Award-Winning biographer Penelope Niven passes away in Winston-Salem

by Daniel Schere

Award-Winning biographer Penelope Niven died at the age of 75 Thursday night at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Niven wrote biographies on Carl Sandburg, Edward Steichen and Thornton Wilder. She was a recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature and won several other awards. She was also an editor for several publications and taught at Salem College for 12 years as a writer-in-residence.

Kevin Watson, editor-in-chief of local publisher Press 53, was a student of Niven at Salem from 1999 to 2004. He had taken 25 years off between high school and college and wanted to beef up his writing ability.

“When I really got into writing and got published and started to win an award here and there, I decided I really need to go to college to learn the language of writing. I was really fortunate to have her as an instructor.”

He said she was one of the nicest and most caring people he had met.

“I complained to her one time that I thought she was too nice,” he said. “I thought she needed to be harder on some of the writing students with her critique and criticism and all that. She just smiled and said I don’t think anybody can be too nice

Watson said Niven’s main message to her students was to pick something you love and do it well.

“You could tell that she enjoyed seeing her students express themselves, and it was her job to give the students insights on how to express themselves,” he said.

Watson recounted a visit to Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, in which Niven gave a tour. He remembered being struck by the number of books lining the halls and the white flags left in them, which marked the place where Sandburg had read to in each one.

“When we got back we had to write a paper on the trip, so I wrote what I thought was a really good piece, it kind of mimicked a couple paragraphs from a Robert Morgan novel where a young girl is running downhill and there’s leaves here and leaves there and it just kept repeating the word leaves, and the word echoed,” he said. “It was just beautiful. And so I tried doing that with the flags here and the flags in the book and the flags on the stairs, and all that stuff. So Penny handed my paper back to me and said I think maybe you might have overused the word flag. And I said well I’m trying to capture what Robert Morgan did in his novel with leaves. And she just smiled and said, maybe we should leave that device to Robert Morgan.”

It was that way of delivering criticism in a gentle manner that Watson said Niven lived her life.