Velva Jean Hart, the fiercely independent heroine of Jennifer Niven’s spectacular debut novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, returns in a captivating adventure that literally sends her soaring. Bristling at the limitations faced by a woman in rural Appalachia and fuelled by the memory of her late Mama telling her to “live out there,” Velva Jean hits the road to pursue her dream of singing at the Grand Ole Opry. But after a string of auditions, she begins to lose hope—until her brother pays her a surprise visit and treats Velva Jean to a flying lesson that ignites a brand-new dream: to become a female pilot. Funny, poignant, and utterly unforgettable, Velva Jean Learns to Fly will have fans cheering all over again
ABOUT JENNIFER NIVEN
Jennifer Niven’s first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year byEntertainment Weekly. Her second book, Ada Blackjack, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick. She splits her time between Atlanta and Los Angeles.
A CONVERSATION WITH AMOR TOWLESQ. This is your second novel featuring Velva Jean. How did the experience of writing this book differ from that of writingVelva Jean Learns to Drive? Did you find that Velva Jean’s voice changed for you at all between the two books? What was it about the characters in Velva Jean Learns to Drive that compelled you to return to them?
The experience of writing Velva Jean Learns to Fly was interesting because, in Learns to Drive, she is very much a sheltered girl from a very remote place, and suddenly, with this second book, I am thrusting her out into the great, big world as an independent young woman. In many ways, the process of writing the second book was similar to the first—researching madly and totally immersing myself in her universe—but the main difference for me was in trying to capture her voice. Her voice is the same throughout both books in that she is always, no matter what she’s going through, herself. But Velva Jean does a lot of growing up in this second book, and I had to capture that and allow that while still keeping her voice consistent.
As for the characters, they are completely real to me—as real as anyone walking down the street—and because they are so real, and because I genuinely enjoy them as people, I wanted the chance to spend more time with them and see where they were going next. I was especially interested in following up with Velva Jean, Butch Dawkins, and Johnny Clay, who is my favorite character to write. I originally wrote the first Velva Jean book because I’d carried her around with me, in my heart and head, since film school when I wrote the short script version of her story. I wrote the first book and the second book because I wanted to read them. I also wanted to pay homage to the daring girls who appeared in their own adventure stories of the 1920s and 1930s, inspiring girls like Constance Kurridge and Flyin’ Jenny, who were comic book heroes. These were young women who spied and flew and acted and sang and fought crime and bad guys and fell in love and did exactly what they wanted to do and were well ahead of their time. I thought it was time for another series along those lines, one that women and girls of all ages (and men and boys too) could enjoy and, hopefully, feel inspired by.
Q. What was it that made you decide to cast Velva Jean in the role of a female pilot? What kind of research did you need to do in order to write the book? Did you know much about women pilots who served in the Second World War before beginning this book?
I originally thought Velva Jean Learns to Drive would end with her flying instead of driving. I outlined the first book so that Velva Jean was working at the Bell Bomber Plant in Marietta, Georgia, and learning to fly there before going on to be a WASP. I very quickly figured out that the flying was actually a different adventure and a different book, and after I finished writingLearns to Drive and was thinking ahead to what would come next for Velva Jean, I knew I still wanted her to be a pilot. After teaching herself to drive, I couldn’t imagine anything more liberating or exciting than flying! I had driven through Sweetwater, Texas, about ten years ago and first heard about the WASP then. They have a wonderful museum right on the site of Avenger Field, where the women received their training in 1943 and 1944, and after touring the museum I was so intrigued by these women pilots that I bought everything in the gift shop—books and videos—and, just for fun, I began to read about them. When I began working on Velva Jean Learns to Fly, I dug out those books and videos again and ordered additional ones—everything ever written about or by the WASP. I paid another visit to the museum, and I also reached out to and interviewed actual WASP, the real-life heroic women who inspired Velva Jean’s journey.
Q. You’ve written other wonderful works of nonfiction, but Velva Jean Learns to Drive and Velva Jean Learns to Fly are your first works of fiction, and they’re both historical novels. What sorts of demands does writing historical fiction make on a writer? What kind of details do you seek out in order to evoke the past so richly?
My first two books (both nonfiction) required extensive research at libraries and archives across the world, and this also involved sorting through journals and letters and other firsthand materials relating to the people and the expeditions I was writing about. When I made the switch to fiction from nonfiction, my first thought was: this is great! This will be so much easier than nonfiction! Of course, as soon as I began work on both Learns to Drive and Learns to Fly, I realized that: 1) I love to research; and 2) I needed to do just as much research with these books as I did with the first two in order to make them read authentically and organically. I needed to know all I could about the settings, the time period, the real-life entities and events and places that were involved, whether it was a sacred harp singing or a small mountain church or driving an old Ford truck or walking the streets of Nashville or training to be a WASP or flying a B-29. One of my friends calls me a method writer because, much like a method actor, I become completely immersed in my story, right down to the smallest aspect. Even though I have taken some liberties here and there in order to tell Velva Jean’s story (it is fiction after all), it’s so important to me that it read true.
Q. There are several characters in the novel who eventually pass away. What is it like for you, as a writer, to plot out these untimely deaths? Is it difficult for you to write about the demise of a beloved character?
It is always, always difficult to kill off a character, no matter how big or small or how good or bad the person. I feel guilty and horrible and I am always apologizing in my head to the person I’m having to kill off, but I also cajole and explain, so that I can try to make each of my “victims” see how his death or her death is necessary to the story. Sometimes I will write around the death because I dread it so much, and then I come back and do the deed when there is nothing else left to write. I actually killed off Ruby Poole in an early draft of Learns to Fly, and I mourned and moped about the house until I realized that she really didn’t need to die. I don’t know who was happier when she was resurrected—Ruby Poole or me!
Q. The ending of Velva Jean Learns to Fly is a cliffhanger. Can you tell us anything about the next book in the series?
The next book is entitled Velva Jean Learns to Spy, and it opens with Velva Jean flying the B-17 Flying Fortress into Prestwick, Scotland, where she’s given the invitation to fly missions for the military into occupied France. She accepts, figuring this will get her on her way to finding her brother Johnny Clay, but nothing after that goes as planned… I can’t tell you anymore than that, but I can tell you this: Learns to Spy is a more consistently rollicking, edge-of-your-seat adventure story than either of the first books. Velva Jean gets completely swept up into the war, and Velva Jean Learns to Spy ends up being quite a dramatic and exciting and, at times, terrifying adventure.
- Velva Jean Learns to Fly both opens and closes with Velva Jean setting off on a new adventure. What do you make of that, and what do you think it says about Velva Jean’s character? How is her character portrayed in other parts of the novel?
- When Velva Jean is on the road to Nashville, her yellow truck gets a flat tire. A couple offers to assist her, but she insists on fixing the tire herself. Why do you think she refuses the couple’s help? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt strongly about getting along on your own? What is it about Velva Jean’s journey thus far that makes her feel like this is something she needs to take care of?
- Consider the ways in which Velva Jean’s aspirations change and develop throughout the book. Do you still foresee a singing career for her? Does she? What role does music play in her life throughout the novel?
- At a certain point during her stay in Nashville, Velva Jean starts to have trouble writing songs. What frees her up to write again? Why do you think that is?
- Before leaving for Sweetwater, Velva Jean returns home to Fair Mountain. She notes at one point that she “was worried that somehow [Harley] might still have a hold on me, just like he always had.” Can you understand her concern? What do you think of her relationship with Harley? Do you feel any sympathy for him?
- What is Velva Jean’s relationship with Ty like? Were you surprised by how it progressed? What does Ty represent to Velva Jean? Do you think this relationship changed her at all? If so, in what ways?
- Faith plays a central role in the novel. How does Velva Jean’s faith affect her actions throughout the story? What effect does it have on her feelings about Harley and her divorce? How does faith affect some of the other characters in the novel?
- What were your initial impressions of Jackie Cochran? How did they change throughout the course of the book? Did you agree with her reasoning for sending Velva Jean and Helen to fly the B-29? Do you believe that she did all she could do for the WASP? It’s very important to her to find opportunities to prove that women pilots are just as capable, if not more so, than men. Do you think she succeeds in demonstrating this? Is she able to change the atmosphere at Camp Davis at all?
- The men at Camp Davis are, for the most part, hostile to Velva Jean and Sally and the other WASP. What effect does this have on the women? Why do you think the men behave this way? Are they simply threatened, or is there something more to it?
- What about the way Native Americans are treated at Camp Davis? Does the atmosphere affect Butch differently than it does Velva Jean? How does each respond to it?
- In what ways is this a novel about friendship and camaraderie among women? How do Sally, Loma, Mudge, Paula and Velva Jean all support one another? What about Velva Jean and Gossie’s relationship? Do you detect any pettiness or even competition among the WASP? If so, why do you think it exists?
- Bob Keene is initially friendly toward Velva Jean, but his attitude toward her quickly changes. Why do you think this is? How does Velva Jean feel about him? How does she respond to the news of his death?
- Velva Jean refers to Butch Dawkins as a “haint” several times. What do you think she means by this? What is it about Butch that lends itself to this characterization? Describe the relationship between Butch and Velva Jean. They’re clearly strongly attracted to each other, but do you see their relationship progressing beyond that? Why or why not?
- Consider Velva Jean’s relationship with her family. What role do they play in her life? She and Johnny Clay are particularly close—why do you think that is? What is their relationship like?
- How does Velva Jean’s voice come through in the novel? What techniques does the author use to give you a sense of Velva Jean’s personality? Do you think it’s effective?
- Consider the close of the novel. How is Velva Jean feeling about what she’s doing and about the WASP program? Is the end of the book hopeful? Why or why not?