Velva Jean Learns To Drive (based on the Emmy Award-winning film of the same name), was released July 2009 by Penguin/Plume. Her fourth book, a memoir —The Aqua-Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town— was published in February 2010 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and was optioned by Warner Brothers as a television series. Jennifer's fifth book, Velva Jean Learns To Fly, was released by Penguin/Plume in August 2011. Her sixth book, Becoming Clementine, will be published September 25, 2012.

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

I was lucky enough to meet Jennifer through another author I talk about a lot and that would be R. Scott Boyer, author of Bobby Ether and The Academy. I had no way to get e-books at the time so Jennifer was wonderful enough to send me out a softcover and signed copy of her book The Aqua Net Diaries which I have mentioned here, reviewed and spoke about many times. Since then, Jennifer is on her way to sending me out another book and I will tell you all about it when I get it. But we email back and forth and she is not only a great author and a wonderful friend, but a mentor as well. So I would now like to present my interview with author Jennifer Niven.

1. What are the best and worst (pros and cons) things about being a writer?

I try always to strike a healthy balance between work and friends/family and exercise and taking time to be a person (as opposed to a writing machine). But sometimes it’s impossible. In 2013 alone, I wrote two books, lost my agent of fifteen years (who died unexpectedly in the spring), found a new agent, battled eye problems, dealt with more than one family illness, conceptualized my next book, and on and on. I have sacrificed free time, friend time, weekend time, health, fitness, fun, sleep. When I’m under serious deadlines, I enter what I think of as the Writing Cave, and stay there seven days a week, fourteen or so hours a day. I can go for days and often weeks at a time only seeing my fiancĂ© and three cats (because they live with me). Sometimes the schedule just has to be that hard and that tough and that full. Your friends will either understand or they won’t. Luckily, most of my friends are just as busy as I am, so they get it, and we commiserate, and then we keep right on going because that’s what you have to do.

All that said, as far as I’m concerned, writing is the best job in the world. My writing has enabled me to visit places and meet people I could never have imagined. When I’m writing something I love—and the writing is coming quickly and well—it’s the most wonderful feeling. I get so excited! I love the way it can surprise you, the way the characters and story have a way of carrying you along with them to unexpected places. At the end of each writing day, I feel as if I just returned from an exhilarating journey because in my mind I’ve traveled near and far and engaged with all sorts of interesting people. But perhaps the very best thing about writing is hearing that you’ve impacted someone’s life in wonderful, meaningful ways or inspired them to start writing themselves.

2. What inspired you to become a writer?

The primary creative influence in my life is my mother, author Penelope Niven, who has always encouraged my writing, who showed me firsthand how tough it is to be a writer but also how rewarding, and who, since childhood, taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be. She taught me not to limit myself. In addition, she shared her love of reading. 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.

3. When did you write your first book?

By the time I was ten, I had written several unfinished novels. But professionally it all started with The Ice Master, fifteen years ago. 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 recorded the show, promptly forgot about it, and stumbled across it again a month or two later. I watched it and immediately fell in love with the idea. I’d never written an entire book before, but my mother reminded me of something her own agent once said to her: Every writer has to write his or her first book at some point. Why not now?

4. How do you, personally, decide what to write?

Somehow, the story has a way of selecting me. I have no shortage of ideas, and only a few of those ever become full-length books. The stories you’re supposed to tell let you know when it’s time to tell them. Also, because writing a book is a lengthy and all-consuming process, I need to write a story and characters that I want to spend lots and lots of time with. I’ve put a number of ideas aside simply because, at the end of the day, I didn’t want to revisit the character (or characters) and setting for months and months at a time.

5. About how long does it normally take you to write a book?

This depends on the book and the deadline. It took me fourteen months to research and write The Ice Master, sixteen months to research and write Ada Blackjack, two years to write Velva Jean Leans To Drive , my first novel. But I researched, outlined, and wrote the latest Velve Jean novel, American Blonge, in three months. And my young adult novel, All The Bight Places, was written in just six weeks. (Of course, that doesn’t include all the weeks it takes to edit a book!)

6. What is your "routine" when writing, for example, do you write in the morning and then do other things in the afternoon or do you just write all day?

I write five-seven days a week for eight-fourteen hours a day, depending on my deadlines. I usually get started after an early morning workout, and then an hour or two (or three) of email catch-up and any other writer-related business that needs attention. And then I get into the creative work, which sometimes entails outlining, brainstorming, reading, researching, writing, editing, or all of the above. One of the very best things I learned from my mother and from my graduate program at the American Film Institute was the importance of discipline. You can’t be a writer without it. When I’m writing a project, I immerse myself wholly—right down to listening to music from the time period, watching movies from the time period, reading books my characters would have read, creating a soundtrack with songs relating to the story. I hear from people who ask if I only write when I’m inspired, but the answer is no. I work harder (and longer!) than most everyone I know.

7. Where do you like to write?

I have a big, sunny office in my apartment. It is stuffed with bookshelves and books and souvenirs I’ve collected throughout my career and my travels (not to mention my computer, which is what I almost always compose on). I call it the nerve center of our home. It’s where magic happens. But when I’m deep into a project, I tend to write everywhere—I get ideas while driving or working out or spending time with friends or doing errands. I record them on my phone or write them down on any piece of scrap paper I can find. My mind is always writing, long after I’ve left my office.

8. What was your favorite book to write?

Each book is my favorite for different reasons—The Ice Master because it was my first. Ada Blackjack because I managed to write it and deliver it even as my dad was dying of cancer. Velva Jean Learns To Drive  because it was my first novel and came right from the heart. The Aqua Net Diaries because I wrote it at the same time as Velva Jean Learns To Drive  and somehow managed not to lose my mind. The subsequent Velva Jean books, which all had to be written in VERY short amounts of time, and which contain pieces of me and my life at the time. My forthcoming YA novel because I wrote it in just six weeks, and the subject matter was the most traumatically personal I’ve dealt with to date. I felt very exposed and very brave writing that book, and very proud of myself for being able to do it. I also loved writing it. After spending the last several years working on the Velva Jean  series, the YA book was a fun and challenging change of pace, and as a writer—in order to keep the writing fresh— it’s important to keep yourself stimulated and challenged creatively.

9. What is your favorite book you have ever read?

In addition to my mother, my favorite writers are Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Hemingway, the BrontĂ«s, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Jane Austen (and the list goes on). Two of my favorite books are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. I also adore Little Women and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle. (Shirley Jackson’s writing is so good, I get goose bumps the entire time I’m reading.) Ray Bradbury’s short stories are terrific. I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When I’m writing Velva Jean, I always keep To Kill A Mockingbird (another favorite book) and Flannery O’Connor’s collected stories nearby. I read them and reread them as a way to stay immersed in a Velva Jean-like voice even when I’m not actively writing. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast lives beside my bed for inspiration and commiseration. And for fun—when I just want to relax before sleep—I read Lois Duncan or John Green or Melvin Burgess or other YA authors (there’s so much good stuff out there right now), or I reread Louise Rennison’s hilarious Georgia Nicolson series.

10. Could you see yourself at all ever doing anything but writing?

No. Unless it was International Rock Star Detective, my dream job.

11. What is your absolute snack food you must have while you are in creative mode?

Snacking is dangerous when you work at home! I always crave popcorn (my favorite food), but at my desk I only let myself eat boring things like natural almonds and carrots.

12. Tell me about your writing seminars and why you decided to give back to the community?

Because I’m a lucky, lucky girl—my mom has been so influential in my life, that I want to do what I can to (hopefully) give back in similar ways and inspire other writers the way she has inspired me.

13. Since you mentioned you like Hollywood's Golden Age, and I do as well so much, I have to ask you what your favorite movie is? And why?

There are too many to list! I love the classics and the movie stars of that era. Carole Lombard is my favorite, but I’m a sucker for the "Thin Man" movies, "You Can’t Take it With You", "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", "The Awful Truth", "City Lights", "Gone with the Wind". I’m also a sucker for Frank Capra films. Probably one of my favorite movies of all time is "The Magnificent Seven" because I love stories about a group of disparate people coming together for a common cause. Plus Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen! Need I say more?

14. As your biography reads, from your first book, The Ice Master, you had pretty much instant success. How did you feel about that and how did you handle it?

That was such an exciting time and such a whirlwind experience. It felt almost like a fairytale except that I had worked really hard to get there. I was working at when my agent sold the book at auction, and I’ll never forget walking into my boss’s office the following day and giving her my two-week’s notice. My co-workers had no idea I’d even been working on a book. The very best feeling of all was that I did it myself, without any help from my mom. I could have easily gone to her wonderful literary agent, whom I’ve known all my life, but I wanted to earn my place and whatever followed. I wanted to open the doors for myself by myself.

15. We already know you are a successful writer. Are there any more books forthcoming that you are working on?

At the end of last year, I finished editing the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde, which will be out from Penguin on July 29, 2014. The book is currently in the production stage, so there is still work to be done. At the same time, I’m just entering the copy editing phase of my first YA novel, All The Bright Places, which will be published by Knopf in early 2015. As a companion to that story, I created a web magazine called Germ (, so I’m also in the throes of working on that. And I’m beginning work now on my second YA novel.

16. Tell me about your new magazine. I have been dying to hear about it.

As I mentioned, Germ was born out of my upcoming YA novel for Knopf. All The Bright Places is about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die, and it will be released in early 2015. In the book, Violet, my female character, creates and runs a web magazine called Germ. As I was writing the book, I thought, What if I were to create an actual Germ…? In a flash, I was off and running (I’m like that). I didn’t have much more than a—well— germ at the time, but I knew the site needed to be not only fun and entertaining but informative, empowering, activating, and inspiring. We just launched on January 15, and we intend to tackle issues big and small, serious and funny, hard and helpful, while also encouraging young writers and artists and other creative types to share their work. Although Germ originally grew out of All The Bright Places, it has quickly taken on a life of its own. With a staff of twenty-six (and counting), we are, if I may say so, an impressive and illustrious (not to mention prolific) group of folks. We are writers, artists, comics, photographers, musicians, editors, students, teenagers, and adults. I’m so inspired by what we’re becoming and where we’re headed.

17. What are your suggestions for someone who wants to become a writer?

Write. Read. Write. Read. Work hard. Remember to enjoy it. Don’t forget to play and have fun with your words. Write the thing you’re burning to write. Don’t be afraid of writing twaddle, as Katherine Mansfield said. “But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.” Learn to love editing, or at least accept it as one of the most important parts of the process. When I was first starting out, the actress Madge Sinclair told me, “Writing, like any art form, takes soul stamina. You have to be prepared to commit to it, want it more than anything, honor your gifts, and stick it out through thick and thin.” I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, so I saw firsthand how difficult and stressful and unpredictable the business was. I also saw the commitment it took. I’m grateful for that because I think so many people go into the business of writing with unrealistic expectations—not realizing that it is, in fact, a business, and that you have to be ready and willing to do it in spite of everything else.

My other advice is to write what inspires you. Write what you love.

Thank you so much for answering all of my questions. I loved the answers. And you gave some great information for writers as well. I hope the writing community realizes what a gem you are and I am very excited about your upcoming book and projects. I am happy to know you as an author and a friend. Thank you again for doing this interview with me.

You can find Jennifer Niven in the following places:

American Blonde is on shelves July 29th.

A peek at GERM Magazine: