“Live out there” is the mantra
of the character and her author
Riding shotgun with Velva Jean
By Hope Katz Gibbs
shares. As I wrote my way through Velva Jean’s jour-
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve had a firm vision of
all the big and exciting things I wanted to do,” she
shares. As I wrote my way through Velva Jean’s jour-
ney, she gave me the courage to climb into my own
yellow truck and head toward my destiny, and do so
singing louder than ever before.”
“DADDY SAYS I’M going to hell,” writes Jennifer
Niven in the first chapter of her first work of fiction,
Velva Jean Learns to Drive, a coming-of-age tale of a
spunky young woman growing up in Appalachia in
the years before World War II.
Interestingly, the character of Velva Jean wasn’t
“You, my baby, are not going to hell,” comforts
her mother. “You’re a good child, true
and pure, and the Lord will call you
when it’s time. You can’t bloom the
flowers before they’re ready.”
Niven’s creation. The fictional character first
appeared decades before in a short story
by her mother, Penelope Niven.
After reading those few paragraphs
it’s nearly impossible to keep from
being drawn into Niven’s melodic prose
as she unfurls the bittersweet drama of
Velva Jean’s life. Readers are quickly
catapulted into the period from July 22,
1933, the day Velva Jean’s father insists
she be baptized, to the moment her
beloved mother dies a few weeks later.
“My mother’s four-page story
always stuck with me,” says Niven, so
while she was earning a master’s degree
in screenwriting at the American Film
Institute in Los Angeles she bought the
rights to Velva Jean from her mom for
$1 and began turning the story into a
screenplay. It became an Emmy Award–
winning movie in 1996, but she just
couldn’t get Velva Jean out of her head.
Before Velva Jean’s mama passes, she urges her
only daughter to “live out there” in the great wide
world. “That’s where you belong,” she says.
From then on, the gifted young woman dreams
of becoming a singing star in Nashville—until she
falls in love with Harley Bright, a handsome juvenile
delinquent turned revival preacher. As their tumultuous love story evolves, Velva Jean must choose
between keeping her hard-won home and singing in
the Grand Ole Opry.
It was tricky turning the 25-page
script into a 400-page novel. Research was essential
to fleshing out a realistic character and setting, so
three years ago Niven moved to Atlanta and began
traveling to Velva Jean’s fictional home in North
Breathing, touching and tasting the world where
her characters lived is the approach the award-winning writer used when writing her first two books—
both works of nonfiction.
Niven admits her life has been nearly as tumultuous as that of her protagonist.
Niven’s first book, The Ice Master: The Doomed
1913 Voyage of the Karluk, published in 2000, is an
award-winning true story of a retired Canadian
whaling ship that set sail for the Arctic in June 1913.
The boat sank, leaving its passengers stranded on
polar ice and, later, on a desolate island; the captain
walked 700 miles to find help. In 2003 Niven released
Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic,
which became a Book Sense Top Ten Pick and was
optioned as a movie.
Niven isn’t quite finished with Velva Jean,
though. She recently sold the sequel to the current
book, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, which is scheduled to
publish in 2010. And on September 1, this prolific
writer’s next book, The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair,
Big Dreams, Small Town, will make its debut. The
hardback is being developed as a TV show by
“It is going to be Will & Grace meets The
Wonder Years,” she suggests. “In so many ways,
this book has been a complete departure from
the first three. It’s easily the scariest, most
daunting thing I’ve written so far. But Velva
Jean is still the story closest to my heart.” C
COSTCO HAS 50 copies of Jennifer Niven’s
Velva Jean Learns to Drive with signed
book plates to give away. For a chance to
win, send an e-mail to giveaway@costco.
com, with “Jennifer Niven” in the subject
line. Or print your name, address and daytime phone number on a postcard or letter
and send it to: Jennifer Niven, The Costco
Connection, P.O. Box 34088, Seattle, WA
NO PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND IS
NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. S weepstakes is sponsored
by Penguin Putnam, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014. (Open to legal
residents of the U.S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at
the time of entry. One entry per household. Entries must be received by
September 1, 2009. Winners will be randomly selected and notified by mail
on or before October 1, 2009. The value of the prize is $15. Void where prohibited. Winners are responsible for all applicable federal, state and local
taxes. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.
Employees of Costco or Penguin Putnam and their families are not eligible.
I WANT MY Connection
readers to know that I have
fallen in love. It’s true: I am
100 percent, head-over-heels
crazy about Jennifer Niven’s
novel Velva Jean Learns to
Drive. From the first few pages
of this story about a girl
growing up in Appalachia in
the 1930s, the novel takes hold
of your imagination and
refuses to let go—even long
after you’ve read the last page.
I was moved by every
aspect of the story, from the
strength of family bonds, to
the simplicity of Velva Jean, a
smart and strong-willed little
girl, to the satisfaction of
watching her turn into an even
Velva Jean Learns to Drive
is available in most Costco
warehouses and at Costco.com.
Costco.com will also carry
Niven’s new book, The Aqua
Net Diaries. For more book
picks, see page 55.
I WANT MY Connection readers to know
Send your feedback on this month’s book to:
Hope Katz Gibbs (
www.hopegibbs.com) is a freelance writer living in northern Virginia who aspires
to always live out there in the great wide world.