Jennifer S. Alderson (1972) worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands.
Jennifer’s travels and experiences color and inform her internationally-oriented fiction. Her novels, Down and Out in Kathmandu: A Backpacker Mystery and The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, transport readers to Nepal, Thailand and the Netherlands. Both novels are part of an on-going stand-alone series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson. The third installment, another art-related travel thriller entitled Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery, will be released in February 2018.
Her travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler, is a must-read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to travel to – Nepal and Thailand.
How did you get started writing fiction?
My fascination with writing fiction stems from a childhood game my father and I played; a series of ‘what ifs?’ which resulted in a short story. After completing a degree in journalism, I worked as a columnist, investigative journalist and newspaper editor before life took me in other directions. My father’s unexpected death at the age of 61 motivated me to try writing a novel worthy of publication. It took about eight years to finish my first, Down and Out in Kathmandu, but I did it!
You are an American living in Amsterdam, which is the setting of your Zelda books. How did you end up there?
I ended up in Amsterdam by pure chance. After studying cultural anthropology in Darwin, Australia for eighteen months, I headed back to Seattle, Washington to figure out what to do next. My flight included a 24 hour layover in Rome, which turned into a two-month tour of Europe. I arrived in the Netherlands on Queen’s Day and immediately feel in love with the country, culture and people. Several months of paperwork later, I returned to Amsterdam to study art history and never left!
As an art historian, how did you come to write The Lover’s Portrait, a book about looted Nazi art?
Art history is what brought me to the Netherlands. My plan was to complete a two-year degree then return to the States. Once I got here and started my studies, I found it impossible to leave. I ended up earning a four-year master’s degree in museum studies and had the privilege of interning and working for some of the most prestigious museums in the world, all located in this fine city I now call home.
After my son was born, I stayed home to raise him. My first novel was complete but not yet published. The urge to write fiction surfaced again. During his nap time, I began playing around with a storyline for a second novel.
Restitution of art was a topic I’d learnt about during art history and museum studies lectures at the University of Amsterdam. The complexities surrounding the restitution of artwork stolen by the Nazis were often discussed. I wondered what would happen if two people showed up 70 years later and claimed the same painting. How would the museum and national press react? This question became central to the plot of my art mystery.
My first internship was at Museum Willet-Holthuysen, a small museum whose collection is part of the Amsterdam Museum. However, my work had nothing to do with stolen artwork. Instead, I designed a mini-exhibition explaining the connections between his extensive library and ceramic collection. This internship did provide the setting for my novel-in-progress. Shortly after my son’s fourth birthday, The Lover’s Portrait was published.
The painting being fought over by two parties in The Lover’s Portrait is of a young woman standing next to a vase and holding Irises. What led you to select that particular setting for your painting?
To fit within my storyline, the painting central to the plot had to be a portrait. The first painting that sprung to mind when I thought about the composition of my fictitious portrait was Henri Matisse’s Woman in Purple Dress with Vase of Flowers. A poster of this famous work decorated my dorm room in college. The way the model looks at the painter, with a mixture of defiance and love, inspired my model’s pose in the fictitious portrait Irises. I chose to place irises in the vase because they are my favorite flower and Iris is a woman’s name.
The Lover’s Portrait not only shows that you have performed significant research for your book but has the characters performing their own research themselves. Both types of research add greatly to the novel. Tell us about your research processes used for writing a book.
First of all, thank you! I am so glad to hear it enhanced your enjoyment of the story and novel. I enjoy conducting research, perhaps more than writing. The obscure facts and forgotten anecdotes one sometimes finds in an archive can make a character, time period or story come to life.
Because I’m an American writing about sensitive aspects of Dutch history, I didn’t want to be accused of making anything up. I ended up researching several aspects of life in Amsterdam during the 1940s: specifically art dealers, galleries, museum collections, restitution of looted artwork, the methods Nazis used to justify their confiscation of artwork, and homosexuality in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole.
I started out by reading general history texts and slowly honed in on the aspects which intrigued me most. After I knew the direction my story was headed, I spent months scouring digital, regional and local archives searching for specific information about people, places and events I hoped to reference in my novel. Several patient archivists also shared their favorite obscure stories about the war, a few of which I was able to work into my story. Researching The Lover’s Portrait took a tremendous amount of time, but I enjoyed every minute.
Your book The Lover’s Portrait has received high accolades in Amsterdam. Tell us about some of these.
I am honored to have received so much support from local museums, my alma mater, several bookstores and LGBT organizations in Amsterdam. The Jewish Historical Museum added The Lover’s Portrait to their permanent collection because they are thrilled with their prominent role in the book. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam also added it to their library because of the research done into the restitution of artwork. Pink Point – the world’s first LGBT travel kiosk and information point for the Homomonument, stocks it because they believe the storyline is unique in fiction. The University of Amsterdam has added both of my novels to their “Recommended Reads written by Alumni” list. Several bookstores in the city sell all three of my novels and help promote them. Further afield, expat magazine The Displaced Nation named it one of their Top 36 Expat Fiction Books of 2016. And my novel came in at number 14 in the mystery category during the BookLife Prize for Fiction in 2016.
Your first book, Down and Out in Kathmandu, was inspired by your experience teaching English in Nepal. Tell us about what led to your inspiration.
Nepal was the first country I visited that doesn’t share a border with the United States. It was an incredible, life-changing experience. My success as a volunteer was limited, mostly because I was a terrible teacher, and my grasp of Nepali was weak. The people, however, were wonderful and taught me so much about myself, other cultures and ways of living.
My experience teaching English is similar to what Zelda goes through. However the rest of the plot was conceived during the months I spent backpacking solo around Nepal and Thailand. I met many nefarious and interesting characters: forlorn backpackers, chatty drug smugglers, idealistic NGO workers, clueless volunteers, happy-go-lucky backpackers and cynical embassy workers. These people and their larger-than-life stories provided the basis for this novel.
Your latest book, Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand, details your travels in Asia and all the adventures you had. Can you tell us about just one? Maybe your favorite to recount?
Almost everything about that trip was extraordinary. I had never been outside the United States and was incredibly naïve. Transport, food, clothing, social relations and even showering were an adventure. Probably the most jarring experience was celebrating my Nepali father’s birthday and discovering ‘goat’s blood cake’ was his favorite dessert. Eating that spongy, salty dish without gagging was quite a challenge, to be sure!
I’m always curious how authors select the names of their characters, for example Zelda, who is more often seen in video games than on actual people. What inspired you to name your main character Zelda?
Zelda was my cat, a petite black stray I found when I was eleven years old. After reading your question, I had to look up when the video game Legend of Zelda was released. To my relief, the game came out in 1986, three years after I found her! No one in my family knows why I chose that name and I can’t remember either. She was my favorite pet. When I was trying to sort out the name of my mystery series’ protagonist, Zelda always topped the list. Because of the video game, I resisted for months. Yet I never did think of a name that felt right, so Zelda stuck.
Because the other characters in my novels are from all over the globe, I search for the most popular first and last names for a male or female in that country, born within a specific period. It is incredible what you can find on the Internet these days! I prefer to use common names instead of making them up. Using a name widely-used in the region makes it easier for me to visualize them.
What books did you like to read as a child? And what books do you enjoy reading now?
As a child I loved to read mysteries and adventure stories. My favorites include The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mysteries, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and Agatha Christie’s novels.
Nowadays, I read all sorts of fiction, though mysteries, historical fiction and adventure are my go-to genres. Classics such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, On the Road, The Beach and The Color Purple top my list of all-time favorites. Series I enjoy reading include Donna Leon’s Comissario Brunetti mysteries set in Venice, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels set in World War Two, and Janet Evanovich’s hilarious detective series starring Stephanie Plum.
To read my 5 star review of A Lover’s Portrait, click here.