Jennifer Niven's first nonfiction book, The Ice Master, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2000 by Entertainment Weekly. She wrote the screenplay for the Emmy-winning short film Velva Jean Learns to Drive, worked as a television producer, and even played Shania Twain in a music video.
Her new book, Ada Blackjack, is a bit of a continuation of The Ice Master's arctic-exploration-gone-awry theme and was summed up this way by the Boston Globe:
"In the 1920s, famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson made it his secret mission to claim desolate Wrangel Island for the British. With false assurances that he would lead his crew, Stefansson put together an unseasoned group of four young men and a diminutive 23-year-old Inuit named Ada Blackjack, who was so desperate for money for her sick son that she willingly signed on as seamstress...Almost immediately, the trip was a disaster."
Jennifer Niven lives in Atlanta with her husband. You can visit her on the web at jenniferniven.com.
It’s my understanding that, like most people, you’ve never been to the Arctic, you aren’t an Inuit woman, and you don’t have a background in exploration. Yet, you’ve written two books dealing with Arctic exploration, and they’ve had a considerable amount of readership. What is it about these stories that compels you to write them and compels ordinary people to read them?
Perhaps the thing that compels me to write them is the same thing that compels people to read them. The element that draws me to these kinds of stories is that they feature unexpected heroes-- ordinary people who become extraordinary when they find themselves in dramatic, dangerous, challenging, unforeseen situations. As horrified as we are by disaster, I think we like to imagine what we would do in an avalanche on Mount Everest, a collapsed coal mine, a crashing plane, a sinking ship. Would we be heroic? Would we lose our nerve? Would the best or the worst in us surface? How would we react?
What makes Ada Blackjack a sympathetic character? In what ways do you personally identify with her?
When I first started researching the book, I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to connect with Ada as I wanted to. I loved the four young men who were her companions on the expedition, but I had reservations about Ada herself. She had a questionable reputation, she could be a difficult person, and I was apprehensive that this might overshadow her bravery and heroism. But the more I learned about Ada, the more I liked her. And in the end, one of the things that made her most appealing to me was the fact that she was a flawed person. Yet she emerged from her ordeal not only with enormous courage and the survival skills she taught herself, but with grace and purity. Even when her rescuers were slandering her name in the media, Ada retained her composure and integrity. I admire that immensely.
Probably the strongest parallel between Ada and me is that we both have had to deal with the devastating chronic illness of someone close to us. In Ada’s case, it was her comrade Lorne Knight, who suffered from scurvy. In my case, it was my father, who was diagnosed with cancer at the outset of my work on the book, and who passed away the same week I finished writing the first draft. As I wrote about Ada alone on that island, struggling to care for and save this young man who was dying, the parallels between Ada and Lorne Knight, my father and me, seemed all too real.
In the past few years as you’ve worked on The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, have you seen anyone in the news that has reminded you of Stefansson? Do you see him as an archetypal sort of person or an anomaly?
I can’t think of anyone in particular who reminds me of Stefansson, although I’m sure there are people out there who share many of his traits. I don’t know that I can classify Stefansson as either an archetypal type person or an anomaly because I think he was both. He was a very human man with a skewed view of responsibility. He thought up these grand adventures but didn’t plan them well or see them through as he should have. He didn’t believe in doing the dirty work himself, but preferred to send others to do it for him, and then he refused any accountability for the usually tragic outcomes.
What is your favorite part of this book and why?
I think my favorite part is when Ada—after being slandered in the media by Harold Noice, her rescuer—puts on her best dress, boards a street car, and pays a visit to the newspaper office in downtown Los Angeles to tell her side of the story. After all she had been through to that point—the separation from her son, the homesickness, the pain and death and struggle on Wrangel Island, the isolation, and the harassment of newspaper reporters when all she wanted was to rest and be left alone—I think it is incredibly inspiring that she was able to find the courage to stand up for herself. To me, that was one of the very bravest things that Ada did.
How has this book affected the families of the people involved in the story?
I’d like to think that it has given them a greater sense of themselves and of where they come from. In many cases, it has answered questions they have had all their lives. For me, meeting these family members and witnessing their reactions to the book have been the most rewarding aspects of my work. Carey Lawless Dunlap, the grandniece of the youngest member of the expedition— Milton Galle (also known as “Sohnie” to his family)— sent me this email after she had finished reading Ada Blackjack: “I am very excited about ‘meeting’ my grand-uncle Sohnie. As a child we were told not to ask about him but that didn't really matter to me -- I had no idea who Sohnie was. It took me years to realize he was my grandmother's brother. In the early '80s I sat down with my grandfather to go over the family history. He told me as much as he could, but there was so little information about Sohnie, and my grandmother still did not want to talk about him. You have re-introduced Sohnie to our family and I am very thankful for that. I loved the story. It brought to light so many things that have puzzled me all my life. Meeting my Great-Uncle Sohnie has been such a joy. I always knew he was a good and kind soul. I never thought otherwise. But now I see some character traits that I believe my father had that came from dear Milton. And now my son, who reminds me of my father in many ways...... well, I just can't tell you what you have added to my life.”
Your mother, Penelope Niven, is also a successful author of nonfiction. What’s the most important thing about writing you picked up from your mother?
I think the most important thing I picked up was something I learned from years of watching her in action—that writing is hard, hard work and that you have to be very disciplined to be good and successful at it. For years, I actually tried to ignore my urge to write—which I’ve had since I was a little girl—because I had witnessed firsthand the long hours my mother worked, the struggles, the frustration, the roadblocks-- the footnotes!— and I felt I wanted something more glamorous, something easier, something more fun for my career. I decided to be a rock star and then a dancer and then I decided to be an actress, but in the end I couldn’t run away from the writing. It was always there, that urge, and finally I just couldn’t ignore it anymore. But the good thing is that once I started writing, I was prepared for the hard work and the struggle—I knew to expect the roadblocks and the frustration—but I got to discover the glamour of it and the fun.
What’s the most important thing about life you picked up from your mother?
The most important thing about life that I learned from my mother is that I should never limit myself, never tell myself “no,” that I should dream big and believe that those dreams can come true, and that I can do anything I put my mind to. She also taught me to be kind to others and to be a good friend, both of which I try very hard to do.
I’ve read a few of your Book Babe book reviews, which I’ve found compelling because they are more personal than, um, whatever book reviews normally are (snobby, whiney, pretentious?). What’s it like to be both a writer and a reviewer of books? What personal anecdote would you use in a review of Ada Blackjack?
The Book Babe book reviews are fun because they allow me to be silly and to write a little more freely than I can in my nonfiction work. It’s a nice complement to my own books because I don’t have to be so serious and I can ramble on about myself, while still talking about books I love. As for which personal anecdote I would use in a review of Ada Blackjack, I think I would talk about the adventures I used to create for myself as a little girl and only child, playing on the beach outside our house in Maryland. I would pick up objects that had washed ashore and create stories about the tragic shipwrecks that they must have come from. Or perhaps I would talk about the “harrowing” adventures I have had on my own travels as I promote my books about real-life adventure—such as the time my AAA travel planner sent my mother and me down the desolate Natchez Trace in the middle of the night. Apparently, the Trace becomes some sort of wild animal preserve when darkness falls, and there were frogs, deer, possum, snakes, raccoons, and rabbits running and jumping and hurling themselves in front of the car. We drove twelve miles an hour, honking our horn the entire way, praying that it would end. When it was finally over (what seemed like hours and hours later), we felt we could have written our own adventure story.
You have an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. How does your training as a screenwriter inform your prose writing?
Some readers have told me—and I like to think this is true—that my screenwriting background helps me to write more visually, allowing me to bring the story to life in a filmic way. Another valuable thing I learned at AFI was discipline. My time there was a turning point for me because it was when I truly began to become a dedicated, disciplined writer. As writing students, we were each responsible for completing one polished screenplay by the end of each year. At first it didn’t seem like much to do, but I very quickly realized that if I didn’t put in my eight hours every day and set deadlines for myself—if I didn’t take responsibility for the work—it wouldn’t get done. Of course, that’s just good, plain common sense, but that realization had a huge impact on me and my work habits.
As a nonfiction writer, do you enjoy researching more than writing?
I love the research. When I was younger, the two things I wanted to be most when I grew up (aside from being a world-famous rock star) were an archaeologist and a Charlie’s Angel. With the research, I get to be both. But I have to say that I love the research and the writing equally. I get a rush from both and whichever one I’m in at the moment is the one I think I prefer. If I’m in research mode, I never want it to end. My adrenaline blazes and I am invincible, chasing lead after lead after lead. Even when I hit a brick wall or a dead end, I’m determined to uncover whatever it is I’m searching for. It’s so hard to let that go, to realize the bulk of the research is finished and that it’s time to begin the writing. But when I am writing, there’s nothing else I want to do.
What has been your experience with having a website? Do a lot of random people contact you (not including Nigerians trying to dump millions of unclaimed dollars in your bank account)?
I hear from so many interesting people through my website—readers from all around the world; truly fascinating people who have been moved in some way by the stories or by the characters in my books. That means a great deal. I’m genuinely touched that they will take the time to write me and let me know they liked my work. I’ve also heard from old friends I’d lost touch with, former grammar school teachers, distant family members, people I worked with or went to school with once upon a time, and other writers whose work I admire. I’ve even received a few marriage proposals!
One of the more exotic items in your website bio is your fascination with belly dancing. How did you get involved with that? What does it add to your life?
My illustrious belly dancing career began three years ago in Savannah, Georgia, where I was living for a few months. My good friend Valerie and I heard about classes being offered at the local nursing home, of all places, and the experience was just too irresistible (and strange!) to pass up. A few months later, I moved to Washington, DC, where I began to study more seriously. I even joined a student troupe and gave my first performance. Since I’ve been in Atlanta, I have been trying out various studios, and am happy to see that the belly dance community is thriving here. As for what it adds to my life, it’s a wonderful place to meet interesting, dynamic women friends, and it allows me to pursue one of my other passions—dancing.
Your website also says you were in a Shania Twain video. Which video was that? Tell me about the experience you had making it.
I actually played Shania Twain in a music video for a Canadian country artist named Jim Matt. The song was called “Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Me,” and it featured all sorts of country music star look-alikes—Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and, of course, Shania Twain. Most of the people in the video were professional look-alikes who made a living portraying their alter egos. I showed up at the audition because someone told me I looked like a new country singer named Shania Twain. I had no idea who she was, but when I walked into the room to try out, all the other girls who were there said, “Well, we might as well leave.” I had done bit acting parts by then and was used to being on film and hamming it up, so it was a lot of fun. My favorite part of all was dancing around on camera.
You’ve been a TV producer, acted in a music video, and written a screenplay and some books. Have you ever had a job that wasn’t glamorous? Waited tables, torn movie tickets…something like that?
Actually, I’ve been pretty lucky because I’ve had some really colorful and exciting jobs. However, there was a week in college when I worked at a modeling agency washing and blow-drying makeup brushes. Did I mention I only stayed there for a week?
Are you done writing about the Arctic? Where are you going from here?
I can honestly say I am finished with the Arctic, although I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that particular region of the world. From here, I am heading to the much warmer climes of the American Deep South. But that’s all I can say at this time…