Jennifer Niven is an accomplished writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Her latest novel, Becoming Clementine, launches tomorrow, September 25. Jennifer graciously agreed to be interviewed for A Writer of History and I asked her the same sort of questions I asked the top historical fiction authors.
Why do you write both historical fiction and historical non-fiction? I have always been drawn to the true story. I come from a long line of Southern storytellers, and one of our favorite past times was and is telling stories. Whenever we gather together, whether it’s on the front porch of one of the North Carolina family homesteads or at Lincoln Center in New York City, we inevitably start spinning tales. Some of them (our equivalent of the Top Ten) get told each time we’re together, even though we’ve all heard them a hundred times before. The thing these stories have in common is that they’re true. Truth really is stranger than fiction, and as a writer of both nonfiction and historical fiction, I clearly find inspiration in real people and real events.
Because I consider myself a writer first and foremost, as opposed to a “writer of nonfiction” or “writer of fiction,” I write both historical fiction and historical nonfiction. I like to think I can write just about anything I put my mind to, which is why I’ve also written a memoir, film scripts, short stories, plays, movies, and television scripts.
Do you have a preference? I don’t have a preference, but each time I’m coming to the end of a project, I get very wistful about the other genre. In other words, if I’m writing fiction, I wish I were doing non-fiction (because I wouldn’t have to make up so much of the story on my own and be responsible for so many decisions and details). And when I’m writing nonfiction, I sometimes long for the freedom of fiction (and the lack of footnotes or endnotes, which I hate, as necessary as they are!).
Is one easier than the other? More successful than the other? I think both are equally challenging, both in the same ways and in different ones. I’ve been lucky to have success in historical fiction and historical nonfiction, although the advances and sales for nonfiction are, as a rule, typically greater than for fiction.
How long did it take for your first book, The Ice Master, to be published? I wrote The Ice Master for Hyperion, selling the idea based on a book proposal. The proposal went to auction, and I was given sixteen months to research and write the manuscript. My publisher “crashed” the book, which means they cut their production time in half and hurried the book out just six months after it was edited and completed—a short amount of time in the publishing world!
As an historical fiction author, what do you think attracts readers to your books? I tend to write about high-spirited, gutsy, colorful (yet regular) people who survive tough circumstances, loss, and often tragedy, and not only move on, but flourish and triumph in the end. Almost all the readers I hear from say they are inspired by my characters and their stories, that the characters encourage them to be braver, to feel stronger, that they teach them to carry on. I hear from cancer survivors, abused women, professional adventurers, teenagers who want to make their mark in the world, housewives, teachers, and so many people who say my books reminded them to pursue dreams they had long since forgotten.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? I keep myself open to the possibilities. You never know where an idea will lead you. Many times in my research I’ve set out to study one thing, which has led me to another. I go off on tangents because there is so much to discover. You have to let yourself do this, but also know when to rein yourself in. The same applies to the writing. I outline before I begin, but I always know that the outline will change—like any good journey, there will be unforeseen detours along the way. In terms of my daily schedule, I get up every day and work, often seven days a week for 10 or 12 or 16 hours a day. I hear from people who ask if I only write when I’m inspired, but I work harder than most everyone I know. It’s a job, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best job in the world.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? Aside from my mother (who is also a writer), my primary literary influences are Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, and Harper Lee. I borrow so many sage and shrewd writing tips from Hemingway. And Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (which could arguably be considered historical fiction) is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s a book I wish I’d written.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? I think you have to possess a love of research—the “research gene,” as my mom calls it. I could research and research without ever stopping. Sometimes the book or archival materials or iPad literally has to be removed from my hands so that I will take a break (there are so many fascinating things to learn in this world!). You need to be able to organize details, facts, and information, while also knowing when to relay the truth and when to dramatize, and how to merge fact and fiction. So much of it comes down to instinct.
How do you select new stories to tell? 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.
What advantages do you think come from writing follow on stories as you have done with Velva Jean? Any disadvantages? Writing a series is a great way to build a fan base of readers who (hopefully) will follow you from one book to another. And it gives you a chance to build on that readership with each book. However, the deadlines are tough. My publisher wanted each Velva Jean novel to come out a year apart, which means I’m editing, editing, editing and promoting and publicizing one book while researching and writing another, and all within about nine months time. It’s exhausting.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I’m lucky in that I’m a very disciplined person. I have no trouble being productive, because writing is what I love to do most in this world. I have trouble not writing! My literary agent calls me one of the most, if not the most, compulsively writing writer he knows. One rule I follow religiously is something I learned from Hemingway, which is always to leave off in the midst of what you’re working on at the end of your writing day. This makes it easier to pick up the flow the next morning. If you come to the end of something on a Monday, it’s that much harder on a Tuesday to go forward, right off the bat, with the same focus and energy. I also remember something one of my high school English teachers taught me: “pure economy of word.” Most of my favorite writers write economically—there’s very little extra fat, if you will. I write fast and long (my first drafts usually come in around 700 pages), but I have a fondness for dialogue, and an aversion to adverbs and too much description. I whittle and edit and cut, cut, cut. So much of writing is editing. You have to be able to be ruthless with the material.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? It’s so funny you ask this because lately I’ve been trying to figure out just what my brand is. I’m not a chick lit author or a true crime writer. I’m not easily classified. I think my brand is that I’m a writer. Period. I write. I write everything because I love writing. And I tend to love stories about ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. People with big dreams who aren’t afraid to go after those dreams. People who are survivors. I love the underdog, the ordinary, reluctant, unexpected hero.
What do you do to connect with readers? I’m active on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Red Room, and I try to keep my website as interesting and dynamic as possible. I have two amazing interns working with me, and we update our blog posts frequently and also try to include a range of content that will appeal to all types of readers.
What do you know about your readers? I know that they are hard to pigeonhole as well because they are so diverse. The readers of my historical fiction are fiercely devoted to my character, Velva Jean Hart (from Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Becoming Clementine), to the point where they weigh in on plotlines and character choices, etc. I love that they see Velva Jean as a real person and that they’re so invested in her and her stories. On the other hand, the readers of my nonfiction, for the most part, want to know when I’ll stop “messing around with fiction” and go back to writing true-life adventure history.
What data do you collect about your readers? I don’t really collect data so much as I pay attention to the things they want to see from me and from my characters. It’s important to write what you love and what you feel passionate about—to honor the creative muse—but it’s also important to listen to what the reader wants. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “’Tis the good reader that makes the good book.”
What strategies guide your writing career? I probably should have more of a strategy than I do because my work might be more classifiable and more easily branded. That said, I write the things I believe in. Whether I’m working in books or in television, if the idea doesn’t feel organic to me, if I don’t feel it in my bones, then I know I need to put it aside and move on to something else. I write the things I want to read (or watch).
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Honestly? Nothing. I wrote each book for a very good reason. Just as I’ve shaped every story, each of those stories—and the experience of researching and writing and promoting and traveling with them, not to mention meeting and hearing from readers—has helped to shape the person I am.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Explore your family history. There may be something fascinating there that you can incorporate into your story. Weaving my family’s stories into the books makes Velva Jean’s own story resonate even deeper with me and for me—it makes me feel even more a part of her, of the characters, and of the journey. I love to sit back and look at the book and see parts of my history in there—things no one else might recognize— and fragments of the people I love. My other advice is to write what inspires you. Write what you love. Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? Yes—who has been the most inspiring and influential person in my life? The answer 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 as well. 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.
Becoming Clementine: It’s summer 1944 and Velva Jean has just become the second woman in history to pilot a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean as a member of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). After flying the B-17 Flying Fortress into Prestwick, Scotland, she volunteers to copilot a plane carrying special agents to their drop spot over Normandy. Her personal motivation: to find her brother Johnny Clay who is missing in action. But when the plane is shot down over France and only Velva Jean and five agents survive, she is forced to become a fighter; to become a spy; to become Clementine Roux.
Jennifer – many thanks for visiting A Writer of History. I wish you lots of success for Becoming Clementine.