By Tom Lynch
The runaway success of Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” was as much a surprise to the author as it was to everyone else. Her first novel, Niffenegger’s story of a relationship between a man who suffers from a disorder that frequently transports him through time and the woman he so often leaves behind, mixes science fiction and romance without necessarily adopting either. A quirky piece of literary fiction, it’s not the type of novel that sells two million copies in its first week, as Dan Brown’s newest work did just last month.
However, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which was published by the relatively small press MacAdam/Cage, opened in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list, and local author and attorney Scott Turow appeared on “The Today Show” and recommended the book, prompting the first run to sell out completely. Various book-club selections followed and Niffenegger’s little engine became something of a sensation and catapulted the Chicago author out of relative obscurity into a position of publishing powerhouse.
“It was very strange indeed,” Niffenegger says of the experience as we sit at Lincoln Square’s Café Selmarie. “I imagined my audience as a fairly small group, people about my age, in their mid-forties, who remember punk. I imagined this kind of small book with MacAdam/Cage, a tiny press, and we just didn’t expect anything like this. Of course the big thing that changed it was ‘The Today Show,’ when Scott Turow had chosen it, and I was just like, ‘OK, this is really a different experience than anything I imagined.’”
The movie rights to “The Time Traveler’s Wife” were sold even before the book’s September 2003 release and, at the time, though it was exciting, Niffenegger says she was told only about one in forty of the novels purchased by Hollywood ever make it to the screen, so it was kept in perspective. Meanwhile, in Chicago, especially to those attuned to the local literary scene, Niffenegger had become a phenomenon, and with a Chicago-set book, nonetheless. (Henry, the time-jumper, works as a librarian at the Newberry Library, for example.) When I first read the book I admired it immensely, yet somehow over time, perhaps with the novel’s increasing popularity and trailers for a movie adaptation that seemed to play up the romance and melodrama, I had forgotten the book’s aching bleakness—in many ways, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is a story of broken souls who endure awful experiences only to meet unfortunate fates in the end. The daring grotesqueness, from Clare’s multiple miscarriages to the amputation of Henry’s frostbitten feet, hardly serve as evidence that Niffenegger was trying to reach as broad an audience as possible.
Niffenegger’s approach to her second novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” out this week, was inspired in part by the public’s understanding of “Time Traveler.” “Part of it had to do with everybody’s reaction to ‘Time Traveler,’” she says. “Everyone was like, ‘It’s a wuv story, and we wuv them, and they are in wuv. And I was like, ‘Really? OK…’”
“Her Fearful Symmetry” tells the story of twin sisters who inherit a London flat from an estranged aunt that overlooks the city’s mystical and enchanting Highgate Cemetery, which is the resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot, Douglas Adams and many more notable names. The aunt, Elspeth, insists in her will the girls live in the space for one year without their parents, and the twins comply, tossing themselves into their dead aunt’s former life, knowing her friends—Robert, the grieving lover she left behind, and Martin, the shut-in genius whose wife has recently left him—and, all the while, living in the shadow of this classic graveyard. Problem is, while Elspeth is dead, she’s hardly gone. Niffenegger blends the natural with the supernatural in positively thrilling—and sometimes upsetting—ways, crafting this story of love, loss and deep, humanly connection with a gothic pen and creative delight. Secrets are revealed. Bad things happen. A ghost story, and yet not.
“What I was trying to do was a nineteenth-century novel, but set in the twenty-first century, trying to use all the old creaky clichés,” she says. “What I needed was to animate them so that you don’t notice that these are all ideas you’ve seen a thousand times.”
Niffenegger cites several nineteenth-century English novels as influences for “Her Fearful Symmetry,” from Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” to the work of Henry James (“Portrait of a Lady,” “The Turn of the Screw”). The idea for the novel was born way back in 2002, before the publication of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and as part of her research Niffenegger volunteered as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, traveling there up to ten times a year. Although with less frequency, she still travels overseas and gives tours on weekends.
Niffenegger says that her story underwent several alterations before she settled with this focus. Originally, the story was to center around Martin, the agoraphobic, in his Uptown apartment—it took a year before twins were even introduced, and a couple more years for the story to include a ghost, and pretty soon Niffenegger had an ensemble piece set in London that overlooks a famed burial ground.
“I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to rewrite ‘Time Traveler,’” she says. “I welcome [the changes of direction], because what you want, you know, you want to feel like it’s alive in your hand. And you really only have that feeling if you see it changing. If it just sort of sits there like a lump and looks at you, you know you should just bag it.”
She continues, “It’s like when you’re a little kid and you’re playing, snatching things out of the air, and very unexpected stuff suddenly makes a lot of sense.” Needless to say, Niffenegger’s not an author who relies much on outlines or predetermined plot points. “I’m such a mess,” she laughs. “I’m literally just kind of feeling my way through it.”
After “Time Traveler” took off like a bullet, Niffenegger quickly became too busy to focus much on her next novel, having to tour and live in the first world she created for a handful of years. At some point she had to stop and redirect her efforts towards her follow-up. The next Niffenegger novel was greatly anticipated, not just by her fans, but by those in the industry who saw her first book skyrocket in sales.
“A number of people would look at me yearningly and say, ‘How are you doing on the book?’ It was a lot different from the first book when nobody cared. Greatly to the credit of all my editors and agents, people were very good about not pushing. After a while, I think they started to wonder if I was ever going to do it.” She says at one point her London editor took her out to lunch and hinted at impatience. “He started telling me stories about other people who were working very slowly on books,” she laughs. “One after another. I was like, ‘OK, I get the idea. You’d like me to finish.’”
When she did finish, a bidding war erupted between publishing firms, as everyone wanted the next “Time Traveler’s Wife.” In March of this year the New York Times reported that Niffenegger had sold the manuscript for “Her Fearful Symmetry” to Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, for close to five million dollars, an astronomical sum that makes the author cringe when I bring it up. Although it’s one hell of a monetary accomplishment, clearly she’s embarrassed by the public knowledge of the deal.
When I ask her about feeling pressure to please her fans, she shrugs. “There’s really nothing I can do about it,” she says. “I have a feeling people who liked the first book will probably like the new book, but some of them might not, because it’s not producing the same effect. This is a much more astringent book. Who knows if the book clubs will embrace it, and all that other crazy stuff that happened with the first one.”
Niffenegger was born in South Haven, Michigan and her family moved here when she was just two. She’s been in the Chicago area ever since, attending both the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern University. An artist, she specializes in drawing and printmaking—in the 1980s she began her career crafting handmade visual books. She’s since published two graphic novels, 2005’s “Three Incestuous Sisters” and 2006’s “The Adventuress,” and also had an ongoing series in The Guardian called “The Night Bookmobile.” She teaches Book Arts at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, though she’s down to only one class a year, in the spring. Her artwork has often drawn comparisons to the work of Edward Gorey—gothic, dark and charming in its morbidity.
“My family, when they read ‘Time Traveler’ for the first time, they looked at me puzzled,” Niffenegger laughs. “‘My goodness! This isn’t like you! This is all… lovely.’”
She started writing as early as high school—she was in the creative-writing club—and says she assumed she would one day move to New York, but those plans were dashed after an unsatisfactory trip. She settled in Chicago instead, as “It was either New York or Chicago, it never occurred to me that there were any other towns.”
Niffenegger says that her decision to turn “Time Traveler” into a novel was based in practicality—she couldn’t conjure a way to depict time travel in still images, and didn’t have the resources to make a film, so she decided a book was the way to go. She works on multiple projects at once, lets things sit and breathe, maintains a patience with her work that would drive some artists and writers insane.
“I studied with Ed Paschke,” she says, “and at one point he took us over to his studio and he had about six paintings up on the easels and was working on all of them at once. And he said, ‘Well I could do one painting in a week, or I could do six paintings in six weeks.’ His idea was that by having all the paintings take longer and come up together, he would have more ideas about them as he was doing them. This is really true. One of the reasons why I like to spend years and years on things is that you have a chance to put more layers into it, make the connections more interesting, make the whole thing much richer than you could if you knew immediately what you were going to do and just pounded it out.”
Of her preference for any specific medium, she jokingly says, “I think I generally prefer what I’m not doing at any given moment,” but points out the different experiences of drawing and writing, in that when she draws, she can let her mind wander and think of other things, listen to the radio, etc., but while writing she’s alone and sitting in a quiet room. She works better at night, which comes as no surprise.
Niffenegger says she decided early on not to see the film adaptation of her work, as it would forever change her own mental imagery of the characters and events, and thus has stayed away from the theater. (By the look of the critical reviews and box-office results for the film, this seems to be a wise decision.) She had nothing to do with the film’s production, but was allowed to read drafts of the script as a courtesy.
She says a common question she receives is if she’ll ever write a sequel to her hit debut. “People kindly write to me and say, ‘How about ‘The Time Traveler’s Daughter’? I’m like, well, that would pretty much destroy the first book. What I really like about writing is that it provides so much scope for the reader to exercise their own preferences. I find when I’m reading that I’m slightly ignoring what the writer is telling me and supplying my own ideas about what stuff looks like and how somebody sounds. I think that it’s lovely when there is open space in the plot, when everything is not determined.”
Niffenegger’s fascination with gothic storytelling and imagery started early and has carried all the way through to “Her Fearful Symmetry.”
“My notion is that within the universe of a book, things have to balance,” she says. “I mean, with ‘Time Traveler’ things got so dark, I thought that no one would want to read this, and I had to go in there and give them reasons to live. My natural inclination is to be darker than is good for the book, and I have to resist that.”
Did she have to resist the darkness with “Her Fearful Symmetry”?
“You know, with ‘Symmetry,’ I just went right ahead.”