|Audrey Niffenegger’s first interest was graphic arts. At the School of
the Art Institute of Chicago and then Northwestern University, she
created illustrated novels that became The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005) and The Adventuress
(2006). At Columbia College Chicago, she taught a course mainly for
visual artists who want to write. Her interests in mutations, love,
death, sex and time are the themes of her very successful novel The Time Traveler’s Wife
(2003), which became a film starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.
Symmetry, cemeteries, translation, superstition and the paranormal
dominate Her Fearful Symmetry (2009), an eerie, haunting ghost story set near Highgate Cemetery in London. Her next novel, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile,
began as a short story about a character covered in hair (an actual
condition) but, she says, “The characters and the world they inhabited
became much larger and more lushly detailed than a short story could
accommodate.” She continues to exhibit her art, some of which will be
shown at Printworks Gallery in Chicago in September.|
Why: I have been writing and making art since I was a child. ... I don’t know why I write. From a Darwinian perspective, it is probably pointless. It does not make me better looking nor does it guarantee better food or boyfriends. It is pure play, a way of recording daydreams. Writing allows me to make the daydreams very complex and artful.
Routine: I spend quite a lot of time thinking about my characters and what they might do and say to each other. My writing practice is fairly chaotic; I write when I have a deadline or when I feel as if I’ve sorted things out and I’m at a point where it is more useful to play at the computer than in my mind. I jot things on random pieces of paper which I then lose. I have no schedule and no writing fetishes. At the beginning of a project I probably spend 90 percent of my writing time thinking and 10 percent actually moving my fingers across the keyboard.
Revisions: The personal computer was a godsend ... [enabling] me to rapidly construct sentences and scenes and discard inferior bits as I go. When I am finished with a scene, I seldom revise it unless the plot requires some recombobulating.
I write my novels out of order. The last two scenes of The Time Traveler’s Wife were the first to be written. With Her Fearful Symmetry, I thought I was starting at the beginning, but it eventually turned out to be the middle.
It is important to be able to recognize improvements. I have a vague plan, but I know I will change things as I go.
Impetus: As a child, I especially loved stories that featured the unnatural. Later, I discovered Alberto Manguel’s Black Water anthologies, which shaped my ideas of the “fantastic” as a genre. The fantastic often takes place in the world as we know it, with one rule changed. I often work this way because the altered rule provides a fresh set of circumstances and ideas with which to examine our world and the people in it.
At the start I usually have a tiny but specific idea. The Time Traveler’s Wife began with the title and the image of an elderly woman sitting by a window with a cup of tea. Her Fearful Symmetry began with a man who cannot leave his apartment and a girl who comes to visit him.
Once I have the idea, I ask questions. Who is that old woman? Why can’t the man leave the apartment? Each answer leads to another question and the story begins to take shape. Fiction is an artificial world where nothing is accidental and everything has meaning.
Influences: I am especially interested in Henry James, Richard Powers, Susanna Clarke, Katherine Dunn, Dorothy L. Sayers, W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, Kelly Link, Wesley Stace and Howard Norman. How Fiction Works by James Wood has been helpful to me. I also recommend The Gift by Lewis Hyde.
Advice: Turn off the TV, get off the computer, and read a lot of whatever it is you hope to write. The more you read, the better your innate sense of character, story, rhythm, style. Don’t worry about publishing until your manuscript is excellent. Take pleasure in the writing itself and be willing to listen to criticism.