Interviewed by Kelsey Savage
Audrey Niffenegger is the acclaimed author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, winner of the 2006 British Book Award for Popular Fiction as well as the 2005 Exclusive Books Boeke Prize. In addition to also being shortlisted and nominated for a myriad of awards, in 2009 TTW was made into a film starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. Her second novel, A Fearful Symmetry, keeps to the precise and haunting tone Niffenneger so flawlessly navigates in her work.
Beginning in the world of printmaking, art, and education, Audrey’s path hasn’t been altogether linear. Having admired her writing since TTW came out in 2003, I reveled in the opportunity to start up a dialogue with one of my favourite authors. Despite being immersed in projects in London, she gave me the great honour of agreeing to discuss the ins and outs of her writing career trajectory via email.
When you are working on a writing project, what does an average day look like for you?
I don’t exactly have a schedule, or a certain number of words I am supposed to write or anything of that nature. I’m a night person, so the morning is devoted to drinking coffee and reading the New York Times. My studio assistant, Ken Gerleve, arrives at 11:00 and we discuss the day’s projects. Then he goes off to do his work and I answer email, or sit and stare at the computer. At some point in the afternoon I slowly begin to do some writing or make some art. I am most productive after dinner and in the wee hours of the night.
Who influences you as a writer? What are your favourite books?
I am very interested in the work of Donna Tartt, Richard Powers, Henry James, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Charlotte Salomon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Louise Fitzhugh, Shirley Jackson, Aubrey Beardsley, Kiki Smith, Susan Barron, David Foster Wallace, Kara Walker, Jack Finney, Virginia Woolf, Sarah Waters, Howard Norman and Eddie Campbell.
These are not all writers, some are artists, some are both.
My favorite books right now are Alec: The Years Have Pants, by Eddie Campbell; The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers.
What kinds of jobs have you had? Is there one that stands out as having given you the most time and energy for your own writing?
I’ve been teaching since I was 23. It’s a wonderful job, but if done properly it takes significant time and mental energy. The best situation for getting writing done is no job, or time off from the job.
Your education was initially in illustration, and you have an incredible array of illustration accomplishments prior to your first commercial publish. Would you say that your experience in illustration influences your writing, and/or vice versa? If so, can you expand on this?
In fact I’ve never studied illustration; my education was in printmaking, painting, drawing and photography. I began my art career as a book artist (this means that I made books myself: I made the images and text, I typeset the words in hot type, made etching plates and printed the etchings, bound the books in small editions). I have done some illustration work but I am not trained particularly as an illustrator.
My experience as a book artist was very helpful when I began to write my first novel. My largest artist’s book, The Three Incestuous Sisters, took fourteen years, so I had already completed novel-sized projects. I had gained an understanding of narrative structure and had also devised a method of working on large narratives out of order.
In quite a few interviews on The Time Traveler’s Wife, people seemed convinced that Clare was a portrait of you in some way, which you refuted. Over the span of your career, does any character come to mind where you did feel you were basing it off yourself? With characters, do you draw from real life, or do you create them from scratch?
I am always perplexed by the desire of readers to see autobiography in fiction. Me, I would like the writers to be adventurous and invent things.
The characters who are somewhat like me in their personalities are Henry DeTamble, Ingrid Carmichel, Elspeth Noblin, Robert Fanshaw and Alexandra (from The Night Bookmobile). Her Fearful Symmetry has several types of character: portraits of real people (Jessica and James Bates), characters based on other literary characters (Julia and Valentina Poole, who are inspired by Anne and Laura in The Woman in White), wholly made up characters (Edie and Jack Poole) and characters who have some tiny part of myself as their starting point (Elspeth Noblin and Robert Fanshaw).
I read that you had great difficulty finding a publisher for The Time Traveler’s Wife. One article stated that it was rejected twenty-five times prior to MacAdam/Cage. Is that true? Do you have any advice for writers on how to handle the rejection process?
I had difficulty finding an agent, because the book was unusual. Once Joe Regal had taken me on it wasn’t long (two months or so) before we had a publisher. TTW was rejected by lots of publishers; there were three that bid on it. But as these things go, it was not an especially horrific process. I am lucky.
Most writers will experience rejection, because no piece of art is going to appeal to everyone. The important thing is to find a good match for you and your book. I am glad to be published by a variety of publishers. MacAdam/Cage at first, so I had the indie/small press experience and received lots of personal attention and editing; then Harcourt for the paperback, so I had the backing of a large New York publisher that could scale up the printing and touring; then Abrams for my art books, so I had great design and editorial collaborations. Now I am published by Scribner, a literary house where I have the best of both worlds, big publisher and lots of excellent editing (Nan Graham is my editor). I also have a close relationship with my UK publishers, Jonathan Cape and Vintage, where my editors are Dan Franklin and Rachel Cugnoni.
I think the best way to ensure good publishing is to tend carefully to your relationships with your agent, editors, publicists and designers, because once you have these people in your life they are the best friends of your books. The process of finding an agent, editor etc. is not unlike courtship: you have to be patient, it has to feel right, you have to avoid rushing into things because you are afraid, or lonely, or insecure. You attract the right people (and eventually the right readers) by writing the best book you can and by being receptive to editing and thoughtful advice.
In an article for the Guardian on Her Fearful Symmetry, you stated that once the idea for a novel has arrived the writer’s job is to interrogate it, to continue to ask questions of it. Has this always been your approach, to work from inside to out? Do you ever start with a message or theme, and go the opposite direction?
No, I always begin with something small and grow it through questioning. I think any message or theme will evolve organically as part of the whole. It feels forced to begin with a lesson.
I read that The Time Traveler’s Wife was loosely modeled after a series of unsuccessful romantic relationships. I also see many people ask writers if they see their writing as a sort of therapy, a resolving of that which they take from their own life. Do you find this was the case with The Time Traveler’s Wife, or in your writing in general?
No, I don’t see my work as therapy. I am thinking about my characters and their problems and desires, about the story and how it is shaped and what it means, about all the elements that are in play in the workings of the novel. I’m not trying to do anything practical about my own life. I am trying to quiet my self so I can make art.
TTW wasn’t “modeled” on my own relationships; that would have been a very different book. Its beginning point was my grandparents’ marriage. The book is dedicated to them.
What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
To have completed two novels. To continue to work.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers that you wished someone had shared with you early on?
The best advice I was given at the beginning came from two people. Annette Turow, a painter who at the time was married to Scott Turow, told me, “Always pay your taxes.” Which is good advice for anyone, especially writers with our irregular incomes.
Richard Powers told me that I should try to enjoy the time before my work was published (this was before I had sent out the manuscript for my first novel) because it would be the last time I would be truly alone with my work. That advice was difficult to take in at the time, but once I had found readers I understood what he meant. Sometimes you need to be alone with your work.
Kelsey Savage is in her last term as a BFA student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working on a full-length play exploring the fickle nature of memory. She lives and writes in Vancouver.