Megan Stielstra talks with Audrey Niffenegger

Appears in Other Voices #47

Audrey Niffenegger is a visual artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA from Northwestern University. She is one of the founders of the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, and teaches in the Center’s MFA program in Interdisciplinary Book Arts. Miss Niffenegger’s work is in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Newberry Library. She is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a novel which has been translated into thirty languages; the film rights have been purchased by New Line Cinema. Her visual novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress have been published by Harry N. Abrams. She is currently working on a second novel which is set in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

Megan Stielstra: After nearly fifteen years in Chicago, it was impossible for me to read Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife without saying, “I’ve totally been there!” after nearly every scene: the Newberry Library, the Lyric Opera House, the Art Institute, Bergoff’s, the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera and Bookman’s Alley in Evanston. Even the neighborhoods—Lincoln Square, Ravenswood, Humboldt Park and Michigan Avenue—are spot-on in their descriptions. Chicago felt just as alive within those pages as Niffenegger’s protagonists—Henry, the Time Traveler, and his wife, Claire—and I was thrilled to sit down with her at Café Selmarie—another Chicago staple—to talk about art, teaching, her current projects, and how a city can become a character.

MS: Did you always know The Time Traveler’s Wife would be set in Chicago?

AN: I decided I would use Chicago because I’d never seen it done the way I wanted to do it. My experience of the city is different from anything I’ve read, so I thought, Well, that’ll be O.K., that’ll be good. I’ll make Claire an artist, Henry will work at the Newberry—I was very familiar with the Newberry—I gave them networks of friends that are very much like my actual life. It made it easier to anchor it in reality. For the book I’m working on now, set in London, it’s taken me four years to get the research going to get the same level of reality because I don’t live there. So there’ve been intensive, heavy-duty bouts of investigation to get the information that I need just to write this book.

MS: You mean information about the place?

AN: Yes, but also the way place shapes the events in the book. For example, I’ve been doing all this research with Highgate Cemetery and working there as a guide. One of the characters is a guide and in order for him to be a guide I kind of had to…do it. It’s been really fun—I love it, the people who work there are fantastic, and it’s been really interesting, so I’m glad to have been led by the project into this situation. That’s the fun part for me: the research and the writing.

MS: Did you have to do that sort of research for The Time Traveler’s Wife? Like, did you go back and eat at the Berghoff or visit the Aragon while you were writing those scenes or did you go from what you know of Chicago?

AN: A lot of the time I just went from memory. When I was fact-checking, I did visit the Berghoff. There’s nothing in the Aragon that needed fact-checking because it’s not specific enough. But you know, even though I fact-checked like crazy there are still some things in it that are wrong.

MS: Really? See, I thought you nailed it! I’m sure you get this all the time from people, but I go to those places—the Riv, Bookman’s Alley, I live across the street from the Aragon—and the place descriptions felt pretty right on to me.

AN: It’s interesting. In my new book, some of the characters are American, but most are British. And there’s one Dutch woman. So how does that shape your take on the place? The book is third person and the point of view shifts between all the characters, so how do you weave these delicate differences in the texture of the place as you move from one person’s mind to another? There is no omniscient narrator. There’s no Godlike point of view. There’s no ethereal voice saying how it is—it’s just the character’s perception. Something that interests me is the way people don’t seem to be conscious of that. Like in Time Traveler, you have two first-person narratives going on and they’re very subjective. When one character says of another character, “This character is beautiful,” that’s just his opinion. What I’m trying to show by doing the same scene twice is that each character is experiencing the scene very differently. In the new novel, you might be in someone’s head for a couple of sentences and then you’re moving into someone else’s point-of-view. It took me a long time to get the voice going and that point-of-view movement happening because I’ve never written that way before, but once you start thinking about it, it’s like thinking about breathing and you get super self conscious. It’s an interesting exercise because you’re constantly thinking, O.K., well, how would I see London’s embankment if I had grown up in London and walked down there everyday? How do I see it when I’m a twenty-year-old Lake Forest girl who’s never been there before? It’s interesting because then, of course, there are my ideas about stuff, but the characters aren’t melted into my ideas, they have their ideas.

MS: Is that how you decided the specific places in Chicago to use in Time Traveler?

AN: Mostly it was like, O.K., I need this to happen. What’s a setting that would really be right for that? Like the scene when Henry runs into [his daughter] Alba when she’s on a school trip to the Art Institute. I was thinking, O.K., I want Henry to run into Alba when she’s old enough to know the score. I need it to happen in a public place. I need it to happen where children and adults would both be and could encounter each other. I need a place that would allow him to observe her without being seen, and at that point it popped into my head that what I was looking for was a school group. And where do school groups go? To the Art Institute. So at that point I was like, Well, what do I like in the Art Institute and if I were a child what would I have wanted to look at and the answer was the Cornell boxes. So it’s just a series of questions. It’s funny to go back and look at what the questions were because after you’ve written a thing you sort of jettison all that. It’s not like I have notes somewhere with all that written down. You go through the process like that (snaps fingers).

MS: What was the process like when you wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife? The day-to-day of it?

AN: Well, I was teaching, and teaching full time is more than a full-time job. People think, Oh yeah, you’re only in the classroom twelve hours a week—no. You’re advising students, you’re going to meetings, you’re writing commentary on people’s writing. It easily takes forty hours a week which means not a lot of other things can get done. So when I wrote my first novel I was doing it over the summer, on weekends, during spring break, it was stealing these little crevices of time. Once I added the touring and interviews on top of it—forget it. No more work. Then I thought, Well, it’s kind of dumb if everything else supercedes my own work, at which point I reconfigured my course load.

MS: So how is your process different now that there’s more time?

AN: I go to artist colonies—Yaddo, Ragdale. Part of my craziness is that I moved last November and moving is just insane, it was like a meteor hit my life. But it’s kind of winding down and I’m able to get back to different projects. The problem with that right now is that I’m doing three projects at the same time.

MS: There’s the novel…

AN: There’s the novel, there’s a graphic novel I’m doing in comic form, and there’s an exhibition that I’m having in November at Printworks, which is my gallery in Chicago. So those all somehow have to get made.

MS: Do you approach the different mediums in different ways?

AN: I don’t think there’s any separation. I mean, ideas are ideas. I think what kind of ideas you have depends on what kind of training you go in for. You know, fiction writers have ideas that they immediately convert into fiction. I’ve been trained visually and literarily, but my specialty is putting those two things together, so I’m very excited about the serialized comic strip. This is my chance to really explore that form. What I’m doing is taking a short story I wrote called “The Night Bookmobile” and turning it into a graphic novel. It’s going to end up being the first chapter of a longer piece called The Library. So I’ve got the second chapter kind of worked out and I imagine there will continue to be more stories, and then someday a collection.

MS: When you first conceived the short story, did you ever think it would flip into a visual piece?

AN: No, I just had a short story idea. That was that. But I got an email from The Guardian asking if I wanted to do a comic and I was like, Oh, yeah! I’ve always wanted to do one! I thought of this story because in my mind it had so much potential—there were so many things I could’ve done with it beyond the short story itself. And I thought it would be so great if I could use it as the first chapter in something larger, and in my head it was a very visual piece.

MS: How long have you been working on this?

AN: A lot of my projects have very long incubation periods. At the moment I’m probably working on six or eight short stories, many of which are just kind of sitting there as I try to figure out what’s going on. I have a tendency to come out with some whacked out premise and then I don’t really know all the implications of that so I kind have to walk around and think about it. The novel I’m working on has eight characters. It’s like an ensemble piece rather than one or two protagonists, so unfortunately each one of those characters is like a book unto themselves and you really have to work to weave it all together and keep everybody from becoming two hundred pages just on their own.

MS: I read that the way you did that with Henry and Claire was with timelines.

AN: It’s interesting that everyone’s so fascinated by the timelines. For me the timelines were just keeping track. It was all about continuity, like in a movie making sure people have the right haircut. Making sure a character knows the correct things in a scene, so a lot of it for me was about that but people seem to be very fascinated by the idea of the chronology. It’s also easier to make a puzzle than it is to take one apart.

MS: The thing that fascinated me about the timelines were the moments—and I’m not sure how many there are—that were actual historical dates. I’m thinking specifically of the Violent Femmes concert—did you have to keep track of those specific dates?

AN: That was a concert that I actually attended, but I didn’t bother to go back and check the date because I needed it to be in a certain time slot. For that one I was like, no one will care if I move it a month or two. That one I was fairly confident happened some time around [when it happened in the book] because I was there.

MS: Were there some places where you felt like you had to be more exact with the facts?

AN: Well, date-wise I could move things around and bend things a little bit, but they just all had to fit together and hang cohesively within the novel. When 9/11 happened I had to go back and retro-fit it in. I had been trying to keep contemporary events out of the book because I thought that would just date it in a way that I didn’t want to date it, but when that happened I thought, that is so huge that if I do not acknowledge its existence within the world of the book it will notable by its absence, and so I went back and looked to see what [Henry and Claire] were doing at the time and realized that they’d had a baby five days earlier. I thought, O.K., well that’s actually kind of beautiful because it’s this juxtaposition of this little baby and this horrific extravaganza and I thought, Well, that’s good. We’ll just show them tired and being at home and watching it on the TV and feeling helpless.

MS: How far along were you in the writing of the book before you had to go back and make that addition?

AN: Well, I finished it in January of 2002, so in September of 2001 I was really close to being done, but the structure of the novel is such that it’s very easy to go back and insert a scene. It’s a very self-contained little scene, also, so it doesn’t have too many implications for the characters elsewhere in the book. But who knows? If I’d started writing about that time maybe it would have been more about that, I don’t even know. I got a lot of weird emails after it was published that were like, Why didn’t Henry go back and change that?

MS: I bet you got a lot of comments like that about Henry.

AN: People are accustomed to these time travel fantasias where changing things is the whole point. It’s interesting: in the age of email people feel entitled to write to authors. Most of it is I really liked the book, or sometimes it’s fact-checking—they’re telling you you missed the boat on some vital or insignificant fact—and sometimes they’re chastising you about something or other, but it’s very peculiar because you get inundated with responses, and when you’re getting on with the next thing, it’s kind of nice to not have to think about the previous thing. It’s really a strange thing to cope with when you’re trying to get on with a new project. The people out there in the world know nothing about the new project so they can’t talk to you about that, they have to talk to you about the thing that’s already out, and the thing that’s already out is the thing that you’re done with. It’s almost like a time lag between readers and writers.

MS: So, then, let’s talk about the new project.

AN: The springboard for this particular book is Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. All I did was riff through Women in White looking to borrow plot devices, themes, structure. Woman in White is the first and most successful of what were called Sensation novels. So what I’m doing with mine is I’m using a lot of those clichés—I mean, they weren’t clichés when Wilkie Collins did it but he kind of created clichés, what are now clichés—and I’m trying to use them in a way that’s going to work for a Twenty-First Century reader. So you’ve got twins, and exchanges of identity, and mistaken parenthood and all sorts of Victorian themes, but it’s a contemporary novel. So it’s been interesting because it’s made me have to sit down and sort of analyze how those novels work, and whether that can still work, and then how modern novels work, and how those two can be different yet still use the same plot devices. I have a feeling that this will come out and everyone will say, “Oh, this is very postmodern!” or whatever it is we’re in now. But if they do say that, it will all be about the structure. The characters are updated from very old-fashioned characters: we’ve got the reluctant hero, we’ve got the twins, one of whom wants to be very close and the other wants to be individuals; all these things that we’ve seen over and over again. I’m not inventing any new people, but I’m trying to get something new going in the way that it all works together.

MS: You said earlier there were eight characters. What’s the process of figuring them all out? Do you have to keep notes, try them out in journals? How much work would you say you’re doing that won’t make it into the final draft of the book?

AN: What I’ve been doing is almost like making bread: it’s like you grow it for awhile and then you beat it down. It was really discouraging at the beginning when I’d have fifty pages and beat it down to ten, but now I’m closer to two hundred pages so when I beat it down I usually only lose about twenty. But every time I do that it gets considerably tighter, so even though it’s depressing to watch your page count go down, the thing does get better.

MS: I read that with Time Traveler you started with the last image and worked backward. Is this one working the same way?

AN: This one I started in the middle. I thought I was going to start at the beginning and work forward, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s about a pair of young American twins who grow up in Lake Forest, Illinois, who are the daughters of an American man and an English woman. Their mother herself has a twin, and that twin lives in London, has a flat next to Highgate Cemetery. She dies, and wills her flat to her nieces. So these young American ingénues come over to the Old Country, meet the other people who live in the building, and get involved in all this odd stuff—in some ways it’s the typical Henry James plot. You know, there are only so many plots on the planet, so I feel free to borrow.

MS: Do you remember when you started writing or making art? What it was that drew you in?

AN: I think those explanations are probably innate and maybe hereditary. My mother was also very artistic and found expression in things like making clothes, and she always made these really cool birthday cakes for us. She’d say, “What do you want?” and we’d say, “We want a unicorn!” And voila—there’s a cake shaped like a unicorn. I think, had she had the training, she herself could have been an artist. She was a bookkeeper, that’s what she did, so I can see this thing moving from generation to generation, and my sisters are not especially artistic—I have one sister who is a very good writer, probably could have been a creative writer but she prefers her corporate gig. She’s a fantastic editor. But it’s interesting, when you’re a kid, what you get encouraged to do, what your own desires are. There was a point where I thought I wanted to be a singer, but I just was never praised as much for singing as I was for artwork or writing, and you know other people’s opinions sort of steer you a little bit. I don’t know where it comes from. Some day they’ll find some gene for it.

MS: Are there any books or pieces of art that you remember grabbing you?

AN: I was very influenced by Harriet the Spy. I read that when I was nine, which of course is the perfect age to read Harriet the Spy, because it’s this book about a young girl who’s going to grow up to be a writer so she’s training by spying on people and writing about them. And the combination of the subversive nature of that, along with this girl roaming Manhattan by herself and looking in people’s windows—there was nothing about that that was not glamorous to me. My mother pointed out that keeping a spy notebook got Harriet in trouble and all her friends dumped her because she was writing mean things about them, but this did not stop me from trying to do it myself and having to have my spy notebook taken away.

MS: You had spy notebooks?

AN: I just kept notebooks that I started writing in, and apparently the teachers called my mother and said, “Take this away from her!” I went to this little Catholic school in Skokie called St. Joan of Arc, and on the one hand I think I got a fairly decent education but on the other hand they were very…the things they did then we would think today were kind of repressive. They were not always encouraging other people.

MS: I had a class in high school where we had to recite vocabulary words to the sound of a ruler banging on a desk.

AN: It’s interesting because when I’m teaching a lot of the time I get these students who are programmed to get the grade. They really don’t seem to care whether they’re learning or not—their whole lifetime has been spent getting the grade. And it drives them nuts when they get to graduate school and all of a sudden they’re supposed to be thinking, because a good teacher at the graduate level—and indeed, a good teacher at any level—is not saying, “O.K., here’s what you do, repeat after me.” It’s about, “Here’s the problem, let’s figure out what the answer is.” Let’s teach people how to work it out themselves, and think. I meet lots of people who have never learned that skill. And they are very confused people. It’s very hard when you have a first semester graduate student who’s like that because you have to sit them down and say, “O.K.. I realize that people have been telling you all your life to be a certain way when you’re a student, but this is no longer going to work.” And they get these panicky looks.

When I was a student I was so obnoxious, especially when I was in art school. And I remember being in graduate school taking a teaching seminar, and we were asked, “Well, what do you do with the brilliant student who doesn’t want to follow directions? What do you do with the student who refuses to do what he’s told?” and I’m sitting there going, “You give them an A?”

And it’s always amusing to me when I get students who are like I was, because part of me is sitting there going, Yeah! And the other part is thinking, Oh great.

MS: What do you say to them? What could someone have said to you back when you were just getting started?

AN: What those students need—what I needed back then—was just to be cut loose. To be challenged, but basically have somebody who could look at what you were doing and take it apart, and sort of reflect back to you and say, “O.K., here’s what I’m getting from this, what do you think you’re doing?” So, that’s what I try to do when I teach. I love the people who are self-propelling. All I’m doing with them is pushing. It’s harder when people are afraid of you, or just trying to please you. Then you just have to stand there and spell it out.

MS: I think so much of being self-propelling as an artist is just asking yourself questions, like you were talking about before. I read that the first thing that came to you from Time Traveler’s Wife was the title, and from there it was just a process of asking questions: there’s a wife, O.K., who’s the husband, what’s his deal, etc..

AN: It’s totally like the process of an embryo making itself. You’ve got one cell, you’ve got two, you’ve got four, you’ve got six (or eight, actually. You never have six, I don’t think). You just have to keep the ball rolling by pushing it with your questions. And eventually the thing becomes so multi-faceted that you can take almost any aspect of it, poke it with a little question and go off in all kinds of directions, and at that point your job is to start cutting it off. What interests me is teaching people how to set up the rules for their project and how to ask the right questions. If they can do those things, then they don’t need me anymore. An assignment is just a set of limitations: instead of giving people the whole wide world and saying, “Make something,” you’re saying, “O.K., I would like you to do X, and these are the rules of X, here you go.” And the next time it’s like, “O.K., you make the rules.”

MS: It’s learning to not need the teacher, because if you’re dependent on that person for your artistic process, then you’re screwed.

AN: Exactly. That’s why graduate students are so interesting, because they’re on the verge of being out there in the world—there will be no more school. And there is a huge drop-off being getting an MFA and being a practicing artist of whatever sort, because a lot of people are not self-propelling, they do not have the discipline, and school is a sort of exo-skeleton for them. As soon as you take that away, they turn into glop, so a lot of the time when I’m talking to people who are doing their thesis and they are about to graduate, I give them these mean looks and I’m like, “You cannot stop. I don’t really care what you do. You just need to keep going.”