An Interview with Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveler's Wife focuses on one relationship, that of Henry and Clare, as both it, and Henry, flow through time. When Clare first meets Henry she is six years old and he has traveled back thirty years to meet her. Set in Chicago, the story goes beyond the typical love ballad to become a story about living in the moment and enjoying people as they come and go through life. I sat down with Audrey Niffenegger, the book's author, at Ann Sathers to discuss her characters, the city, and the creation of books.
I enjoyed your use of Chicago in the book very much. It was very obvious that you had lived in Chicago, even before I read the back portion about you, I was like, this person has been to Chicago, this person knows Chicago. How much did you intend to use the city as a character?
A lot, because I sort of started thinking, well, it's really important to give this a grounding in reality. It should be demonstrable to anyone who reads this that this is a real place and these are real people. The premise of the book is so fantastical that it just needed a counterbalance of documentary style places. And I thought it would be fun. I think Chicago's got its own vibe but it's a very practical, accessible kind of place. It's not quite the same thing as vampires in New Orleans or ghosts in Paris. It's kind of an unaccepted place for anything really strange to happen.
It's nice going through it… you mention Ann Sathers and the Army Surplus store and Oak Street Beach and I'm like, yeah I've been there, I've been there, and I've been there.
It was a chance to show off the city and the things I like about it.
I love the pop culture references in it. I like anything like that because I think it makes it more real… you have the Violent Femmes at the Aragon Ballroom…
I really went to that show! I was sort of like, Chicago is almost like a fan thing. I put in things that I especially love.
Another thing that I liked…well, I don't really like love stories, and what I liked was that this was a classic love story but I didn't realize it… because it wasn't sappy! It was just written very real with real thoughts and real emotions and not just, "Oh, let's run away together!" There are really big themes of love of in it, but it wasn't overly emotional.
That's good. [One] reviewer compared it to Love Story and I just about died. For me the really interesting part that required a lot of imagination was what it would be like to be married. I think people who really are married -- I've never been married -- I think there's an ordinariness and a day-to-day-ness and I think the shiny newness wears off and after ten years or twenty years you grow accustomed to each other and it doesn't seem all that special that you have that person. And I thought, well, what if that person was always going away and you were always losing them? That might be a little different. You would be forced to really live in the moment, which a lot of people talk about, but I don't think really do it.
Did you intend for it to be a classic love story? Did you set out to write it that way? There was lot of making real the metaphors that we use about love. Like waiting for someone that you love and knowing that you're going to be with them. From very young Clare knows that she's going to end up with Henry and because he's seen it happen and she has his word. It was very subtle. That brought it away from seeming like a really big love story, even though it was.
I was working backward, so the initial image -- we probably shouldn't say what that is in case people haven't read it for themselves -- that was the central image to the book and so everything was working to get to that. At the time that I started writing the book I had been though some really unhappy relationships and I said to myself, "Enough of that… I will just write a book… to heck with these real people." But also, my parents' marriage -- my parents are still married -- my father used to travel all the time and in any given week he'd be gone four days and so, as kids, there was my mother trying to cope on her own. And then my grandparents, my mother's parents, my grandfather died quite young. That's actually who the book's dedicated to. One day he had a headache and three days later he was dead. So it was this idea that you can't depend on people to be there, that you can't predict anything. There's probably a certain amount of wishful thinking invested in those characters.
Did you base Henry's sort of epilepsy-type problem on that? Did you have any intention of making it kind of science-fictiony?
I was thinking about epilepsy and also about schizophrenia, this kind idea of an electrical storm inside the brain that also, in schizophrenia it's like tuning into some other reality that's falling freely. I like science fiction, but it's not really what I read. So I wasn't trying for science fiction… what I was initially interested in was having one fantastical or strange thing and then regular reality. There's this idea that you change one thing about the world and everything else moves around it. This idea that you're allowed to play with reality somewhat. In my art, I'm somewhat surrealistic… I like changing things.
I can see very much how you just changed the one element and made it real, how you went to lengths to try to explain it in terms of things that could possibly be real, like something wrong with the brain, treating it with drugs. It was like it was more of a psychological problem rather than a hey-this-guy-can-time-travel problem.
If it had been mechanical, then he would have been able to control it. I was really interested in having him be completely subject to the whim of his body or time and that to me is more meaningful than popping him in a machine.
How much did you want to put a message of fate and destiny in the book? It seems like Henry is always going to Clare.
You just don't see the other times. My editor said, "Well, maybe you could write in more random time travel," but the manuscript was already six hundred pages long.
So you intended it to be a lot more random?
In my head it was a lot more random, but I wanted the story concentrate around them, so I tried to hint around that he was going other places. To take you through much of that would really be a detour. It's interesting trying to manage what is essentially a pretty simple story that's kind of spread out and trying to bring it back and make it tight.
How did you manage the timeline at all? I noticed that in the beginning that the way it was set up they get closer to each other in age.
I have it at home on my computer -- there's two of them. One is Clare's timeline. The other one is the order that things are happening in the book and where Henry's coming from so I can see what he would know at any given time. What I was mainly working with was who knew what when. So, if I needed a Henry who didn't have a lot of information I would a put a younger Henry in. I'll be interested in about ten years to read it and have a lot better ideas of how to do it. For now that was kind of the best I could do.
One thing I will compliment you on is your use of the present tense -- you switched very well between the characters voices. I find that in a lot of writing, especially now, people try to use different tenses or they'll try to switch between different styles of writing because they think that makes it interesting when, really, you have to have a good story before you can do anything with the format.
I think a lot of people are trying to be tricky or cool, which is okay. I can read that pretty happily for a while and then I need to read something a little more normal, but it's interesting that people keep trying all these novelties, trying to keep it new. It's amusing to me when people start describing my novel and they talk about it as "Original!" and I'm like, "Okay." To me a lot of the decision was just a product of the material and it had that tense because if you put in the past tense, sooner or later you would have to define some point in time as the present. Then it would just become flashbacks and so forth. I wanted everything to be happening right now. So that was just a very nuts and bolts kind of decision. What I'm hoping is that people will get the feeling that wherever they are in the narrative they're right there, that the other parts may or may not relate sensibly in the customary before and after. I'm hoping for people to be comfortable with the fact that the chronology is all messed up.
Was it ever difficult deciding on the ending?
The original thing I had in mind was for Clare to pretty much lose her mind and to be completely incapacitated, but the more I wrote the more I thought, Clare is really a pretty sensible person and she probably wouldn't do that. People have said to me, oh they're both so beautiful and rich and happy, I can't stand it, and I said, they are?
I like that you didn't make Henry into a martyr. He wasn't on a crusade, he wasn't trying to go back in time to save Clare, he wasn't trying to teach anybody anything, he had no control over doing it. It made it easier to want to know why he was doing what he was doing, or why he was chosen to do that.
That's interesting… everybody asks themselves if they're different in any way, which is a question that is never really answered… you're just it. The part that happened around 9/11 was interesting because, of course that happened when I was almost done with the book and I thought, wow, I can't really let this go un-addressed. For the most part real world events don't really make it into this book because I didn't want to date it and I didn't want it to be about the world. It's really about this relationship. I figured, you have this gigantic thing and if you don't at least nod at it, it's going to seem glaring in its absence.
Did you ever want to have Henry change things in the past? Was it hard to keep him from doing that?
It was actually much easier to write with limitations. A character that could do anything, they could just make everything okay all the time, and then there would be no plot. It was actually really helpful that he couldn't change anything. And then my worldview is actually fairly dark. The idea that you can't change things coincides with the way I wrote the book.
Do you get questions about the fact that Henry just going back to these places changes them?
The thing about paradox is you only get into paradox if things can be changed. If everything only happens once and it happens that way with Henry in it, he may be acting, but it's not like the world is going to be any different. Every time that particular thing happened, there he was. It's sort of like every time you do things, you change things, but someone looking back from the future would see it as having a certain amount of inevitability. It's something that bugs me about actual science fiction, this effort to provide all the answers and make everything work out very neatly.
Did you always want to write a book?
Yeah. I mean, I only started because I had the idea. I wasn't sitting around thinking, "My God, what should I write a book about?" It took about four and a half years from when I first started scribbling things down to finished manuscript. It's good if it takes a long time because then you have more time to think about everything and you can put more ideas into it. I once did a visual book that took fourteen years… that was a little long. I don't worry too much about how long it took, but then again, with your first one you have no one waiting for it. Nobody cares if you're done, you don't really have anyone to impress yet. Now everybody keeps going, "Hey, how's that book coming along?" The second book is twenty five pages long at the moment. I try not to worry about it, with the timing of the school year it's hard to do anything.
What do you teach?
I teach for a department called Interdisciplinary Arts. It's part of the Book and Paper Center so I a lot of what I teach has to do with making books from scrap. Handset type, typography… I teach a class that runs all year and people start off with an idea and they design it, they make the paper, they bind it…
It's a lot of the physicality of books.
It's kind of nice, thinking about books as objects.
Yeah…they're nice possessions.
Especially if you've made every single thing about it.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger