Audrey Niffenegger Explains How To Create a Good Story

The following is an online-exclusive extended version of the interview that appears in the November/December issue of WD. Click here to order the issue—or click here to download a digital version instantly to your desktop.


Few things labeled an “overnight success” actually are, and Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 debut novel is no exception—if you take into account the four-and-a-half years she spent writing The Time Traveler’s Wife, or the 20 or so agent rejections she collected when it was finished. But after she signed with Regal Literary and independent publishing house MacAdam/Cage, the term “overnight” wasn’t much of an exaggeration. The book quickly became the kind of runaway, worldwide bestseller that writers (and indie publishers) don’t dare imagine.

Then came the waiting. As years ticked by, there was the inevitable speculation the book and its author could be relegated to one-hit-wonder status. But those murmurs were muffled earlier this year when the completed manuscript of Niffenegger’s sophomore novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, sold at auction to Scribner—for a (widely) reported eyebrow-raising advance of nearly $5 million—and a September release date was set. “She really has defied custom and written a spectacular second novel, which is one of the hardest things to do in this universe,” Scribner Editor-in-Chief Nan Graham told The New York Times. The August release of the Time Traveler film adaptation only heightened the anticipation.

Niffenegger is known for her creative experimentation in a variety of media. Her artwork is widely exhibited. The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress, visual novels she’d created before Time Traveler, were commercially published after its success. And she is one of the founders of the Center for Book & Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches Interdisciplinary Book Arts.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story set in and around London’s famed Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger worked as a guide while researching the book. It begins when American mirror-image twins inherit their aunt’s flat bordering Highgate. As they adjust to their new lives there, they begin to question their identities, the bonds of sisterhood, and even whether their aunt is really gone after all.

Here the author discusses the writing process, her return to bookshelves and the artistic bliss that comes with owning your own day.

Tell me about the process of writing Her Fearful Symmetry. You said you deliberately set out to teach yourself to write a different kind of book. Do you feel you succeeded with that?

I think the two books are fairly different. I mean, I think you can still tell that it’s a book by me. But the new book to some extent takes up where Time Traveler leaves off. It takes up with someone losing their lover, with the lover dying. But on a technical level, the things that I was trying to teach myself to do, the new book is an ensemble where there’s a great many point-of-view characters, and so I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out how to pass point of view around in a way that isn’t annoying to the reader but that allows me to get into and out of people’s heads so that at any given moment the reader knows what I want them to know. And that turns out to be surprisingly difficult. I don’t know if other people find it so, but it really was an interesting thing to consciously think about.

Did you have an organizational process or structure that helped with that?

The first book was a bit of a continuity nightmare, and so I had all these timelines and charts and things. This one is essentially much simpler because you’re not jumping back and forth in time. There’s almost no flashback, so what I was essentially trying to do is think about what each character is aware of and what the characters do and don’t tell each other, and times when the reader knows more than any one given character—which is most of the time, actually.

You wrote Time Traveler out of order; did you write this book from start to finish?

No, I can’t do that. Apparently that’s just impossible for me. I started with the scene where the twins land at Heathrow and get off the plane, and for the first couple of years of writing it, I thought that was the beginning of the book. And then I sort of slowly backed up and backed up until I got to the bit were Elspeth dies and thought, well really that’s what sets everything else into motion, so that’s where we’re going to begin.

How long did the writing take, altogether?

I began at the beginning of 2002. I kind of had the idea just as I was finishing Time Traveler, and initially in my head I had this apartment and this man who never leaves the apartment but is visited by this young woman. And the apartment was very dark and oppressive and I knew that there was a cemetery bordering it. So that was kind of where I began, and I didn’t realize at the time that that was essentially a subplot.

Originally I was going to set it in Chicago—there’s a cemetery called Graceland, which I was imagining using—and then as I thought about it more and more I realized that Highgate would be oh so much more, I don’t know, crazy, enticing, dramatic.

And also part of the project as it began to shape up had to do with the idea of writing what is essentially a 19th century novel but to set it in the 21st century and to have the people be modern people. But what I’m trying to do is use a lot of the plot devices and ideas that you might find in Wilkie Collins or Henry James.

Did you actually live in London when you were researching and working as a guide at Highgate?

I’ve never actually lived in London, but I have spent a lot of time there. My friend Jean Pateman, who the book is dedicated to, she’s the chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, and for the last several years she’s been letting me come and stay in her house and pester her, and she’s been super.

Chicago is such a strong setting for Time Traveler that many reviewers have said it’s almost a character, and Highgate is similarly a strong presence in this book. Is that something you set out to do?

Yes. Once I started to visit the cemetery—I had seen the cemetery back in 1996, and so I had an idea of what was there—but once I started to really research it, I just was in love with it. And the characters do get out and about in London somewhat, but London is so massive and so old and so layered that you can’t really do a “London” novel that takes in all of London. You have to break it down into bits, so that’s kind of what I was doing. I thought for the most part I’ll keep them kind of reigned in and they will stay around Highgate.

In the book, the twins’ neighbor, Robert, has a tendency to get carried away with his cemetery research, finding every single thing about it fascinating. Was there any of your experience in that?

Totally. That’s an inside joke. I have piles and piles and piles of notes. And recently I was thinking I really wish somebody would write that book that he’s writing, because it would be so useful.

Are you thinking about doing that?

I can’t; I’m not a historian. What I have been thinking about is something that I didn’t do while I was researching, which is to do interviews with the various people who are really involved at the cemetery, because quite a few of them are getting a bit elderly now, and I’m just afraid that when somebody does finally take on this project, that the people who were really involved might not be available. So, I’m thinking I might go do a little interviewing—I mean at this point it’s just sort of for my own interest, because I’m done writing the book. But yeah, there certainly was a sense that the cemetery itself is much cooler than anything I can write about!

There was a bit of a controversy in London regarding your involvement with Highgate and the increased tourism it might drive there. Is that something you’re concerned about?

There’s a little bit of a quandary because we only have about 30 people who are trained as guides and on any one given weekend a limited number of them are available, and it’s all volunteer.  And so, you would love to accommodate everybody who shows up, and if loads of people are going to show up … [Just] in the time since I got involved in 2003 they’ve had a massive increase in the number of people who come, and so part of it is just this anxiety about being able to accommodate people and not turn people away. And I am a little anxious about it. Whenever I talk to any of the Friends [of Highgate] about it, they say, “Oh, no no, don’t worry about it.”

And Tracy Chevalier set Falling Angels there. But in the time period that she was writing about it was actually called London Cemetery, and so she doesn’t go on and on about it being Highgate. But nevertheless, everyone says to me, “Oh, well when Tracy’s book came out, we had some increase in visitors, but not so much that it was a problem.” So I think we’re all just hoping that it’ll be manageable and that they’ll manage to deal with it, which they’re good at.

Do you plan to continue to work as a guide there?

Yes, definitely, although the way my tour schedule is set up right now it might be a little bit difficult to do it for some months. But eventually I’m definitely wanting to do it. I mean, after you learn all this you want to keep doing it.

Do people realize who you are when they go on the tours?

No. If we are introduced at all, we get introduced by first names. People are there to see the cemetery; they’re not too worried about who the guide is.

You’ve noted that themes of loss, of “everything is transitory,” have permeated your work, and they seem to be center stage here. How much do you consciously think about themes as you write? Or do they just sort of appear?

I do consciously think about it, and part of it—when you’re going to do something that takes as long as a novel takes, I mean, this was seven years of work—certain things tend to feel right and to feel more interesting than other things. And I just find that I keep being attracted to the same central ideas over and over again. And I try to do something different with them and not just make the same thing over and over again. But certainly I think these are things that affect everyone in our kind of underlying daily life. I mean even if you don’t want to think about death all the time, which we mostly don’t, nevertheless it’s kind of there, giving daily life more of a sense of beauty.

You also write about themes of sisterhood. Do you have sisters?

I have two younger sisters, and they laugh and laugh whenever people ask if it’s autobiographical. My sisters are super nice and super practical and sensible and they don’t get into these kinds of troubles at all.

In WD, we often tell writers not to become married to their titles because a publisher has the authority to change it. But you title your books early in the process—I know you’ve said The Time Traveler’s Wife originated with the title.

I can’t say that people ever do suggest messing with my titles. I’ve yet to have anybody take issue, which I don’t know if that means they’re so fantastic, but they seem suitable, I guess, to people. At one point I was toying with the idea of having a different title for this one. I had this notion that I might use one of the chapter titles, which is “The History of Her Ghost,” which did seem to kind of sum up the book, but people kind of vetoed that. They were like, “No no, we like the other one.” So …

How significant are your titles to your work?

Certainly I think they have a certain shaping element. When you’re constantly thinking of the thing by a certain title, it makes it perhaps seem more cohesive than it is at first, and then after a while the thing kind of grows into the title.

I mean, if I had gotten into the editing process and everyone had ganged up on me and said this is a terrible title, and we think it should be X, I wouldn’t have been absolutely closed to listening to that. You have to listen to your editors.

When did you come up with the title for Her Fearful Symmetry?

Somewhere way in the beginning. There was one character who eventually became Julia who suddenly developed a twin. And at that part I started thinking, “Oh, this would be kind of a nice title.” And I had been admiring Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, which of course is a quote from Milton, and I suddenly thought, “Oh, I can make a title that kind of chimes like that out of this bit of Blake.” And of course there’s a million things that are called Fearful Symmetry, as I discovered as I started to do it. There’s a John Adams piece, it’s a musical piece called Fearful Symmetries, which is quite beautiful. And lots of mystery novels. So it wasn’t like it was, “What a unique title, no one’s ever used it before.” But it also is intended to make the reader more aware of the structuring of the book, which is of course everything doubling and mirroring and opposites and so forth.

Tell me about leaving Macadam/Cage and signing with Scribner.

When I first signed with Macadam/Cage I believe they had 14 employees, and by the time the [new] book was ready they had three, and they just weren’t going to be able to do it. I mean, they bid on the book, and we offered the book to them. But I just thought, my heavens, how is this going to work? And I love Macadam/Cage. They have been super, and they were fantastic to work with, and I was heartbroken, but I just didn’t see how it was going to go. The problem was that not only were they a different size than they had been, but I am a different size, you know? And I’m not even sure that I won’t ever work with them again. I would love to work with them again, but it’s just a matter of how to go about it.

And the whole idea of indie publishing is really important to me. So I just kind of took a deep breath and thought, OK, what’s really going to work best for everybody.

You’re probably going to cringe, but I have to ask about the advance.

Cringe cringe!

It was reported as being in the neighborhood of $4-5 million. Did you ever dream that it would be that high?

No. No no no. I was incredulous. Mightily surprised, let’s say that.

Do you feel that now there’s going to be heightened scrutiny of the new book?

If you wait seven years to put something out, I think there would be scrutiny anyway. At the moment I’m at this little golden period between finishing and having it all turned in and edited, so I’m kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I finished the book to my own satisfaction, so if people want to rag on me that’s kind of their business. The only thing I’m actually in control of is what’s in the book. Everyone else is in control of what they do and say.

I know you’ve said before that you don’t have a desire to write full time, but it’s sort of every writer’s dream to suddenly be given the means. How does that amount of money change your writing life?

I’m also a visual artist, that’s kind of my starting point, and back in the ’90s I started going to artist colonies. The one I go to the most is Ragdale. I remember the first time I ever went to Ragdale, and I was just like, Oh my God, I’m going to get up today and I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to make stuff. And it was such a fantastic feeling to own your own day. You know, nobody was going to tell me what to do that day. And I thought, that’s what to aspire to, just to be in control of your time. So there was a point a couple of years ago where I suddenly realized that I had achieved control over my day. And that was really exciting. So from that point on it’s all pretty much the same: the freedom to make what you want when you want. And I think that’s just what we’re all looking for is that kind of liberty.

How much time do you spend at artist colonies now?

Generally I go once a year. Every now and then I splash out and go to Yaddo, which is also wonderful. No matter where you’re going it’s all kind of the same idea: You’re going to be in the company of other artists and writers and musicians, and someone’s going to do the cooking and you’re going to have a nice room and be able to get up every day and concentrate on your stuff.

Do you feel you do better work in that environment?

I find it super helpful. I would recommend it to anybody whose daily life feels a little overwhelming. That’s how I began. I was working with some other people to start the Book and Paper Center at Columbia College, and that was like a 70-hour-a-week kind of thing. And I thought boy, I just need to go somewhere where there’s no telephone—because this was pre-cell phone days—and it was just like a magic universe.

And what’s great is when you go to these places it’s very companionable and it’s not like there’s some short of huge pecking order. The younger artists and the more established artists, they just all groove together and it’s really kind of idyllic.

This is from one end of the spectrum to the other, but, the [Time Traveler] movie …

Oh, I don’t talk about the movie.

Have you seen it?

No, I haven’t seen it.

Are you planning on seeing it?

No, I don’t think so. The movie, it really belongs to the people who made it. It’s their work of art.

You said in an earlier interview that sometimes they sent you scripts?

It was a courtesy on their part, and I did read them. But you know, it wasn’t really my place. I had no power to do anything whatsoever. So, they made their movie. I was told at the very beginning of being published that of books that get optioned apparently one in 40 gets made. And of course that number might have changed since then, but that’s what I was being told back in 2003. I don’t know who keeps track or how they keep track. But anyway, so just the fact that the movie got made is pretty amazing.

And surely it will drive more sales of the book. How many countries is it available in now?

I think it’s 36. You know what I love is to see the covers, because so often I can’t read the language. But looking at all the different covers and the way people have interpreted it. The Polish one looks like a crime novel. And the Japanese one is very, very beautiful. Because I’m into book design, I’m really into this.

That’s a good segue into my next question, regarding your visual novels. Does it pain you to see them commercially overshadowed by your fiction, or is it something you anticipated?

First of all that the visual things are available at all is amazing, because of course I made 10 copies of each. And what I find is that they seem to fall into people’s hands almost by accident. And sometimes those people are young art students, who will then write me an e-mail and tell me what they thought about it, which is thrilling, because I was an art student once, and I was always having those experiences of finding these things accidentally and being influenced by them. And so really I’m just delighted that Abrams published them, and they actually have sold fairly respectively for visual novels. I’ve been pleased with the paths that they take to find an audience.

Do you think you’ll do any more?

Yeah. I recently did a comic strip for the London Guardian called “The Night Bookmobile.” We’re going to put that out as a book next year. And I’d like to keep doing that as a series because I was really delighted to do it, it was fun.

I know you’re particular about the terminology between visual novels and graphic novels. That sounds more in line with what people tend to think of when they hear the words “graphic novel.”

This one is definitely a graphic novel. The only reason I was picky about that was because I didn’t want people to think I was jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon, and then everyone said, ‘Oh, she’s so snobby, she doesn’t want to be associated with those graphic novels.” And I’m thinking, What? I love them, I collect them.

And you already had had those books written.

Yeah, they were already done.

The development of ebooks is sort of at odds with the physical nature of the books that you’ve devoted so much of your artwork to. Do you think you’ll ever be able to reconcile the two? Do you ever envision your books being available digitally?

My take on that these days is a kind of cautious wait and see. People seem to have gotten the idea that I’m adamantly opposed to the existence of eBooks, which I’m not. There are some very very good reasons for ebooks to exist, and certainly a lot of people love their Kindles. I am hanging back because I am one of those kinds of people who adopt everything late. I’m waiting to see how it goes because there’s so much uncertainty right now that surrounds ebooks. I mean, there’s the whole business part of it—you don’t want to come down on the wrong side of something and inadvertently stifle competition or cause a problem for bookstores. It’s all in flux right now, and I think a lot of authors are trepiditious, it’s not just me.

No, it’s definitely not just you!

No, I mean for example, Nicholson Baker wrote that article for The New Yorker, did you read that?

About the Kindle? I did read that.

Notice that he never mentions whether his books are available for Kindle or not. So I got on Amazon and looked it up. So his more recent ones like Human Smoke, yes you can read that on the Kindle, but something like Vox, or The Mezzanine, no. And I think all of us are watching and waiting, and I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s good to shake the bugs out of stuff before you jump—that’s a very mixed metaphor for the bugs! But people are thinking oh, that Audrey Niffenegger, she’s such a Luddite, but I’m not at all. I love to mix and match old and new technology. And also I’m getting a certain amount of heartrending e-mail from people who are either legally blind or have limited hand mobility or something—and for those people the ebook readers are fantastic. I certainly don’t want to get in the way of people accessing books that they otherwise couldn’t access, so it’s just really complicated.

I think a lot of people are also looking at the music industry and going: Oh my God. Just from my point of view, like LPs, you had these enormous things that came with beautiful album art, and then it shrunk down to the CD, so you still had some kind of visual, and now you download it and you get the visual on your iPod—if you’re lucky enough to have an iPod that displays that stuff. And where does it go? It turns into a postage stamp; it turns into nothing at all.

And the whole economic model gets screwed up, a la the newspaper business. I look at my various publishers, because I work with a number of publishers, and everyone that I talk to is apprehensive. Because nobody knows what’s coming. Everybody sees what’s going on in other industries.

The readers look at the e-reader devices and they say, “Hoo-ha, this is fantastic! We’re digging it!” But anybody who’s got a stake on the content side is I think just really wondering. And certainly we want our readers to have what our readers want. Denying readers books is just silly. It’s got to work out somehow, but I think it’s a little ways from people all getting together and thinking up the best solutions. And also, the current generation of devices, you know that this is going to come and go in a flash. These are like the 8-track tape recorders of our day. I’m sure something better is coming. It’s just like there’s this moment right now where everyone’s standing there going, Oh my, what’s happening?

And then there’s a whole other aspect to it. I trained as a book conservator. So, OK, here you have a digital book. Are we going to be able to read that in 100 years? Or is it just going to be this weird little piece of code that nobody can unscramble? Digital books could be very, very difficult from a conservation and storage point of view. I mean, people think of books as being problematic. There’s been this thing of everybody saying, they’re acidic, and they take up space! But on the whole, they have endured.

So, what are you working on next?

I’m traveling a lot, obviously. I’m working on an art exhibit for my gallery, which is Printworks in Chicago, and that’s going to happen a year from September [2009], so I’m excited about doing that. And I’ve started a third novel, which is called The Chinchilla Girl in Exile. I’m working off of a short story that I wrote about five years ago that never quite jelled, and the reason it didn’t jel was that the idea was bigger than short story form.

Would you classify that as mainstream fiction, or a genre?

You know how ideas tend to morph, but at the moment if it had a genre the genre would be coming of age. It’s about a 9-year-old girl who has hypertrichosis, which basically means she’s covered with hair. She’s been home schooled and it’s about her effort to go to school and have a normal life. Originally when I started it I was thinking of trying to write a YA book, but—this happens over and over again. I get going on something, and all of a sudden it’s full of darkness and sex and swearing and, you know, so I think I might try to hold back on the swearing, but it’ll probably end of being unsuitable for children! I don’t know, we’ll see. I was thinking the other day about Linda Berry’s book Cruddy, which I think is about an 11-year-old, but you would never let your 11-year-old anywhere near it. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s just too dark.

This article appeared in the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest.Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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