For my first author interview, I am featuring Jennifer S. Alderson. I reached out to Jennifer after reading her second book The Lover’s Portrait (check out my review in the section “On Books”), which was a great read and I highly recommend.
Jennifer, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thanks for having me, Lucia! I’m a long-time expat, an American who’s been living in the Netherlands since 2004. I am also the author of two novels, Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking and The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, as well as my new travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand.
In America I worked as a journalist and multimedia developer until massive burnout lead me to quit my job, buy a backpack and head off to Nepal as a volunteer English teacher for three months.
After several years on the road, I moved to the Netherlands to study art history and never left. After completing degrees in art history and museum studies, I worked for several museums before the economy crashed and the cultural sector imploded.
While applying for jobs, I wrote my first novel as a way of keeping my mind occupied. Writing about my adventures in Nepal and Thailand also helped curtail my wanderlust. I finished it between contracts, but never pursued publication.
After my son was born, I had the luxury of staying home to raise him. Writing became a way to connect with ‘grownup’ life and use the knowledge I’d gained during my studies. The Lover’s Portrait was so well-received by everyone who read it, I decided to publish both of my books and see what happened. I’ve been absolutely blown away by the overwhelmingly positive reception so far.
What is the hardest thing about the writing process for you?
The most difficult part about writing a mystery for me is creating a ‘secret’ worthy of being kept and working out the motivation of all of the parties involved. There has got to be a compelling reason for one person or group to want the object or information in question to remain hidden, but also an important reason for another party to want to locate or reveal it. The next step is figuring out how my series’ heroine fits into it all!
Why do you feel this is your genre? Could you branch out?
Mystery, travel, adventure and thrillers are the genres my books fall into. I love to travel and mysteries have always been my favorite genre as a reader. When I set out to write my first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, combining the two came naturally.
In my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait, and current work-in-progress, The Anthropologist, I branched out to include aspects of historical fiction. This was incredibly difficult for me because, aside from Philip Kerr, I had read very little of the genre and was not sure how much historical detail I should include.
After reading several popular historical fiction books, I felt like I had a grasp of the genre’s expectations and the level of detail expected. Only then did I feel confident enough to add in to The Lover’s Portrait several historical chapters centered around the character Arjan van Heemsvliet, an art dealer in Amsterdam in the 1940s.
The Anthropologist is more thriller than mystery, which is a challenge for me to add in more action and increase the story’s pace, in comparison with my first two novels. We will see how it all works out in a few months.
Your first novel takes place in Nepal. Did you stay there for a long time to get to know the place?
I volunteered as an English teacher in Kathmandu for three months and then spent another three backpacking around Nepal and Thailand. During my ‘volunteer and cultural experience programme’, I learned quite a bit about the cultural and ethnic diversity of Nepal and visited many important temples and holy sites with my volunteer group.
An important side story in Down and Out in Kathmandu takes place in several cities in Thailand I visited. Without having traveled through both countries, I would not have dared to describe either in the detail which I have done in my debut novel.
Your second novel takes place in Amsterdam, where you live now. Is it in any way auto-biographic?
My protagonist’s professional background and academic experience s are largely autobiographical. We both studied art history and museum studies at the University of Amsterdam and interned at the Amsterdam Museum. Unlike Zelda, I spent my time researching the connections between a ceramic and book collection, an assignment which had absolutely nothing to do with the restitution of art or World War Two.
But that is where the similarities between Zelda and I end. In many ways, she gets to do what I wanted to do. While the jobs dried up in the cultural sector before I could work my way up the professional ladder, Zelda is able to conduct the kinds of research and work on the kinds of projects I hoped to. It is fun to live vicariously through her and write about what ‘could have been’.
What can you tell us about your third and upcoming novel?
The third novel in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series, working title The Anthropologist, is set in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, an anthropologic and ethnographic museum, as well as Papua New Guinea, a country I have never been to. It is an art-mystery-thriller about Asmat bis poles, missionaries and anthropologists.
The storyline was conceived during my time as a collection researcher at the Tropenmuseum while working on a fascinating exhibition of Asmat bis poles held in Dutch museum collections. While searching through photographs and film fragments of Asmat tribes, missionaries and anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea during the 1930s through 1960s, I discovered that a well-known Dutch missionary – Reverend Gerald Zegwaard – was one of the last people to see Michael Rockefeller alive. During their meeting they’d made an appointment to meet again after Rockefeller returned from an acquisition trip upriver. The young American disappeared days later, resulting in one of the most famous unsolved mysteries of our time. That little detail about his un-kept appointment with Reverend Zegwaard stuck with me and eventually inspired this novel.
I only dared to write about Papua New Guinea because all of the chapters which take place there are set in the 1950s and 1960s. Because the country has changed so much since then, I relied on film footage and travel journals as the basis for my descriptions of the villages, landscape and people.
Which country have you not been to yet that you want to visit?
Kenya is a country I have wanted to visit for quite a while. While at the Tropenmuseum, I worked on a historical photography project in conjunction with the Nairobi National Museum of Kenya. Archival research was also part of this assignment. It is a fascinating land with diverse cultures and a turbulent history.
Thanks so much Jennifer, for your time. I look forward to reading your third novel!