Blog 80 15/04/2019 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Jennifer S. Alderson

Posted in on 15 April, 2019 in News

A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Jennifer S. Alderson

My guest today is author, Jennifer S. Alderson, a writer I admire for a number of reasons. She is an avid traveller, or perhaps I should say, adventurer, and shares my passion for WWII and the art world. Stories associated with art heists, in particular,  art stolen by the Nazi’s, much of which has never been recovered, continues to fascinate us.  Jennifer’s writing manages to bring together all these passions.

Welcome to A Literary World, Jennifer, tell us about your background? When did you decide to become an author?

Hi Kathryn and thanks for inviting me to your blog! I am an American-born journalist, website developer, art historian, and author currently living in the Netherlands. I am also addicted to travel and write mysteries and adventure thrillers set in the countries I have been lucky enough to visit.

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. While traveling through Nepal and Thailand, I started writing a travel thriller, but only got about halfway through before setting it aside. My father’s unexpected death at the age of sixty-one motivated me to finish it and get it published. It took about eight years, but in December 2015 my first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, was released!

2. What are your novels about?

My love of travel, art, and culture inspires all of my stories. My novels fall into two categories –travel adventures (the Adventures in Backpacking collection) and amateur sleuth mysteries strong in history and culture (Zelda Richardson Mystery Series). The Lover’s Portrait (Book One) is a suspenseful whodunit about Nazi-looted artwork that transports readers to WWII and present-day Amsterdam. Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Rituals of the Dead (Book Two), a thrilling artifact mystery set in Papua and the Netherlands. My latest, Marked for Revenge (Book Three), is a pulse-pounding adventure set in the Netherlands, Croatia, Italy, and Turkey about stolen art, the mafia, and a father’s vengeance.

My two travel thrillers are adventures that take place before Zelda Richardson moved to Amsterdam. In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda is volunteering in Nepal when she gets entangled with a gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen his diamonds. In Holiday Gone Wrong, Zelda is off to Panama and Costa Rica when she gets drawn into a tantalizing misadventure involving pre-Columbian artifacts. I have also published a travelogue about my experiences volunteering in Nepal, Notes of a Naive Traveler.

3. Can you tell us about your latest novel?

Marked for Revenge is an art heist thriller about the theft of forty paintings from modern art museum across the Netherlands. One of the museum’s Zelda Richardson is working for is robbed at the beginning of this novel and our heroine soon finds herself entangled with the robbers, mob, and police. To make matters worse, a Croatian gangster is convinced she knows where the stolen artwork is. To save herself and those she loves most, Zelda is forced to recruit the help of Vincent de Graaf, a Dutch private investigator and art recovery expert. Together they follow a trail of clues across Europe to a final showdown in Turkey that may cost them their lives. You’ll have to read it to find out if they both survive!

4. You have an art background. What is it about art history that inspires you?

I honestly don’t know why I am so drawn to the arts and culture, but I have always been interested in theater, museums, opera, and galleries. In particular, paintings can illicit an emotional reaction in me that nothing else can. The Fauvists are my favorite as I am drawn to their rich colors and loose interpretations of reality. I don’t know what that says about me! Art history is what brought me to the Netherlands. My plan was to complete a two-year degree then return to the States. I ended up earning a four-year master’s degree in museum studies and had the privilege of working for some of the most prestigious museums in the world, all located in this fine city I now call home.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ideas for my art history-based novels come primarily from museum exhibitions I have seen, real-life thefts, and art history mysteries, as well as off-the-wall newspaper articles and documentaries. Somehow these tidbits combined together in my head and form a new idea. For example, the plot of Marked for Revenge was inspired by the spectacular robbery and discovery of two Vincent Van Gogh paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002, several odd art thefts mentioned in regional newspapers, and articles and documentaries about the Italian mafia’s activities in the Netherlands, Croatia, and Turkey.

5. What sort of research did the stories require?

My art-related mysteries require a tremendous amount of research! The obscure facts and forgotten anecdotes one sometimes finds in an archive can make a character, time period or story come to life. Though admittedly, I enjoy conducting research, perhaps more than writing.

To write The Lover’s Portrait, 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 shared their favorite obscure stories about the war, a few of which I was able to work into my story. My Dutch husband’s family also shared their stories of growing up in occupied Amsterdam, how it was to see tanks rolling through the streets, bunkers on Museumplein, and German troops on patrol. They really helped make these chapters come to life.

My work as a collection researcher for the Tropenmuseum inspired me to write Rituals of the Dead. One of my assignments was locating photographs and films we could use in an exhibition of Asmat art – Bijs Poles: Sculptures from the Rainforest. The Asmat live in Papua, part of the Indonesian half of the island Papua New Guinea, and are known for creating exquisite artwork. Until 1962, Papua was a Dutch colony known as Netherlands New Guinea.

Rituals: Here you can see the bispoles – artwork created by the Asmat of Papua – that play a central role in my artifact mystery, Rituals of the Dead.

Marked for Revenge was the easiest of the three, in that most of the research involved reading non-fiction books and newspaper articles, as well as official Interpol and Europol reports. Still, I spent about two months immersing myself in the world of art recovery experts, art crime research, drug smuggling, international enforcement agencies before beginning to write. It’s fascinating stuff.

6. Are the characters based on real people?

In general, none of the characters in my novels are based on real people, but are conglomerations of those I have read about during the course of my research. There is one exception. I was so moved by the real story of Moos Cohen, a talented Jewish artist who perished in a concentration camp months before the war ended, that I gave one of my characters in The Lover’s Portrait his background, aptitude, and promise of a rewarding career.

Despite what some reviewers believe, my missing anthropologist in Rituals of the Dead is not based solely on American anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in 1961 and has never been found. Oddly enough, I discovered during my research that this fate overcame more explorers and anthropologists working in the rainforests and mangrove swamps of Papua. The main difference was that their father wasn’t running for Vice President of America at the time of their disappearance!

To create my art detective in Marked for Revenge, I drew inspiration from several actual art recovery cases covered in the media involving detectives active in the field, in particular Charley Hill’s recovery of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

7. How important do you think historical accuracy is when writing fiction? Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?

I think it is the author’s duty to get it as right as they can. Unless it’s historical fantasy, readers will expect you to have done your research. Sometimes you have to ‘best guess’ because there are blanks that need to be filled in. But those ‘best guesses’ should be based on the extensive research already done around the topic. When accurate, I believe fiction can help us relate to the individual stories of the past, and thereby better understand the period, politics, cultures, or attitudes of that era.

Rijksmuseum: This photo was taken from a bridge over the Spiegelgracht; the Rijksmuseum soars above the surrounding buildings. On the left you can see the Spiegelstraat, a street filled with art galleries, antique dealers and jewelers. It is also an important location in The Lover’s Portrait.

8. When it comes to Amsterdam, many of us associate it with Rembrandt and Van Gogh, can you tell us about any other hidden gems that inspire you?

For inspiration, the Stedelijk Museum is my favorite venue. I adore modern and contemporary art and their collection is quite diverse. The Verzetsmuseum – or Dutch Resistance Museum – is an incredible institution. It explains all facets of the war, including the work of the Dutch resistance, in great detail. Their interactive displays allow young and old to experience daily life during the war in ways most museum don’t. It’s well worth the visit when in Amsterdam.

Another favorite might not be what you’d expect, if you knew me! Whenever my mother comes over to visit, we enjoy a high tea at the Tassenmuseum – Bag Museum. As the name suggests, it is a museum dedicated to hand bags, purses, suitcases, attaché cases, you name it. And despite being a tomboy, I love to marvel at the variety of designs, textures, and colors.

Also worth noting are the Tropenmuseum for their Papua collection, Willet Holthuysen for their wonderfully conserved canal house, and Huis Marseille or FOAM for photography.

GoudstikkerHouse: This was the home of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who died while escaping occupied Holland. His extensive art collection was the source of many controversial restitution claims.

Westerkerk: When I first moved to Amsterdam, I lived across the street from the Westerkerk. Here you can see the Homomonument – a memorial to all LGBT citizens who died during World War II. On the right, you can see the entrance to the Anne Frank House.

9. What’s next for you?

I am heading back to World War II for my next art mystery, the fourth in the Zelda Richardson Mystery Series. While preparing book one – The Lover’s Portrait – for publication, 1,500 pieces of missing artwork were found in an apartment owned by German art dealer Cornelius Gurlitt. Several articles about the discovery referenced rumors of a Nazi Art Looting Program that his father was a part of – according to some reporters, an underground network of art dealers and experts that is still active today. The idea that such an organization may exist intrigues me enormously. The information I’ve found laid the basis for my next mystery. Now all I have to do is think up a great title and finish it!

Thank you again, Kathryn for inviting me to share more about my books with your readers – I really appreciate it!

Thank you for spending time with us, Jennifer. It’s been a pleasure to host you. I have to say, I am intrigued by The Bag Museum. I’m sure not many visitors to Amseterdam would think to go there.

PinkPoint: Located to the left of the Westerkerk is Pink Point, the world’s first LGBT tourist information kiosk. They also sell and promote LGBT-friendly gifts and books – including The Lover’s Portrait.

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