by Pawl Schwartz
Audrey Niffenegger is the bestselling author of The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry. She is a rare and treasured talent with work spanning from painting to ballet and concerning subjects from twins with mirrored organs to a person becoming uncontrollably unstuck in time. She is truly a homegrown Haruki Murikami dashed with a futuristic Flannery O'Connor, and I promise, that is no overstatement. The best part is that her most exciting work is still to come. UR Chicago's Pawl Schwartz met with Audrey Niffenegger to discuss her current projects, as well as her upcoming appearance at the Columbia Story Week Festival of Writers which will take place March 18-23.
UR Chicago: So, I'd like to start off with what I'm most curious about: your work in progress entitled The Chinchilla Girl in Exile, which is about a girl who grows hair all over her body. What else can you tell me about it?
Audrey Niffenegger: I'm not terribly far along in the writing process right now. I'm one of those people who spends a lot of time walking around thinking something over before I get serious about writing things down. I'm kind of at the stage where I make elaborate family trees, read books about all the relevant topics, and wander around just playing house in my head. A lot of people come up and ask me "So, when is it coming out?" and I'm like "As soon as I write it!"
UR: When you're planning like this, do you get character-based ideas and then find a story, or vice versa?
AN: I plan as much as I possibly can. I am very structure oriented, so it helps me to think it out a lot before I start. I also never start writing at the beginning — I tend to start somewhere around the middle or the end. It's much easier to do that if you have a solid idea of where everything is headed.
UR: I've noticed the theme of loving through a barrier in your work, really the only connecting theme I could find. Is the disease in Chinchilla Girl going to serve this kind of purpose?
AN: Chinchilla Girl is really about what it's like to be different. Her actual name is Lizzie, and the story is going to follow her from the time she's nine until she's an old lady. She has fantastic friends and a really peculiar family and actually a rather successful love life — so it isn't so much about the difficulties of finding love in this one. It's more about what you have to deal with when you are really and truly different.
UR: Such diverse topics!
AN: I try. Not to make your life more difficult or anything, I swear. Just because I get easily bored.
UR: Are you frustrated with existing between genres?
AN: Ideally I would like to get rid of categories. I was in a bookshop once in Oxford that I just adored, because rather than having the usual categories, they had categories like 'the sea,' full of books that have to do with water. It was called Q I and was a tiny octagonal building. See, fewer categories would be good, because it forces people to explore. The way that genres and categories are set up now, it's driven by marketing, and I think it is making people's reading a little too narrow. I mean, I personally would like to accidentally find new things. There should be more Internet randomizers for books.
UR: Like a book shuffle?
AN: Yeah, like looking at someone else's iPod.
UR: Speaking of e-books and format, some people would be surprised to learn that in addition to being a bestselling author, you also make limited edition, hand-painted books that you have sold at art galleries. How big of an impact do you think the medium is on the reader's experience with a book?
AN: There are certain things that a physical book can do that an e-book can't and vice versa. For example, e-books are great if you have vision problems, because you can enlarge the text. They are good if you have limited hand mobility as well. I think that the issue with e-books is that we are still just at the very beginning of figuring them out. It seems more like a sketch of what is to come at this point. When we get to e-paper — like a lightweight scroll that you could unroll — then we can really start saying "okay, physical books no more." But we're not there. People like things, you know? We don't want a world that is just blank to wander around in aimlessly.
I have to warn you, whenever I say anything like this, I get a backlash of e-mail saying I'm an idiot. But then I run into people who are like "yay, we like things too!" It still just feels like a misnomer to call it an e-book. The book part just disappears for me when you put it on a machine.
UR: I totally agree. It's like when doctors weighed people when they died to try and get the soul's weight. You can't say where it happens, but there is some kind of book-soul that feels removed when a book is changed into an e-book.
AN: Right, e-book feels like a misnomer. There's nothing booky about it. It's like when Gutenberg invented the printing press. The first thing he printed was a bunch of indulgences. But after that he got busy and printed these massive bibles. If you look at one of those, they're huge. They're printed on vellum, as in skin. The type is imitating the handwritten characters books were transcribed in, and there were still blank spaces where you had to draw in the fancy capital letters. So, what he was doing was imitating, as best he could, the handwritten word. Every time you get a new technology, it tries to kind of impersonate the old technology until everybody calms down, and then it can go ahead and progress and be whatever it is going to be. That's the stage I'm waiting for, because I'm getting kind of grumpy with this thing that is trying to impersonate a book.
UR: Is exploring this what keeps you so interested in creating handcrafted books?
AN: Part of it is that I just like the making of a book. It's interesting to do something like that yourself. Not handing over the design or the manuscript to someone else. You get to have control over the thing and do it the way you'd like to see it done.
UR: Do you feel more alienated from, say, a trade edition of one of your works versus one that you crafted?
AN: No, but it's always a surprise. It's like one of those dreams where you have a baby, but you didn't know about it, and in the dream you're like "Oh my god, I forgot to feed it! Shit!" Like a weird kind of dream logic. But you sort of get acclimated to it.
UR: You work in a lot of different mediums: paintings, graphic novels, novels, etc... When you get an idea, does it tend to come to you tethered to its medium, or do you have to wrangle it into the one that best suits it?
AN: It depends. Some things, I can just see them in my head. I know immediately if it is a short story or whatever it is it wants to be. With others, I'll have the idea sitting around for years unattached. I'm actually working on a ballet at the moment. I had the idea on the back burner for, I don't know, probably eight or nine years. The choreographer I'm collaborating with asked me, "Well, what sort of story do you want?" and I found myself saying "I want a new fairy tale." Then bing! I knew exactly where that eight or nine-year-old idea belonged, in a ballet. So I wrote it up, and we're working on it now.
UR: Is the ballet going to be dark or more lighthearted?
AN: It's definitely in the middle. It's got its dark bits for sure. It's called The Raven Girl — about a young girl whose parents are a raven and a postman. They have a really good relationship. It's a good family and all, except that their daughter looks like a girl but can't speak. She can only make sounds like a raven and inwardly feels that she really is a raven. So, she goes to a plastic surgeon to get turned into more of a raven-looking person, and it doesn't really work out that great. It's sort of meant to be a fairy tale of gender re-assignment. It just seems so applicable to me, because in fairy tales things are always changing. Not necessarily because they need to, but just because you say so, and I thought to myself, "Well, these days, we can really do that." I wanted to kind of bring the fairy tale full circle to the modern capabilities of transforming people.
AN: Oh, I've never actually seen it.
UR: Well, moving on then. Tell me about what you are going to be doing for Story Week at Columbia?
AN: I will be part of a panel discussing the combination of image and text. Very non-specific. I think combining word and image is a very beautiful thing, because you have all the tools of both worlds: the abstract language of the image, and the concept and naming power of words. It is easier to get gesture and scene across in a much more efficient way, and much easier to jump around in time and place without having the reader left behind.
UR: When it comes to graphic novels, who are your main inspirations?
AN: I was an art student when Maus was coming out in serial form in RAW magazine. I caught it somewhere in the middle of its run and I just thought "Wow, this is wildly different than any comic I've ever seen." I started looking at all the stuff that was published in RAW. Then Maus came out as a book, and I thought "Wow, this is a whole new kind of thing. This is the start of a different kind of comic." Chris Ware has also been super important. I haven't done a whole lot of comics myself, because I am sort of leery of doing something where you can actually put a name to the form.
UR: What do you think of video games as a medium?
AN: I am pretty ignorant about them, but from what I can tell, they are becoming absolutely fabulous. I've never been coordinated enough to play them. But I'm teaching a seminar at Columbia right now on the novel, and one day I got into discussing gaming with the students, and they were super enthusiastic about the art, the story lines, how layered they're getting, and all I could think was "Man, the next War and Peace is going to be a video game." It would be nice if they could get away from the video game traditions, though — like the obsession with violence. Something like that would really free everyone up to make different stories. I think a lot of the people who are way into gaming are more interested in escape than anything else, and there's still something about it that kind of scares me. Wanting to be someone else that badly.
UR: I'm thinking of furries now. Huh. Were furries the inspiration for Chinchilla Girl?
AN: The inspiration was actually kind of random. I was writing an essay for Powell's Bookstores, and I was groping around for an example of a character that one draws into being from nothing. I came up with this character, this furry girl, and I got kind of attached to her. So, I went on and wrote a short story for her, but even then, I could see that there was much more story to tell around this little one I had made. I decided to keep her for a while, kind of set her aside and save her. At this point, she's kind of like a Barbie doll in my head right now; she comes with all kinds of accessories and friends. The longer I sort of play with her in my head, the more interesting she gets. Although the furries thing [laughter], I hadn't thought about that one. Maybe she'll end up meeting a character from that world. Who knows, I could see it.
UR: Do you feel like creativity is a kind of insanity?
AN: For me it's more like when you're a kid and you have this much more direct connection to your imagination. Most people I know who are creative in any way, they haven't built up that big wall between their logical selves and their irrational selves. They can access that stuff more easily than the average accountant or something.
UR: Are you a fan of David Cronenberg?
UR: Body horror. I see that in your work a lot.
AN: I think most people have pretty firm boundaries about what is and is not acceptable in a body. You can't cross people with animals, male things should be male and female female. When you start crossing lines and blending, people become uneasy. Anything that makes people uncomfortable is interesting to me as a subject matter.
UR: That's funny, because I feel like your name doesn't conjure up the grotesque in most people's heads, but when I think about it, that's right where I'd put your interests.
AN: I definitely have an affinity for the grotesque. It draws me in.
UR: Did you ever picture yourself becoming a bestselling author?
AN: I exist in this artist books' world where it's an accomplishment to have something actually published, so the goal was just to get published. I mean, I had read that first fiction tends to sell about 2,000 to 5,000 copies, so I thought, well, it'd be nice to sell 5,000 copies, and that was my goal.
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