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CLASSIC INTERVIEW: Audrey Niffenegger

It all started at a picnic… A friend of mine and I were chatting up our favorite books, and I mentioned Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife.

“I know someone who is very good friends with Audrey,” she announced.

Wheels immediately flew into action. “I’d love to get an interview with her. Do you think your friend might consider asking on my behalf?”

Months later my friend emailed me. “My friend is a little wary of asking Audrey. She gets so many requests, you know.”

So I sold the concept for the interview–and the newborn WU blog–to my friend. And she sent my email to her friend. And her friend sent the email to Audrey. And Audrey said YES. As a health writer and researcher, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interview big names. But though I deeply respect the work of the researchers I speak with, there’s something truly awe-inspiring about receiving an email from someone whose work you admire beyond words. This woman’s book made me lose a lot of sleep. I could not stop thinking about her book. I cried buckets over Henry (I know I’m not alone here, and I know plenty of men who’ve also cried buckets over Henry). I recommended this novel to anyone who stands still long enough to listen. I’ve let at least a half-dozen people borrow my well-bruised copy of TTW and bought copies for another half dozen.

The Niffenegger interview was a critical one for Writer Unboxed. It brought us a lot of traffic. In fact, barely a day goes by that someone doesn’t access it, ten months later (usually from the wikipedia link [1]). The interview helped us to reach other top-notch writers and professionals; it taught us not to shy away from trying to learn from the best the publishing industry has to offer.

Because this interview is special to Kath and to me, and because we’re approaching the One Year Anniversary of Writer Unboxed, we thought this might be a good time to bring this interview out for an encore. Enjoy!

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting [2]Recently, we had the honor of interviewing Audrey Niffenegger [3], author of the mega-best-seller The Time Traveler’s Wife [4], 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 [5] 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.

We’ll re-post part 2 of WU’s interview with this Unboxed Queen of the fiction realm next week!

About Therese Walsh [6]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [7], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [8] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [9], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [10] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [11] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [12]). Learn more on her website [13].