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

November 13, 2012

My mom is a rock star

“I want my epitaph to testify that I have been a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend; and I have taught, written, and lived with joy.”  — Penelope Niven

I’m the twenty-second great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, long heralded as the “Father of English Literature,” so I like to think being a writer was predestined. But I know where to give thanks. The person who has influenced me most is, without a doubt, my mom, Penelope Niven.

She is the author of numerous award-winning and critically acclaimed biographies: Carl Sandburg: A Biography, Edward Steichen: A Biography, and Voices and Silences, co-authored with the actor James Earl Jones. She has also penned a memoir, Swimming Lessons, and a book for children– Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet— which was awarded an International Reading Association Prize “for exceptionally distinguished literature.”

As she says, she is a writer of lives.

She has been awarded two honorary doctorates, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, among other honors. She received the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author.

Her latest book, Thornton Wilder: A Life, was released October 30 by HarperCollins. It’s the first biography of the novelist and playwright (best known for Our Town and The Matchmaker, which inspired Hello, Dolly) since 1983, and it is also the first to be based on “thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder’s life, work, and times.”

For the past twelve years, Mom has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder’s papers, including his family’s private journals and records. Edward Albee calls the result “a splendid and long needed work.” At 848 pages, it’s a big book, but its 2.2 pound weight doesn’t begin to encompass or represent all Mom went through personally to produce it– not only the long, arduous hours bent over papers and sorting through materials, the outlining and structuring and writing and editing and footnoting, but the time she spent contending with life stuff that inevitably causes challenges along the way of any writer’s journey.

My mother isn’t just a distinguished and celebrated writer. She is the most inspiring, brilliant, beautiful, insightful, wise, warm and funny person I know. She is the one who taught me I could be or do anything. She is the one who taught me the importance of story, and how to see the story in everything. She is the one who taught me grace, good manners, humor, compassion, joy, the importance of being silly, and resilience. She is my hero.

So join me in celebrating my mom, Penelope Niven. Buy the book (or books), listen to her latest interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” watch her on the PBS series American Masters in the film The Day Carl Sandburg Died, and read the recent front page rave from The New York Times.

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.)