Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

August 7, 2013

Literary snacking — the food that helps me write

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When you spend hundreds of hours at your desk each week (or so it seems), you need the inevitable snack to keep you company.  By the time lunchtime rolls around, I’m usually so deep in the writing flow or smack in the middle of wrestling the creative alligators (as Hemingway called it) that the last thing I want to think about is how to feed myself.  And you have to feed your brain because you cannot write hungry.  At least, I can’t.  I mean technically I can, but it’s not the kind of writing that makes sense.

For some reason, walking three blocks to Robeks is easier than stopping to make a salad– there’s just something so nice about taking a short stroll in the California sunshine and having someone else do the preparing.  But most days of late I can be found with a little army of sustenance lined up by my computer so that I don’t even have to move if I don’t want to.  Raw almonds, Trader Joe’s Just Mango Slices, my 32 oz. purple water bottle, some lemon ginger Yogi tea, and raw carrots.  I know– yuck.  I’d prefer popcorn, my favorite snack ever, but that’s more of an end-of-the-hard-hard-writing-day reward, and besides, it doesn’t give me the brain energy I need to write.

I’m not alone in literary snacking.  My brilliant and beautiful writer mother has a weakness for chocolate malted milk balls– especially the ones that come from here– so much so that she won’t let herself keep them in the house except on very special occasions.  (Stocking the pantry with foods you love is VERY dangerous when you work at home!)

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The New York Times wrote a fun piece on “Snacks of the Great Scribblers,” that reveals Lord Byron drank vinegar (which had the added effect of keeping his weight down), Truman Capote favored mint tea and martinis, and Emily Dickinson snacked on her own homemade baked bread.

The trouble happens when you plow through your regular snacks and find yourself rummaging through the refrigerator and cabinets for ANYTHING– the last few stale Triscuits at the bottom of the box, the apple sauce you bought last Christmas which is probably still good, the half eaten energy bar floating in the bottom of your purse.  This is when you need to go to the store and stock up again, except, of course, that there isn’t any time for that.

What keeps you going at your desk?

June 2, 2013

The Ghosts of Wrangel Island

On May 17, I wrote an article for National Geographic’s website about my 2005 journey to Wrangel Island, the setting of my first two books.  Here are a few more pictures from and of the island (and the trip by Russian icebreaker), which I’ll be traveling back to in August of 2014.

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(Polar bears and musk oxen pics courtesy of James Wilson)

 

 

November 19, 2012

Tribute to a spy princess

When Ada Blackjack returned from the Arctic, the only survivor of an ill-fated expedition, she was uncomfortable being called a hero. “Brave?” Ada would say whenever people would praise her courage. “I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”

A number of real-life female spies inspired Velva Jean’s harrowing and heroic journey as a secret agent in Becoming Clementine. One of them was a beautiful and courageous Indian princess named Noor Inayat Khan.

On November 8, seven decades after her death, a statue was unveiled in London. The statue bears tribute to the courageous Princess Khan– Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine– who was the first woman radio operator dropped into France by the SOE.

She was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her father was Indian, her mother American. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in luxury and comfort, playing the harp and writing stories. She later studied child psychology at the Sorbonne.

At the end of 1940, she and her family fled France (escaping to England by boat) before the government surrendered to Germany. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator, and was recruited by the SOE in 1942. She was sent back to Paris a year later. There, under the codename Madeleine, she sent vital messages to London while trying to evade the Germans. In October 1943, she was arrested and tortured, but she refused to talk. In September 1944, at Dachau, she was executed by the SS. She was thirty.

England’s Princess Royal dedicated the statue at Gordons Square not far from the house where Noor was living when she left on her last mission. Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said at the November 8 ceremony, “We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.”

In an era when most women were expected to stay at home and tend to the house and the children, women like Noor Inayat Khan were ahead of their time. Standing in Gordons Square, Princess Anne said she hoped the new statue will “remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?”

Noor, like the thousands of other women who spied in World War II, simply did what she had to do in a terrible time under extraordinary circumstances. She would probably have shared Ada Blackjack’s discomfort at being called brave. Her last word, as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was simple and unyielding: Liberte.

March 19, 2012

When Nonfiction is Fiction

As I’m researching Velva Jean’s Hollywood story, 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.

Hollywood-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.

Because 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?

Although 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.)

To 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?

March 12, 2012

The Places a Book Can Take You

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 8:56 am

Right 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.

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.

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

I’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 it 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.

I 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.

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 to 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.

February 7, 2012

Behind the Book — Writing Advice from My Uncle Bill

My mother, Penelope Niven, and I are both writers, and because of this my family often participates in our author events, traveling with us on tour (when possible) and purchasing multiple copies of our books to give to everyone they know. When my grandmother Eleanor was alive, she would call up bookstores in the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area and ask if they carried the latest books by Mom or me. If they didn’t, she would say, “Well you should!” and hang up.

While most of my family members, wonderful as they are, don’t understand the actual day-to-day process of writing a book, they are our greatest and most enthusiastic fans.

My mom’s brother, Bill, however, seems to get it. Bill isn’t a writer, but he is creative. He is brilliant, possessing a wonderful kind of downhome, folksy wisdom. He’s tall and rambling—and, at 65, is the same big-hearted country boy who, at least once a week, used to “find” stray animals in the bushes outside the house where he and my mother and their two sisters grew up. He has a North Carolina accent a mile wide.

Historically, Mom writes very long books. Her biography of Carl Sandburg, the definitive work on his life, is 843 pages and her biography of Edward Steichen, the definitive work on his life, runs 808. Her upcoming, hugely anticipated biography of Thornton Wilder, due out in October from HarperCollins, is 836 pages. (Voices and Silences, the book she wrote with James Earl Jones, is a mere 394 pages.)

As I am in the thick of edits/copy edits of my upcoming novel, Becoming Clementine (from Plume this fall!), and as I prepare to return to the researching and outlining of the novel that will follow it (title still to be determined), I keep Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing nearby, along with a picture of his daddy, my granddaddy, who also had wise things to say about the writing process, namely: deadlines are really lifelines and, when editing, you can almost always lose the last sentence of every paragraph.

While most of Bill’s comments originated with my mother’s work, they are certainly relatable to my own, especially as I am faced with editing and cutting and trimming down the length of Becoming Clementine, and trying to think of alternate ways to say “like,” “said,” and “just,” all of which I tend to overuse.

Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing

1. A book should not be so long and big and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow.

(Case in point, each first draft of each Velva Jean book has been cut down drastically, and my first draft for The Ice Master was 813 pages long. In the end, I cut 300 of those pages before it ever went to print.)

2. You have to remember that there were parts of Carl Sandburg’s life that were boring even to Carl Sandburg.

(Or Velva Jean’s life, or Ada Blackjack’s life, or ice master Robert Bartlett’s life, or my own life, goodness knows, as told in my high school memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries. In other words, you don’t need to relay everything that ever happened to your character/subject. Pick and choose the moments to write about.)

3. If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it.

(I remember this every time I conduct research or write a new scene and find my attention wandering off in the middle of it, or, most recently, when I reread Becoming Clementine and feel the slightest bit restless.)

4. It must be easier to write short than to write long.

(Even as I’m stripping out words or lines or paragraphs or whole chapters of Clementine, I’m thinking to myself: Why didn’t I just leave these things out the first time around? The answer, for me at least, is that even when I remove sections of a manuscript, I know the material was once there. I think writing long to end up writing short helps the book seem deeper and more layered, even if you’re the only one who knows what’s missing.)

5. A lot of people seem to think that just because they can write the alphabet they can write books. From what I’ve seen of your work, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

(It is, truly, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize it and how astute—I would even say profound—this observation is. I work all the time. ALL the time. Yet one of the things I hear most often from well meaning people is: “I’ve always thought I would be a writer if only I had the spare time,” as if we are talking about Canasta or kite flying or crossword puzzles. My mother hears this frequently too, and once, at a party, she heard it from a prominent brain surgeon. When he said, “I’ve always thought I would write a book if only I had the time,” she replied, “That is so funny. I’ve always thought I would practice brain surgery if only I had the time!”)

6. I remember the little girl who looked at one of your mom’s books and said, “Wow! I didn’t know anybody knew that many words.” And your mom said, “It’s not so many. I used a lot of them more than once.” Still it must be hard to keep track of them so you don’t repeat words too often and get on your reader’s nerves.

(It is hard to keep track of them, particularly when you write two nonfiction books about Arctic expeditions and have to describe ice again and again. This is one reason Mom and I love to read the dictionary because even when you use a lot of words, there are still so many to learn.)