November 2010

Terry Hong


An Interview with Audrey Niffenegger

Sometimes jet lag has its advantages. Amazingly enough, I caught Audrey Niffenegger soon after her London arrival, when she wasnít sleeping -- ďI am very bad at jet lag,Ē she confesses. Sheís currently on her book tour for her first full-length graphic novel, the chilling literary delight The Night Bookmobile, which appeared as a serial graphic series for Londonís The Guardian newspaper from May to December 2008, and was introduced this September as a single stunning bound volume.

That Niffenegger is an official tour guide at Londonís Highgate Cemetery (a skill she just happened to pick up while researching and writing her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry), makes her visits over the pond a homecoming of sortsÖ and eventually, she will certainly sleep. But not before she offered some memorable answers about writing, printing, reading, travels, fans, and even death.

Probably because I was hiding under some rock of denial, I first knew of Niffenegger as a creator of magnificently illustrated books before realizing she is also that internationally renowned, mega-bestselling novelist. If youíre rolling your eyes at me right about now, then perhaps you have not seen her spectacular titles, The Three Incestuous Sisters, with its rich burgundy leather-like spine, and The Adventuress, with its begging-to-be touched forest green velvet binding. These are unique artistic creations to be surprised and delighted about, to be haunted and shocked by, to linger over.

Before she was a novelist, Niffenegger was trained as a visual artist; she began making prints in 1978 and her artist life continues as both practitioner and teacher. Sheís made her very own books, which she printed and bound by hand in editions of ten; two of them became the (thankfully) commercially available The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.

Niffeneggerís writing life began in 1997, with an idea for a story that didnít work as a graphic novel, but would become her phenomenal 2003 debut, The Time Travelerís Wife. The premise of Time is rather like a MŲbius strip which, at first glance, appears to be two parts, but is intricately connected to make a neverending surface. That is the essence of the relationship between Clare, the eponymous wife, and Henry, the chrono-challenged love of her life. Clare is six when they meet; Henry has traveled back from when he is 36 which means he holds the future. In Henryís ďrealĒ time, they will not meet until Clare is 20 and Henry is 28, which means only Clare knows their past. Their love story, of course, proves timelessly everlasting.

Six years later, Niffenegger followed with another novel driven by otherworldly love. Elspeth Noblin is one half of a pair of identical twins. She dies in a London hospital, having been separated for the past 20 years from twin Edie, whose life now is contained in an overdecorated suburban faux Tudor home outside Chicago. Inseparable until their transatlantic cleaving, Elspeth and Edie never stop longing for one another and yet truculently remain parted, until death. Enter the next generation of twins, Julia and Valentina, belonging to Edie and raised across the pond. Elspethís final will lures the twins to London as sole benefactors of her spacious Highgate flat and the rest of her generous estate, with stipulations. Julia and Valentina must live in the flat for one year, during which time their parents Edie and Jack must never set foot within. Death may have taken Elspethís expired body, but her story -- and that of the entangled twins -- is just beginning.

Settling back into her own familiar London, Niffenegger was headed to Highgate Cemetery for the weekend. Sheíll be leading eager visitors through narrow paths, revealing spooky tales, sharing impossible stories. For those of us unable to join her in lifetime at deathís door, weíve thankfully got five uniquely Niffenegger titles to keep us deftly entertained and memorably haunted.

As a Luddite, I loved reading your comments about e-books, and how you championed the physicality of holding, having beautiful books. I see from Amazon that The Time Travelerís Wife remains unelectrified, but Her Fearful Symmetry can be whispernet-ed instantly. So what changed? How did Fearful become Kindle-able, and how did you keep Wife off the wires?

The e-rights to The Time Travelerís Wife belong to me (just as the e-rights of most books published before 2004 or so belong to their authors, if the books are still in copyright) and so I can do as I see fit with them. Someday I will probably authorize an e-version; I am waiting for the technology and the design issues to firm up a bit. Thereís no rush. Lots of people have decided to pirate it.

The e-rights to Her Fearful Symmetry were part of the original contract with Scribner. I donít actually know how that is going; it does seem to calm the people who thought I was vehemently opposed to all e-books, which Iím not. Though I havenít figured out yet how the bookstores are going to participate in the e-book thing, and I do love bookstores, so that worries me.

I hope and believe that the current e-readers are just the beginning; they are pretending to be books because new technologies often try to look like the thing they are replacing. But they arenít books. They canít do many bookish things. But they have other talents, and I hope that the e-readers will evolve into something more interesting that can support art forms we havenít yet invented.

And what do you think of audible versions of your books? I actually heard both of your novels on my iPod, taking them on my training runs -- Iím convinced they made me run faster and better! Have you listened to these audible incarnations? What did you think?

I was especially pleased with both the American and British audio books of Her Fearful Symmetry because the voice I always heard in my head while I wrote it was an English womanís, and I finally got to hear that voice in reality. It was spooky, like having my thoughts broadcast on the radio.

Good luck with the running; I canít do it anymore, my knees gave out. Iím a walker now, more slow but less pain.

I confess the one Audrey Niffenegger-attributed project I havenít gotten to is the film of The Time Traveler's Wife. I understand you didnít have anything to do with the celluloid version of your novel, but can I assume that youíve seen it by now? And what did you think watching your characters arrive on the big screen?

No, I havenít seen it. Itís been interesting to hear other peopleís thoughts about the film and to build an idea of what it must be like based on what they tell me. But itís easy to see the film if I ever want to; itís impossible to unsee it.

I totally admit that Iím one of the few who knew your illustrated books long before realizing you are also that mega-bestselling novelist. Do you have definitive preference for medium? And how different is the process by which you create the story -- either in pictures or in words?

I always long for the thing I am not doing. So if I am immersed in a massive art project, I think about my current novel, and vice versa. Itís actually very nice to draw and to work out plot or character issues at the same time, but of course I canít do any actual writing while drawing.

When I work on art I can have music in the studio, thatís very helpful, whereas while writing I need to sit in a quiet room without music or chatter. Iíve also been delighting in the short time span needed to make a drawing; itís nice to have that feeling of completion every week or so instead of every seven years.

How did you originally discover Highgate Cemetery, which looms large in Her Fearful Symmetry? We lived in London twice, and I think itís one of the most fascinating places in the world, much because the tour guides -- pardon the too-tempting pun -- bring the buried stories to life with such vividness and dedication. Iíd go back often to try new guides, because their arsenal of afterlife tales were always so fabulously different! So I totally share your fascination. How often do you go back over the pond now that your research is over?

As often as possible. Iím in London now, and will give tours next weekend. Itís a thrill to show the cemetery to anyone who hasnít seen it, and often visitors will have been there many years ago and can tell me stories about the place from the '70s or '80s. And youíre quite right about the variety and knowledge of the guides; I enjoy going on other guidesí tours too.

I first saw Highgate in 1996, my sister and I took the tour. I had read about it in a guide book called Permanent Londoners, which I think is a perfect title for a book about London cemeteries.

How do people react to getting you as a tour guide? Are most of them your readers?

Very seldom does anyone recognize me, but I am told that Her Fearful Symmetry has increased visitor numbers at the cemetery, which is great (helps raise awareness of the place and its history and helps pay the bills) and not-so-great (the number of guides hasnít risen quite as fast as the number of people who would like to take the tour).

Might we see Her Fearful Symmetry hit screens? If so, are you or will you be involved in the word-to-film transformation process this time?

Yes; Iíve kept the film rights and hope to adapt it myself and have lots of control over the project.

How did you write The Night Bookmobile when it was serialized for The Guardian? Did you create it week to week or did you have the whole thing finished before serialization began? Are those your books from your past in the Winnebago?

I was adapting my own short story, which was originally published in Zoetrope: All-Story in 2004. So my job was to figure out how to break it into episodes and panels, what to tell in pictures, how things should look, etc. Comics is a very sophisticated medium and there are all sorts of possibilities once you have both images and words to work with, so the whole thing had to be rethought.

The books are my books, though my taste and Alexandraís are not identical.

And what defines your taste in books? Do you enjoy graphic novels? Prose novels? History? Poetry? Whatís your favorite type of book to hold and read on a rainy Saturday afternoon?

At heart I am a novel reader, but I am also very happy to read comics, history, medical books, poetry, books about printing and bookmaking, type specifiers, childrenís books, essays, art history and theory, biography... heck, Iíll read cereal boxes if thereís nothing else available.

I am partial to writers who reinvent the world a bit, writers whose work is slightly skewed. Right now I am reading everything by John Crowley; I started with Little, Big and have read the ∆gypt series with intense pleasure. He has a very light touch with the strangeness of the worlds he creates, and his characters are flawed and delightful and they have such excellent names. (Daily Alice Drinkwater! How I long to meet her!)

In both The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, the city in which the story is located becomes almost a character: Chicago for The Time Traveler's Wife and London for Her Fearful Symmetry. What city will Lizzie in The Chinchilla Girl in Exile, your current novel-in-progress, be based? Where are you taking your readers next?

Fabulous Skokie, Illinois. And Chicago again, too.

In addition to the new novel, any graphic works we might expect sooner than later?

I would like to get to work on the next installment of The Library (the larger work of which The Night Bookmobile is the first installment). Chapter Two is called Moths of the New World; itís about a stolen book.

I understand you travel quite a bit. Since place has a large role in your novels, what are some of your favorite places? Youíve been Chicago-domiciled for decades now; would you ever think you might move to another city?

If I did move, it would be London. But I have an eye-popping amount of heavy stuff (presses, lead type, books) and Chicago is my home. Amsterdam would be a great place to live, Iíve always had a deep fondness for the Dutch and their glorious city. I used to date a Dutchman and was happy to be ďfamilyĒ to his family.

Iíve been lucky enough to be sent by publishers to some places I never thought I would set foot in: Sydney, Helsinki, Oslo, Wales, Vancouver, and Portland all turned out to be quite terrific. And there are places that were made cool for me by the cool people I met there: Tulsa, Memphis, Toronto, Hamburg, and many more... even much-loved Paris was improved for me by my publisher there, who decided it would be fun to do a photo shoot with me in the taxidermy shop, Deyrolle, one of my favorite places on earth. Itís a privilege to bop around and meet bookish people wherever I go.

And librariesÖ The Time Traveler's Wife with the Newberry. Her Fearful Symmetry with Elspethís home collection which was a personal library unto itself, plus she was in the book business. The Night Bookmobile is the ultimate private collection. Does Lizzie get a library? Do you have a favorite library? How large is your personal collection?

I havenít given any thought yet to Lizzieís books, but I imagine books will sneak into the book, they always do in my work. Right now I am working on Lizzieís family tree and her classmates (sheís in fourth grade).

It would be hard to choose a favorite library because my favorite is always the one that has what I need. The Chicago Public Library let me use their bookmobiles to shoot reference photos for The Night Bookmobile, so they are my favorite today. The Newberry Library is always the one I love to bring other people to, they have the most amazing books -- very old, very strange, things you didnít even know to ask for but the librarians know you will be interested and so they tell you what you need to see. Itís wonderful for students especially.

My own collection is perhaps between five and six thousand books. Most are paperbacks, but I also have artists' books and a bunch of things on the history of the book. Quite odd to think that before the invention of printing, a monarch or a rich person might have 300 books and be considered to have a very large library. And, of course, now that e-readers have become popular, the books will vanish, you wonít be able to walk into someoneís home and browse their shelves, the books will be invisible.

Oh, absolutely not! We book-loving Luddites must band together to prevent such a tragedy! Books -- even only partially read -- are eternal! Isnít that what you teach us in The Night Bookmobile?

Sadly, I donít think anything is eternal. If you want something to stick around you have to use it. And even then, things change as we use them. I try to get the new and the old to co-exist in my life. So, for example, I am a letterpress printer who sometimes sets metal type by hand and sometimes sets on the computer and prints the result on the letterpress from photo-polymer plates. Fifteenth-century technology goes hand-in-hand with 21st-century technology.

I think certain kinds of books will always be best as physical books (art books, perhaps?) and certain books will immediately move over to e-formats (textbooks, phone books, anything ephemeral). Maybe in the future there will be hybrids, chimeras. I am interested to see what happens next.

So you're a professorÖ what are the best and worst parts about the teaching experience? Will you keep teaching for awhile?

I just changed departments at Columbia College, Iím part of the Fiction Department now. Itís a very friendly and interesting department, and I do think Iíll be staying awhile.

My favorite thing about teaching is the shared risk. Iím in a room with people who share my interest in the subject, and my job is to take them to a place with that subject that they havenít been to yet, to let them figure it out, to invent it for themselves, to master whatís already there. It can be exciting for us all on a good day. A good day is when everyone is ready to play, to risk being wrong or silly in order to win an insight, to get it.

My least favorite thing about teaching is the anxiety dreams I have before the semester starts. They stop once I meet my new students.

I canít believe I missed you in D.C. -- am still kicking myself for the lost opportunity -- during your recent Night Bookmobile tour. I laughed when I read on your website about how you donít do book club visits anymore because ďitís difficult to have a knock-down-drag-out discussion of a novel when the author is sitting there drinking iced tea in your living room.Ē Book tours are also about meeting your readers; do you enjoy the meet-and-greet? Do you enjoy getting up in front of crowds?

I donít mind speaking in public and I do like meeting readers. I wish there was a way to do it that was a little more sociable. A signing line isnít conducive to real conversation. But I get easily overwhelmed (I was recently on tour for ten months) and so I am very hit-or-miss with the meaningful reader interaction. Sam Weller, who is my colleague at Columbia, told me that Ray Bradbury spends two hours a day writing back to readers who write to him. That struck me as wonderfully generous, and rather shamed me, the girl with the undependable e-mail-replying habits.

Well, on your website, you do suggest to email-hungry readers that writing to Jodi Picoult will get them a response, so at least you offer an alternative. So whatís the nuttiest thing a fan has ever said to you? What are some of the most insightful?

The most useful insight came from a woman at Women & Children First [bookstore] in Chicago, who asked me during a Q&A, ďWhy is all your work about loss?Ē At the time it had not occurred to me that this was true, but as soon as she said it I realized that she was quite right and I didnít know the answer. I still have no notion of why loss creeps into everything I do, but it is handy to have been alerted that this is the case.

The vast majority of my readers ask smart, non-nutty questions, though once in a while someone will get in touch with me to relate their true time-travel stories.

I donít know how to say this delicately, so here it is: I get the impression from your books and your drawings that youíre fascinated with death and otherworldly details. Is this true? Might this be left over from your childhood Catholicism? Could I ask what your personal thoughts on death might be?

I was raised Catholic and that was an interesting experience. I think it shaped my visual aesthetic and gave me a moral grounding. I left the church at 15, when I became aware of the gap between theory and practice in the church. I donít believe there is an afterlife. I think we have to be as kind and smart as possible while weíre here because I donít think we get re-dos. But I am not prepared to insist that other people are wrong in their beliefs. I believe in peaceful co-existence. My characters, on the other hand, have all sorts of ideas, which they are willing to fight over. Go figure.