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.
Janine: 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.