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Interview with Jennifer Niven

I recently finished Becoming Clementine (review below) and had a few questions for the author, who was gracious enough to “stop by” somuchsomanysofew to chat about writing, womanhood and war. 

As a writer, I’m uncomfortable with the question I’m about to ask you, but as a reader, I must:  what inspired Velva Jean?  Was it the time and place?  The community, the characters, the building of the Scenic Highway?

Velva Jean was first born in a short story of my mother’s.  After paying her $1.00 for the rights, I wrote a short film script—Velva Jean Learns to Drive—while a student at the American Film Institute.  The screenplay was awarded the Colin Higgins Screenwriting Award, and the film went on to win an Emmy.  I always knew I wanted to do more with the story—to revisit it and expand it—adding in some family history from my Appalachian ancestors.

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.

Thanks to our friend the internet, I know that you come from a lineage of independent women, from your mother, the biographer and memoirist Penelope Niven, to (and this was a fun find), your ancestor, the Revolutionary War figure Jane Black Thomas.  One of the most endearing qualities of Velva Jean, for me at least, is her selfless and resolute sense of purpose.  “This needs to be done; how can I help get it done?”  Whether it’s personal – learning to drive to get to the Grand Ole Opry – or inspired by “the right thing to do” —  volunteering to fly where no woman has gone before in Becoming Clementine.  How was (if she was) Velva Jean shaped from your legacy?

 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 Velva Jean hails 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. 

To see Velva Jean grow, in the pages of my mom’s short story, from the girl who teaches herself to drive in order to take her daddy to the doctor, to the girl dreaming of Nashville in Velva Jean Learns to Drive, to the determined and fearless pilot in Velva Jean Learns to Fly, to a war hero in Becoming Clementine has been rewarding and thrilling and, at times, exhausting.  I often feel as if I’m living her adventures with her, and sometimes I think:  Velva Jean and I need to lie down and rest for a while!  But we keep going because there is so much for her to do still, and so many places for her—for us—to go.  Through all these adventures, it’s been fascinating for me to witness, as the author, the ways in which she’s grown and changed that I hadn’t anticipated or planned.  One of the things that has been the most remarkable to me about this entire process is how often our lives parallel each other, often without my realizing it until much later.  It makes the experience, and Velva Jean’s evolution as a person, even more personal, because in her I can see my own evolution as well.

Tell us something about the research for Becoming Clementine.

Two particular women did much to inspire and inform Velva Jean’s story—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 have 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.

In your research for Becoming Clementine, was there anything you found particularly striking about conditions or activities in wartime London and France?

This is such a little detail, but when I was researching wartime Paris, I loved reading that many of the local women began wearing flowers in their hair as not only an effort to bring color into that very grim, unsettling, often terrifying existence, but as a quiet act of defiance.  I think it was these quiet little acts in particular that struck and impressed me most—the small ways in which the citizens of occupied Paris retaliated against the Germans.

The books (Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Becoming Clementine) follow hard on one another’s heels – in the sense that a plane taking off at the end of one book is still in mid-air at the beginning of the next.  Did you envision a longer storyline when you were writing the first Velva Jean book? 

I actually envisioned the first book ending with Velva Jean learning to fly.  I always thought she would liberate herself from her husband and mountain life by working at a bomber factory in Atlanta, and that the book would end with her becoming a WASP.  But the more I wrote, the more I discovered that the journey in the first book really ended with her learning to drive an old yellow truck, and then driving that truck away from her husband and family and the only home she’d ever known as she went in pursuit of her dreams.  I realized flying was an entirely different adventure.

I guess I’m asking, was Velva Jean always going to play a part in WWII?

I always knew she would come of age during the war, but originally I saw her as a pilot, as a WASP.  At first I didn’t really see beyond that.  Then I started thinking, what if she became a spy…

And . . . you fly?

Unfortunately, I don’t!  But I would love to.  Just as I would love to be a spy working for the OSS and a Hollywood movie star in the 1940s (the subject of the fourth Velva Jean novel, which I’m at work on now).  As a little girl, the thing I loved most about writing was that it could take you anywhere. Through my stories, I could see the world– the universe!– or imagine a new one.  I could be anyone or anything.

Now that I’m all grown up and writing for a living, this is still the thing I love most about writing. I get to travel, through words and computer, to distant, exotic, foreign lands, often going back in time to long ago worlds or forward in time to ones that haven’t even been created.  In that way, I get to fly, to spy, etc. 

That said, don’t be surprised if you see me in the sky one day, just like Velva Jean…

Available September 25 from amazon or IndieBound.

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2 responses »

  1. This is a great interview. I have wondered about some of these things. Isn’t it funny where story ideas come from?

    Reply
  2. Q. You’ve written two books of nonfiction, the award-winning The Ice Master and its sequel, Ada Blackjack. Why the switch to fiction? Which did you find easier to write – nonfiction or fiction? Which experience was more rewarding?

    Reply

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