What inspired you to become a writer?
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. In addition, she shared her love of reading. Ever since she instilled "writing time" into my childhood routine, I've loved a good story. While she sat at her grown-up desk, I sat at my little one, crayons in hand, composing fanciful tales about ordinary people who did extraordinary things. From her, I learned to find the story in everything, to appreciate wonderful characters, and to discover that I could actually realize my dreams of being a detective, an astronaut, an archaeologist, and an actress because a writer is adventurer, explorer, researcher, scholar, and chameleon in one.
How do you decide what to write about?
Somehow, the story has a way of selecting me. I have no shortage of ideas, and only a few of those ever become full-length books. The stories you're supposed to tell let you know when it's time to tell them. Also, because writing a book is a lengthy and all-consuming process, I need to write a story and characters that I want to spend lots and lots of time with. I've put a number of ideas aside simply because, at the end of the day, I didn't want to revisit the character (or characters) and setting for months and months at a time.
Which of your books is your favorite?
This is like deciding which is your favorite child or favorite cat. Each book is my favorite for different reasons The Ice Master because it was my first. Ada Blackjack because I managed to write it and deliver it even as my dad was dying of cancer. Velva Jean Learns to Drive because it was my first novel and came right from the heart. The Aqua Net Diaries because I wrote it at the same time as Velva Jean Learns to Drive and somehow managed not to lose my mind. The subsequent Velva Jean books, which all had to be written in VERY short amounts of time, and which contain pieces of me and my life. All the Bright Places because I wrote it during a very hard, sad time about a very hard, sad time and did it in just six weeks. I felt exposed and brave writing that book, and proud of myself for being able to do it. I also loved writing it. After spending the last several years working on the Velva Jean series, the YA book was a fun and challenging change of pace, and as a writer — in order to keep the writing fresh — it's important to keep yourself stimulated and challenged creatively.
When will you write nonfiction again?
As soon as I come across a nonfiction idea that I deeply, truly love.
How long does it take you to write a book?
This depends on the book and the deadline. It took me fourteen months to research and write The Ice Master, sixteen months to research and write Ada Blackjack, two years to write Velva Jean Learns to Drive. But I researched, outlined, and wrote the latest Velva Jean novel, American Blonde, in three months. And my young adult novel, All the Bright Places, was written in just six weeks.
What is your writing routine?
I write five-seven days a week for eight-fourteen hours a day, depending on my deadlines. I usually get started after an early morning workout, and then an hour or two (or three) of email catch-up and any other writer-related business that needs attention. And then I get into the creative work, which sometimes entails outlining, brainstorming, reading, researching, writing, editing, or all of the above. One of the very best things I learned from my mother 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. I hear from people who ask if I only write when I'm inspired, but the answer is no. I work harder (and longer!) than most everyone I know.
Where can I get my hands on the short film of Velva Jean Learns to Drive?
Sadly, the movie isn't for sale and is hard (if not impossible) to find. However, you can email me and I'll see if I can help you.
Is there going to be a movie of The Ice Master or the Velva Jean books?
I get inquiries from directors and production companies on a pretty regular basis, but so far nothing has come to fruition. I would love to see a movie version of my books!
Can you give my novel to your agent?
While I can tell you that my agent is the very best agent in the entire world, I cannot hand her your book. What I can do is recommend resources for finding a good, reputable agent of your own. When I was starting out, it was very important to me to do it all on my own and establish myself in this business without help from my mother. Instead of going to her agent, whom I've known all my life, I researched agents and sent out queries. I personally consulted Publisher's Marketplace (it's definitely worth subscribing to for at least one month) and AgentQuery.com. Poets & Writers offers great advice, and Writer's Digest has a Successful Queries series that features samples of top-of-the-line query letters and commentary from the agents who received them. Another good tip: find a book you admire in the same genre as the one you've written and look for the agent's name in the Acknowledgments (every good writer will thank his or her agent there). You can cross-reference that agent in one of the databases listed above, which will include their client lists and other pertinent info, as well as submission guidelines.
Can you fly a plane?
This is on my bucket list, but sadly I cannot. At least not yet. A friend calls me a method writer. When I can, I like to experience some of the things my characters experience — like driving an old yellow truck (something I did do). However, there are some experiences I haven't enjoyed yet, like flying a plane and spying as an undercover agent in Paris.
Would you want to play Velva Jean in the movie version?
I would love to if:
1) I were an actress
2) I were just a tad bit younger
3) I could sing
Are you related to David Niven and/or Larry Niven?
Perhaps distantly, though we haven't done the research. I am, however, related to Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd, and I'm the twenty-second great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer.
What is your advice for writers who are just starting out?
Write. Read. Write. Read. Work hard. Remember to enjoy it. Don't forget to play and have fun with your words. Write the thing you're burning to write. Don't be afraid of writing twaddle, as Katherine Mansfield said. "But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all." Learn to love editing, or at least accept it as one of the most important parts of the process. When I was first starting out, the actress Madge Sinclair told me, "Writing, like any art form, takes soul stamina. You have to be prepared to commit to it, want it more than anything, honor your gifts, and stick it out through thick and thin." I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, so I saw firsthand how difficult and stressful and unpredictable the business was. I also saw the commitment it took. I'm grateful for that because I think so 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. My other advice is to write what inspires you. Write what you love.
Where did the idea for All the Bright Places come from?
In many ways, I wrote the story I knew. Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. I knew Finch and Violet would have a love story because mine was a love story. As for Violet, she is struggling with loss, and that is something I know too well. Iv'e lost both my parents, all four grandparents, and numerous other family members and friends, so loss is something I know inside and out.
Can you write me an alternate ending to All the Bright Places?
Unfortunately, I can't. But if you write Finch and Violet fan fiction, send me the link so I can read it!
Elle Fanning is playing Violet Markey in the film version of All the Bright Places, but who's playing Finch?
We haven't found our Finch yet, but we're looking. When I was writing the book, I pictured Nicholas Hoult as Finch, but he is way too manly and grown up now so we need to find a talented actor who's age appropriate. If you have suggestions, please let me know!
What is your advice for writers who are just starting out?
For more advice, see my page For Writers.
How do you pronounce your last name?
Niven rhymes with "given." — Listen to Jennifer pronounce it