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Interview: Audrey Niffenegger

By Karl Klockars in Miscellaneous on May 9, 2007 3:00PM

Best-selling author and Chicagoan Audrey Niffenegger has been on Chicagoist's radar for a while now. And since the movie version of her novel The Time Traveler's Wife is ramping into production, you're likely to see more and more people reading the book on the El ... if you haven't been reading (or re-reading) it yourself already.

0514_niffenegger.jpgIf you're unfamiliar with the book, here's the Cliffs Notes: Boy meets girl, boy jumps through time through no fault of his own, boy and girl get married, good and bad things happen to both boy and girl. Of course, it's a little more in-depth and much more emotional than that — it's as much a portrait of two people in love as it is a trip through Chicago over the span of decades. (Get Me High Lounge, RIP.)

Chicagoist checked in with Ms. Niffenegger in between her writing, working on a graphic novel, preparing an upcoming art exhibit, her teaching at Columbia College, and if that wasn't enough, in the process of moving. Yikes. Warning: here there be book spoilers (from here on out, known as Time Traveler), so if you haven't read the book yet, don't say we didn't warn you.

Chicagoist: This may seem like a weird place to start, but I read you dyed your hair red while you were writing Time Traveler as a way of connecting with the character Clare. So, just out of curiosity, is it still red?

Audrey Niffenegger: My hair in reality is kind of a medium brown, getting increasingly grey, and when I dyed it everyone was like, "Oh, huge improvement! Keep that!" So until I think of something better, it's red. The characters I'm working on now, the two female protagonists have kinda white-blond hair that I'm certainly not going to try to emulate.

C: Those characters would be for the book you're working on, The Fearful Symmetry, correct?

AN: Yes.

C: You first mentioned that in an interview in 2003 — are you in the process of finishing it, or where does it stand?

AN: I am the slowest writer that ever there was. Time Traveler took about five years, and Fearful Symmetry ... the thing that makes it a little bit tough was between 2003 and last year was that I was travelling so much, that I very rarely had time to sit down and think. So people would be like, "When's your book coming out!" And I'm thinking, well, soon as I'm not touring...

C: That would be for book tours, research, so on?

AN: Yeah, which I still do actually, the research in London, but I'm actually making some progress on this book. I don't have a date — I don't have a contract, so therefore I can muddle with it.

C: At least that means there aren't any publishers beating down your door, pressuring you into putting out the next big summer paperback sensation.

AN: Well, they can't! They have to be polite to me because the book is not under contract! [laughs] I hate making things that I don't own ... I mean it doesn't make sense to sell a thing that doesn't even exist. I realize that people do that all the time, but I would rather have it be my thing to do with whatever I think needs doing, and let people like it or not like it after it's done.

C: There's a part in Time Traveler where the characters sit down and watch the events of 9/11. Did you write that on the day it happened, or how did you know that you wanted to include it in the book?

AN: I didn't write it that day. I probably wrote it ... sometime in November of that year. I realized that when it was happening — it wasn't the first thing on my mind, the first thing on my mind was "Oh my God, are my friends OK, are we going to have World War III now?" But later, after I started to think about the book again, I thought "Well, as much as I've been trying to keep world events out of this, because nothing dates a novel faster, I really need this to be in there, because it'll look really peculiar if I ignore it." And when I sat down to see what was going on with them around that date, I realized they had just had their baby, and that was maybe the thing that I needed was the contrast between them sitting there with this tiny baby and the world falling apart.

C: For Time Traveler, you wrote the end of the book first. Did you envision the end and form the rest of the book around it, or how did it come about?

AN: Literally, it was the visual image of this woman, this old woman, sitting there, waiting. The first year or so, I didn't write very much and I basically just wandered around kind of thinking, well, who are they and what do they do, why does she even want to be with him in the first place because he's obviously a loser, [laughs] so that kinda took a while to figure out who they were and why they were in the situation they were in. Have you written yourself? I think part of it is that you need an idea that demands that you do something with it. The essence of novel writing is that you could never take it on if you had to grapple with the whole thing all at once. You kind of tackle the beginning and then keep following it.

C: Here's one thing I don't think I've ever seen anyone else ask you: what's your favorite part of Time Traveler?

AN: [pause] Well ... when I was running around doing readings, there were certain scenes that I like to read because they were kind of self contained. The parts that I wish I could read to people that I can't because it's so close to the end of the book is where Ingrid shoots herself. I mean, I can't tell you ... I set this thing up without realizing what I had set up, and when I went to write that scene, it was like "Oh! OK!"

Why doesn't she leave a note, was the question. And when I figured that out, I was so chuffed with myself. Which sounds silly, but ... anyway. I had no idea I was headed there, and then all of a sudden then there it was.

C: You know, you bring up the character of Ingrid, who is a very edgy, angry, punk-rock kind of chick. I’m guessing people probably don’t peg you as a punk fan as well.

AN: I guess not! It surprises me, but then again I’ve made kind of an effort to not insert my personality into this whole thing. There are certain authors who make a point of making themselves known, and I’m always more interested in talking about the project itself rather than me. But I think if you were to read it, it should seem obvious that the person who wrote that book had some sort of abiding [knowledge].

C: Chicago is as much of a character in Time Traveler as anyone else, and it’s obvious that you know the city intimately — was there anything you wanted to get into Time Traveler that you couldn’t make work?

AN: There’s just things that will probably make it into some future project. I’m working on a novella right now which involves a 9-year-old girl that has hypertrichosis, which is where you’re completely covered with hair — where you look kinda like a werewolf.

And it’s all about her wanting to go to school, she’s being home schooled because her family is afraid she’ll get teased. And she just wants to go to school, so with that I’m able to write about my days as a child. There was really no way to insert that into Time Traveler, but it’s interesting to me to be able to use that.

Certainly there’s a lot of things that didn’t really … there’s a lot of things that I’ve experienced that didn’t make it into Time Traveler, but if you try to pack in every single thing that’s ever happened to you into a novel it would kind of crazy.

C: Even without the knowledge of the impending film, Time Traveler is a very cinematic book. Did you have anything in mind about how it’d look on a screen while you were writing it?

AN: I was thinking very much about what it would look like if I made a movie out of it, but the movie that I would make is not the movie that’s going to be made.

C: I’m guessing you don’t have very much input into the film, but did you have anyone in mind to be cast as the main characters?

0514_sarahpolley.jpgAN: There’s a Canadian actress named Sarah Polley who has exactly the right face. I’ve never seen her in anything, I don’t know what kind of actress she is, but I actually kept a picture of her in my notebook to look at, because she was so perfect looking. And … Johnny Depp kinda seemed like an appropriate thing, but then I went to see the movie The Pianist with Adrien Brody, and I just was looking at the performance he was giving on the screen and said, “That’s Henry.”

But they’ve cast it now, so we’ll see how those two [Eric Bana and Rachael McAdams] do.

C: You teach at Columbia in the Book and Paper curriculum. Do you ever get anyone in your class solely because of your writing as opposed to the classwork?

AN: First of all, I teach graduate students. So limited numbers of people are even eligible to even take these classes — they’re mostly for book & paper students. Occasionally a fiction graduate student will find their way into my class.

C: How do you handle that?

AN: Well, for example, this semester what I was teaching was essentially an advanced writing seminar, but the emphasis is on putting writing and visual arts together. I did spend some time with them talking about the business of publishing, on how you get your work out there, and different ways of getting distributed. I think that’s important, and it’s something now that I’ve had a lot of experience with, so I try to tell them what that was like. So that’s one way that all this stuff can actually be made useful to the students.

And for the most part, the students are incredibly cool, and they do not make a big deal out of it. They are … grownups.

C: Well, it’s interesting that you’re teaching them about the publishing business, considering that you were pretty much newcomer going into Time Traveler, weren’t you?

AN: Yeah, I had done about as much research on it as you could do without actually going through an MFA in Creative Writing. I wasn’t completely naive, but I had to come in from the outside and get an agent on my own, without having some professor refer me to their agent. I think that was actually a more valuable experience than to be handed everything on a silver plate. And it was interesting to come in from nowhere.

C: Certainly, the success of Time Traveler is the exception rather than the rule in the publishing world.

AN: It seems to be very unusual because publishing people are very impressed by it. I, on the other hand, what do I know? For all I know that happens every day of the week. Publishing people have tried to put into perspective for me what it was that’s happened. I appreciate more what happened to me when I get to find out sales figures for other books. It kinda helps me figure out what the reality of publishing is. If they say “This is super successful, it sold 25,000 copies.” I’m like, “Wow … 25,000 copies …” I mean, at the moment, worldwide, I think there’s about four million copies of Time Traveler. And that’s [in] all languages.

C: How many languages has it been translated into?

AN: Twenty-eight.

C: Wow.

0514_timetravelercover.jpgAN: You never hear these things unless someone decides to publicize it! You have the NY Times bestsellers list, but all it does is rank these things, you don’t know if the number one thing sold 5,000 copies that week, or a million. Not that it could sell a million in one week, unless you’re J.K. Rowling.

C: You mentioned in another interview about your “first book” being something about a fictional trip you took with the Beatles?

AN: [laughs] Well, that was something I was doing when I was, I don’t know, ten, yes.

C: This might be a roundabout way of asking you what you're listening to right now, but if you had to pick a musical group from today to take a similar trip with, who would it be?

AN: You mean like to pretend if I was touring with somebody? Right now, I think I’d like to be touring with [Iggy and] the Stooges. They came [to Chicago], they went, I was in London! I couldn’t believe it! I’ve waited all these years, I was not here.

C: The reviews haven’t exactly been favorable to that new Stooges record.

AN: No, but who cares! I’ve seen Iggy perform solo, he’s astonishing. He’s a maniac. There’s so many things I’d love to experience without actually being there, know what I mean? The fly-on-the-wall thing. To spy on people but not interrupt what they’re doing or what they’re saying. Not foisting my presence on them, just seeing what’s what. That’s the fiction-writer thing, that thing where you just want to get in there and know but you don’t want to insert yourself.

C: After the success of Time Traveler, you put out a book that was very much a graphic novel. Did you have anyone pushing you to come out with another book and not something so avant-garde?

AN: Well, they were published out of order. So, The Adventuress, which was published last September was the first thing, which was completed in 1985. And The Three Incestuous Sisters which took a long time, I finished in 1999. And it overlaps with Time Traveler by about a year and a half, so I was starting Time Traveler as I was finishing Three Sisters.

And nobody wanted to publish this thing, because why would you want to publish something like that? It would just be this crazy, obscure, graphic novel kind of thing. A few years later when Time Traveler was popular, I met an editor who was interested in finding out if I wanted to do a children’s book. And I never ever do anything that’s appropriate for children, so I was like, “No, but do you want to look at this other thing for grownups?”

People say “Oh, why are you doing this visual thing when you could be writing?” And it’s like, well, I am writing, and the visual thing was already done. I’m just about in the middle of Fearful Symmetry. And I’m working on an exhibit for this fall for my gallery here in Chicago, Printworks, and I’m doing a graphic novel for the London Guardian, which will start running in January.

The art exhibit will be in November, and the thing for the Guardian in January, and that will certainly be out before the novel is done.

C: That doesn’t sound like a lot of downtime.

0514_threeincestuous.jpgAN: Well, in terms of putting things out, no. In terms of me actually working, um … [laughs] I have a good work ethic, but I’ve spent the last nine months moving. Which many people find appalling. Ideally one does write every day, but I have a lot of pressing things, so anytime I undertake something new, it’s a big ordeal.

C: Ever think about ditching the teaching and so on, and just write?

AN: I like to do both. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could bring the writing and the images together. And when I started writing a novel, it was an experiment, like “Wow, will this work?” Because I was so dedicated to words and images all at once. So I’m actually feeling kind of hopeful about this graphic novel thing, because I’m going to do it in comic form, which is probably the best form for me anyways.

But I like moving back and forth from thing to thing, and it seems silly to me to make the same thing over and over again.

C: Speaking of graphic novels, you’ve said that Maus by Art Spiegelman is one of your favorite works, saying “It is extremely complex, subtle, and I cry every time I read it.” How do you react when people tell you that they feel the same way about Time Traveler?

AN: What’s very amazing to me is that people have this intense emotional response, and I don’t even know them. [laughs] It’s this funny thing how you make this thing, and then people do with it what they need to do with it. I mean, I get email from all over the planet, and it blows my mind that somebody’s off in Finland, or Saudi Arabia, and they’re having this experience that I made for them, and I don’t even know them.

C: I wonder how Time Traveler translates to Arabic.

AN: God knows! [laughs] And I don’t speak a lot of other languages so I’m protected from having to know what those translations are like. You really do have to let it go — the thing with having it made into a movie that’s so strange is that I’m used to being the maker of it, and now these other people are making it which strikes me as the weirdest thing in the whole world.

But when people come and look at it, and view it, well, they’ll hopefully at least get some of what the book was about.

C: It must be weird to have to passively sit back and watch what you’ve created become.

AN: They are going to make it a Hollywood … thing, with all that that entails. It’s a privilege, but it’s also … stressful. In my case, I had to sell my film rights as part of my book deal. I couldn’t just sit on them. So, originally this was sold to Brad [Pitt] and Jennifer [Aniston]’s company Plan B along with some of the people that are still involved [with the project], and it was just like this act of putting it out in the universe and trusting that these people could make something that I could bear to watch. We’ll see.

[Director] Robert Schwentke looks like a smart guy, and in a collaborative process so many things can run amuck. And remember that whatever the movie is, they’re not editing the book. They can’t add or subtract anything from the actual book. On the other hand, people who haven’t read the book who see the movie may get an entirely different impression from anything I’ve ever intended. [laughs]

C: Yeah, especially if they don’t make certain characters die.

AN: Yeah. I’ve read the script, and I think everybody who’s supposed to die, is actually going to die. So that was promising. On the other hand, they’ve been tinkering with the ending. But you’ve just got to trust, in a way; they’re well intentioned, and we’ll see what they manage to do. Sometime you just have to shut your eyes. Every writer that I’ve ever talked to about this basically says, “Just remember the movie is not your movie, and you really have nothing to do with it.” That seems to be the collective wisdom of writers about this whole concept.