Audrey Niffenegger is a writer, artist, and professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA Program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. She is the author of The Time Traveler's Wife, the inventive and unconventionally rendered tale of Clare, a luminously beautiful artist, and Henry, a time-traveler. In our interview, Ms. Niffenegger discussed her art and writing, among other things.
Mark Flanagan: Can you tell me about your work as an artist and art professor?
Audrey Niffenegger: I teach writing to visual artists. We concentrate on merging and combining text and images, by means of artist's books, comics, installations, etc. I also teach letterpress printing, lithography, intaglio, fine edition book making, a seminar on visual narrative, and the occasional drawing class.
My own work is primarily visual novels (in the form of books of etchings), drawings and paintings, photographs, and collages. My gallery is Printworks, in Chicago. I love the intimacy, the obscurity, and the quality of the line in printmaking. My work tends to be narrative, figurative, strange, and quiet.
MF: Did you always know you were going to be an artist?
Audrey Niffenegger: Yes, although for a while I thought it would be a good career choice to be a jockey. This did not work out as I am 5'9" and horses scare me.
MF: Who or what have been the greatest influences?
Audrey Niffenegger: In art, I have been very influenced by Horst Janssen, Aubrey Beardsley, Winsor McCay, Jiri Anderle, Kathe Kollwitz, Joseph Cornell, Goya, Hans Bellmer, and the collage novels of Max Ernst.
As a writer (and a reader), my influences are Richard Powers, Dorothy Sayers, Rainer Maria Rilke, Henry James, David Foster Wallace, Edgar Allan Poe, and Anne Rice. I'm not claiming that I write like any of these authors-only that I admire them, and think about their work.
MF: The Time-Traveler's Wife has a fascinating premise. How did you arrive at it?
Audrey Niffenegger: I got the title first, and played around with it for quite a long time, slowly evolving the characters in my head. I wrote the end before anything else, and then began to write scenes as they occurred to me. The Time Traveler's Wife was written in a completely different order than the one it finally took. I understood early on that it would be organized in three sections, and that the basic unit was the scene, not the chapter. It has a rather chaotic feel to it, especially at the beginning, and that is deliberate-there is a slow piecing together, a gradual accumulation of story, that mimics the experience of the characters. I made a lot of notes about the characters. I had two timelines to help me stay organized, but no outline of the plot.
MF: How much of Clare (or Henry) is you?
Audrey Niffenegger: Contrary to popular belief, not much. I dyed my hair red as a way of saying goodbye to Clare, as I was finishing the book. She makes very different art from mine, and she's much quieter and more patient. Henry and I share a quirky sense of humor and a taste for punk, but not much else. Henry and Clare are distant fictional relations of Dorothy Sayer's characters Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
First novels are often said to be thinly disguised autobiography. This one uses my places and things I know something about (libraries, paper making) but, alas, this is not my life, and these characters are not me. Ingrid, a character who did start out as a self-portrait, morphed so much that eventually I hardly recognized her.
MF: Clare is looking for Kelmscott Press's Chaucer when she meets Henry in 1991. Any particular reason you chose it? What about Rilke, Clare's favorite poet? Dorothy Sayers?
Audrey Niffenegger: Well, I needed a book the Newberry Library actually owns, and that's a very famous and beautiful book, something I often call up to show my students when we visit the Newberry.