Sometimes jet lag has its advantages. Amazingly enough, I caught Audrey Niffenegger soon after her London arrival, when she wasn’t sleeping – “I am very bad at jet lag,” she confesses. She’s currently on her book tour for her first full-length graphic novel, the chilling literary delight The Night Bookmobile, which appeared as a serial graphic series for London’s The Guardian newspaper from May to December 2008, and was introduced this September as a single stunning bound volume.
That Niffenegger is an official tour guide at London’s Highgate Cemetery (a skill she just happened to pick up while researching and writing her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry), makes her visits over the pond a homecoming of sorts … and eventually, she will certainly sleep. But not before she offered some memorable answers about writing, printing, reading, travels, fans, and even death.
Probably because I was hiding under some rock of denial, I first knew of Niffenegger as a creator of magnificently illustrated books before realizing she is also that internationally renowned, mega-bestselling novelist. If you’re rolling your eyes at me right about now, then perhaps you have not seen her spectacular titles, The Three Incestuous Sisters, with its rich burgundy leather-like spine, and The Adventuress, with its begging-to-be touched forest green velvet binding. These are unique artistic creations to be surprised and delighted about, to be haunted and shocked by, to linger over.
Before she was a novelist, Niffenegger was trained as a visual artist; she began making prints in 1978 and her artist life continues as both practitioner and teacher. She’s made her very own books, which she printed and bound by hand in editions of 10; two of them became the (thankfully) commercially available The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.
Niffenegger’s writing life began in 1997, with an idea for a story that didn’t work as a graphic novel, but would become her phenomenal 2003 debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife. The premise of Time is rather like a Möbius strip which, at first glance, appears to be two parts, but is intricately connected to make a neverending surface. That is the essence of the relationship between Clare, the eponymous wife, and Henry, the chrono-challenged love of her life. Clare is 6when they meet; Henry has traveled back from when he is 36 which means he holds the future. In Henry’s ‘real’ time, they will not meet until Clare is 20 and Henry is 28, which means only Clare knows their past. Their love story, of course, proves timelessly everlasting.
Six years later, Niffenegger followed with Her Fearful Symmetry, another novel driven by otherworldly love. Elspeth Noblin is one half of a pair of identical twins. She dies in a London hospital, having been separated for the past 20 years from twin Edie, whose life now is contained in an overdecorated suburban faux Tudor home outside Chicago. Inseparable until their transatlantic cleaving, Elspeth and Edie never stop longing for one another and yet truculently remain parted, until death. Enter the next generation of twins, Julia and Valentina, belonging to Edie and raised across the pond. Elspeth’s final will lures the twins to London as sole benefactors of her spacious Highgate flat and the rest of her generous estate, with stipulations. Julia and Valentina must live in the flat for one year, during which time their parents Edie and Jack must never set foot within. Death may have taken Elspeth’s expired body, but her story – and that of the entangled twins – is just beginning.
Settling back into her own familiar London, Niffenegger was headed to Highgate Cemetery for the weekend. She’ll be leading eager visitors through narrow paths, revealing spooky tales, sharing impossible stories. For those of us unable to join her in lifetime at death’s door, we’ve thankfully got five uniquely Niffenegger titles to keep us deftly entertained and memorably haunted.
As a Luddite, I loved reading your comments about e-books, and how you championed the physicality of holding, having beautiful books. I see from Amazon that The Time Traveler’s Wife remains unelectrified, but Her Fearful Symmetry can be whispernet-ed instantly. So what changed? How did Fearful become Kindle-able, and how did you keep Wife off the wires?
The e-rights to The Time Traveler’s Wife belong to me (just as the e-rights of most books published before 2004 or so belong to their authors, if the books are still in copyright) and so I can do as I see fit with them. Someday I will probably authorize an e-version; I am waiting for the technology and the design issues to firm up a bit. There’s no rush. Lots of people have decided to pirate it.
The e-rights to Her Fearful Symmetry were part of the original contract with Scribner. I don’t actually know how that is going; it does seem to calm the people who thought I was vehemently opposed to all e-books, which I’m not. Though I haven’t figured out yet how the bookstores are going to participate in the e-book thing, and I do love bookstores, so that worries me.
I hope and believe that the current e-readers are just the beginning; they are pretending to be books because new technologies often try to look like the thing they are replacing. But they aren’t books. They can’t do many bookish things. But they have other talents, and I hope that the e-readers will evolve into something more interesting that can support art forms we haven’t yet invented. [... click here for more]