Recently, we had the honor of interviewing Audrey Niffenegger, author of the mega-best-seller The Time Traveler’s Wife, about career and craft. Audrey is also an artist and professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA Program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. If you’ve never read The Time Traveler’s Wife, and you enjoy great fiction, you really have to pick it up; it’s destined to be a classic. Click here to read the synopsis at the Publishers Weekly website. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Audrey Niffenegger
Q: How did the concept for The Time Traveler’s Wife evolve?
A: The original idea came in the form of the title. I wrote the ending first, and then the scene in which Clare loses her virginity. The book was written in no order at all, just me working on whatever I had some idea about. Toward the end of the process I radically changed the order of the scenes to flow along with Clare’s experience of time. Before that they’d been organized thematically, which several friends told me was too confusing.
Q: That was a significant change. Do you think it’s important to have friends/non-writers look at a story and offer feedback – just to make sure things are digestible for the masses?
A: I wasn’t thinking much about who might be reading the book. I wasn’t trying to write a popular book, I was just writing something I would like, myself. There isn’t much difference between my friends and publishing professionals. The friends in question were my sister, Jonelle (works in corporate communications writing speeches and newsletters), my friend Lyn Rosen (freelance editor, works for Farrar, Straus and Giruoux among others),and Danea Rush (formerly worked for the ALA). I think it is a mistake to underestimate what “the masses” might like to read.
Q: I’ve read that it took four years to write TTW. What was your writing process, and has it changed?
A: My writing process then was to snatch any scrap of time I could away from teaching and write whatever I’d been mulling over since the last scrap of time. All my life I’ve been doing my work in the intervals between making a living and living my life. My process has changed in the past few years because I have even less time than previously, because I travel a lot and still teach. I’m trying to put some order into my life, and not do everything for other people before I do my own work. It’s very hard to beat back the needs of other people, because taken singly, they seem so small and doable. Taken en mass they completely engulf me. So I am in the midst of attempting to make a new way for myself. I have been writing very slowly, mostly late at night and during breaks from school.
Q: What is your editing process like? How much editing do you do? Do you layer in foreshadowing and other subtle threads toward the end of the process?
A: My method of writing is to finish each section before moving on to the next. It’s sort of like making bricks for a wall, each one has to be completed before it can be used. There was very little retro-fitted, but that is not obvious because the book was written out of order, and by the time I wrote the beginning I’d already written most of the book. There was a fair amount of line editing later in the process of working with Anika Streitfeld, my editor at MacAdam/Cage.
Q: With Henry being the rebellious type, did he or any of the other characters take the story in an unexpected direction?
A: No, I wouldn’t say that. I had a very loose idea of the overarching story from the beginning, and I followed that. But the characters did evolve and change. Clare changed more than most for me. Some of the secondary characters became much more important than they were meant to be, because I would suddenly imagine a job for them to do in the story; Gomez and Charisse are good examples of this.
Q: How did you handle the new ideas for the secondary characters? Did you have to beat them back a bit, or did you find a place for them in the story?
A: They were part of the story as it evolved. It all grew together.
Q: Did you have a lodestar to help you decide which ideas to pursue and which to scrap? What was it?
A: I didn’t scrap much. Originally the book was darker. For example, in my original idea of the book, Clare lost her mind for a while at the end, and Henry and Clare never did manage to have a kid. But as I worked with the thing I realized that unremitting darkness wasn’t the way to go; I found it unbearable to work on, and it would have been unbearable to read.
Q: How did this manifest itself? Did you simply feel a nagging sense of going down the wrong road?
A: I simply had a sense that the balance of the book required joy as well as defeat.
Q: Even with that balance, TTW was still quite dark, in my opinion. A lot of writers wouldn’t/couldn’t have taken their characters to such depths of despair. Do you think there has to be disconnect between what we as writers may want for our CHARACTERS vs. what we need to tell the most compelling STORY?
A: I am fairly merciless to my characters. I go with whatever the story needs, as long as it is true for the characters. I don’t try to force the characters in directions that seem uncharacteristic. And frankly, a happy ending almost always seems artificial.
Q: I love the unconventional structure of TTW and the way the story unfolds. What decisions did you make in the drafting process to help weave such a complicated plot together, and how did you actually do it?
A: For some reason it makes readers happy to imagine a cocoon of paper, but actually I used two time lines in the computer. One was Clare’s timeline, and the other tracked the order in which things were presented to the reader and Henry’s travels.
Q: If you rely on critique, what is your process? Also, were there criticisms of TTW that greatly impacted the story?
A: For the most part I don’t rely on critique much. My sister Jonelle had some interesting ideas early on, particularly about Henry as a character. She felt that he was not masculine enough, and so I set about making more of a guy, which was amusing. Joe Regal, my agent, did the first major edit, and I restructured the first thirty pages or so based on his ideas.
Q: What did you do to make Henry more of a manly man?
A: I paid more attention to his desires and to the things he notices and comments on. I listened to my male friends talking to each other, and thought a lot about the weird combination of vulnerable/in charge that men struggle with all the time, and which is such an issue for Henry since he is often not in charge of even himself.
Q: You mentioned your agent. Did you decide early on to query agents rather than publishers, and did you have any rejections before connecting with Joe Regal?
A: I queried about 25 agents before Joe responded. I did not query publishers, except independent publishers, which is how I first connected with MacAdam/Cage. If you query big publishers and get rejected (as you will) you have burned ground your eventual agent would like to cover, and so you should refrain from this.
Q: Did you hit any writer’s block along the way? What was your process for getting past it?
A: No. I have since encountered it whilst trying to write my second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. I get past it by doing more research; by thinking more about the characters. I figure writer’s block is a signal to stop working on something straight on and go at it sideways for a while.
Q: That’s great advice. Have you found research itself spins the story in new directions for you?
A: Sometimes, but mostly the new ideas come from patiently waiting and revolving the thing in my head.
Though part 2 of WU’s interview with Audrey Niffenegger originally posted one week later, we’ve cut-pasted it here for easy reading. Here then follows part 2 of our interview with this Unboxed Queen of the fiction realm!
Part 2: Interview with Audrey Niffenegger
Q: Did you ever worry that TTW might not fit neatly on any particular shelf in the bookstore?
A: Literary fiction is a very broad category. But I worried that it would never get published because the title makes it seem like traditional science fiction, and it isn’t SF enough for fans of that genre.
Q: Some might argue that TTW’s mega-success makes it, by definition, mainstream fiction. What do you think distinguishes literary from mainstream?
A: I think that is a purely subjective distinction. It’s easy to look at the extremes of each and see differences (take, say, Ulysses at one end and The Da Vinci Code at the other) but mostly it’s kinda meaningless. My book remains exactly the same no matter what you call it.
Q: What drove you to finish TTW when you were worried about salability?
A: Well, I never expected to actually make money. As a visual artist I’ve always been pleased when things sell, but it’s never the point. I did hope to publish TTW, just to get it out in the world and possibly find a few readers. But I mainly wrote it for the pleasure of writing it.
Q: What one scene—if any—do you wish you’d written for TTW that didn’t make the cut or didn’t come to you until after it was too late?
A: None. The book is really and truly finished for me.
Q: As I reader, I’ve often wondered what happened to Claire in all her Henry-free years. What do you think she did? Remarry? Have more children? Was she lonely? Did she sink into her art?
A: One of the pleasures of reading, for me, is when there are gaps and empty places in a book which the writer has left open for me to fill in. I don’t know what Clare is doing in that time. I’m sure she is lonely. I’m sure she made art. I don’t imagine more children.
Q: What are your thoughts on TTW being translated to film? Are you interested in seeing any particular scene or character on screen?
A: I am avoiding imagining the film. The film I would make isn’t the film Gus Van Sant is going to make, so I’m trying to leave an empty space in my head which his film will eventually fill. Every writer I know who has had a book filmed has expressed disappointment with the result. How could it be otherwise?
Q: I think fans of the book are also holding their collective breath over the film (and trying–perhaps unsuccessfully—to imagine Brad Pitt as Henry DeTamble). I’ve read that movie rights were picked up even before a publisher signed the book. Were you shocked that Hollywood came a-knocking?
A: Pleasantly shocked. I am not someone with Hollywood dreams, so it’s been very interesting to see the extent to which other people are fascinated by all that.
Q:I recall reading that you’ve considered writing a sequel to TTW featuring Alba. Is this still a possibility, and do you imagine giving the story a different spin?
A: One of the reasons I am not working on a sequel is that I have no idea what happens to Alba or any other character outside of the book, and if I ever get ideas about that I’ll plunge in and start writing. It would probably be the story of Alba and David Kendrick. I won’t work on it if it is just more of the same. I would have to have a new take on it in order to be interested enough to live in it for the years it would take to write.
Q: What books are on your keeper shelf? Do you have an all-time favorite?
A: The answer to that changes daily. Some I love: Was, by Geoff Ryman; Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis; Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers; Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon; Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell; The Secret History, Donna Tartt; Trash, Sex, Magic, Jennifer Stevenson; Portrait of a Lady, Henry James; Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy; On Photography, Susan Sontag; My Sister’s Hand in Mine, Jane Bowles.
Q: How are things going with your new work-in-progress? Can you offer us any peeks or provide a quickie synopsis?
A: Things are going rather slowly. But the research is great fun. Her Fearful Symmetry is set in London, in and around Highgate Cemetery. It concerns a pair of mirror-image twins who inherit a flat in a building next to the cemetery from their aunt, who is trapped in the flat as a ghost.
In the process of researching Highgate Cemetery I’ve become a tour guide there. It’s quite exciting for me and the Friends of Highgate Cemetery are a wonderful group of people who have been quite decent about letting me hang around and plague them with questions.
Q: Author immersion-now that’s unique! Will Her Fearful Symmetry be told using a traditional timeline?
A: I seem to have started in the middle and am working my way toward the beginning. But I am not far enough along to answer that question with anything more definitive than Probably.
Q: Do you feel pressured to “live up to” TTW acclaim, or do you feel comfortable going in a new direction, come what may?
A: I have a natural tendency to do whatever people are not expecting me to do (witness my most recent book, The Three Incestuous Sisters). So I’m sure that there will be a number of readers who would like a sequel to TTW, but HFS is not that book. Maybe they will like it anyway, who knows? My epitaph should be “Easily Bored.” If I’m going to do it at all it has to be different from my previous work. That’s how I ended up writing TTW in the first place.
A: It might be more correct to say that the Book and Paper Center evolved from my interest in artist’s books. I started working on the Sisters in 1985, and the Book and Paper Center was started by a group of Chicago artists, including me, in 1994. We were trying to make a place for the Chicago book arts community to gather and learn. It’s become a more national thing, with graduate students from all over the country. I seldom try to do my own work there; I have a studio of my own for that.
Q: How much are art and writing alike for you? Are there similar principals or processes? Can you learn about one by dabbling in the other?
A: For me they are connected by narrative. I am interested in telling stories both pictorially and with words. I am always trying to make them converge; someday I will probably end up doing comics, which are the perfect form for that. I learned about long-form narrative by working on my visual books, and it was very helpful to have done those before beginning TTW.
Q:Are there any other characters or concepts begging your attention? What will we see from you in the years to come?
A: I am writing short stories and a novella. All of these are set in Chicago, and eventually I may gather them together in a book. The novella is The Chinchilla Girl in Exile. It’s about a nine-year-old girl who has hypertrichosis, which is a hereditary disorder in which hair grows all over one’s body and face; my character, Lizzie, looks like a junior werewolf. I’m very fond of her, she’s plucky.
Thanks, Audrey, for a great interview! Readers, you can learn more about Audrey on her website HERE. Write on.