Thursday, 14 June 2018

Museums, Mysteries and Mint Tea

Today, I'm delighted to welcome author, Jennifer Alderson to the blog. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me. First of all, do tell us a bit about yourself and your family.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Harriet!

I am an American expat currently living in the Netherlands. After working as a journalist then website developer in Seattle for many years, I quit my job to see more of the world and ended up stopping off in Amsterdam in 2003. By sheer luck, I arrived on Queen’s Day - a quirky national holiday honouring the Queen’s birthday - and immediately fell in love with the Dutch people and city. I knew I wanted to study art history and resolved to do just that at the University of Amsterdam. It took almost a year, but I did make it back and into the master’s program I had my eye on.

After completing degrees in art history and museum studies, I briefly worked for several Dutch museums and cultural institutions as a collection researcher, exhibition assistant, assistant curator, that kind of thing. Subsidy cuts and the economic crisis meant it was quite difficult to secure a full-time job.

During my studies, I met my Dutch husband, Philip. After seven years together, we tied the knot in 2010. When my son was born, I decided to stay at home to raise him. Years earlier, I had started writing a thriller about a naïve volunteer in Nepal, but I hadn’t gotten much more than halfway before I threw it in a desk drawer and forgot about it. My son’s naptimes provided me with the opportunity to actually get it done. After completing Down and Out in Kathmandu, I used my love of art history as inspiration for The Lover’s Portrait. It was only after my second novel was finished that I actually tried to get them published!

Queen's Day celebrations
I am extremely happy to see The Lover’s Portrait has won several awards and has been listed in two online magazines as a Recommended Read. Most recently, TripFiction added it to their list of “10 Favourite Books set in Amsterdam” – a proud moment for me! I am also thrilled to see my latest novel, Rituals of the Dead, won its first Readers’ Award last week.

Now that my son is at school fulltime, I am working again, though mostly on short projects for cultural and educational institutions. This kind of freelance work is ideal because it allows me to continue writing and still save for my pension.

How many books have you written? What are they about and why did you want to write about those subjects?

There are currently four books in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series. In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda gets entangled with a gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen his diamonds. The nefarious characters and wonderfully kind locals I met in Nepal and Thailand inspired the plot.

The Lover’s Portrait is a suspenseful “whodunit?” about Nazi-looted artwork that transports readers to wartime and present-day Amsterdam. To write it, I used my own experiences as a collection researcher and exhibition assistant at several Dutch museums as a starting point.

Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Rituals of the Dead, a thrilling artifact mystery set in Dutch New Guinea (Papua) and the Netherlands. The storyline was conceived during my time as a collection researcher for a fascinating exhibition of Asmat bis poles.

My short story set in Panama and Costa Rica, Holiday Gone Wrong, will help fans better understand this unintentional amateur sleuth’s decision to study art history and give new readers a taste of her tantalizing misadventures. I used a holiday to Central America as inspiration for the setting and mysteries.

I published a travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler, because readers wanted to know which parts of Down and Out in Kathmandu were real, and what was fiction. It recounts my own journey as a volunteer and silly backpacker traveling through Nepal and Thailand.

Do you have a special place where you like to write?

Jennifer's favourite Herengracht Café
I am a café writer. As long as there is good music, mint tea, and the other patrons aren’t too rowdy, I write faster in a café. When I write at home, I am easily distracted by the laundry that should be washed or the floors that need a good mopping. I usually visit the same five cafes, where depends on my mood. Only when answering this question did I realize they are all on the water!

What part of the writing process do you enjoy the least?

The last few rounds of editing. By that point, I know the story by heart and have trouble really focusing on the words in front of me. Luckily, editors are involved at that stage so I use their cues to focus on what I need to fix, instead of trying to line edit the manuscript every time I read it.

What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?

When I was fifteen, I finished my first full length novel, a murder mystery a la Sidney Sheldon. It involved identical twins and the big plot twist was that one of them had a fake leg. Reading it with adult eyes, I can assure you it is quite horrid! However, it was a fully developed plot and actually quite complex.

It sounds amazing! What are you working on now?

I am currently outlining the chapters of mystery number four in my series – another art-related tale about thefts and forgeries. The spectacular theft of two Vincent van Gogh paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – and their equally remarkable return – inspired the plot. Researching the novel, knowing it could still go in any direction, is always an exciting place to be in the writing process. It will most likely be set in the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and possibly Croatia. I am looking forward to researching the locations first-hand!

Tell us a bit about your latest novel.

Rituals of the Dead is my latest novel. It’s a dual timeline mystery set in 1962 Papua (then Dutch New Guinea) and present-day Netherlands. My protagonist is an art history student interning at the city’s anthropology museum – the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics). During the course of her research, she finds references to an artifact smuggling scheme involving a long missing anthropologist. Her discover makes her the target of someone willing to do anything to keep her from discovering the truth.

It sounds fascinating. What conflicts shape the story and where did the inspiration come from?

Artifact smuggling, missionaries’ roles in colonized countries, and the often shady acquisition methods used by collectors in the 1930s through 1960s.

In 2008, I worked as a collection researcher for an exhibition of artifacts carved by the Asmat of Papua. The exhibition, Bis Poles: Sculptures from the Rain Forest, was held in the Tropenmuseum. Two of the poles displayed in the exhibition were collected by American anthropologist Michael Rockefeller in 1961. They were later donated to the National Ethnography Museum in Leiden by his parents, to thank the Dutch government for their help in searching for their missing son. Another tantalizing titbit gleaned from the archives was that Dutch missionary Reverend Gerard Zegwaard had an appointment to meet with Rockefeller after he returned from an acquisition trip upriver. The young American disappeared days later, resulting in one of the most famous unsolved mysteries of our time. These historical facts provided me with a wild cast of characters and events that I used as the basis for a mystery about bis poles and artifact smuggling.

Setting up the Bis Poles exhibition

Are any of the main characters based on historical figures?

All of the characters in the historical chapters of this novel are based on real explorers and their first-hand accounts of their experiences. Michael Rockefeller’s movements are so well-documented it was easy to use his general experiences as a starting point for Nick Mayfield, though my character is definitely not Rockefeller. Information I found about Reverend Zegwaard and several renowned Dutch explorers, such as Carel Groenevelt, also helped to shape the story and motivations of the characters.

How did you research your story?

Months of archival research, watching every historical and contemporary film about the region I could find, and reading many history books. I also had conversations with museum curators and collection researchers specializing in Oceania art and culture who had been to Papua and studied the Asmat’s bis ceremonies and carvings.

Does the story echo your own experience in any very concrete way?

The exhibition and restitution cases discussed in The Lover’s Portrait are all figments of my imagination. I have never worked on a project that had anything to do with Nazi looted artwork. In contrast, the fictitious exhibition central to Rituals of the Dead is based on an actual exhibition, and all of the museum displays and collections described in the book are real. However, the restitution cases I discuss in the novel are all fictitious. I will be curious to see how readers react to this mix of fact and fiction!

Do you think the book’s message is a hopeful one?

I hope my mystery awakens a sense of wonder in the reader, or at least makes them want to visit their local anthropological museum. Yet the core question posed in my story – what should museums do with artefacts collected from colonized countries – remains unanswered. It was impossible to give that part of the story a happy ending because it would be completely unrealistic. I do hope my book makes readers consider anthropological objects’ histories and their significance to the communities from which they came, as well as to the museums they are now housed in. Boy, that sounds heavy! Readers fear not, these topics are woven into a fast-paced thriller early reviewers find captivating, whether you are interested in anthropology or not.

Amsterdam's Vondelpark - a favourite reading place for Jennifer

 Acres of print have been dedicated to comments about writing. What are your responses to these few of them?

‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’ Stephen King

Yes! Creative writing courses give you the basic tools, but reading a wide range of genres is like taking the master class. I believe it is the best way to become a better writer.

‘One day I will find the right words and they will be simple.’ Jack Kerouac

I try, but usually do not succeed. Jack Kerouac is one of my literary heroes, partly because of his long, flowing descriptions. Cheesy but true: on an old business card, I wrote down several book quotes that inspired me while in Nepal and Thailand. I have been carrying that card around in my wallet ever since. Two of the quotes are from his wonderful travel story, On the Road.

‘Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.’ E.L. Doctorow

I agree completely! When writing fiction, you have to create a wide cast of living and breathing characters. I know many readers think Zelda Richardson is me. She is, and she isn’t. In the same way Ian the stoned backpacker, Tommy the Canadian diamond smuggler, Arjan the Dutch art dealer, Bernice the senior project manager, etcetera, are not me, yet they are. That is one of the joys of writing fiction –you have to become several people when writing, or at least do your best to make them come to life.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Harriet!

Thank you for coming. I'm sure you've left readers with a lot to think about and some new additions to their tbr pile!

More about Jennifer: - Born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle, and currently living in Amsterdam, her love of travel, art, and culture inspires her ongoing mystery series, the Adventures of Zelda Richardson. Her background in journalism, multimedia development, and art history enriches her novels. When not writing, Jennifer can be found in a museum, biking around Amsterdam, or enjoying a coffee along the canal while planning her next research trip.

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1 comment:

  1. Many thanks, Harriet! I am truly honored to be a guest on your lovely blog. Have a wonderful week!