Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Audrey Niffenegger Takes the Fifth

  neffenegger

Photograph courtesy of Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife is the kind of book readers love so much they keep talking about it long after they’ve finished reading it. It’s the kind of book people will tell you they love even if they just see you with a copy clutched under your arm while in line at Panda Express. The kind of book that makes Panda Express workers forget to put your sweet and sour sauce on the tray as they fumble for words, trying to find a way of expressing how cool it is that you’re going to interview the author for a literary magazine. The Time Traveler’s Wife is so beloved that given the opportunity to suggest a question themselves, Panda Express workers can’t even come up with one, except to say how much better than the movie they think the book is, which they’ve already told you anyway.

I met with Audrey Niffenegger on a June day in Chicago, weather so pleasant she might have written it that way. We sat in Schubas on Belmont and Southport, definitely the sort of place where Clare and Henry hung out, and talked first about the city which the author often writes about and where she still lives.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Both your novels are rooted in place, particularly The Time Traveler’s Wife in Chicago but also Her Fearful Symmetry, which is mostly set in London but also has a strong Chicago-area component. What does it mean for you to be a Chicago writer?

Audrey Niffenegger: One of the things that’s delightful about being from Chicago and writing about Chicago is that it’s so underutilized. There is certainly a Chicago literature but not nearly enough of it, so a lot of the times I feel like I’m writing about things that have gone untouched. My Chicago is not the same as Sara Paretsky’s Chicago, which isn’t Dybek’s, and so everybody kind of has their own thing going. I feel like there is a lot of room and kind of a wide-open quality that’s really great.

FWJ: Are there any Chicago writers in particular whom you liked to read?

AN: I didn’t really . . . I knew some of them were out there. I’ve never read Saul Bellow in my life. Isn’t that shameful?

FWJ: A deliberate choice?

AN: Saul Bellow, as far as I can tell, is a writer who probably wasn’t thinking about young women when he was writing. Like Philip Roth, I just never went there because, what’s there for me? You talking to me? No, you’re not talking to me, so I’ll catch you later. In the meantime I was much more interested in someone like Simone De Beauvoir who was in Chicago briefly.

FWJ: I didn’t know that.

AN: She and Nelson Algren were lovers, so she was here for a little while. I don’t think anyone can claim her for Chicago exactly, but nevertheless. When I was younger, I was reading more by quality of experience rather than geography. I was always ending up in London — everything I was reading was set in the UK, or somewhere in Europe. When I was really young it was Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. Or New York, like Harriet the Spy. If you want to turn your girl into a writer you give her Harriet the Spy. So delightful and beguiling.
neffenegger-time-travelerFWJ: The Time Traveler’s Wife is such an involved story just on the level of plot. Did you have to plan everything out on graph paper or have an involved outline to refer to?

AN: The funny thing about The Time Traveler’s Wife is it’s very simple plot-wise — it’s the structure that’s complicated. Plot-wise I knew what was going to happen pretty early on, and I did have an outline, but the order in which it was going to be presented to the reader was kind of the big question mark. So it took a little less than five years to write and I really only got the structure figured out in year four. I spent the first year just sort of mulling it over, which I count as writing. That’s what I’m doing right now with the book I’m working on, sitting around staring into space, and everyone’s like, you’re not working, what are you doing? Actually, I am working.

FWJ: But the logical aspects of time travel are so fleshed out in the book. How long did it take you to come up with those rules?

AN: I’m always interested in the rules of any given project. Making sure everything follows its own internal logic is really important to me. The minute you break that — the readers are so smart they’ll be like, Aw that’s wrong. You got that wrong, so you have to be rigorous.

FWJ: Have you gotten feedback like that?

AN: No. I’ve gotten feedback about tiny, tiny things. I got a letter from someone who was reading Symmetry, and she is a couture dressmaker, and she spotted something wrong in a scene where they’re sewing. And I was like, OK, thank you. And hopefully that will not detract from your enjoyment of the rest of the book. She was enraged. I was like, I’m so sorry.

FWJ: But you’ve never had like a geneticist challenging a main premise or something.

AN: A lot of scientists get the passion — I think a lot of them get the idea to be scientists from reading science fiction. A lot of people who work at NASA will say straight up they wanted to go to Mars reading John Carter or Ray Bradbury or something. Science fiction is really a bridge for a lot of people between the imaginative life of children into something you might actually do when you grow up.

FWJ: Do you consider The Time Traveler’s Wife science fiction?

AN: I really think it’s part of the tradition of speculative fiction, which is firmly rooted in science fiction: the idea of a rule change. What if time travel were possible? What if there were ghosts? What if, what if. I’m not that interested in making up whole new universes or something. I’m interested in familiar things with one huge difference. It’s not properly fantasy either. It’s a kind of science fiction that is a thought experiment.

FWJ: Did the conceit come first or the story?

AN: The idea came in the form of the title.

FWJ: The title came first?

AN: The great thing about the title is that you’ve got it all at once: two characters, their relationship to each other, and the fact that the husband is a time traveler. You immediately wonder, what would that be like to be married to a time traveler? And you think, well, I bet that would be a colossal drag, actually. I started thinking about the daily ordinary life of a married couple where he is a time traveler, and I thought early on that he would be involuntarily time traveling. Pretty early I latched onto this idea that it was a genetic disease and not a machine or, you know, in Jack Finney the guy’s always imagining himself into the past. I thought, I don’t want him to be trying to do it. I want him to be not wanting it.

FWJ: Billy Pilgrim.

AN: You know, I hadn’t read that since I was about 15, but when people made that comparison I was really honored because it’s a great book.

FWJ: So is that how you always work, from the title forward? I know the title of your second book is from a poem.

AN: A William Blake poem, yes. The inspiration for the second book is the mental image of a guy who can’t leave his apartment. I had been dating someone who had really severe OCD. He wasn’t agoraphobic — he could perfectly well leave his place — but he had a lot of things in common with Martin. I changed the character a lot. The inspiration is just the idea of someone with a whole lot of stuff who’s trapped inside. Even though that became a side plot, the rest of the book came out of that. I was trying to mix it so that everything was symmetrical with everything else and anything in it was another half of another thing. I didn’t know it was a ghost story for about two years. The section I started working on first eventually became the middle. I thought the beginning was where the twins get off the plane in Heathrow in London and look at this flat for the first time. Of course then that’s a really expensive part of London, and how did these girls get to have this really expensive piece of real estate? So I made them inherit it, which is the only way.

FWJ: Had you seen Highgate Cemetery itself? Was that part of the inspiration?

AN: I had seen it in 1996 when it was even wilder than it is now. So yeah. I tried to let the characters and the structure grow together. It tends to be a herky-jerky process and it tends to take awhile. Everyone around me goes, how’s the book coming? And I say, fine. It’ll be ready in about five years.

FWJ: Is that a typical time frame for you?

neffenegger-symmetryAN: It ranges a lot. Symmetry took seven years because I had a lot of research to do. Basically there wasn’t much written about Highgate Cemetery that I could get my hands on. There is now. They’ve got a beautiful Wikipedia site. If I were doing it now it would be easy. But back then there was not much. I started it in 2002. Time Traveler came out in 2003, so part of the reason it took so long is because I was going on tour for two years.

FWJ: Did you enjoy going on tour?

AN: I did. Partially because before I ever got published I never had any money, so I didn’t get to travel much. And if I did have money I would either go to New York or someplace in Europe. I had never been west of the Mississippi. Being on tour I was like, oh, I get to see all the book shops of the world! So that was cool. These days I like touring but not the kamikaze, let’s go on tour for two years kind of thing. What happens is you have a hard back tour, and then you go on tour for your American publisher, and then you go on tour for the UK, and then you do the various foreign publishers who want you — which is not all of them, thank god — and by the time you’re done with all that, the paperback comes out and you do it again. It is a luxury because I know a lot of people, especially people with first books, can’t go on tour at all, or if they do they’re kind of doing a couch-surfing, crowd-funded tour. I wish the publishers would spread it around a bit. I don’t have the physical stamina to do them. There is a kind of tour where you get up at four or five o’clock in the morning, day after day so you can do morning radio. And I am so not a morning person. I did one of those tours, and by the end of it I was psychotic because I was getting no sleep.

FWJ: Is it all NPR stations? What morning radio shows are interviewing authors?

AN: It can be really strange. If you’re doing morning drive on some commercial station I can guarantee they haven’t read it. You kind of parachute in and they’re like, so miss niff-n jur what’s your book about? And you try to explain your book in two sentences before they hurry you off. It’s interesting, even before all the changes with the internet no one knew exactly what sold books. It was all just go out there and do it and see what sticks, you know?

FWJ: Are readings still well attended?

AN: Yes, people go to them. Personally I would much rather do questions and answers than read. I figure everyone knows how to read and they can read it for themselves. But for some reason that’s the way it goes. My favorite thing is onstage interviews. You ever do those?

FWJ: I’d be too nervous.

AN: Oh no. You get used to it. It’s super enjoyable, really, because you get all the control. You can figure out ahead of time what you want to ask, but then there’s the serendipity of conversation. You never know what someone is going to say.

FWJ: The response to Time Traveler’s Wife must have surprised you.

AN: Oh yeah. But I think there were a few things that were counterintuitive. We went with this super indie San Francisco press, MacAdam/Cage. The thing that was so great about them is that they treated me like I was Stephen King. They just went at it with extreme enthusiasm. They sent me on a seventeen-city tour for the hardcover before anyone even knew about it. I think the thing that made everyone perk up right away was that the movie rights were sold immediately to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who were still married. They had a production company. I think they were going to do the film together. Whether they would have been at all suitable I don’t know, but at any rate, it never happened so why worry. They were so high profile that it got written up in People magazine before the book even came out. The other thing that happened which was an amazing piece of serendipity is that I have a friend, Annette Turow, who’s a painter. At the time she was married to Scott Turow, the novelist. I called her up and asked if she thought Scott would look at it, and she said she’d read it and if she liked it she would pass it on to Scott. And she did and he read it and he blurbed it and was very kind, but he also recommended it to the Today show, and that was when it went up the best-seller list. Even though I’m not much of a TV-watching person, I can attest to the power of television to sell a lot of books.

FWJ: Can I ask you about the movie?

*****

The complete interview with Audrey Niffenegger is available in the fall 2014 issue fall 2014 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

For more about Audrey Niffenegger visit her website.

Daniel Libman is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. His story collection is Married but Looking.

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