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