SIX MINUTES WITH JENNIFER NIVEN:
Today Jennifer Niven joins LitPick for Six Minutes with an Author! Jennifer has written nonfiction and fiction, both historical and contemporary, adult and YA. Her books share a common theme: they are stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Jennifer’s first two books were the nonfiction Arctic adventures Ada Blackjack and The Ice Master, which were followed by the autobiographical book The Aqua Net Diaries about Jennifer’s high school days. Jennifer has written four books in the Velva Jean series. Her most recent book is All the Bright Places.
Jennifer is related to Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd, and is the twenty-second great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer. She knows the words to every ABBA song and is good at finding out the answers to things. She can also count to ten in Japanese!
How did you get started writing?
I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, who taught me that I could be or do anything I wanted to be or do, and for as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m an only child, and when I was a little girl, we used to have “writing time.” From her, I learned to find the story in everything, and I learned never to limit myself or my imagination. I also saw firsthand how difficult and stressful and unpredictable the business was. And I saw the commitment it took. Even during the toughest, saddest times of her life, she wrote. In so many ways, she was my hero. I think 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.
Professionally, it all started with The Ice Master, sixteen 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 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?
Who influenced you?
My mom, most of all, but I love Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Nick Hornby, and Harper Lee. I also get a lot of inspiration from filmmakers. Charlie Chaplin in particular. All of these artists taught me the importance of being succinct but expressive, and of saying a great deal in the most straightforward way.
Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting?
One of my favorite books is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I wish I had written it. I love stories that blend dark and light. I love stories with an edge. My favorite literary character is Alice of Wonderland because even when she finds herself lost in a completely nonsensical world she manages to remain (for the most part) levelheaded and slightly irritated. My favorite setting is probably the Carpathian mountains, the moors of England or Scotland, or the dark alleys of Victorian England. I’ll read almost anything set against those backdrops!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
Write, read, and work hard. Remember to enjoy it. Don’t give up. Don’t get hung up on making it perfect, because there’s no such thing. Write the kind of book you’d like to read. Write what inspires you. Write what you love.
Where is your favorite place to write?
My 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.
What else would you like to tell us?
When I was a screenwriting student at the American Film Institute, the primary criticism I got from my teacher and my fellow writers was that I didn’t put enough of myself in the stories I wrote. They wondered if I would ever be able and willing to truly open up and put every hard, sad, tough feeling and experience on paper. More so than any of my previous books, All the Bright Places proved to me I could do that.
Jennifer, thank you for spending six minutes with LitPick! The story of how you got started writing and your mother’s influence made this a perfect interview to run the week leading up to Mother’s Day!