becoming_clementineOn September 15, I handed in the manuscript for the fourth book in my Velva Jean series (Velva Jean Learns to DriveVelva Jean Learns to Fly). Today the third book in that series comes out– Becoming Clementine.

I have now crawled out from behind my desk, Gollum-like– shrunken, blinking and shuffling into the sunlight– to get ready for the publicity phase of book three. I am trading my yoga pants, yoga tank, and flip-flops for pencil skirts, red lipstick, one very Charlie’s Angels-esque black pantsuit, and suede pumps, and heading out into the world to promote Becoming Clementine. Being an author is much like being Sybil, that famous possessor of multiple personalities. At various times throughout the process of working on a book, a writer needs many different sides.

jennifer_niven_clementine1You need to have a vivid imagination, able to conjure ideas and characters often out of thin air. You need to enjoy detective work and have the patience and determination to come at your research from all angles and track down just what you’re looking for. You need to like being alone, willing and able to happily, diligently spend month after month after month hermited away by yourself as you write and edit your book. You need to have the passion and ferocity of purpose to be at your desk for all that time and see your project through, no matter what– in spite of weariness and struggle and writer’s block and life. You need to be sensitive and observant to draw real, breathing characters. You need to be a critic, able to judge what you’ve written impartially and openly. You need to be analytical and impartial so that you can ruthlessly take your words apart and put them back together again.

jennifer_niven_clementine2You need to be outgoing and at ease in the spotlight, talking to nice folks who want to ask you questions and discuss your work and host you for book events, meeting readers, signing books, doing panels and speeches and book clubs and readings. You need to be tough and resilient to read and hear what people will say about your book– this book you’ve been pouring over and bleeding into and sacrificing everything for. (As my mother says, “To be a writer, you need to have the soul of an angel and the hide of an armadillo.”) You need to have enough stamina and fortitude to come up with an idea and do it all over again.

jennifer_niven_clementine3Book four will boomerang back to me sometime in the fall with my editor’s changes/notes/edits/suggestions/cuts, but for now it’s all about Becoming Clementine. It’s that time in a book’s life when I’m making the rounds, doing interviews, gathering reviews, answering questions, going on tour, etc. I love this part of it, even though it also carries its own degree of stress: reviews, feedback, sales. But I’m planning to enjoy it. After all, soon enough it will be time to pull on the yoga pants and retreat into the cave once again.

becoming_clementineMy grandfather Olin Niven was a postal inspector, traveling the country, investigating dangerous crimes. He also edited and wrote for the newspaper in his small North Carolina town. He was brilliant and kind and quiet, and one of the wisest people I’ve ever known (years after his death, I wove him and his warm and gentle wisdom into Velva Jean Learns to Drive, as Velva Jean’s granddaddy, Daddy Hoyt).

On days like today, when I am up at six a.m. and will be jennifer_niven_lifelines1working until nine or ten p.m., I try to remind myself of something Granddaddy used to say. Whenever my mother or I would grumble or cry or rant to him about our writing deadlines, he would gaze at us with wise blue eyes and, in his patient, steady voice tell us, “Remember: you get to do this, no matter how hard it can be.  This work is who you are. It is what you’re supposed to do.  And so it’s not a deadline, it’s a lifeline.”

jennifer_niven_lifelines2Some days that’s easier to remember than others. Today for instance. I am months into a seven-day-a-week work schedule, juggling pre-publicity and promotion for the soon-to-be-released (September 25) novel, Becoming Clementine, as I continue to research and write (and constantly restructure and edit) its sequel, which is due to my editor in September.  Between tasks, here and there, I try to squeeze in moments with loved ones in an effort to recharge, refresh, and remind myself that I’m human.  As Mom and I often say to each other, we feel like twelve dogs pulling the Iditarod.

But in the back of my mind, always, is Granddaddy’s voice. All through the day I repeat Granddaddy’s words to myself, just like a song: You get to do this. You are lucky to do this.  It’s a lifeline, lifeline, lifeline…

velva_jeanTallulah Bankkitty, better known as Lulu, is part Scarlett O’Hara, part Tinkerbell, and part Bonnie Parker. She is the minxiest, smartest, flirtiest, cleverest little soul, and I am lucky to have her. But, as my mother says, she is very much a fulltime cat. She is also the most enthusiastically involved and interactive literary cat I’ve ever known.

Let me describe a typical morning. Today for instance, Lulu is jennifer_niven_cat1having a very busy day, even for Lulu, who is always busy. One of the reasons she’s so busy is that my boyfriend Louis and I both work out of our home, and this means she is constantly running between offices to help us with things. First, she participated in Louis’s morning work-related telephone conference, performing flips and somersaults at his feet, and when that didn’t work, climbing all over him– lap, shoulders, the arm and back of his desk chair, and when that didn’t work, sitting on his keyboard and petting him.

jennifer_niven_cat2As soon as he hung up the phone, she was, of course, finished. In those moments, it’s really about the attention being paid elsewhere and not some urgent desire to bond with us. She then joined me down the hall in my office where she pulled numerous pages out of the printer, and then climbed on top of it, as she always does, in order to better get her paw inside and figure out its inner workings. When we were done printing, she retired to the water bowl for some much-needed hydration, and that was when the real drama began.

I moved the bowl yesterday, just four feet from where it originally sat, since her dear brother Rumi, jennifer_niven_cat3as sweet and innocent and perpetually confused as Lulu is shrewd and sassy and deductive, needs to dig at the water in order to see it (he is part-Siamese and has slightly crossed eyes that wiggle), and I was trying to salvage the wood floor from where it was beginning to warp from all that sloshed liquid.

This morning, after Lulu finished her telephone conference and her printing duties, I heard a series of thuds and scrapings, like a body was being dragged a great distance, and there was Lulu, pushing the bowl back to its original place, first with her paw, then with her nose, water splashing everywhere. I said what I always say when she does something she shouldn’t be doing: “No ma’am.”  I try to say it reasonably but firmly, knowing full well she’s aware that she’s doing something she shouldn’t be doing which is, of course, why she’s doing it. She stopped– as she always does when I say this– and blinked at me, and then proceeded to go on doing it until the bowl was back in its original place. She sat down then and drank and, when she was done, she left, off to hunt her favorite orange earplugs, the ones we bought her in bulk for Christmas because she kept stealing mine. Out of my ears. As I was sleeping.

jennifer_niven_cat4After a ferocious game of earplug hockey, it was time for Mistress of the Jungle, as my mom calls it, which is what Lulu sounds like when she races up and down our rather long hallway, ears flattened against her head, tail puffed out as big as a skunk’s, growling like something out of the deep, dark woods (we call it the Great Throaty Beastess). This is especially disconcerting given that she’s tiny and weighs just eight pounds and her regular meows are nothing more than squeaks. When she transforms into Mistress of the Jungle, as she does every day, her brothers Rumi and Satchmo (our shy and portly, almost eternally patient former dumpster cat) scurry out of the way and peek at her from around doorways, a bit alarmed and, in Rumi’s case, terrified, since he seems to temporarily forget who she is.

This carried on for ten minutes, and then she marched back into my office and, after checking to make sure the water bowl was still where she had moved it earlier, sat beside my keyboard and stared at the monitor, huge green eyes blinking dreamily and a bit sleepily, watching me write.  Mercifully, she did this for an hour (she actually does this daily, as if we’re writing the book together), which gave me the chance to do a good bit of writing uninterrupted.

Then, bored with that, she arranged herself on my lap with her head thrown back against the jennifer_niven_cat5keyboard and watched me from that angle.

When I didn’t pay enough attention to her (I was, after all, trying to write a book), she jumped down and flounced over to my reading chair, just beside my desk, where she proceeded to Give Me The Back, as we call it.

After I apologized and told her how pretty she was (“pretty” is her favorite word), she returned to my desk, where I managed to admire her sufficiently and pet her with one hand while typing with the other. After a few minutes, I stopped typing (but not petting) to go back over something I’d written, reading it aloud to Lulu, who listened for approximately 45 seconds before she got so bored she had to take herself off for a nap in the cat bed that sits on a corner of my desk.

jennifer_niven_cat6This was my cue to do what I always do when Lulu takes herself off for a nap– I started writing furiously. And so I will write furiously for the next ten minutes or two hours that she’s asleep, until she gets up and decides to rearrange all the index cards (i.e. the outline of my next chapter) that are so meticulously, carefully, painstakingly arranged on my desk.

Update: An hour later, I got up to stretch my legs and return the water bowl to its new place. Three hours later, Lulu has just moved the water bowl back again.

becoming_clementineOne of the latest phenomenons in the writing world is the book trailer. These trailers are meant to do what movie previews do– alert an audience to an upcoming project and inspire them to see (or, in this case, read) it.

When I was eight years old and beginning my writing career, I liked to promote my books and stories.  Back then I worked with crayon and construction paper, often illustrating one of the more exciting scenes and adding eye-catching slogans such as:  You don’t want to miss this!  Get your copy today!  Best Book of the Year!  Voted the Best Book Ever Written!

By the time I was ten, I had already written numerous songs, jennifer_niven_trailer2a poem for Parker Stevenson (“If there were a Miss America for men, You would surely win…”), two autobiographies (All About Me and My Life in Indiana: I Will Never Be Happy Again), a Christmas story, several picture books (which I illustrated myself) featuring the Doodle Bugs from Outer Space, a play about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sister entitled Blindness Strikes Mary (which my fourth grade teacher very generously let me produce, star in, and direct), a series of prison mysteries, a collection of short stories featuring me as the main character (an internationally famous rock star detective), and a partially finished novel about Vietnam.  Even then, I understood the importance of promotion.  One day, when I very industriously mixed and packaged my own perfume out of my mother’s perfume, various household cleaning liquids, toothpaste, dirt—whatever I could find—and went, without my mother’s knowledge, door to door to our neighbors in our Maryland neighborhood, I made sure to tell them about my books at the same time.  My mother made me return the money I made, but even as I was handing it over I knew they would remember that I was a writer of very interesting stories.

jennifer_niven_trailer1All these years later and five books into my professional writing career, I’m still promoting.  But the book trailer is a brand new animal.  I’ve never had a trailer for any of my books.  For book number six, Becoming Clementine, my publisher suggested that it would be a good thing to have. Which translates to: Jennifer becomes a filmmaker over night. (Although publishers love to promote them, the book trailer is almost always the author’s responsibility.)

Now, I do have an MFA from the American Film Institute, but even so, to produce any sort of mini movie in a week or two (my deadline) is a daunting task, especially when you are still continuing to work fulltime on edits of the loose galleys of said book and the research and outlining of the next one. For that week and a half, I was producer, writer, director, prop master, continuity person, P.A., stylist, set designer, editor, researcher, rights coordinator, and actress. And my wonderful boyfriend– who taught himself Final Cut Pro as we went– was co-producer, co-director, co-editor, as well as cameraman, sound technician, sound mixer, and special effects man.

When we were finished making the trailer, I truly felt as if we deserved an Oscar simply because of the amount of time and effort that went into it. And so I give you my (abbreviated) Academy Awards acceptance speech: “I couldn’t have done it without my boyfriend. Period. But I also want to thank composer Michael Hoppé for his beautiful song ‘Tapestry,’ which was not only the soundtrack for the trailer, but the soundtrack for the actual writing of the book (the song I listened to again and again when I wanted to write the more poignant, heartfelt scenes). And I want to thank musician, friend, and Velva Jean fan Briana Harley for her oh-so haunting rendition of ‘Oh My Darling Clementine.’ She nailed it. There are others– my beloved and brilliant mother, my cats (thank you, Lulu, for allowing us to lock you away while we were filming so that you didn’t end up in every single scene), my stepmom for her savvy feedback, and all my friends and loved ones, who may not have held a boom or donned a blonde wig for this, but who helped out just the same…”

I could go on, but then my speech would be longer than the trailer itself.

So, without further ado, here it is:

velva_jeanRight now I am so busy juggling two books, that my readers and friends worry about me. Their primary concern is that my work is too isolating and that it keeps me too burdened down at my desk. I am at my desk a lot, especially at this moment as I’m editing what’s called the galleys or first pass of my upcoming book (to be released September 25), Becoming Clementine; producing, writing, directing, designing, acting in, and scoring a trailer for the book; and researching/outlining/writing the book that comes after, due to my publisher September 15. It’s true I’m at my computer or working somewhere for hours every day. But, while I may at times feel overwhelmed (to put it mildly), I never feel limited.

jennifer_niven_places1As 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.

One of the other best things about writing books is that they can literally take you to the most interesting places.

jennifer_niven_places2I’ve written each of my books because they were stories I wanted to read. I didn’t write them because I wanted to travel to this setting or that one to do research or because I hoped I might be invited on nice trips someday. But that’s exactly what has happened.

For research, I’ve been all over Scotland and Canada. I’ve been to Paris, London, Maine, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Vermont, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, the Smoky Mountains, Missisippi, Newfoundland, and the tiny town of Wilson, North Carolina, to eat barbecue with the son of Arctic heroine Ada Blackjack, the subject of my second book. I’ve toured Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and climbed around the imposing Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stood on the dock in Victoria, BC, where the men of the Ice Master expedition set sail in 1913. For my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, I even reunited with my high school classmates in our small Indiana hometown, retracing the steps of my big-haired, boy crazy teenage self.

With my publishing team from Pan Macmillan, I was one of the first to ride the London Eye, soon after jennifer_niven_places3it opened.

I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the jawbone of one of the sailors I wrote about in The Ice Master to reunite his last remains with his great-nephew while teams of news crews filmed us.

I was invited to Venice, Italy, to speak to the Italian Explorers Club and receive the Giuseppe Mazotti Prize for Literature, Italy’s highest literary honor.

I’ve attended a ball on the Queen Mary, had tea at the home of Lord George Emslie, Lord President of the Court of Session and Lord Justice General, Scotland’s senior judge from 1972 until 1989, and drunk moonshine with gold miners in the mountains of Georgia. I’ve posed for pictures in front of icebergs and on top of mountains, in graveyards and ruins, and with puffins and moose and llamas. I’ve become good friends with the families of the men and women I’ve written about.

In 2005, a few years after the publication of my Arctic nonfiction adventures The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, I was invited to the high Russian Arctic for two weeks aboard an ice breaker. With Quark Expeditions, I traveled up the Bering Strait, stopping at remote Inuit villages, before reaching Wrangel Island– the setting for those first two books– where I was dropped by helicopter with Bob Headland, then head of the Scott Polar Research Institute, and a Russian translator, and allowed a private tour.

jennifer_niven_places4I appeared at the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, North Carolina, where award-winning designer Joycelyn Armstrong had created a kitchen inspired by Velva Jean Learns to Drive.

Just last year, I returned to my Indiana hometown for the official book release party for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and listened to Mayor Sally Hutton proclaim it “Jennifer Niven Day.”

In 2014, I’ve been invited to go back to the Arctic– for a month this time– for the 100th anniversary of the Ice Master expedition rescue, and will once again travel by ice breaker up the coast of Siberia to Wrangel Island.jennifer_niven_places5

Most recently, I was invited to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for a Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure, hosted by Adventures by the Book. As we were on our behind-the-scenes tour, exploring the basement of the museum where all the planes are constructed and refurbished, my boyfriend said, “You get toJennifer Niven, author of Velva Jean Learns to Fly go to the coolest places.”

And I do. But perhaps none cooler than the places I get to go to every day when I’m just sitting at my desk.

velva_jeanAs I’m researching my fourth novel in the “Velva Jean” series, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

jennifer_niven_nonfiction1Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

jennifer_niven_nonfiction2Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

jennifer_niven_nonfiction3Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack– especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir,The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

jennifer_niven_nonfiction4To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Visit Jennifer Niven on her website.