Photo by Stephen Desantis
Nationally known for her offbeat, heartbreakingly rendered novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, writer and visual artist Audrey Niffenegger has solid roots in the Chicago literary scene. A teacher in Columbia College’s Creative Writing program, Niffenegger takes part this weekend in Ragdale and Story Week’s Vision and Voice discussion. She spoke with Our Town about ebooks, Chicago’s impact on her writing, and the exciting possibility of a Time Traveler sequel.
Our Town What’s your writing process like?
Audrey Niffenegger Heavy doses of procrastination and chaos. I spend a lot of time mulling things over before I jump in. Once I’m involving in a huge project there will be periods of more mulling. I probably spend a lot of time thinking about it compared to the time I spend actually writing. As I go along it gets easier, projects just go faster as I get more into them. For years, I did really short things so it was over before you had time to procrastinate. So what I’m describing really applies to novels and the graphic work that I do that takes years and years. My writing habits developed out of my habits as an artist.
OT When writing your graphic novels--that’s the correct term?
AN I was calling them visual novels for a while because I thought the comics people might get annoyed if I seemed like I was riding their bandwagon but it turned out that they just thought I was shunning them.
OT Got it. So, does your process differ when you’re writing something visual like The Three Incestuous Sisters?
AN It’s pretty similar. The thing about a graphic novel is you can hop back and forth between the images and the words so if you’re stuck in one direction you can move in the other.
OT What inspired The Time Traveler’s Wife?
AN The title. That phrase came to me and it was helpful because it gives you two characters and their relationship and their situation right there. That was nice to have at the very beginning because it made me say, well, who is this woman and why did she marry a time traveler? What’s their deal anyway? And where do they live? It was an easy start.
OT With such a nonlinear book, how did you keep track of the sequence of events?
AN I kept time lines. I recommend that even when people aren’t writing something nonlinear. To make sure you don’t forget to put in things you know that you think the reader knows but that you haven’t actually communicated. One time line was for Clare and that’s more or less the timeline of the real world. The other timeline was Henry’s and I was also keeping track on that one of what the reader knows at any given moment. I wrote it completely out of order. If I had an idea I just started working on it. And if I ran out of idea I’d leave it and go to something else. So, for most of the process there were all these unfinished scenes hanging around. The original notion was to organize it thematically, which made sense to no one but me. People who read it for me were like ‘huh?’ I thought well, okay, I better organize it more closely to Clare’s experience.
OT You have an enviable ability to be cruel to your characters. Why?
AN It just seems like the world, you know? The world, I think, is actually worse. If you listen to the news you just think, holy moly these people are awful to each other. In fiction, I feel like you need a fairly full palate of human experience of emotions. I probably would never write anything that could be described as ‘light’ just because I’m interested in that whole scale. All the terrible stuff that happens and all the great stuff. Occasionally even I will recognize that it’s too dark and I’ll modulate it so the reader doesn’t put the book down and go cry.
OT As a Chicago writer, how does your geography impact your work?
AN One of the lovely things about Chicago is it’s underutilized in fiction. I spend a lot of time in London and there’s so much literature set there. You can walk around and be like, oh yeah, there’s Kings Cross and Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts from there. There’s just this veneer of literature there, whereas here it’s wide open. And because I’ve lived my whole life here the various places I include often have personal significance. Sometimes I’ll make things happen in a novel that I actually experienced, like this concert in Time Traveler’s Wife at The Aragon Ballroom that I actually went to. I just slipped it into the book--very easy. Anybody who lives in Chicago and is interested in a certain kind of music would recognize a lot of those venues. I think there’s a great pleasure in that kind of recognition, in that point of contact between the real and the fictional world.
OT You’ve refused to let your books be made into ebooks. Can you talk about that?
AN Actually, I am one of a group of people who have started a company to sell ebooks. It’s called Zola Books and it’s in beta right now. You can go look at it online. What was bugging me about ebooks was that it just seemed they were out to decimate all the great things about the world of books, so we’re trying to do it in a way that promotes community. It’s got a very social component so readers can contact each other and book groups can gather around their ebooks together and communicate. It also takes into account that indie book shops need to participate in the ebook world. So Zola is creating these shop fronts where you the reader can go in through your favorite book shop’s portal and they will get a share of whatever ebooks you might buy.
OT What are you working on now?
AN A bunch of things all at once. The main one is a novel called The Chinchilla Girl. I’ve been getting all these emails from people asking when’s that coming out, and the answer is no time soon. For Zola, I’m going to release Time Traveler as an ebook and they asked me for extras. I didn’t have scenes I hadn’t used, but I said, I’ll write some. I’m writing about thirty pages, a bunch of scenes that involve Alba. I got so into it I was like, I’ll just write a whole sequel, which I may do!
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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