At SLR, we ran a raving review of Jennifer Niven’s first Velva Jean novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, so we were thrilled when we received the sequel, Velva Jean Learns to Fly. Niven didn’t disappoint.
We’re pleased to select this title as our September Read of the Month, and we hope you’ll enjoy her spunky heroine as much as we have. We also hope you enjoy the following conversation between SLR contributor Philip K. Jason and gifted author Jennifer Niven.
SLR: When and how did you determine that the Velva Jean character could be developed into a series of novels?
JN: I knew from the beginning that I wanted Velva Jean to appear in a series because the adventures I pictured for her went far beyond just one book. With the Velva Jean series, I 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 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.
SLR: What future plans do you have for Velva Jean?
JN: I’m currently working on the third book in the series, in which Velva Jean goes to war and becomes a spy. So far, it’s the most gripping, most exciting, most edge-of-your-seat adventure that she’s had. The book will be out next summer, and the fourth book, Velva Jean Goes to Hollywood, will be out the summer of 2013. Those are the two I have lined up next, but I have many more adventures in mind for her beyond that.
SLR: Can we expect to see more of the somewhat mysterious Butch Dawkins?
JN: Butch Dawkins does come back in Velva Jean Learns to Fly and has a much bigger role than he did in the first book. He won’t be back in the third book (though Velva Jean will certainly think of him and feel his presence), but he will be back in the fourth one (and, hopefully, in others to come).
SLR: What are your favorite research surprises in setting her into early 1940s Nashville and then into the war effort?
JN: In researching the books, I’ve discovered so much history that I never knew. I’ve always been fascinated by World War II, but in researching the war and the time period, I’ve come across so many amazing personal stories about the women who were WASP and the women who built bombers and the women who were spies and even the women who were sharpshooters in the Russian army. There is no way I can possibly do justice to them in my books, but I am trying to honor them and capture (in at least some small way) their bravery, their fearlessness, and their great and important contribution.
Perhaps my favorite surprise of all is the realization that, no matter how daring Velva Jean’s adventures as a pilot or a spy, nothing compares to the real life adventures of the women who actually lived them. An early reader of Learns to Fly said that she loved the book even though it was unbelievable because none of those things could have happened. Yet many of the more dramatic events in the novel were inspired by actual events.
On a personal note, through my research I was able to learn more about my granddaddy’s World War II experience, even though he died in 1987. The only thing I knew about his war involvement was from a single newspaper clipping that belonged to my grandmother—a map of Italy with a hand drawn arrow to Anzio and, in Grandmama’s handwriting, a single word: Jack. I was able to reconstruct his wartime journey, which I gave to Linc, Velva Jean’s older brother. Even though Linc isn’t a major character in the book, it still meant a lot to me to weave that information into the story.
SLR: In what ways do you see the adult Velva Jean as a product of her Appalachian background?
JN: I think her background very much influences how she sees and interacts with the outside world—her values, her sense of self and place, her great security in knowing she is loved and comes from a happy, loving place and happy, loving people.
One reviewer called her “mind-bogglingly positive,” and I take this as a compliment. In that way, Velva Jean and I are alike. I have a wonderful, supportive, loving family and came from a wonderful, supportive, loving place, and I believe that this has helped shape me and has influenced the way I see the world and the people in it—just as it has shaped and influenced Velva Jean.
SLR: Can you tell our readers a bit about your writing process?
JN: I write five-seven days a week for eight-fourteen hours a day, depending on my deadline. One of the very best things I learned from my mother (author Penelope Niven) 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. A friend calls me a method writer. When I can, I like to try to experience some of the things my characters experience—like driving an old yellow truck or flying.
In terms of the actual day-to-day process, one of the best things I learned about writing was from Hemingway, who believed in stopping the writing day in the middle of a task, a scene, a chapter so that it was easier to pick up the thread of the creative flow and thought the next day. If I’m coming to the end of something toward the close of my day, I make myself notes about what I want to do but I don’t let myself complete it. That way, I’m eager to get back to it the next day and then the flow (hopefully) continues from there.
SLR: Which modern or contemporary writers have most influenced you? How?
JN: My favorite writers are Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Hemingway, the Brontës, Jane Austen, and Louise Rennison. Two of my favorite books are Capote’s In Cold Blood and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
When I’m writing Velva Jean, I always keep To Kill a Mockingbird 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 and reread Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson series. But 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.
By the way, Velva Jean first appeared in a short story of my mother’s, some twenty years ago. When I was a screenwriting student at the American Film Institute, I purchased the rights to the story from Mom for a dollar, and turned it into a short film, which went on to win an Emmy Award, which went on to become a series of novels…