Velva Jean Learns to Drive: A Novel

Velva Jean Learns to Drive: A Novel

by Jennifer Niven


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From the author of the New York Times bestsellers Holding Up the Universe and All the Bright Places (soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning), a spellbinding coming-of-age debut about ill-fated love during the Great Depression—and what it means to be a woman with ambition.

Velva Jean’s mother urged her to “live out there in the great wide world,” and growing up in Appalachia in the years before World War II, Velva Jean dreams of becoming a big-time singer in Nashville. Then she falls in love with Harley Bright, a handsome juvenile delinquent turned revival preacher. As their tumultuous love story unfolds, Velva Jean must choose between keeping her hard-won home and pursuing her dream of singing in the Grand Ole Opry. 

Like All the Bright Places, hailed as a “charming love story about [an] unlikely and endearing pair” (New York Times Book Review), Jennifer Niven’s debut novel is a big-hearted story about the struggle to find happiness.

“A touching read, funny and wise, like a crazy blend of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, a less morose Flannery O’Connor, and maybe a shot of Hank Williams...Niven makes some memorable moon-spun magic in her rich fiction debut.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452289451
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/28/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 266,456
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jennifer Niven is the New York Times bestselling author of All the Bright Places and Holding Up the Universe, as well as the popular Velva Jean series. She is also the author of several non-fiction books, including Ada Blackjack, The Aqua-Net Diaries, and The Ice Master, which was named a top non-fiction book by Entertainment Weekly. Her New York Times bestseller All the Bright Places is soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning. Although she grew up in Indiana, she now lives with her fiancé and literary cats in Los Angeles, which remains her favorite place to wander.

Read an Excerpt


I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time. Even thoughJesus himself never had much to do with religion before he wastwelve, I had prayed and prayed to be saved so that I wouldn’t go tohell. Mama had never mentioned hell to me, but the summer after mytenth birthday, on the night before the yearly Three Gum Revival andCamp Meeting, my daddy told me that I might have to go there. Hesaid that’s where sinners went, and that everyone was a sinner untilthey were saved.

“Have I been saved?” I asked him.

“No, Velva Jean.” He was polishing the handheld pickax he some—times used for gold mining. The front door was open and a faint breezeblew in off the mountain. It was still hot, even at ten thirty at night.Somewhere, far away, there was the high, lonesome cry of a panther.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you ain’t opened yourself up to the Spirit.”Daddy’s face was quiet and blank so I couldn’t read it. His one goodeye—the one that wasn’t blind—wasn’t dancing like it normally did. Itwas always hard to know if he was mocking or serious on the subject ofreligion.

“How do you know I ain’t saved?” I asked a lot of questions, some—thing my daddy never had much patience for, especially in the heat.

“Because you’d know it if you was.”

I thought about this, trying to remember a time when I might havebeen saved without knowing it. I couldn’t think of one and suddenlythis worried me. “What happens if I don’t get saved?”

“It means that you’re ‘astray like a lost sheep,’ and that after you dieyou’re going straight to hell.” Daddy laughed. “That’s why your mamaand me prays every night for our children.”

For a moment, I couldn’t speak. What did he mean, I was going todie? What did he mean, I was going to hell? I didn’t want to go to hell.Hell was for the convicts down at the prison in Butcher Gap or themurderer who lived on top of Devil’s Courthouse. Hell wasn’t for decent people. I was sure my mama wasn’t going to be there or DaddyHoyt or Granny or my sister, Sweet Fern, or Ruby Poole or Aunt Birdor Uncle Turk or Aunt Zona and the twins. Probably my brothers,Linc and Beachard, weren’t going to hell either, but I wondered aboutmy youngest brother, Johnny Clay. And then I began to cry.

Later that night, when me and Johnny Clay were lying in our bedspretending to sleep, I whispered, “If you was to die, would you go tohell?” I had shared a room with Sweet Fern until she got married, andthen Johnny Clay moved in with me.

There was silence from his bed and for a moment I thought hemight actually be sleeping. Then he said, “I guess.”

I sat straight up and looked at him, trying to catch his face in thedarkness to see if he was fooling or not. He rolled over and proppedhimself up with one arm. “Why you want to know about hell, VelvaJean?”

“Daddy says if we ain’t saved, that’s where we’re going because we’reall sinners till we been born again.”

Johnny Clay seemed to consider this. “I guess,” he said again.

“I’m going to get myself saved,” I said, “if it’s the very last thing I do.I ain’t going to hell.”

“Even if I’m there?”

“It ain’t funny, Johnny Clay. I’m answering the altar call at campmeeting and I’m going to pray and pray for Jesus to save me.”

“You don’t even know how to pray, Velva Jean.” Johnny Clay wassmart. He was twelve years old and he knew everything about every—thing. He’d been an expert gold panner since he was nine, he’d beendriving since he was ten, and at school he was the marble championthree years running. He was also the bravest person I knew. I just worshipped him.

“I know, but I’m going to start praying anyway. I’m going to startdoing it right now.” And I got out of my bed and kneeled down besideit and closed my eyes tight. I tried to remember how Mama alwaysbegan. There was a sigh and a rustling from Johnny Clay’s bed, andthen he was beside me on the floor, hands clasped.

“Okay, Lord,” he said. “Please be merciful on us sinners. Pleasedon’t let us die anytime soon. And if we do, please don’t send me andVelva Jean to hell. We just can’t stand it if we die and go to hell.”

“Amen,” I whispered.


The first day of camp meeting I could barely sit still. “Stop fidgeting,”Sweet Fern hissed at me across Beachard and Johnny Clay. Sweet Ferncouldn’t stand for people to fidget, most particularly me, her own sister.She said it wasn’t something that ladies did, even though she knew Iwasn’t one bit interested in being a lady. Still, I decided it wasn’t a goodidea to talk back while I was on the path to salvation, so I sat on myhands to keep from picking at my nails and my dress. Johnny Clay keptpoking me in the leg, trying to get me to thumb wrestle, but I staredstraight ahead and waited for the altar call. Reverend Broomfield, theBaptist preacher, said he wanted only the backsliders—those who hadbeen saved already and then lost their way. One by one, they went upto the altar and rededicated their lives to Jesus, and then everyone sangand Mrs. Broomfield announced the serving of the potluck supper.

On the second day, Reverend Broomfield said he wanted all thefeuding neighbors to come forward so that he could talk to them aboutforgiveness and put them on speaking terms again, and afterward weall sang and Mrs. Broomfield announced the supper.

On the third day, Reverend Broomfield and Reverend Nix, whowas the preacher at our church, asked for all the sinners who wantedto be saved. I sat straight up and paid attention. Reverend Broomfieldpromised salvation to anyone who needed it, and all you had to dowas come up to the altar and kneel down and say that you loved andaccepted Jesus and would live your life for him now and forever. Iwondered what that meant exactly, if I could live my life for Jesus andstill be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry, with an outfit made of satinand rhinestones and a pair of high-heeled boots. To sing at the GrandOle Opry and wear an outfit made of rhinestones was my life’sdream.

One by one, I watched the other sinners take their places at thealtar. I did not want to go to hell. But I did not want to give up mydreams either. I sat there, my toes pressed into the sawdust shavings,my legs tensed up, my hands gripping the edge of the bench. EvenJesus must like the Opry, I told myself, and I stood up.

No one in the congregation was supposed to look at you—theywere just supposed to sit quietly and close their eyes or stare at theground—but when I got up to answer the call, Johnny Clay grabbedthe back of my dress and tried to pull me back into my seat. I kickedhim as hard as I could and marched right up to the altar with all theother sinners and got down on my knees and closed my eyes andthought about how much I loved Jesus.

To my left, Swill Tenor, one of the meanest and crookedest men inthe valley, suddenly let out a shout and jumped to his feet and beganjerking in the Spirit. His eyes were closed and his body was twitchinglike he was being pinched and pulled all over. Not to be outdone, RootCaldwell, who was so mean that he fought roosters on the weekends,let out a shout and started dancing all around, up and down the aisles.To my right, Mrs. Garland Welch swayed and quivered and spoke intongues. I just sat there on my knees, watching like a person struckdumb, like a person without any sense. I didn’t jerk or dance or speakin tongues because the Spirit hadn’t touched me one bit.

The congregation sang “Just as I Am” and “I Surrender All,” butwhen I lay in bed that night I felt exactly the same as I always did. Thenext day, I answered the altar call again and watched as all of my fellowsinners were overcome by the Spirit, speaking in tongues or jerking,running or dancing for the Lord. They fell to the ground and wept andshouted his name, while I sat there on my knees, my hands folded inprayer, and wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t besaved. I answered the altar call the day after that and the day after that,but nothing happened, which meant, if my daddy was right, I was stilldoomed to go straight to hell.

On the sixth morning, just one day before camp meeting’s end, Istayed in bed while everyone else got ready to go to services.“Come on, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said from the doorway. “You’regonna make us late, goddammit.” He had taken up swearing when hewas eleven. He grabbed my foot, but I yanked it back under the sheet.I didn’t want to go because I didn’t have anything left in me to praywith or about. I give up, God, I thought as I lay there, the sheet up overmy head. I just give up right now. If you want me to go to hell, that’s fine.I’ll go right to hell and I hope you’re happy.

But then Mama came in and told me to get out of bed in that tonethat meant she wasn’t fooling.

“I can’t,” I said. I didn’t like to disobey Mama, but I knew I was notgetting out from under the sheet.

The bed sank a little as she sat down. “Why not?” Mama was agood listener. She was shy around most people, but she always wantedto hear what they had to say, and she always asked you things insteadof just ordering you to listen to her.

“Because I’m a sinner that can’t be saved. I’m astray like a lost sheep.Even Swill Tenor got saved, and everyone knows he keeps a still.”

She didn’t say anything, just sat there quietly. It was hot under thesheet and a little hard to breathe, but I wasn’t about to come out.

“Daddy says I’m going to hell.”

Mama coughed and then tugged the sheet back, just to under mychin so that she could see my face. Her voice was soft but something inher eyes flickered. “Since when have you known your daddy to be wiseabout religion?”

I thought about this. Daddy never went to church if he could helpit, and whenever Mama said the Lord’s Prayer, he just moved his lipsand pretended to say the words along with her. I wasn’t even sure if heknew them.

“You, my baby, are not going to hell. You’re a good child, true andpure, and the Lord will call you when it’s time. You can’t bloom theflowers before they’re ready, Velva Jean.” Mama was referring to thetime I got into her garden and opened up all the flower buds because Icouldn’t wait till spring. “They got to be ready to open on their own.”

“What if they never open?” I said.

Mama sighed a little like she did when she was praying for patience.She didn’t seem upset, though. She seemed sad. Her eyes were clearand blue with gold bands around the irises, like sunflowers against ablue sky. “They’ll open when it’s time,” she said.

“They’ll open when it’s time.” I repeated it to myself later thatmorning as I sat waiting for Reverend Broomfield to call up the sinners. They’ll open when it’s time.

Once again, he called us, and once again I walked up to the altar,and once again I kneeled, my knees buried deep in the sawdust shavings. I tried to clear my mind and not think so much. I tried to remember Mama’s words, and I pictured her flowers and how they had diedafter I bloomed them too early.

After the laying on of hands and the singing, the people around mestood up and dusted themselves off and returned to their seats. But Ididn’t get up. I stayed right where I was, eyes closed, hands knotted uptogether in a fist, and told the Lord I was done with him if he didn’tsave me right then and there in front of everyone, with everybody Iknew watching and me humiliated. I knew I’d never be able to showmy face again down at Deal’s General Store or at school if he just leftme sitting there like a heathen while sinners like Swill Tenor and RootCaldwell got their souls saved.

My knees started to burn in the sawdust. I knew everybody wasstaring. “Velva Jean,” I could hear Johnny Clay hissing at me. “Dammit, Velva Jean.”

I didn’t care. I was not going to leave that altar until I was saved. Ididn’t care if they all went home and left me. I didn’t care if I had tospend the night there, on my knees, with the woods closing in and thepanthers coming down out of the trees to eat me.

The congregation began to sing. If you’ve never heard shape-notesinging, you should know that it can sound a lot like thunder whenenough people join in together. The music was loud and raw, and ittook over the air and the trees and the earth. The power of all thosevoices was so great that the ground shook below us like a tornado or anearthquake. There was a trembling in the shavings around my knees.My bones rattled. My teeth jittered in my mouth. My fingers and toesbegan to tingle, and I lost my breath. Something was growing fromdown deep inside me, starting somewhere in my stomach—a feeling oflight. I felt dizzy like I did right before I took sick with something, andI felt shaky like I did when I got too hungry. I wanted to lie down onthe ground and hold on for dear life, but I wanted to spring up into theair at the same time.

It was like the sky had opened and the sun was beaming down onlyon me, warming me from the inside. I opened my eyes. When I stood,my legs were wobbly and I had to hold on to Reverend Nix’s arm. I feltthe cool, dead half-moon of a snakebite up near his elbow, a place wherelong ago he had been bitten and nearly died. I rubbed the scar, eventhough it gave me chill bumps, and then I brushed the sawdust shavings from my knees.

Everyone was singing and watching me. I looked at my mama andmy family and at all the people I loved and even the people I didn’t likevery much, and they were all, each and every one of them, beautifuland shiny—even Sweet Fern. Everything around me seemed brighterand prettier and suddenly the only thing I wanted to do was dance. Myfeet began tapping against the sawdust floor and they carried me allover the tent until I was dancing in the Spirit. I started singing too, andthen I started crying because I knew, at last, that God had listened.Even though I was just Velva Jean Hart, ten years old, from SleepyGap, North Carolina, high up on Fair Mountain, he had listened to meand granted my prayer—I was born again.


Just two months later, I was standing up to my waist in the calm andpeaceful waters of Three Gum River, getting myself baptized in thename of Jesus, and I surely wasn’t going to hell after all. I was relievedthat my old, sinful self was gone forever. I imagined I wouldn’t ever feellike talking back or fighting anymore, and I would never feel enviousagain. I would do my chores without complaining and stop wishing forthings I didn’t have, and, most of all, I would get along with my sister.I would only be good and upright and brave from this moment on.

The water was dark and cold. I was floating, then sinking, thenchoking, then drowning. My lungs felt full and tight and I gaspedwithout thinking, swallowing the gritty, cool water of the river. Ishould have taken a breath before the dunking. Johnny Clay hadwarned me, but I’d been too proud and thrilled by what was happening. Maybe I would die now because I hadn’t listened to Johnny Clay.At least if I did, I would most certainly go to heaven.

The sounds of crying, shouting, and chanting above the surface disappeared. There had been the congregation singing and clapping fromthe shore. There had been Reverend Nix: “I indeed have baptized youwith water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” With his lefthand on my heart and his right hand lifted heavenward, he had raisedhis voice so that all could hear: “In obedience to the command of ourLord and savior Jesus Christ, we baptize this our sister, in the name ofthe Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost.”

And then there was only the darkness of the river.

Hands pushed and pulled me back to the surface and I came upcoughing and dripping, blinded by the water and the dazzling sun. Mywhite dress floated up around me like foam.

“Thank you, Jesus! Somebody lift your hands and praise the Lord!”Reverend Nix hop-skipped in place, jerking his head back with a snapand raising his hands toward the congregation gathered on the shore.

“Hallelujah!” they said.

“Praise the Lord!”

Mama wailed, waving her hands in the sunlight. My brothers stoodin the shallows, clapping and praising Jesus, except for Johnny Clay,who thumped the guitar and closed his eyes to the sun. Sweet Fern,twenty years old and already expecting her second baby, stood off aways up the river with her husband, Danny Deal. Daniel, Sweet Ferncalled him, even though no one else did. One hand was pressed to herforehead to shade her eyes; the other was curved against her belly. Andour daddy was nowhere to be seen.

Reverend Nix helped steady me, and Brother Hiram Lee brushedthe damp hair off my face where it stuck to my cheeks and chin. I hadseen the others baptized and knew I should say something or cry orfall back into the water. I thought of Jesus and how when he was baptized the heavens had opened and the spirit of God flew down like abeautiful dove. I squinted up at the sky, which looked white hot andempty, and then I stared down at the snakebites on Reverend Nix’sarms, the ones he’d gotten from years of taking up serpents at theBone Valley Church of Signs Following, over on Bone Mountain. “Ifyou’re to lead our church,” Daddy Hoyt, my mama’s daddy, had toldhim years ago, “you will not be handling snakes.” Reverend Nix hadagreed, but the scars were still there—welts and bruises up and downhis arms, disappearing into his shirtsleeves, which were rolled up overhis elbows. I wondered what the rest of him looked like, if the bitescovered his whole body.

Oh, they tell me of a land far beyond the skies,
Oh, they tell me of a land far away

My mama stood on the shores of Three Gum River, in her fadedblue dress. I had always loved it when she sang, but I’d never heard hersing alone in public. To Mama, her own voice was a private thing, a sacred thing that she didn’t go around sharing with everyone just to beproud or to show off. It was something special to be reserved for God.

There was a rustling from the crowd, a stirring that meant peoplewere catching the Holy Spirit. They talked over each other—“Amen,”“Praise God,” “Praise Jesus”—­hands raised, clapping, strumming banjos or fiddles or guitars.

Mama stepped forward into the water and began wading towardme. Her beauty was as faded as her dress. Her thick, tangled brownhair was shaded with gray. Her high apple cheeks had thinned lately:Her face had turned pale. But her sunflower eyes burned bright andher voice was sweet and pure like a girl’s. The tired lines of her faceseemed to disappear as her singing filled the holler. There was only hervoice now and the gentle splashing of the water rising as she walked, toher ankles, to her shins, to her knees.

I wanted to sing with my mama, to hear my own voice mix withhers. I love to sing more than anything else in the world, and Mamasaid I had the prettiest voice of anyone on Fair Mountain, just as prettyas anyone we heard on the radio. She said I had a gift and a duty to useit, and that’s why I’d already made up my mind that one day I wasgoing to be a singing star at the Grand Ole Opry with a Hawaiian steelguitar and a costume made of gold satin and rhinestones.

Now I felt my heart bursting and the words rising in my throat.Maybe I was filled with the Spirit, too. “Glory,” I said suddenly, verysmall, so that no one heard me. It was what came out instead of singing. “Glory,” I said again. I felt the light and the warmth on my skinand I saw my mama’s face. There was a surge of joy from way downdeep. I couldn’t tell if it was the Holy Ghost or just happiness, but myvoice grew strong: “Glory, glory, glory.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

My twin cousins, Clover and Celia Faye, were singing now, joininghands. Their dresses had been worn and washed so many times thatyou could barely see the flowered prints. Their hair was gathered offtheir necks; their round faces were sweet and unpainted.

“Praise God!”

“Praise Jesus!”

There was swaying and stirring and prayers sent up to heaven.Daddy Hoyt smiled his kind, distracted, faraway smile. Granny dancedalong the shore, arms waving like a wild bird.

I wanted to run to Mama and wrap my arms about her, but mydress was heavy from the water, pulling me down toward the river bottom, and I couldn’t seem to move my legs.

Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
Oh they tell me of an unclouded day

Others joined in—Johnny Clay and my other brothers, Linc andBeachard, and Daddy Hoyt, who was a ballad singer and fiddle makerand healer—but I couldn’t sing. Suddenly the urge was gone. Maybethe Spirit had left me. Or maybe it was that I wanted just to standthere, the water lapping at my waist, listening to the voices of the peo-­ple I knew best and watching the love in their faces.


Everything changes when you’re born again, but not in the way thatyou think. If I’d known all that was going to happen after I was baptized in the waters of Three Gum River, I never would have prayed forGod to save me. I would have risked going straight to hell no matterwhat my daddy said about me being a sinner astray like a lost sheep.The funny thing is that until I was saved I never knew what it was liketo be lost. Afterward, I could point on the calendar to July 22, 1933, asthe day when everything changed.


Excerpted from "Velva Jean Learns to Drive"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Jennifer Niven.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Niven creates a world long gone, a mountain past where people suffer failure, loss, and betrayal, as well as the strength and joy of connection and deep love. Velva Jean Learns to Drive takes us far into this soaring, emotional country, the place where our best music comes from."
-Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek

"Velva Jean learns to . . . not only drive, but to soar. This beautifully written coming- of-age story captivated me, and I recommend it to anyone who has ever longed to 'live out there.'"
-Ann B. Ross, author of the bestselling Miss Julia novels

"It's a touching read, funny and wise, like a crazy blend of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, a less morose Flannery O'Connor and maybe a shot of Hank Williams."
-Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"Jennifer Niven brings pre-World War II Appalachia to life in her spirited new novel..."
-The Costco Connection

"Velva Jean...feels very much like a homecoming."

" is not hard to enjoy the romance of images like the one that opens the book: a little girl, pondering questions of salvation, tucked up in bed under the tin roof of a narrow house, with the 'high, lonesome cry' of a panther in the background."
-Christian Science Monitor

Reading Group Guide

When Velva Jean Hart is ten years old, her mother dies suddenly and her father takes off, leaving her and her brothers in the care of their domineering older sister. Velva Jean chafes under Sweet Fern’s stringent discipline and misses her mother terribly, but she is comforted by her close relationship with her brother, the rebellious and charismatic Johnny Clay; her tentative friendship with the mysterious Wood Carver; and her innate and remarkable gift for song.

Velva Jean’s greatest wish growing up is to one day find herself onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Gradually, though, her dream of stardom is replaced by her desire for the handsome and charming Harley Bright, a juvenile delinquent turned revival preacher. As she grows into a young woman, her volatile relationship with Harley dominates every aspect of her life, until all that survives of her aspirations remains hidden in the hat box she keeps tucked away in a closet. At the same time, she watches her small mountain community become fractured by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as friends and neighbors take sides over whether the new road is a blight or a blessing. Velva Jean herself must decide whether it’s an “incoming road,” meant to tear apart life as she knows it, or if it’s an “outgoing road” – one that will lead her to a better and more fulfilling life.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive brings to life that part of Appalachia known as the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and reveals how, in the mid-twentieth century, the construction of New Deal projects meant to revitalize America nearly destroyed some of its oldest communities. Simultaneously, it tells an inspiring coming-of-age story, in which a talented young woman begins to believe in herself and a destiny beyond her childhood home.


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.

Q. In the note “Roots” that follows the book, you talk about your own family background and how it paralleled – sometimes unconsciously – the family you were writing about in your novel. Did you have to do much research for your novel beyond family narratives? How much did you know about the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway beyond what your grandfather told you? Did you conduct research before writing the novel, or did you investigate the subject matter simultaneously?

I conducted extensive research for the novel, perhaps because it’s my instinct now, given the research that went into my first two books, which are nonfiction. I know the South because of my own family. The voice and certain elements of Velva Jean’s world felt very comfortable and familiar to me because it’s something I’ve known my whole life. However, there were many details that I needed to research in order to make that world seem wholly authentic and real. I did a lot of research into the period she lived in as well as the place, trying to capture that particular moment in time in that particular area. I read book after book on Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s. I visited the Foxfire Museum in Georgia over and over again. I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway so many times, and rode down every little back road I could find up in those mountains, searching for people and experiences similar to those in the book. I interviewed my family. I read all I could on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s construction. I researched as much as I could before beginning the writing of the novel, and then I continued to research after I began.

Q. Similarly, how much has the music of Appalachia played a part in your life? Were you already familiar with songs like “Pretty Polly” before you began writing? Do you play and sing like your protagonist, Velva Jean?

Music in general has always been a huge part of my life. My family is very musical and I grew up enjoying get togethers with guitar and violin and organ and piano, everyone singing everything from traditional southern hymns to murder ballads like “Pretty Polly” to funny little original tunes. Unfortunately, while I play cello and piano, I don’t play guitar (although I’m trying to learn) and, while I love to sing, I am not naturally gifted like Velva Jean. I’ve always longed to be able to sing though, and, since I was little, I dreamed of being a rock star.

Q. You’ve written two books of nonfiction, the award-winning The Ice Master and its sequel, Ada Blackjack. Why the switch to fiction? Which did you find easier to write – nonfiction or fiction? Which experience was more rewarding?

I switched to fiction because I had started telling the story of Velva Jean years ago, in film school, and she stayed with me ever since. I knew I wanted to do more with her, to fully tell her story someday. Also, as much as I loved working on my first two books, I wanted to try another genre, to see if I could do it, to keep from being typecast as a nonfiction writer or as a writer of Arctic stories. I have always loved writing, ever since I was a little girl, and I have always loved writing different types of things: short stories, novellas, plays, movies, television scripts, songs, poems. I consider myself a writer, first and foremost, as opposed to a writer of such-and-such. As for what I found easier to write, both nonfiction and fiction present their own challenges. In some ways, nonfiction was harder to write—gathering resources, the intense and extensive research, the organization of materials, etc. But in many ways fiction was harder. You have to make up every single thing that happens in the book and have it make sense. You are solely responsible for the world you’re creating and everything in it. Novels have a way of wandering off where they want to. It is hard to rein them in. Writing a novel requires opening a vein. Or three or four. You have to completely pour yourself into it. However, in the end I found writing the novel to be the most rewarding and fulfilling creative experience I’ve ever had. It took the most out of me, but it is also the work I’m proudest of.

Q. Likewise, your next book (published by Simon & Schuster in 2009) is a memoir about your high school experiences. Describe the differences between writing objective, journalistic nonfiction and writing a full-length memoir. Finally, what is the appeal of writing in so many different genres?

There are many differences between writing objective, journalistic nonfiction and writing a memoir. First and foremost, when you are writing objective nonfiction, you don’t have to expose yourself to the world. You can hide comfortably behind the facts of your story, relating them in the way you choose. But you are not the focus. You can remain anonymous. In a memoir, you have to give up all sense of pride and humility and just open yourself up completely. A very scary experience! But in order to really do a memoir justice, there is no such thing as sort of giving up your pride and humility or sort of opening yourself up. You have to go for it completely, otherwise the work won’t be true and you won’t do your story (or readers) justice. As for writing in different genres, I like challenging myself to break out of my comfort zone, which is certainly what I did with both the memoir and the novel. Also, as I noted above, I consider myself a writer. Period. Not a writer of Arctic stories. Or a writer of nonfiction. I want to experiment, to evolve as an artist, and to discover whether I can do it all.

Q. As you mentioned in the note “Roots,” you studied film at the American Film Institute and made a short film featuring Velva Jean while there. What drew you to film initially, and why did you turn to writing instead of filmmaking? What are the benefits to telling stories on the screen? What makes you choose one medium over another?

I was initially drawn to film for two reasons: I’ve always loved movies and television, and when I was in college my mother was working on a book with James Earl Jones about his life and work, which gave me the opportunity to visit various film and television sets for his different projects. Seeing that world at work was fascinating and exciting. I wanted to learn more, so I applied to AFI. When I discovered the idea for my first book, The Ice Master, I was fully intending to keep writing screenplays—after all, there are so many benefits to telling stories on screen. In the case of The Ice Master, there was the epic, sweeping drama of the story itself. The dynamic characters. The visual aspects of the story—the ice, the ship sinking, the heroic journey across the ice and wilderness for help. I actually considered writing the idea as a script instead. But the idea itself—although visual and dramatic—seemed to be better told in a book. No comprehensive account had ever been written about that expedition and there were so many first-hand resources available. Writing it as a nonfiction book just seemed the right place to start, to first tell the tale (the film, after all, can always come later), so before I knew what happened I found myself putting aside my screenwriting and starting to write my very first book.

Q. What are you working on currently?

I am adapting my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, into a potential television series for Warner Brothers. I am also working on a sequel to this book entitled Velva Jean Learns to Fly.

  • The novel begins with the line “I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time.” At this particular point in time Velva Jean is referring to religious salvation, but the other times she refers to involve different kinds of salvation – literal and metaphorical. Discuss this motif and the different ways it occurs in the book. How many times is Velva Jean “saved” in the book, and by whom? What kind of statement is being made about the nature of salvation by the author?
  • When Mama dies, it appears to the children as though their father abandoned her and indirectly caused her death. Discuss the extent to which Velva Jean carried this resentment through her life, and whether or not you recognized early in the novel that Lincoln Hart was looking over his children their entire lives. Did the revelation (via Johnny Clay’s note) feel true to you, and why?
  • Discuss Velva Jean’s life under Sweet Fern’s rule in her parents’ house. Even though we read the story through Velva Jean’s perspective, did you feel sympathetic for Sweet Fern when she had to take responsibility for her siblings? Consider how young Sweet Fern was when she married Danny Deal and how much her youth may have played a part in the way she treated Velva Jean and her brothers.
  • Velva Jean finds comfort in the years after her mother’s death in the close relationship she has with her brother Johnny Clay. Discuss the extent to which their friendship and love for one another benefits them both in their youth, and then later when they are young adults dealing with more grown up issues.
  • Likewise, Harley Bright features prominently in Velva Jean’s childhood as someone who represents danger and the unknown. Consider Harley’s transformation from juvenile delinquent (leader of the Barrow gang) to suitor of Velva Jean to revival preacher. Is he a genuine antagonist in this novel? At what moments does he elicit sympathy from the reader, and at what moments do you despise him?
  • The Wood Carver is another person with whom Velva Jean finds kinship and comfort throughout the novel, even though by reputation he is supposed to be a murderer, and by some accounts, a fantastical creature who shape shifts by the light of the moon and walks around on all fours. What does her relationship with the Wood Carver say about Velva Jean as a child and as a young woman? What kind of qualities or traits does she exhibit by being his friend?
  • Twice in her life, Velva Jean runs away with Johnny Clay. Compare the time they run away as children with the time they leave for Waynesville as young adults. In both instances, she returns home, but the result of each journey is different. Discuss what these encounters with life outside of her immediate community do for Velva: What does she learn about herself? What “truths” about the outside world does each trip confirm, and what do they negate? How does each episode act as a catalyst in her life?
  • Velva Jean’s life as a married woman begins to lose its luster almost immediately following the Terrible Creek train accident. Do you think she and Harley would have had a different life together if her husband hadn’t been badly injured? Do you believe she and Harley would have grown apart if he had returned to his job on the railroad and if he had continued traveling to preach?
  • When Velva Jean receives the yellow truck from Johnny Clay, she knows immediately that she wants to learn to drive. What does the truck symbolize for her? In what ways does the title of the novel transcend its literal meaning and work on a metaphorical level?
  • Compare Velva Jean’s relationship with Harley Bright to her friendship with Butch Dawkins. What was the basis of Velva Jean’s attraction to Harley, and what was the basis of her attraction to Butch? In what way did each man meet different needs in her life? If Butch had returned to Alluvial before Velva Jean left town, would they have worked together? Why is it important to Velva Jean’s character that she leaves by herself, and not with a man, at the end of the novel?
  • Discuss the way the attack on Janette Lowe acts as a catalyst for the novel’s climax. What becomes clear about life on the mountain and the way it has changed over the years? What does the rounding up of the outlanders reveal about the local inhabitants? More importantly and specifically, what does it reveal about Velva Jean’s family?
  • How well does Jennifer Niven portray the lives of those living on Fair Mountain? Did Velva Jean’s voice, as a narrator, feel authentic? How easily were you drawn into the lives of the Hart family and their neighbors? Who were your favorite characters, and why?
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    Velva Jean Learns to Drive 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
    Jonezone More than 1 year ago
    If you enjoy a quick relaxing story this one is good for that. No pressure to remember ton of characters and complicated plot lines. It is about a girls who finds herself. She slowly gains confidence and finds inner stregnth. ENJOY!!!!!
    Sandy5 8 months ago
    Velva Jean’s daddy often took off, leaving his family wondering when he’d return. Later, he’d walk back through the door, as if he’d just stepped outside for a break, and the days and the months that he’d been gone, you’d think they were just all your imagination. When their mama died, the kids were at a loss, for their daddy was out somewhere. When he got done wandering, he would discover that his wife had died and the letter that he had written to his wife, the one that she kept reading after he left, is what his children believe caused her death. I enjoyed this novel as I followed along beside Velva Jean as she explored and grew-up in Sleepy Gap, North Carolina during the 1930’s. Velva Jean had dreams of singing in the Grand Ole Opry and considering her situation, I was impressed with this dream. With her mama, gone and her daddy, a no-show, Velva Jean and her sibling were taken in by her grandparents. I think the grandparents did the best they could and I had to laugh when they sent two of the kids off to a bootlegger. This incident lands the kids in jail which changes them forever on many levels. The kids feel they have now crossed the fence from being “good” kids, they’ve met some new people, they seen new sights, and they’ve been arrested. I liked the flow of this book. It wasn’t an intense, action-packed novel but it had a calm, even-flow pace to it. It had the pace that I would think living in the mountains would have. There was a singing competition that stirs things up as Velva Jean wants to compete, religion comes into the picture as Velva Jean started to worry about future, and it gets interesting when Velva Jean begins to mature and she runs into a fellow from her past. 4.5 stars I’m going to look into the other books in this series and I like books about the Appalachian Mountains and I enjoyed this novel.
    bermudaonion on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Velva Jean Hart dreams of wearing a rhinestone studded costume and singing at The Grand Ole Opry, but her life is turned upside down when she¿s ten years old. Her father leaves home and her mother passes away. Velva Jean¿s sister, Sweet Fern, is left to raise Velva Jean and her siblings, but it¿s just not the same for Velva Jean. She wonders where her father is and what he did that made her mother become ill.Velva Jean can tell you that growing up in Appalachia in the 1930¿s wasn¿t always easy. While the rest of the country was beginning to recover from the Great Depression, they still struggled financially. Velva Jean and her brother, Johnny Clay, are extremely close and in their adventures they run into the moonshiner¿s son, Harley, from time to time. They haven¿t seen Harley in years when they attend a Revival and discover he¿s a preacher.After a short courtship, Velva Jean and Harley get married. When Harley gets a church of his own, he expects Velva Jean to settle down and give up her dreams, because he thinks his dreams are enough for both of them. Velva Jean has to decide if that¿s how she wants to live her life.Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven is a delightful coming of age story. I fell in love with Velva Jean and the other characters of Alluvial Holler from the very start. Velva Jean is spirited and earnest and so wants to be good. I love that her relationships with her family were so realistic ¿ she was fiercely loyal and faithful to Johnny Clay and indifferent to Sweet Fern. My heart ached for Velva Jean once she got married ¿ she really did want to be a good wife, but she wasn¿t sure the sacrifices Harley asked of her were worth it.I enjoyed the setting of Velva Jean Learns to Drive as well. Appalachia of the 1930¿s wasn¿t an easy place to live, yet the people did it with a quiet dignity and pride.
    ANovelMenagerie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The StoryIn 1933, Velva Jean was a 10 year old girl searching for entry into heaven by being saved in her belief in Jesus Christ. After she is baptized, her life as she knows it begins to crumble around her. Her father leaves the family home and very shortly thereafter her mother dies. She and her brother, Johnny Clay, are soon taken into the Appalachian Mountain home of their older sister, Sweet Fern. Although their father eventually returns, he never takes custody of them and their parenting remains the responsibility of Sweet Fern and her husband. Velva Jean Hart¿s passion is music and she is a beautiful young singer. She dreams of one day singing at the Grand Ole¿ Opry. Johnny Clay supports her in this dream and spends his days being Velva Jean¿s best friend and companion. Their adventurous ways take them on mountain trails where they meet a cast of different characters. A mysterious man, known as ¿Wood Carver,¿ becomes Velva Jean¿s unlikely friend. He was an outcast to this small society and believed to have murdered a man. However, Wood Carver is a man with a generous and wise spirit who encourages Velva Jean to follow her heart when she visits him. At the young age of 15, Velva Jean and Johnny Clay visit a traveling church revival in which Velva Jean recognizes the young preacher to be a boy of the mountains and her youth. His handsome appearance and engaging words entrap Velva Jean in a young love. His attraction to Velva Jean was mutual and within a year she marries the irresistible young preacher, Harley Bright. Their honeymoon is cut short when they receive the telegram that Harley¿s mother has passed away. The newlyweds move into Harley¿s family home with his moonshine distilling father, Levi.As major roads are being built into the mountains, tragedy strikes the family. Between the ages of 15 & 18, Velva Jean is a on road of self-discovery, love, and finding the true voice within her¿ will it drive her all the way to The Grand Ole¿ Opry? The ReviewThis American family¿s story exposes to its readers what life in the Appalachian Mountains was like in the 1930¿s before major roadways were built through them and thereby connecting them to the outside world. Our heroine, Velva Jean, exudes the purity of heart and the human desire to make one¿s dreams come true. This novel is beautifully descriptive in both the setting and its characters. As such, the reader of this heartfelt novel desires to observe Velva Jean¿s happiness materialize.This book was, for me, more than a plain family saga. It had plenty of unexpected twists and turns in the plot line that enriched the overall story. I enjoyed reading of the days of mining, bootlegging, and riding trains to visit nearby communities. What was difficult for me to relate to, yet completely comprehensible to me, was the thought of dying in the same small town that you were born in¿ where all of your community members know you, your family, and its legacy. At this time and in places such as these, the expectation of a young woman would be to marry within the locality, have babies, and be satisfied with that life. Women didn¿t have the same rights as the men and their place was in the home, with the children, and minding her husband. Cognitively, I am educated to know this as the truth within our history. However, placing that life into my imagination sends my thoughts into sadness. Women were so undervalued and under-utilized for their talents and minds. With my sassy mouth and sharp thinking, I certainly wouldn¿t have been experiencing a successful marriage in obedience to my husband had I lived in that time! On the flip side, maybe I wouldn¿t have known or thought to be any different. Like Velva Jean, if a shiny yellow truck sat behind my house unused, I would learn to drive despite what the neighbors, or my husband, might think. As my spirit mirrors hers, I would never let go of my dreams and eventually find my way to achieve them¿ as lon
    lahochstetler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    In the mountains of western North Carolina, in the 1930s, Velva Jean Hartlives with her extended family in a community rich in folk tradition and seemingly isolated from the outside world. Velva Jean Dreams of one day going to Nashville to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. But Velva Jean's community is not one that people tend to leave. Velva Jean is limited by her age and family situation. With her mother dead and father run off, she is left to the restrictions of her older sister. With age and marriage Velva Jean's dreams of Nashville fade, but she gains a new desire- to learn to drive. This novel follows Velva Jean from childhood into young adulthood. At every turn it seems that Velva Jean is forced to push her dreams aside. Her story is set in Appalachia during the Depression, and we also see the first signs of outside intrusion into these previosuly cloistered communities. The Blue Ridge Parkway is about to be cut through the mountains. Even if it does not cut through their village, the new road will affect the lives of all around it. This was an engaging book, with a complex plotline and characters. A wonderful read.
    lhossler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A story about a young woman during the depression and WWII, although the war is never mentioned. She loses her mother young and marries at 15 then is expected to settle down to a life of drudgery. She has to sneak to learn to drive since women were not smart enough to drive. She is also expected to give up on her dream after marrying. The title may be somewhat misleading.
    the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    "What was it like, the world out there?""It's just like it is here, Velva Jean. For the most part, the people are the same. Everyone wants something to believe in. Everyone wants someone to love."Velva Jean Learns to Drive depicts such a struggle that the protagonist has, the decision she feels she has to make between the world "out there" and her tiny and comfortable home on an Appalachian mountain during the Depression. Velva Jean is uniquely driven and independent, as she dreams that her musical talent could take her all the way to Nashville for a new and glamorous life. Yet despite her big city dreams, she continues to come back to her family - out of love, necessity, inertia, or comfort. Such complex motivations and emotions develop Velva Jean into a very likable and three-dimensional character with whom the reader sympathizes as she builds her own life ahead of her.I would go even beyond calling the book character-driven into community-driven or setting-driven. It's historical fiction about the community built and shared upon a single small mountain in the Appalachians. It's very "small town fiction" (cousin of Southern fiction), and the setting and relationships are well-developed as we see the community's development and interaction through Velva Jean's eyes. Velva Jean doesn't necessarily have to stake her claim as either "small town" or "big city" necessarily - as we see her claim her autonomy and self-identity, the arc of her coming of age story can be fully recognized with or without big city glamour or fame.
    dasuzuki on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book was a little hard to get into at first and yet strangely I could not put it down. We first meet Velva Jean when she is 10 years old and watch as she grows older, marries and has to make a decision about pursuing her dream of singing in the Grand Ole Opry. I had to really get myself into the right frame of mind for this book. It takes place in the early 1930s and continues into the early 40s. So there were a lot of things that I was shaking my head over. I couldn¿t believe that it was unseemly for women to drive cars. I had never actually heard that before and would have smacked my husband if he tried to tell me I couldn¿t drive a car. But things like this were a part of every day life for Velva Jean. This just makes her dream of singing in the Grand Ole Opry that much more difficult to achieve. This was a time where women were supposed to marry, have children and take care of the family and house hold and be happy with it. The story did pull me in and I loved the cast of characters you meet like her brother, Johnny Clay, the wood carver who is supposed to be some sort of crazy half-animal murderer and Sweet Fern, her sister who has to put her own life on hold in order to take care of her brothers and sister after their mother dies and their father leaves home. Velva Jean¿s character often struck me as immature but then I would have to remind myself that she is not even 18 years old yet through most of the book so then I would find myself feeling sorry for her. The ending wraps up quite nicely with her learning the true reason her father left home and we finally learn the decision she makes whether to pursue her dream or pursue the love she has for Harley.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I love this book. a great story about a strong woman and how she gets that way. a great start for the velva jean books
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    R_Clark More than 1 year ago
    I enjoyed the story and the characters. The setting and time in history made it an interesting read. Velva Jean was a likable character and I felt for her plight and hardships. She had pluck and a good heart. This was a nice, easy book to read and I'm glad I bought it.
    need-to-read More than 1 year ago
    a very nice story, it reminds me of gap creek. velva jean's story is interesting, set in the mountains, and comforting to read. my only negative thought is that it ended too quickly, as if the author had to wrap up the ending due to a deadline. i have already recommended this book to friends. ~
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago