Reading Guide

American Blonde

American Blonde

INTRODUCTION

A fearless and spirited pilot conquers Hollywood. Now can she survive movie stardom?

In 1945, Velva Jean Hart is a bona fide war heroine. After a newsreel films her triumphant return to America, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promises to make her a star. They give her a new life story and a brand new name. As “Kit Rogers,” she navigates the movie sets, recording sessions, parties, staged romances, and occasional backstabbing that accompany her newfound fame. She also navigates real-life romance, finding herself caught between a charismatic young writer and a sexy and enigmatic musician from her past. But when one of her best friends dies mysteriously and the most powerful studio in the world launches a cover-up, Velva Jean goes in search of the truth— risking her own life, as well as her heart, in the process.

Set during Hollywood’s Golden Age and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters, American Blonde will mesmerize readers of The Chaperone as well as fans of the Velva Jean series.

ABOUT JENNIFER NIVEN

Jennifer Niven is the award-winning author of three previous novels and three works of nonfiction. She lives in Los Angeles.

A CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER NIVEN

1. How much research did you do in order to write this book? Were you surprised to learn how powerful movie studios had been in the 1940s?

I researched a great deal (see my answer to the third question, below), although I was already familiar with the time period and setting because of my love for all things old Hollywood. Years ago, I dated a boy who owned a tour company that visited historic Hollywood sites, and I learned a lot from accompanying him around Los Angeles. Since then, I’ve amassed quite a collection of film books, from movie star biographies, to books on costume design, the Academy Awards, the studio system and the moguls who created it, the early days, the golden days, and everything in between. Because of all my reading, I knew a lot about the power the movie studios wielded, but even with some warning, I was still stunned by how much they got away with and by the heavy-handed, manipulative manner in which they controlled their stars, the media, and the town itself.

For this book, I relied heavily on my own library, but also reached out to other amazing resources—Dr. Michael Wilks, senior forensic physician, Thames Valley Police; Dr. James Klaunig, former state toxicologist of Indiana; the Los Angeles Police Museum; the Margaret Herrick Library; the Hollywood History Museum; the Hollywood Heritage Museum; the UCLA Film & Television Archive; the Louis B. Mayer Library at my film school alma mater, AFI; the USC Cinematic Arts Library; the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center; and the Los Angeles Public Library. I love research and could have gone on researching for years! Except that at some point, you have to make yourself stop researching so that you can write.

2. As readers, we’ve seen Velva Jean learn to drive, become a WASP, spy for the French resistance, and now, star in classic Hollywood films. Do you favor any one particular incarnation of Velva Jean? Is it difficult to weave her singular personality into these different plots? How do you imagine these fabulous adventures for her?

I tend to favor the incarnation of the moment—whichever adventure I’m writing for Velva Jean is always my favorite. I loved learning to fly (so to speak) alongside her, just as I loved following her through the woods and cities of France as she found herself playing the role of spy. When I first had the idea for the series, I knew I wanted Velva Jean to have many, many adventures before she ever settled into her ultimate adventure—singing at the Grand Ole Opry. I knew that she would become a pilot, a spy, and a movie star because those occupations are in keeping with her character. They are also things I would have wanted to do if I’d lived during the 1940s!

What was missing back then, when I originally thought of the series, was knowing how she would get here and there and how this or that might happen. Writing a series is similar to solving a puzzle. I needed to figure out where the puzzle pieces went and how they should fit together—and, of course, how that singular personality of hers would weave into the various plots. This may sound funny, but I knew Velva Jean so well by the time I had written the first book, that she helped guide me the rest of the way through the others. If I ever struggled too much with a plot point, if it ever felt as if I were forcing her to do something she might not organically do, she would let me know because immediately her voice would go flat and artificial. I tried to stay true to her, no matter what scenario I placed her in.

This last incarnation of Velva Jean, which finds her in Hollywood, was probably the one I most looked forward to writing because of my love for Hollywood in that era. But I will always have a soft spot for the very first Velva Jean, just a big-dreaming, far-reaching mountain girl who taught herself to drive.

3. What are some of the particular challenges of writing a book set in the past? Are there any particular historical settings you have in mind for a new book? What are you working on now?

There’s a common misconception that writing fiction means making everything up, but when I am writing a book set in a specific time period and place, I feel a responsibility to research that time and place so that the background and setting of the story are as historically accurate and as true to life as possible. So there is much research to be done, which—thankfully—I love. It’s a bit like being a detective!

After I finished the writing of American Blonde, I had the urge to write something contemporary. Every one of my books thus far has been set in the past, whether in the Arctic of 1913 or Indiana of 1986 or Hollywood of 1945. My first YA novel, All the Bright Places, debuts January 15, 2015, from Knopf, and takes place today. I’m currently at work on my second YA novel, which is also modern. As much as I love history and research, I really am enjoying the contemporary setting.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. In the opening pages of the novel, Johnny Clay tells Velva Jean, “If now is only two days, then two days is your life.” What does he mean by that? How is this idea presented throughout the rest of the novel?

  2. Why do you think Velva Jean chooses to leave Alluvial only days after returning? What does she hope for from her new life in Hollywood?

  3. Discuss MGM’s remaking of Velva Jean. She initially balks at their changes—her hair, her teeth, her name—but ultimately decides to proceed and sign her contract. Why does she acquiesce?

  4. The novel is divided into three parts: “Miss Red, White, and Blue,” “Kit Rogers,” and “Velva Jean Hart.” What do you think is the significance of these titles?

  5. Consider Sam Weldon’s relationship with Velva Jean. Are his feelings for “Pipes” genuine? Velva Jean seems to like Sam, too, but she turns him down. Why?

  6. How would you describe Mudge and Velva Jean’s friendship? Did Velva Jean really know Mudge as well as she had hoped? Did anyone? Why was Mudge so private about her early life?

  7. Were you surprised by the tenacity and ruthlessness of MGM’s “fixers?” Why was it so important for the studio to cover up what really happened to Mudge? What do you think Velva Jean is expecting to discover when she takes up the case on her own?

  8. Velva Jean wonders “what strangers would be able to tell of my life” if all that was left of her were the tokens she keeps in a hatbox at the back of her closet. Consider your own sentimental trinkets—what would a stranger make of your life if they were all you left behind?

  9. How is Nigel Gray portrayed in the novel? Much of the intrigue surrounding Mudge’s death focuses on him, but we don’t hear his perspective until close to the end of the book. Can you understand his difficulty leaving Pia? Do you think he really did love Mudge?

  10. Thinking back, were there any hints about Babe’s identity earlier on in the novel? Can you understand why Edna was so intent on undoing Mudge? What role do you imagine Yilla King played in Edna’s scheme?

  11. Butch Dawkins weaves in and out of the novel’s plot, but it’s clear that he’s important to Velva Jean. Shortly before the close of the story, he tells her “I’m not going down this road unless you know you want to go down it. But you got to be sure.” Is she ready when Butch catches up to her on the side of an Arizona highway?

  12. What do you think is next for Velva Jean? She tells MGM’s newest star to “hold on” to herself. Did Velva Jean manage to do the same? Did her time in the film industry change her?


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