Jennifer Niven

jennifer nivenJennifer Niven lives in Los Angeles, where her film Velva Jean Learns to Drive won an Emmy Award and she received her MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute.  Her first book, The Ice Master, was released in November 2000 and named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly.  A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer, Jennifer has ten different publishers in ten separate countries, and the book has been translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, and Icelandic, among other languages.

Jennifer and The Ice Master have appeared in Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Book Review, The London Daily Mail, The London Times, and Writer’s Digest, among others.  Dateline NBC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel have featured The Ice Master and Jennifer in hour-long documentaries, she and the book have appeared frequently on the BBC, and the book has been the subject of several German, Canadian, and British television documentaries.  The Ice Master has been nominated for awards by the American Library Association and Book Sense, and received Italy’s esteemed Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002.

Jennifer’s second book, Ada Blackjack— an inspiring true story of the woman the press called “the female Robinson Crusoe”— was released in November 2003, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, has been optioned for the movies, was recently translated into Chinese and French, and will soon be published in Estonian.

Her memoir, The Aqua-Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, was published in February 2010 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and was optioned by Warner Bros. as a television series.

Her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (based on the Emmy Award-winning film of the same name), was released July 2009 by Penguin/Plume.  It was an Indie Pick for the August 2009 Indie Next List and was also a Costco Book of the Month.  The second book in the Velva Jean series, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, debuted from Penguin/Plume in August 2011, and the third book in the series, Becoming Clementine, was published in September 2012.  She is currently finishing up work on the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde, which will be released July 2014.

Her first YA novel, All the Bright Places, is due from Knopf in early 2015 (with a second to follow in 2016).  In addition, she has developed television projects with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Wolfgang Petersen, and Charlie Sheen.

With her mother, author Penelope Niven, Jennifer has conducted numerous seminars in writing, mentored writers of all ages, and addressed audiences around the world.

For more information, visit her website:

How many stages are there in the writer’s journey and where are you on that path?

As a human being, I am constantly evolving, growing, changing, developing, and as a writer I am doing the same.  I like to think there are endless stages in a writer’s journey and that I am just beginning to learn what I can do.

What single piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of?

I’m proud of each book 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.  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.  My forthcoming YA novel because I wrote it in just six weeks, and the subject matter was the most traumatically personal I’ve dealt with to date.  I felt very exposed and very brave writing that book, and very proud of myself for being able to do it.

What are you currently struggling with or trying to master? Some aspect of craft, say, or some area of publishing or finding an agent.

This year has been a challenging one.  My literary agent of fifteen years died in April, just as I was finishing the fourth in a series of historical novels for Penguin.  His death made me pause and think about what I really wanted to do next.  As I began talking to new agents, I pitched them an idea I had kept close to my heart for years but had never had the time or courage to write.  Then I spent six weeks writing it—my first experience in the world of YA fiction, which was daunting and scary and fun and exciting and so, so rewarding.  In August, my wonderful new agent and I sold that book and another YA to follow to Knopf, so I am venturing off into completely new territory with a completely new publisher.

Can you give us a short list of tips, a lesson on craft, or a writing exercise of some kind?

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.

Who have been your teachers?

First and foremost, my mother, Penelope Niven, a prolific, award-winning author.  She not only encouraged my own writing from a very early age, she taught me that I could be or do anything I wanted to be or do.  In high school, I wrote many (overly long) essays for my Humanities teacher, Joe Kaiser.  I will never forget the time he scrawled “pure economy of word” at the top of one of these and underlined it.  Back then, I overwrote everything, but those four words at the top of that page stayed with me, and ever since I have tried to write leanly and economically, with very little fat on the bones.  I also have to mention Flannery O’Connor.  I may not have studied with her, but I have certainly studied her.  So much of what I know (and so much of what I utilize) involving character, description, and “pure economy of word” have come from her.

Josephine Humphries once said she sacrificed friendships and soccer matches so that she could write. What have you lost or sacrificed in order to write?

I try always to strike a healthy balance between work and friends/family and exercise and taking time to be a person (as opposed to a writing machine).  But sometimes it’s impossible.  This year alone, I’ve written two books, lost my agent, found a new one, battled eye problems, dealt with family illness, and on and on.  I have sacrificed free time, friend time, weekend time, health, fitness, fun, sleep.

When I’m under serious deadlines, I enter what I think of as the Writing Cave, and stay there seven days a week, fourteen or so hours a day.  I can go for days and often weeks at a time only seeing my fiancé and three cats (because they live with me).  Sometimes the schedule just has to be that hard and that tough and that full.  Your friends will either understand or they won’t.  Luckily, most of my friends are just as busy as I am, so they get it, and we commiserate, and then we keep right on going because that’s what you have to do.

Looking back, what mistakes have you made?

I wouldn’t change anything in my career, except perhaps to be a little more forthcoming in my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries.  As a writer, it’s part of my job to put myself out there, to open up and pour myself into the work and the words and the characters.  But it’s one thing to do that in fiction, and another thing entirely to do it in a true story about yourself, especially when you’re a pretty private person.  As much as I enjoyed writing the Velva Jean novels, I would also think twice about writing another series.  It’s hard to find yourself in the middle of book two or three or four when you feel the itch to start writing something completely new and different.

What do you wish someone had told you?

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.

What scares you about the road ahead?

Nothing.  The road ahead is exciting.  I think the only thing that worries me is that I won’t have time to write down all the ideas I carry around in my head.

If you could write your own obituary, what would you want it to say?

I would borrow a few words from one of the characters in my books:  I was alive.  I burned brightly.  And then I died, but not really.  Because I will always be here, in the writings and the people (and the cats) I left behind.


  1. November  2, 2013 2:01 PM EDT
    I’m so honored to have gone to Richmond High with Jennifer. You sure have made a wonderful name for yourself. Many great wishes for your continued success.
    – Darla Ferguson Hill
  2. December 28, 2013 5:29 PM EST
    I feel quite lazy as a writer after reading this. Congrats to Jennifer for her great success.
    – William Trent Pancoast

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