Carlo Gébler interviewed Audrey Niffenegger on Saturday 1 June at The Arms Hotel
Carlo: I want to ask you first about your parents, and the books you read as a child.
Audrey: Very well. My parents are a slightly unlikely couple. My father’s a civil engineer and is a very engineer-like engineer. My mother was an English major and is an artist. She’s a quilter and a surface design artist who works in fabric. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Evanston. I went to a tiny little Catholic school in Skokie, Illinois and nothing much happened.
Carlo: But you read.
Audrey: I read and I read and I read. One of the great things about my mom was that being someone who loves books herself, she made sure that we went to the library all the time. We had money given to us on birthdays and at Christmas which we could spend anyway we wanted, but we spent it on books mostly.
Carlo: What did you incline yourself towards. Were you tragedy? Dickens? What was your cup of tea literature wise?
Audrey: All of that was in my mother’s collection of books which we could try to read if we wanted to. I remember trying to read Beowulf when I was about eleven and making no headway. I’d no clue what that was about until much later. My mother had a lot of Thomas Hardy which I really loved, and Dickens, some of which I got on with and some of it such as Bleak House never really penetrated. It took a while, I finally read it in high school because somebody held a gun to my head and said you will read this or you will fail this class. So it’s funny how some books are great for certain parts of your life, and sometimes it takes more than one encounter with the book before you really need it.
Carlo: Right. And what about the visual art book crossover – pictorial which is also narrative. When did you get into that type of literature?
Audrey: From as far back as I can remember we had illustrated children’s books of all types. The initial impetus to make pictures with the words started when I was fourteen. I had just started high school, so I’d gone from this tiny Catholic school to this immense public high school, where I felt a bit lost and I almost immediately got a bad earache. I was out of school for about two weeks because I basically thought I was about to die of earache. My mother, as is her want, went to the library and came back with an enormous stack of books, possibly intended as a cure, and one of the things she had in that big stack was Brian Reade’s book about Aubrey Beardsley.
It was just the thing, and I really fell in love with his line and his imagination. I understood better and better that as an illustrator, he had often used the text as a jumping off point rather than being very literal about it. But at best, illustration adds to the text and enlarges the text and kind of inflects the text. So that was where I started to think about those ideas.
Carlo: But there’s also something buried in here that is disturbing. It is also on the surface. I don’t know if people are aware of Mr Beardsley’s oeuvre.
Audrey: Yes, a show of hands there.
Carlo: You all need to get into Mr Beardsley.
Audrey: Yeah, if you’ve even here today, you’d probably like him.
Carlo: But Beardsley isn’t just decorative, he’s also full of all sorts of really troubling ideas to do with people, to do with sex, to do with the body and death. He is subversive, but you don’t see that immediately. You see something rather lovely, and then you look again and think, oh.
Audrey: Yeah, he was really somebody who attracted me because I could see that he was a bad, bad boy. (laughter) I mean he died at twenty-six. He converted to Catholicism quite late in his very short life and repented of certain drawings and asked that they be destroyed, but they were not.
Carlo: Thank goodness.
Audrey: Yeah, but what really interested me about him was that I could see that he was undercutting and subverting certain things about the texts he was working with. Also as I learned more about his life, I realised that he was probably in his own personal life rather chaste and well-behaved. He had a big bark and probably not a whole lot of bite probably, but his influence really changed what a lot of people thought about books and illustration in general. That was a starting point for me as a fourteen year old.
Carlo: And then what attracted you to fairy tale and myth. I know you had a go at Beowulf and been defeated by the Anglo-Saxon, but you gravitated, I would hazard, towards non-realistic or not ordinarily realistic fiction that used mythical structures and all the tropes that we associate with fairy tale. Is that true?
Audrey: Like most children I had been reading fairy tales from the time I was able to read. We had Andrew Laing and Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson and all that. What I was moving into as I got older were things like Kafka and Calvino and all those sort of fantastical writers. There was a collection that came out in the 80s I quite loved called Black Water, which, if you can find it today, is really worth tracking down. Alberto Manguel is the editor and he went to all different cultures and pulled out some of the most wonderful, strange speculative fiction, ‘fantastic fiction’ was his label for it. And so for someone who was just starting a career as a reader that was fantastic. That’s what I think anthologies are for. To develop your palette and turn you on to stuff that you never knew existed, and certainly Black Water did that.
Carlo: Ok, I’m going to leap forward now to Raven Girl. So you’re interested in myth and fairy tales and those archetypal types of narrative structure, but you also live in the twentieth-first century. So this text has emails. Well first of all there are no emails. The postman’s nightmare is about emails and then later emails come in at the other end of the story. So you’ve melded things that we are familiar with, with a classic story of metamorphosis. A person who is half bird, half human. Why?
Audrey: Why am I trying to combine the mythical with the modern? The more fantastical the work, the more I want to ground it in ordinary reality so that the reader reading now, living in ordinary reality, feels connected to it, but also feels the kind of strangeness. If it’s set in some other world then you don’t have to take it quite as seriously perhaps, but if it’s set in the world you know and is unsettling, maybe it gets into your mind in a different way and it makes you a little unsettled in a way that’s more personal.
Carlo: It’s much harder to dismiss. You can’t say, oh it’s just a story. It is trying to make you realise that it’s connected to you in the present.
Carlo: But I also read a long piece in the Guardian about the genesis of Raven Girl and you talked about reading an article called Dr. Daedalus by Lawrence Slater in Harpers.
Audrey: I’m impressed that you’re getting as much as you have.
Carlo: And this article was about a man, a maverick or dodgy plastic surgeon who wanted to modify people, but in very unexpected ways: tails, wings, webs. (laughter)
Audrey: You may laugh. People are really doing this.
Carlo: And that was the little bit of grit in the oyster.
Audrey: The interesting thing about that article was that the plastic surgeon was really thinking like an artist, and the only thing that was stopping him from doing this was that he probably would have been…
Carlo: Sent to jail?
Audrey: Well I think they could have taken his licence. But who knows whether any of this is actually illegal. Do you think there’s actually a law against giving people wings? They probably haven’t thought to make this law.
Carlo: They will.
Audrey: Probably. But if you’re in the visual arts world at all, you know that there’s various people who are using body modification as an art form, so there’s an artist in France who’s had many surgeries, and is now looking pretty much like an anime character. I don’t know if that’s what she was after but she looks pretty amazing now.
And reading this article I was thinking, wow that’s pretty interesting that this doctor wants to do this but I also thought, what kind of person would become his patient or his subject or his collaborator, and I started to think about a woman who really sincerely believed that she was half bird and at the time. This was back in 2002 and I managed to come up with her character, but I didn’t think of anything for her to do, other than she wants to be a bird. So she got to sit in the big waiting room in my mind.
Flashing way forward, when McGregor asked me for a new fairy tale, I immediately thought she would be the kind of character who lives in a fairy tale, but since she had this pedigree of coming from our world, the modern world of possible crazy surgeries that ends up with you having wings, I thought, wow, this fairy tale wouldn’t necessarily have to rely on magic for this. We could have actual modern methods of science at work.
Carlo: It’s also a classic boy meets girl story. Well there is a boy meets girl bit at the end. But also, and I don’t know whether you intended this or not, but you can’t read it without thinking of Frankenstein. You can’t read it without thinking about the idea of being God.
Carlo: These things reside in words. When you read words you remember other words, but this then is recalibrated in a new media. It’s turned into dance, which doesn’t have very many words, or possibly any words. There’s a little bit at the beginning of the ballet and a little bit at the end, but the story is told…
Audrey: Entirely in dance.
Carlo: So did you then have to recalibrate your text, or did you give them the text and they then did their magic with it?
Audrey: One of the things that makes Wayne McGregor such a delight to work with is I was sort of anticipating that I would be adjusting the stories so that they could be turned into dance and Wayne brilliantly said, don’t worry about it just make the story, we’ll figure out the dance. And I thought fantastic. And then I went ahead and gave them dialogue and internal monologue, and all these other terrible things that you can’t do in dance and left him to figure out how to show it.
I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Wayne McGregor or his dance. Ok, so go on youtube and Google Raven Girl Ballet and what you will get is Wayne rehearsing Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in the duet, which is the final ten minutes of the ballet and it’s totally brilliant. What you see is Wayne rehearsing them and changing, so that will give you a feeling for what some of the ballet is. But what’s really good about him is that he doesn’t interfere too much with his collaborators. He knows what he wants but he gives you a lot of space to do what you’re going to do and then he uses it in ways which are pretty surprising.
Carlo: And how close is the ballet to the narrative.
Audrey: Surprisingly close. I think he was trying to prepare me for the idea that he might deviate significantly from the plot but he doesn’t.
Carlo: But the book’s better.
Audrey: (laughs) You know for once I won’t say that. I’m in the process of going to every single performance of the ballet. There are seven of them and every time I see it I fall more in love with it, so I honestly wouldn’t say that.
Carlo: Ok. I’m going to move back in time now to The Time Travellers Wife which I read, and I’m very struck by something, and it’s on page seventy-five. And it’s a line in which Clare says to Henry, she says Sometimes you tell me something and I feel like the future is already there. You know. Like my future has happened in the past and I can’t do anything about it. And I was very struck by that line because often one has the feeling in modern life that actually, it is pre-programmed in some way. It’s happening and it’s happening again. One feels a lack of autonomy, a lack of freedom. Is this book about that?
Audrey: The conceptual idea of the universe that’s being used to make the book is called the ‘block universe,’ and what that means is that everything exists simultaneously, and if you imagine the universe as a big house with lots of rooms, that you could go from moment to moment and you needn’t visit them in order, and they are all out there existing. I don’t necessarily believe that’s really how time works but for the purposes of that book, that’s how time works. I was really happy to discover later when re-reading Slaughterhouse-Five, that Kurt Vonnegut was using the same idea for Slaughterhouse-Five, and that was kind of exciting, but in real life I’m not a determinist.
Carlo: But do you think that’s why people might have been attracted to the book? We all feel as if our lives are prescribed, or we feel bound, or we feel things have already been determined, and this is a book about somebody who feels that her life is being determined and it has been, for the purposes of the narrative.
Audrey: Elsewhere in the conversation Henry posits that you’re free in the moment. I think what attracts people to the book is perhaps the opposite of determinism. I don’t think that many people are attracted to determinism. I don’t think people like it.
Carlo: No they hate it I’m wondering if that’s what they see? It may be unconsciously being explored?
Audrey: Let’s ask people who’ve read the book. Is that what you like? No? Ok. No.
Carlo: That’s answered that then. It’s written in the present tense. Why did you do that?
Audrey: I was having difficulty when I started to write, determining when the present was. The present was always there and I couldn’t determine for this set of people a past and a future. It was always the present and I think I worked on it for about two weeks and thought, Oh yeah, present tense, of course.
Carlo: Do you think that it’s an optimistic book?
Audrey: Yes. Because there are bleaker things that could have happened. I did resist doing the terrible terrible things that I could have done.
Audrey: I have a high tolerance for bleakness and it got too bleak even for me.
Carlo: And do you think its optimism is peculiarly American?
Carlo: If we turn to your second novel, which I also read and liked, Her Fearful Symmetry. My very glib feeling was that this is a much more melancholy novel, and I felt that it was a much more European novel. But there’s something weary and very painful. It is also an extremely, although it’s carefully handled, brutal story. This is much more personal than The Time Traveller’s Wife. Is that a fair summary?
Audrey: That’s true. I started writing Her Fearful Symmetry in 2002 and finished it in 2009 and if you start to think about everything that was going on in that period. It wasn’t that the 90s were so fantastic, but The Time Travellers Wife just took place in a time of greater prosperity and less wild carnage, so there was that.
Symmetry, part of it is that in large projects, particularly novel writing, you set out rules for the project and you have to stick to your rules because otherwise the reader gets very frustrated. I wanted to work on a plot where the young naive Americans come to the old country and get thoroughly trounced, which they do I would say. And so that was part of it. But the other thing I was doing was I wanted to use every cliché I could think of from nineteenth century English novels, which I also hope I have done. I also got trounced in the reviews for that.
Carlo: So it does the zeitgeist of the time. It’s melancholic. I didn’t notice the nineteenth century tropes at all, but maybe I need to get out more. But what struck me about it is its symmetry. It’s about twins, two sets of twins. It’s about swapping identities. It’s like a Swiss watch mechanism. It’s all very carefully worked out and it works to its really horrible conclusion. The characters are really punished, or they suffer.
Audrey: One of the things I was really thinking about was what do the characters deserve? In the nineteenth century novel justice is meted out by the novelist and the good characters get good results and the bad characters get smited, and so in this book I was trying to make each character’s individual fate suited to their behaviour. Valentino gets smited not out of malevolence but out of naivety.
Carlo: And she’s there to be used, and used she is.
Audrey: Well think Portrait of a Lady when you think about that.
Carlo: Yeah. Do you compartmentalise your brain? Do you have a writing bit and a drawing bit?
Audrey: I think everybody does. Brain scientists say that we have images on one side of the brain and language on the other, so I’m sure I do and everybody else in this room does as well.
Carlo: But this struck me as being a book that is particularly visual. Where people are in space is incredibly important. It’s as if when you were writing it you were saying to yourself, not consciously or not commercially, but if this was a film, what would I see?
Audrey: Well I actually had an architect draw floor plans for me, because there are three apartments and all the characters live above or below each other, and their flats all have the same layout, and it was important to figure out what the flat was actually like and how you would walk from the kitchen to the parlour and so forth.
Carlo: And you’ve also furnished it, completely and scrupulously, and you’ve also organised the drawers. Very often you’ve organised the shelves. But what that means is the reader has confidence. You think, she knows where the knives and forks are. She really knows, and that means that as a reader you’re then prepared to go further with what is a very extravagant conceit, to do with haunting and the spirit, and spirits moving between bodies.
Audrey: Well I’m hoping that by the time you get somewhat into the book, you’ve somewhat ceased to distinguish between the supernatural elements and the normal elements. So that you’re no longer thinking wow, that lady is dead, but just thinking oh there’s Elspeth. I’m hoping to get the reader to give up their disbelief and just go with all the characters doing the things that the characters do.
Carlo: But the more precise something is, the more the more you’re prepared to go, oh this is absolutely clear and accurate, I’m not having the wool pulled over my eyes. Was that a conscious plan or did you just do that without thinking?
Audrey: No, that was definitely a conscious plan, but I hope I do that always. I’m always trying to make the world as real and as firm as possible so that the reader feels that confidence.
Carlo: And how do you decide or organise your time? How do you decide what zone you want to be in? Whether you want to write or make or print. How do you sort all that out?
Audrey: Right. I’m just a chaotic kitty. Other people come along and they say would you like to do a ballet with me and I say yes I would, what’s the deadline? So that happens a lot where there’s an exhibition or a project, so I have a finite idea of what comes next and what has to be worked on. In the case of the novels, there’s never been a deadline. I don’t put the books under contract before they’re finished, so those are more open-ended projects, but those are the projects that you can just move in on and have running in your brain all the time. And they want to be worked on so you never have to force yourself to do it. It’s always drawing you to it and wants to be done.
Carlo: But when you make the other kind of work like Raven Girl or the incestuous sisters or the book mobile, is it a relief to work just with a line and colour, from the business of making a story work, or maybe you don’t need that kind of relief.
Audrey: No. It’s all sort of equally attractive. It’s nice to jump back and forth but I don’t differentiate that much. I think of them in terms of the project rather than, these are words or these are images.
Carlo: In our culture the direction in which literature has gone has been towards realism. That’s the direction the flood had been going.
Audrey: I disagree.
Carlo: In the mainstream.
Audrey: Game of Thrones.
Audrey: Harry Potter.
Audrey: Keep going.
Carlo: There is also a very very strong realistic tradition.
Carlo: What interests me is why you decided to go the way you’ve gone. As I get older, I have less and less and less interest in realism. It seems more and more meaningless. I have more and more interest in things that are emblems, or icons of some deep truth. So what is it about that kind of writing that is so important for you?
Audrey: One of the great attractions, especially in fiction is that everything is as true as you can make it. So the ghost is no more or less true than Martin, who has obsessive compulsive disorder. They seem equally freaky don’t they? But one really does exist in reality. I mean Martin is based on a guy I used to date.
My other thing about art making and fiction is that, there’s a lot of reality. Why make more of it. I mean if you’re going to make something, use all the available possibilities without discriminating because it doesn’t really matter whether it’s possible for the thing to exist in the real world. What’s more important, as you were just noting, is its potential to be a potent symbol or a potent myth. To be meaningful and true, regardless of whether it could really happen, and as time goes on there’s a number of things that have happened that we didn’t actually think were possible. One of the first science fiction films was a trip to the moon. Well that wasn’t possible, but now it is, so things change.
Carlo: There’s a famous aphorism by Kafka about stories being an ice pick to break the ice that encloses the heart. But there’s also something about being non-realistic in that it takes you away from the conventional tropes of criticism. You are not obliged to have the right car. You can’t be faulted on whether something is not credible or not.
Audrey: Someone who reviewed Symmetry over in the UK was getting down on me because she felt it was not possible to buy chicken noodle soup in Tesco’s and I thought, you have missed the point. (laughter)
Carlo: Really? Yes, you can actually buy chicken noodle soup in Tesco’s.
Audrey: I know. I’ve done it.
Carlo: Do you find that steadily your interest in the mythical, the non-realistic, is deepening and darkening and thickening?
Audrey: It was already pretty deep and dark and thick from the get-go. I think what is interesting me more and more is trying out different kinds of storytelling and so Raven Girl is not the first fairy tale I’ve tried to write. The Guardian once asked me to write a fairy tale and I wrote a story about a fairy but it wasn’t a fairy tale. It was a story about a fairy who picks up a guy in a bar and takes over his life and makes him miserable, but it wasn’t a fairy tale. So it didn’t do any of the things fairy tales do.
Carlo: I think there is a hole in our psyche that has been developed over thousands of years that has been particularly receptive to certain narrative forms, and that when we plot something into that hole, the reader derives a certain kind of satisfaction that realism can’t provide. Is that true do you think?
Audrey: I think so, and you’ve just made me think of something. Do you read The New Yorker fiction?
Carlo: I do, sometimes, yes.
Audrey: Does anybody here read short stories in The New Yorker ever? Not too many.
Carlo: I know where this is going.
Audrey: They do this thing with all the fiction where they choose stories which never really end. It just kind of tapers and you turn the page and you think, where’s the rest of it, and it’s gone. And you think maybe the rest of it is online or something. But no, it’s the end and you’re thinking wow, that’s very unsatisfactory. So I think there are ways that contemporary writers are trying to go that’s opposed to the idea we have of story. I think when we go for the more traditional forms we think yes, we want it to do that and we want it to have this shape, because that’s what we like and stories are shaped that way because of a common consensus over thousands of years that this is how we want it to go.
Carlo: I’m going to go back to The Time Travellers Wife and one of the main threads is Gomez, who’s a friend of Henry and Clare and they get together and they drink and they smoke cigarettes and they talk. And they talk about their Marxism and revolution. They understand all of those things. In the end Gomez becomes an alderman, so he becomes a person who recognises democracy. He eschews his revolutionary credentials. But I wonder also if the book is about that. The idea of a revolution violently remaking our society as something that you feel has gone.
Audrey: In America it seems highly unlikely. We’ve just been through this unbelievable recession and you would think that people would be rioting in the streets. They mostly didn’t. They very politely sat in a barren square in New York and drew a lot of attention, but on-one died. So I think violent revolution is less likely than ever in America.
Carlo then invited questions from the audience.
Q. Where did you get the idea for The Time Travellers Wife, because it’s also a big love story. Did the love story between Henry and Clare came first or the time travel.
Audrey: One of the things about working on anything enormous is that you never have the whole idea at once. In the case of The Time Travellers Wife, the initial nib of inspiration was actually the phrase, ‘the time travellers wife’ and for no reason at all that came into my mind. I wrote it down and the thing that turns something into a work of art rather than just a phrase written on your drawing table is this process of asking questions, so the first questions you ask are. Ok so you’ve got a time traveller and his wife. Why would he be married? Because that sounds like a dangerous occupation and it sounds like he would be gone a lot and wouldn’t she get lonely. And where do they live? What do they do? Where did they meet? And if you can answer these questions that generates more questions and pretty soon you have a 600 page manuscript.
It’s funny too because that question, where do you get the idea from? It’s funny because most of the things I’ve made I can actually tell you that moment I got the idea. Where the idea comes from, I’ve no clue.