Jennifer S. Alderson - Captivating Historical Art Thriller
Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle, and currently lives in Amsterdam. Jennifer’s love of travel, art, and culture inspires her award-winning Zelda Richardson Mystery series, her Travel Can Be Murder Cozy Mysteries, and her standalone stories. 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. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, The Lover's Portrait.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Lover's Portrait is about.
The Lover’s Portrait is a dual-timeline mystery about a Nazi-looted painting which is being claimed by two different women who swear it belongs to their families. However, one of the women is lying about her claim because she believes the portrait is the key to finding a large cache of looted artwork, hidden somewhere in Amsterdam.
The heroine in the novel, Zelda Richardson, is an American art history student who is part of the team researching the painting’s provenance. After she inadvertently gets in the way of the lying claimant. Zelda has to figure out which of the two women is willing to kill in order to get their hands on the portrait!
What inspired you to write about a portrait that holds the key to a cache of looted artwork?
I came to the Netherlands in 2004 to study art history for a year, but ended up earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in art history and exhibition management at the University of Amsterdam! During my studies, we had a wide variety of guest speakers visit and one gave such a stirring presentation about Nazi-looted artwork, that it stuck with me. Several years later, when I was trying to decide what to write about, her lecture sprung to mind and the basis was soon laid for my very first historical mystery!
Why did you pick the 1940s and present-day Amsterdam as the backdrop for your story?
From the offset I wanted it to be an art mystery about a painting stolen during World War Two, but the initial manuscript was set solely in present-day Amsterdam. It didn’t occur to me until much later to make it a dual-timeline novel. However, once I had finished the manuscript so as I intended it, it fell flat. There was something missing, but it took me months to puzzle out what it was.
What really dragged the story down were several long passages referencing historical letters that Zelda was reading. They contained many clues about the painting, so I couldn’t just cut them. However, after I removed that information from the present-day sections and created separate chapters set in the 1940s, the manuscript really start to come to life!
Tell us more about Zelda. What makes her tick?
Zelda is a strong-minded, stubborn young woman who is dealing with living abroad for the first time while taking classes given in a language she has yet to master. In short, she’s got a lot on her plate and is often quite unsure of herself! As readers point out, she is naïve about the ways of the world, but she is tenacious and always has her heart in the right place, which makes her a character they can relate to.
Where does your fascination with art come from?
It may sound silly, but to me, looking at beautiful things is invigorating, calming, and inspiring – all at the same time! My parents tell me that I have been fascinated with art and museums since I was a kid and used to rearrange my mother’s knick-knacks into mini-exhibitions. This might explain why I ended up studying art history, although it was only after traveling in Nepal and Thailand that I decided to leave multimedia development behind and pursue a more artistic path. Up until then, working in a museum was a pipe-dream, not something I thought I would actually get to do many years later!
How much research did this book require from you to make the history part of it ring true?
Months and months! Thanks to my university courses, I already had a basic understand of the topics and knew where to look for more information. However, when I was in the archives and libraries, I found out so many fascinating details it was difficult to choose what to include. Ultimately, I ended up using the “extra” research I couldn’t fit into The Lover’s Portrait as the basis for the fourth book in the series, The Vermeer Deception.
It also took me so long to research this because I am an American writing about sensitive topics and I wanted to make certain that the more controversial aspects of the plot were correct. Luckily, my work paid off – the Jewish Historical Museum, Rijksmuseum, and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam all have copies of The Lover’s Portrait in their libraries’ permanent collections.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I am a fanatic gardener and love to make objects out of stained glass (windows, candleholders, lamps, etc.) I haven’t been able to use my green thumb in quite a while, but luckily we are in the process of moving out of Amsterdam to a nearby village where we will finally have a real garden I can go crazy in!
This book was very well received and was nominated for several awards. What has the experience been like, so far?
It has been a dream come true to see how readers and award committees have reacted to this novel! The accolades have opened many doors, including several features in mystery and art-related publications and websites. Most recently, The Lover’s Portrait was featured on CrimeReads in an article entitled, “7 Great Heist Novels, Recommended by an Art Dealer”. I was shocked, honored, and incredibly delighted to see it listed among books by Daniel Silva, Iain Pears, Jeffry Archer, Ian Rankin, Carson Morton, and Robert Brown Parker! It is incredibly rewarding to see the research really paid off.
What surprised you most about readers' reactions to this book?
The Lover’s Portrait was my second book and my first art history mystery, so I had no idea how readers would react. I had already tried to get it published via the traditional route, but no one was interested. The number one reason why publishers rejected this manuscript was because they thought Zelda was too naïve and that readers would not be able to connect with her. I am so grateful they were wrong! Yes, Zelda has her dumb moments – as we all do – but luckily most readers find it more enduring than irritating and have continued to follow her further adventures.
The book contains some twists and turns. Did you plan them all out before you started writing, or did some of it just "happen" along the way?
Most of them happened along the way. I had finished my first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, in 2008, but no publisher was interested in it so I put it in a drawer and figured writing novels wasn’t for me. I decided to write The Lover’s Portrait in 2012 to give my mind something to do while I was home raising my baby boy, not with the intention of publishing it!
Because there was no pressure to finish it by any certain date, the original manuscript was crazier than the final version. At one point, Zelda got entangled with the US Embassy and ended working for the CIA! When I noted the manuscript was almost 200,000 words, and still didn’t have a strong storyline, I started over. While I didn’t ditch it completely, I started with a new outline which included several of the plot twists I had already written, but not all of them. The published manuscript might not be as wild as the original, but it is much more realistic!
The Lover's Portrait is first in a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one?
It is book one in a series of four art history mysteries. Zelda Richardson, the main character, is the connection between the books and each is set in a different Dutch museum that she is currently working in. All can be read as standalones, but several reviewers have commented that the character development can be best enjoyed when reading them in order. Book two, Rituals of the Dead, is also a dual-timeline, however this one is an artifact mystery set partially in Papua New Guinea. Books three and four, Marked for Revenge and The Vermeer Deception, are art thrillers set entirely in the present-day.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
Pre-coronavirus, I truly believed that I could only write in cafés. Since the lockdowns and school closures have been in effect, I have learned that I can write anywhere and under pretty much any conditions. After we move, I will have a small office of my own – I cannot wait!
What are you working on right now?
Right now I am writing Death by Leprechaun: A Saint Patrick’s Day Murder in Dublin, which will be book six of my Travel Can Be Mystery cozy mystery series. Each book is set in different European cities and follows the adventures of a tour guide named Lana Hansen. I am extremely happy to see readers are enjoying the mysteries and travels!
Before starting this series a year ago, I hoped to switch between it and the Zelda Richardson Art Mysteries more frequently, but I have learned that I am a horrible multi-tasker when it comes to writing. I do intend to continue the Zelda series sometime in the new future, but want to get the next three travel cozy mysteries out first!
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Readers can find out more about my books on my website [http://www.jennifersalderson.com] . I am also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. I should warn readers that my social media may look a little sparse at the moment. Getting my family ready to move has kept me offline for the past two months. However, we are nearing the actual moving date which means I am now able to get back online and connect with readers!
Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my story with your readers, ManyBooks!!