Riding shotgun with Velva Jean [Costco Connection]
By Hope Katz Gibbs
The Costco Connection
“Daddy says I’m going to hell,” writes Jennifer Niven in the first chapter of her first work of fiction, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, a coming-of-age tale of a spunky young woman growing up in Appalachia in the years before World War II.
“You, my baby, are not going to hell,” comforts her mother. “You’re a good child, true and pure, and the Lord will call you when it’s time. You can’t bloom the flowers before they’re ready.”
After reading those few paragraphs it’s nearly impossible to keep from being drawn into Niven’s melodic prose as she unfurls the bittersweet drama of Velva Jean’s life. Readers are quickly catapulted into the pivotal period from July 22, 1933, the day her father insists she be baptized, to the tragic moment her beloved mother dies a few weeks later.
Before Velva Jean’s mama passes, she urges her only daughter to “live out there” in the great wide world. “That’s where you belong.”
From then on, the gifted young singer dreams of becoming a star in Nashville — until she falls in love with Harley Bright, a handsome juvenile delinquent turned revival preacher. As their tumultuous love story evolves, Velva Jean must choose between keeping her hard-won home and singing in the Grand Ole Opry.
Niven admits her life has been nearly as tumultuous as her protagonist.
“The novel is incredibly autobiographical,” she shares. “I basically opened up a vein and let it flow onto those pages. It was a strange and uncomfortable experience for me because I’m a very private person. But I’m there with her on every page. Velva Jean and I experienced very similar journeys to freedom.”
Interestingly, the character of Velva Jean wasn’t Niven’s creation. The fictional character first appeared decades before in a short story by her mother, author Penelope Niven, who has written, among other books, a biography of Carl Sandburg and Voices and Silences with actor James Earl Jones.
“My mother’s four-page story always stuck with me,” says Niven, so while at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles she bought the rights to Velva Jean from her mom for $1 and began turning it story into a screenplay. It became an Emmy Award-winning movie in 1996, but she just couldn’t get Velva Jean out of her head.
“I knew that eventually I wanted to bring her back to life in the form of a book.”
It was tricky turning the 25-page script into a 400-page novel. Research was essential to fully fleshing out a realistic character and authentic setting, so three years ago she moved to Atlanta and began traveling to Velva Jean’s fictional home in North Carolina.
Breathing, touching and tasting the world where her characters lived is the approach the award-winning writer used when writing her first two books — both works of nonfiction.
Niven’s first book, The Ice Master, was published in 2000 and became an award-winning true story of a retired Canadian whaling ship that set sail for the Arctic in June 1913. It sank, leaving its passengers stranded on polar ice and, later, on a desolate island, the captain walked 700 miles to find help. In 2003 she released Ada Blackjack: The True Story of Survival in the Arctic, which became a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, and was optioned as a movie.
Niven isn’t quite finished with Velva Jean, though. She recently sold the sequel to the current book, scheduled to hit bookstores in 2010. And on September 1, this prolific writer’s next book, The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, will make its debut. The hardback, being published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, is currently being developed as a TV show by Warner Bros.
“It is going to be Will & Grace meets The Wonder Years,” she suggests, noting the story started out as an attempt at telling the history of high school in general. “In so many ways, this book has been a complete departure from the first three. It’s easily the scariest, most daunting thing I’ve written so far. But Velva Jean is still the story closest to my heart.”
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer living in Northern Virginia who aspires to always “live out there in the great wide world.” www.hopegibbs.com.