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Interview with Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger’s literary love story, The Time Traveler’s Wife, has sold over seven million copies worldwide. Now, on the 10th anniversary of its publication, Zola Books has issued the first-ever digital edition. What’s more, the DRM-free e-book contains a 25-page excerpt from a sequel Niffenegger is writing.

When Zola Books contacted DA to see if we might be interested in interviewing the author on this occasion, Jennie and I were delighted. We’ve both enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife a great deal (I’ve read it around five times), and Jennie has read Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, and enjoyed that novel as well. Below is the interview that resulted. — Janine


Janine: Your bestselling romantic/speculative literary novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, just received a digital release. According to the publicist for Zola you are an early investor in Zola Books and have experimented with enhanced e-books. What can you tell us about Zola, the Zola app, and the e-book of The Time Traveler’s Wife?

Audrey Niffenegger: I’m interested in alternative ways of making books. I taught book arts using 15th-century and digital techniques at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts for many years, and I am interested in the evolution of digital storytelling and how authors can use enhanced e-books to provide readers with new experiences.

What excites me about Zola is the company’s work toward providing new ways of engaging with authors, publishers, booksellers, and other readers within the e-books themselves.  I am also a fan of providing readers with e-books without restrictions as a way of supporting readers’ autonomy.

This e-book edition of The Time Traveler’s Wife is not enhanced in the sense of incorporating other media, it’s a straightforward novel, just like the print version but with some added material about Alba, Henry and Clare’s daughter.

My involvement with enhanced e-books is centered around Raven Girl, a project I am collaborating on with the choreographer Wayne McGregor. This project began as an illustrated book (published by Abrams and Jonathan Cape) and became a dance (for the Royal Ballet in London) and we hope to make a film and an enhanced e-book.


Janine: The Time Traveler’s Wife is written mostly (but not entirely) in what is chronological order for Clare, but chronological disorder for Henry. Did you have to do a lot of pre-planning before writing the book to pull this off? And how did you go about keeping track of their chronologies?

Audrey Niffenegger: The book was written out of order, without much pre-planning. I began with the last two scenes, when Clare is an old lady, then wrote the scene in which Clare loses her virginity, then the scene in which Henry time-travels for the first time, to the Field Museum. Then I tried to make an outline, and kept on writing scenes as they occurred to me.

I kept track of things with two time lines, one for Clare and one for Henry, which also tracks what the reader knows as things progress.


The_Time_Travelers_Wife_mediumJanine:  In The Time Traveler’s Wife, the love Henry and Clare feel for each other transcends time but ultimately ends in loss. Although that felt inevitable to me as I read the book, some of my friends were gutted by the ending, so I was curious, did you always know this was where the story was headed when you were writing it?

Audrey Niffenegger: Yes, since I wrote the ending first.

Henry and Clare’s situation is not unlike everyone else’s; no matter how much we love someone we will all be separated by death eventually. A lot of my work, both as a writer and as an artist, is about love and loss and sex and death, so if you look at TTW in the context of my other work the ending is, as you say, pretty inevitable.


Jennie: Her Fearful Symmetry features two sets of twins, Elspeth and Edie and Valentina and Julia. Were you saying anything about the twin relationship in the way you depicted those two pairs, or were they more vehicles to explore themes of dependence and mirroring?

Audrey Niffenegger: I was thinking of twins as an extreme kind of pair relationship. I was interested in them as the subjects of a fictional experiment about love, individuality, separation, dependence. Everything in HFS is doubled so that we can see the experiment in all its variations: pairs who are apart at the beginning try to come together, pairs who are inseparable try to cope with being alone.

I received some interesting email from twins after HFS was published. Some told me that I had got it right, their own relationship with their twin felt like that; others were mad at me, as though I was trying to say something about all twins everywhere, which of course I would not presume to do.


Jennie: Some readers found the main characters of Her Fearful Symmetry unsympathetic. Is that something you think about when you’re writing? Do you need to have sympathy or empathy for the characters as you’re writing them?

Audrey Niffenegger: I was surprised by that, I love my characters, especially Elspeth, who seems to be the one everybody dislikes. I have great empathy for the characters, even when they are behaving very badly. I don’t like novels full of nice people; if everyone is likable and kind, where’s the story?


Janine:  You’ve written literary novels that employ genre elements like time travel, ghosts, and towering romantic love. What draws you to these subjects? Do you read genre fiction as well as literary fiction, and if so, what are your favorite works of genre fiction?

Audrey Niffenegger: “Towering?” Nah, they are just very perseverant. I read some genre fiction, mostly SF and speculative fiction. I grew up reading mysteries but then stopped, I am not sure why. I think writers once had more scope to work without boundaries. Your question could easily apply to the work of Henry James (The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story and The Sense of the Past is time travel, while The Beast in the Jungle turns upon a long-unrecognized love) or Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol involves both ghosts and time travel, as well as alternative worlds). I think it would be very freeing for all writers to be able to reclaim the territories that have been ceded to the genres. Some writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Richard Powers, Chris Adrian and Kelly Link, are great boundary crossers and they are some of my favorite writers. Donna Tartt is also terrific, I am very excited that she has a new book out soon.

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones with great pleasure. And of course the Sherlock Holmes stories were favorites when I was a kid. There’s an anthology by Alberto Manguel called Black Water, it’s full of the most excellent speculative fiction from many countries, that would be one of my desert island books.


Janine: What’s next for you? Tell us about the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife and any other projects you have in the works.

Audrey Niffenegger: I wasn’t planning to write a sequel so this is still new to me. Joe Regal of Zola Books asked me if I had any Time Traveler’s Wife material that hadn’t been published; he was looking for something to publish with the e-book of TTW as an extra. I had nothing that would have made any sense to a reader, just notes and revisions. So I promised to write something new.

It was a funny experience, writing about Alba. I have always made a point of not imagining the lives of Clare and Alba and the other characters beyond the scope of the book, but when I tried to think about them many things came flooding in, as though I knew them already. The imagination is a strange thing, it often works best when you don’t watch it too closely.

I’ve been working on another novel, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile, for several years. I put it aside to work on Raven Girl and on the retrospective of my art at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Both of these projects were completed in May and June of this year, so now I am free to work on my writing again. I didn’t expect to have two novels to write; I am curious to see what unforeseen effects they will have on each other, these twin novels.

You can purchase Time Traveler’s Wife at Zola Books in DRM free formats for ePub and Mobi

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.


  1. Jeannie Lin
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 10:33:18

    Fan girl bounce! Fan girl bounce!

    I’m so torn about reading additional material about Alba. While I loved, loved, loved the Time Traveler’s Wife, the ending has haunted me and I sort of want that to stay the ending in my head. It ended in a way that was both open-ended, but still provided some measure of closure in a time loop-de-loop way. I loved reading Audrey’s comment that the loss at the end (or is it the end?) of Henry & Claire’s relationship is not unlike the loss we all feel because all life ends in death. But somewhere, some iteration of Henry is still traveling and whenever he visits a time slice to see Claire, then their love is still alive. *sniff*

    The opening chapter of Her Fearful Symmetry hooked me emotionally like no other, but I felt manipulated as I read through the rest of the book. Like the scenarios were too contrived. That book did, however, make me reflect on what I found so compelling and gripping about the The Time Traveler’s Wife and how it walks a fine line. Just a nudge this way and I was unable to buy in for HFS, but with the right balance The Time Traveler’s Wife remains a book I still think about to this day.

    I was just talking to some friends the other day when I reflected that The Time Traveler’s Wife was in part a grand love story and in another part wild thought experiment. (They were commenting on the “why” of a couple of the time travel scenes where Harry goes back and his other self is there. I don’t want to spoil by pointing out which ones) In the TTW, the thought experiment enhanced and elevated the story, heightening the experiences of the characters. The thought experiment missed the mark in HFS, at least for me.

    Wildly excited to hear that there are two upcoming novels. *bounce* *bounce*

  2. Janine
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 10:49:01

    @Jeannie Lin: Great comment!

    While I loved, loved, loved the Time Traveler’s Wife, the ending has haunted me and I sort of want that to stay the ending in my head

    I know what you mean because of an experience I had with another book. I wanted a sequel, but when I got it, I wished the author had left the ending where it was with book one.

    In this case, though, the following description of the sequel on the Zola site has made me really curious to read it:

    “This exclusive, first-ever digital edition includes 25 pages of a sequel to Niffenegger’s beloved novel focused on Henry and Clare’s daughter Alba, who as an adult finds herself caught between her real-time husband, Zach, and her other husband, Oliver, a fellow time-traveler and musician.”

    ETA: I haven’t read Her Fearful Symmetry yet, though I did purchase it. I heard mixed reviews and I’m a little afraid of being disappointed.

  3. Dabney Grinnan
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 10:58:48

    I am really curious as to what an enhanced book means in this context. It will be interesting to see Raven Girl.

    I can’t wait to read the sequel. I’ve often wondered about Alba’s life.

    Thanks for a great interview.

  4. Jeannie Lin
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 11:00:19


    Okay, you’ve sold me on the sequel. LOL.

    I’m really a sucker for time-slip/time-travel dilemmas. Hence my love for Susanna Kearsley’s work as well.

    I have a few I-loved-you-more-before-the-sequel moments, but it doesn’t sound like Alba’s story is really a follow-up to Henry & Claire’s story as much as her own tale. And oomph! I realized I accidentally started calling Henry “Harry” in the latter part of my comment. Attribute that to my fangirl-y fast typing.

  5. Janine
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 12:02:25

    @Dabney Grinnan: I’m really looking forward to it too. Even in TTTW, Alba was an intriguing character in her own right.

  6. Dawn
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 13:41:04

    I loved TTW, but I hated HFS. Hated it. Hated all the characters (save one, about whom my feelings would best be described as “eh, he was okay”). I thought the hate would dissipate over time, but here I am, hating away. I’m not saying it wasn’t well written, but I wouldn’t read it again if you paid me. I think of it sort of like Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which I didn’t particularly like (although many people loved it), but I kept reading because I wanted to see how it ended.

  7. Janine
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 14:15:29

    @Dawn: I hear you. Sometimes when I really love a novel, I’m afraid to read new books by the same author who wrote it, in case I won’t love them that much. It happened to me with A.S. Byatt’s followup to Possession, Angels and Insects. And with Donna Tartt’s followup to The Secret History, The Little Friend. I loved Possession and The Secret History, but the works that followed left me cold.

    I’m still on the fence about reading Her Fearful Symmetry, but I’m going to have to read Alba’s book. I just finished reading the 25-page excerpt that is included with the ebook of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and it was so tempting that there’s no way I’m going to skip this book. And so far at least, I love the main characters, although of course this may change.

  8. Eliza Evans
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 14:42:02

    Thanks for the interview! Count me in as another who is cautiously excited about Alba’s sequel.

    On a personal note, I attended Columbia College Chicago and I was absolutely gutted to find out that the semester after I graduated that Niffenegger would be teaching in my department, Fiction Writing. I would have loved to take a writing class from her.

  9. Janine
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 15:08:45

    @Eliza Evans: Oh, wow! I don’t blame you at all. I would have loved to take a writing course with her too. So envious of those lucky students.

  10. cleo
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 17:02:49

    @Janine: I do that too sometimes – it’s like the anti-glom impulse. And other times I read one book I love and then read their entire backlist. I’ve never thought about it before so I’m not sure what the difference is. Maybe it’s when the next book/s seem really different – like HFS and tTTW. I loved tTTW so much that I consciously avoided HFS, which didn’t sound like my thing.

  11. Jennie
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 18:26:06

    I am super-excited about the sequel to TTTW – as others have commented, Alba was an appealing character in that book and I’m interested to see her story. I understand the trepidation of some, but I don’t really feel like an unsatisfying sequel can “ruin” a good book for me. Not enough for me not to be willing to take a chance on it, anyway.

    I sometimes feel like I’m one of the few readers who liked HFS. I totally get why readers (especially if they were specifically fans of TTTW) would find HFS so different as to be disappointing, but as I (think I?) said at the time, the pleasures of the latter book are very different from those of TTTW.

  12. Vanessa
    Oct 14, 2013 @ 20:51:40

    I consider TTTW one of the most influential novels I’ve read in my lifetime. It moved me immeasurably.

    I read HFS, but, as a twin and a mom to twins, I felt fetishized. I was incredibly uncomfortable with her literary exploration of my reality. I made it a point after that to not read fiction dealing with “twin tropes.”

    Clearly, Ms Niffenegger is an incredible artist and talent. I look forward to reading more of her work (so long as twins aren’t involved.)

  13. Tuesday Links | Jorrie Spencer
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 11:36:00

    […] interview of Audrey Niffenegger at Dear Author. I adored The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I think any fan of the book will enjoy […]

  14. Janine
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 12:46:32

    @cleo: I think for me the difference has to be with a kind of reverence. When a book shows a skill in the author that I particularly admire, and I also fall hard for the book, that combination makes it hard to equally enjoy the author’s other works. So in my case, it’s actually a sign of a great deal of respect for the author and for what she achieved with that book.

    @Jennie: Have you read the excerpt in the back of the TTTW ebook yet? So, so good.

    @Vanessa: Sorry to hear you had such an experience with HFS. It was interesting that Niffneegger said it rung true for some readers who were twins, but not for others. I wish you many twinless Niffenegger novels in your future!

  15. Dawn
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 12:50:23

    @Janine: Funny, I also had that experience with the A.S. Byatt books. I’m going to read Alba’s book too…I can’t imagine I’d be able to resist it!

  16. Dear Author Interview with Audrey Niffenegger « Mr. Death's Ephemeral Pageant
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 13:26:55

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  17. Janine
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 13:33:59

    @Dawn: That was so disappointing when it happened to me with Byatt. I love Possession so hard, it is one of my favorite books ever — probably the favorite among novels published in my lifetime. The first novella in Angels and Insects was so disappointing that I never read the second. Really, I just hated it. After that I stopped reading Byatt altogether, except for a couple of short stories. I wanted my impression of Possession to remain unchanged, if that makes sense.

  18. Alba, Continued | Jenny Arch
    Oct 18, 2013 @ 15:44:27

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