Interview with Audrey Niffenegger

October, 2009
Audrey Niffenegger When the storytelling mood strikes, novelist Audrey Niffenegger picks up a paintbrush. The author of The Time Traveler's Wife is a trained visual artist and relies on her skills in painting and drawing to keep the ideas flowing. Niffenegger can also add cemetery tour guide to her résumé. While researching her latest work, Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger became so immersed in the history of Highgate Cemetery, the 170-year-old burial site of luminaries George Eliot, Karl Marx, and Douglas Adams, that she began to guide tours herself! Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story about two American twins who inherit their Aunt Elspeth's London flat next door to Highgate and discover that their dearly departed aunt has never left. Niffenegger describes her strategy for writing characters and reveals her fear that the art of book design may be declining.

Goodreads: When did you become interested in writing about Highgate Cemetery?

Audrey Niffenegger: I was finishing Time Traveler in 2002, and I had an idea for a story about a man who can't leave his apartment and a girl who visits him. In my mind, this apartment was in a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown, which is a hardscrabble place. There's a large cemetery in the middle of Uptown called Graceland, and so I imagined that they were adjacent to that cemetery. But then I thought, "Is that the best cemetery?" My favorite cemetery that I had ever seen was Highgate, so that immediately propelled the whole scenario into London. I rapidly realized that it was going to require an immense amount of research.

When I contacted Highgate, they were initially very cautious, but they did allow me to come and talk to them. Jean Pateman at Highgate was phenomenally helpful. There's not a lot available in written form—a few pamphlets. The people who work at the cemetery are walking history books. It was really Jean and the other Friends of Highgate Cemetery who tutored me.

GR: Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of two sets of twins: Elspeth and Edie, and Edie's twin daughters, Julia and Valentina. Why did you choose twins as your main characters?

AN: The twins got in there almost of their own volition. At the very beginning, I had the characters who became Martin (Elspeth's friend) and Julia. Julia had a crabby roommate named Valentina. Eventually I decided that their relationship needed to be more defined and close. At the time I was dating a photographer, Chris Schneberger, who was working on a series about twins. I didn't realize it then, but I think in retrospect that must have been the impetus. But also I was looking at Wilkie Collins' novel, The Woman in White, and while there are no twins in that book, it revolves on the very close resemblance of two young women.

GR: The main character, Elspeth, struggles to figure out why she became a ghost, if she has a purpose, and how much power she has in the tangible world. She pleads, "Let me go, she asked of whatever it was that held her here. I want to die now; please; really die and be gone. She waited, but there was no response." What were the rules you created for your ghost? Is she at the mercy of a higher power?

AN: One thing that I never do in any of my work is define whether or not there is a god. In Time Traveler, Henry bounces around randomly and pretty meaninglessly. It doesn't seem to him that there is any purpose to it. Clare, his wife, goes through various stages: She's raised as a Catholic and then slowly loses her belief. There's never any sense in the books that the universe is being run by anybody who has any intentions about us.

In Symmetry, Elspeth becomes a ghost because as she's dying she just refuses to go. It is essentially her own will that keeps her there. What's left a little up in the air is whether she's sincere. Or is there some part of her that's hanging on? Throughout the book it is her own extreme willfulness that makes most things happen.

GR: The Time Traveler's Wife achieved an extreme level of success. Did that experience change your outlook as an artist or impact your creative process?

AN: No, probably because I didn't have that until I was 40 years old. By then, you're a grown-up, and you hopefully know how to manage yourself. It had the very practical effect in that suddenly I was able to manage my own creative day. Although, one of the reasons it took a while to write this book is that the success of the first novel meant that I was still thinking and talking about it long after it was done. Of course, in order to write the next thing, you have to disengage from the previous one, so that process was slowed by the fact that people actually read the first one!

GR: Any plans to see the movie of The Time Traveler's Wife?

AN: No. It really is separate. The people who made it took a look at what I had done, and then they started to make their own thing. I think the movie should be judged on its own, and not necessarily in relation to the book. I know that's impossible for people who have read the book, but ideally one takes everything on its own terms.

GR: We asked your readers on Goodreads for questions, and given the huge response, we selected just a few for you. Goodreads member Elise asks, "What was the hardest thing about writing The Time Traveler's Wife? How did you overcome it?"

AN: I am not naturally given to the romantic or the lighthearted. I realized when I was about halfway into Time Traveler that it was so dark and so bleak that no one would read it. So I had to get in there and start balancing that—to let the characters have some wonderful times to balance out all the bad, bad shit that I was doing to them. And it does not come naturally! I did it for the reader, for the characters, and to some extent, for myself, because I could see that the story was headed in a direction that even I didn't want to stick with. There's a point in the book where Clare has miscarriage after miscarriage, and originally she was never going to have a baby. I thought that was too much, too terrible, so I decided that they would actually have a daughter.

GR: Goodreads member Jen says that even the minor characters in The Time Traveler's Wife struck her as complete. She asks, "What process do you use? Do you map out your characters beforehand or do you let them reveal themselves to you as you write? Do you base them on people you know?"

AN: I do occasionally base characters on people I know. In Her Fearful Symmetry, the character of Jessica is based on Jean Pateman, who is a close friend and one of the people who runs Highgate Cemetery. In Time Traveler, the only characters who are portraits are very minor characters, and almost all of those characters work in the Newberry Library.

For other characters, it is very organic. I start with an idea of what somebody might look like or a certain job they have to do in the story. It doesn't really matter where you begin, and you get somewhere by asking questions. A while back, I made a questionnaire for my students [Niffenegger teaches at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts] to make them ask the sorts of questions I was asking about my little nubs of characters. It begins with the basics, the kinds of things you'd be asking someone at a party: What's the character's name? What do they do for a living? Male or female, neither, both? Any pets? Family, friends? Where do they live? What time period are we in? And then you get into questions like: What do they dream about? Have they ever been in love? Why didn't that work out? Are they nostalgic for anything? Etc. You go from the basics to the inner life. It was a great exercise, because it teaches something about the business of building a character through inquiry.

GR: You never authorized an ebook edition of The Time Traveler's Wife, but Her Fearful Symmetry is now available in ebook form. As a teacher of book and paper arts, what are your current thoughts on ebook technology?

AN: There are a lot of reasons why ebooks could be fantastic, and there are a lot of reasons why we should be careful. To me, it seems like one of those moments when a totally new technology takes over from an old technology, and while it's doing that, it pretends to be the old technology...sort of. That's why they call them "ebooks," although they aren't really books. But hopefully real books and ebooks will coexist, because they each have valuable properties. Ebooks are searchable, which is fantastic. In the case of a normal book, 100 years from now you can pick that thing up, and it will still be quite usable. From a conservator's point of view, electronic books are a potential nightmare. As the platforms and the software change, are those books going to be supported? If we publish only ebooks, what will happen when their coding is obsolete? Historians value even the most insignificant thing from the period they are studying. Already places like the Library of Congress are overwhelmed trying to preserve all the e-mail emanating from the White House.

Potentially ebooks will kill the art of book design. I've looked at Kindles and Sony Readers, and I try to remind myself of the first time I looked at a Mac—which was probably 1986. I just laughed at it; I thought it was a weird, crappy-looking thing. I understood enough to be impressed, but from a typographical point of view, I thought, "Yeah, right." Of course, they got better, and they have completely replaced all the technologies that came before. I'm a letterpress printer, so I can see how the typeface has changed in order to be digital. I'm sure that something similar will happen to book design when the books are no longer physical. But I don't necessarily think that is good news for books. I'm curious to see how it will impact books, reading, design, and conservation. It is market driven instead of philosophically or aesthetically driven.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AN: Compared to other people, I suppose the most unusual thing about me is how completely chaotic my habits are. I have a tendency to write at night. I don't have a regular schedule, I'm very deadline driven, and I'm very slow. Because I'm also a visual artist, sometimes I'm spending a lot of time making art while I think about the writing project I'm working on. Sometimes even when I don't look like I'm working, I actually am.

GR: How do you use painting or drawing as a brainstorming tool for your traditional novels?

AN: I don't make sketches of the characters, or anything like that. Generally I'm working on unrelated art projects. But the great thing about visual art is that it uses a part of your brain that doesn't seem to be involved in writing. So while I'm happily sketching or coloring something, I can think about my characters and what they're doing. Sometimes when you're focusing on a problem head on, it is very difficult to solve it. And when you're in a sideways drift, it comes. Often it is much easier to work on something when you are not actually working on it!

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?

AN: Back in the '80s, a couple of collections came out—both called Black Water [and Black Water 2], edited by Alberto Manguel. They were quite wonderful. He collected stories that he classified as "fantastic literature." They're cross cultural from all over the world. What they have in common is that they're fairly realistic, but they all have some odd thing, some rule that has been altered. They range wildly—from Daphne du Maurier to old Chinese folktales. It is really a quite inspiring survey of fantastic literature.

GR: Is that how you'd classify what you write?

AN: By his definition, yes. Of course, there are a million labels you can put on it: science fiction or speculative fiction. You could call the new novel a horror novel, although I think that would be misleading to horror fans. It's funny how we like labels. If I ever have a bookstore, I'm not going to put any labels on the sections.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

AN: I'm right in the middle of The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. I just finished Nicholson Baker's new book, The Anthologist, which was quite great. I also recently finished Summertime by J.M. Coetzee, who I had never read before, and that one's kind of an odd first book to read because he's writing about himself in the third person, and it's a novel rather than a memoir. It probably would have been better to have started with one of his other ones, but it's interesting.

Let's see, who are today's favorites? Shirley Jackson, Richard Powers, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, and I'm really into Chris Adrian. I really love Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume. I'm a great fan of The Tale of Genji, and I think it is time to reread that. I reread that about every ten years.

GR: Finally, can you share what you're working on next?

AN: As soon as I slow down and get some head space, I'm going to work on a book that I'm tentatively calling The Chinchilla Girl in Exile. It is about a young girl who has hypertrichosis, which is a real condition that causes people to be covered with hair. Think of Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and that's the look of our young heroine. I'm thinking that it is a coming-of-age story. We'll see what it actually is—you never know!

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Diane (new)

Diane W. What an insightful interview! Thank you.


message 2: by Riley (new)

Riley As a writer, it is SO comforting to read this: "I suppose the most unusual thing about me is how completely chaotic my habits are. I have a tendency to write at night. I don't have a regular schedule, I'm very deadline driven, and I'm very slow." Because that describes me to a T, too! Of course she has proven herself with the success of TTW and I haven't yet, but my point is that she gives me reassurance that I can!

Great interview. I love the insights into her process, and I look forward to reading HFS.


message 3: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Stiefvater I loved both of Audrey's books and crying at the end of The Time Traveler's Wife is part of what inspired me to write my own novel, Shiver. I wanted to make people cry too!

I particularly have to say that I loved Audrey's thoughts on e-books. As a history major myself, I have to say I agree 100%. I love the thing that is books as well as the content.

Thanks, Goodreads, for this interview!


message 4: by Jenny (new)

Jenny I wonder if she knows much more about Julia and Valentina that she actually put in the book - if she asked and answered all these questions about them of herself, but didn't give us the answers. As it is, they're identical twins and obviously very close, but don't have strong individual personalities. I wanted to know them better.


message 5: by Constanza (new)

Constanza Thank you GR for this great interview, and thanks to Audrey too, for always taking the time to give full answers.

I have read an excerpt from HFS and I think it is a very good book, I can't wait fully read it.




message 6: by Heba (new)

Heba اششكرم على اصدارة جديد من كتب


message 7: by Heba (new)

Heba sankyou


message 8: by Alison (new)

Alison Well said, Maggie.

Back to the topic at hand. Thank you, Goodreads, for an insightful interview with one of my favorite authors. Audrey Niffenegger never fails to surprise her audience. I was almost afraid to read Her Fearful Symmetry, that it wouldn't live up to my expectations. It blew away all my expectations. Amazing.




message 9: by Maggie (last edited Oct 25, 2009 01:33PM) (new)

Maggie Stiefvater Also, on the topic of the interview, I was intrigued by how Audrey wasn't planning on seeing the movie adaptation of TTW (which I did . . . and didn't care for). My novel film right's have just been optioned and a lot of my readers seem surprised about my ambivalence. So I thought "aHA!" when I read Audrey's response.


message 10: by Alison (new)

Alison Allow me to ignore the troll...

Maggie -- I was somehow not surprised that Audrey (or you, for that matter) wouldn't see the movie of her own book. (Film adaptations are a hot topic of conversation among book bloggers!) I think when you fall in love with a book, and have your own images of the characters, places, etc., there is no movie that could match it. I can only imagine how personal it must be for an author to see her story put on the big screen.

Very few movies have nailed it for me, and most leave me disappointed, especially if the movie is adapted from a book which I feel a special connection. That being said, I usually do see the movies from books I love, simply out of curiosity. No two people read the same book in the same way. A movie is just another person's interpretation of what they read -- and that fascinates me. So, I will see The Time Traveler's Wife, and I'm certain I will be seeing Shiver!




message 11: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Stiefvater It's funny, Alison -- some book-to-movie adaptations I'm great at ignoring the original source material while watching them (Harry Potter, Cold Comfort Farm, Princess Bride) and I can just enjoy them as separate entities from the book.

But the thing about THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is that so much of the book is subtle, hidden in tiny turns of the phrase or barely drawn characterizations in dialog, that I thought the movie would probably live or die on the quality/ sort of the director and acting. Movies like Chocolat (which now that i think about it is an adaptation, isn't it?) scratch that itch for me -- they're mood pieces. The movie version of TTW -- I did see it -- didn't come anywhere close to capturing the fun ooey subtle goodness of the book.

So I wasn't surprised when Audrey said she wouldn't be seeing it, but I was amazed at her resolve . . . you better believe if SHIVER makes it through the optioning process to the movie stage, my butt will be in a seat watching it, whether or not I think it will be terrible or wonderful or star Adam Sandler. ;)


message 12: by Neil (new)

Neil Hocking I love the idea of asking all of your friends to come up with a question about the character. I am considering doing this to highlight any gaps in my characterisation.


message 13: by Bappaditya (new)

Bappaditya Thanks to Goodreads team for serve us such a great & interesting interview. I am a Bangladeshi. So we have limited chanch to get foreign literature by hands. So this site has made a great chanch to enjoy world literature and authors also.


message 14: by Jade (new)

Jade Harves This was really interesting and I loved her views on ebooks, I personally can see the strengths and weaknesses and would much rather feel the paper as opposed to scrolling a screen.

I agree that the film and book are to be enjoyed separately because the director has done an excellent job of staging certain scenes. Despite this there are plot holes that the book can fill. I was also disappointed by the absence of Clare's siblings and in-law which I thought made the story relatable. And was also upset by the the lack of detail on the problems between her parents which are only touched on when Henry reassures the younger Clare that they will not get divorced.


message 15: by Ellie (new)

Ellie This was a terrific interview & confirmed my sense from her writings that Niffenegger has a truly interesting mind. Also that she is not naturally drawn to sentimental writing. I may be the only reader whose 1 quibble with Time Traveler's Wife was that it was slightly too "soft" & so preferred Her Fearful Symmetry.
Having seen the movie & read the book, I agree they are very different experiences not to be concerned. When I was reading the book, I wondered how it could possibly be turned into a film, & the answer, of course, was it couldn't. Only the story could be taken, with the characters, but not the prose or the style which in so many ways really is the novel.
I have to go back now & read 3 Incestuous Sisters-I could kick myself for not having read it before!
I want to keep reading interviews with this author-thanks you GR & Audrey Niffenegger!


message 16: by Karen (new)

Karen I've had my nose in a books for 35 years. Time Traveler's Wife is my favorite book out of the hundreds I have read. I love the writing style and was intrigued by Audrey's thought process. The story is amazing and I'm so glad Audrey allowed the daughter to be born. The daughter's twist to the story gave me goose bumps. I look forward to reading The Fearful Symmetry.


message 17: by Blanche (new)

Blanche Klein I enjoyed both reading and watching the movie though at times I did get confused . Keep up the great writing


message 18: by Victoria (new)

Victoria I absolutely love Audrey Niffenegger's books, her writing style, the suspense and her psychological insights in her characters.
I owe her much...
I can't wait to read her new book. A great interview, it answers many questions I never knew I wanted to ask!


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