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.