Interview with Audrey Niffenegger

May, 2013
Audrey Niffenegger Audrey Niffenegger's works embody a dream world—characters whoosh back and forth through time, rise from the dead, and give birth to winged creatures. It's no surprise, then, that the author would dip into the fanciful medium of ballet for her latest creation, Raven Girl, both an illustrated novel and a new ballet premiering with London's Royal Ballet this May. Niffenegger, the storyteller behind The Time Traveler's Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, The Three Incestuous Sisters, and other books, collaborated with choreographer Wayne McGregor to conceive a dark fairy tale about a raven girl trapped in a human body. The child of a postman father and a raven mother is desperate to fly, seeking out and finding a doctor with unorthodox techniques to grant her wish. Goodreads spoke with the author and artist about her interest in ballet, the future of books, and her extensive taxidermy collection.

Goodreads: What was the genesis of the idea for Raven Girl?

Audrey Niffenegger: The idea for Raven Girl goes back to 2001 or 2002. There was an article in Harper's sometime around then, about a plastic surgeon who had some very controversial ideas. He wanted to be able to give people horns, wings, or extra thumbs. Whatever they wanted, really. He was interested in using plastic surgery to radically change people's bodies. The article was a meditation on whether that's where we want to go or whether that's ethical. That's where I got the first idea of this little bird girl. I kind of knew what she looked like and kind of had some idea of what her issues might be, but I didn't know what she might do or what her overarching narrative was, so I set her aside.

GR: And how did you meet the director and choreographer of the Raven Girl ballet, Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor?

AN: A few years after the Harper's article, I got an e-mail from a gentleman named David Drew, who was for many years a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. He's now in his seventies, and David is working as a character artist for the Royal Ballet. He had seen a copy of my picture book, The Three Incestuous Sisters, and he thought that might make an interesting ballet. So I went to London and met with him. He is a charming, charming man with a deep knowledge of the ballet. He teaches at the Royal Ballet school, and he decided he would educate me about ballet, as I really know nothing. I hung out with David for some years, and we never got The Three Incestuous Sisters going, but he introduced me to Wayne McGregor. Wayne liked my book, The Adventuress, but he said, "Hey, let's start from scratch. Let's do a new thing together." I said, "What kind of thing would you like?" He said, "Well, I'd like a new, dark fairy tale." That's what we've tried to make.

GR: When you're working with someone who's a choreographer, not a writer, he or she probably approaches the project from a slightly different perspective. What did you do, what did he do, and how did that all work?

AN: One of the things that is especially lovely about Wayne is that he has a real gift for knowing when to give input and when to just leave you on your own to do things. After the initial input on the new, dark fairy tale, he kind of let me be for a while. I immediately recognized that the Raven Girl might make a good fairy tale sort-of character. I went home and stewed over it for a while. I eventually came up with the story and sent it to him. He liked the story, but what he really wanted was a book that was mostly pictures and very little text. The next thing I set off to do was tell the story with images. The thing about pictures is that you need a lot of them to tell a story with any complexity. It started to become kind of a time crunch because the folks at the ballet said, "You premiere May 24, 2013." I said, "OK, lovely." And then I went to Abrams and said, "If we want books available in May of next year, when do I have to turn this in?" They said, "Oh, September." I kind of freaked out. Wayne very much wanted the images to be aquatints rather than watercolors, ink drawings, or paintings. Aquatints are very time-consuming to make, so I knew at that point—if it was going to be aquatints, rather than having primarily pictures and very little text, we were going to keep the text and have an illustrated story rather than a graphic novel. That's how it took the form it has.

GR: Did you look at traditional fairy tales when creating the story or ballets such as The Firebird?

AN: What I did was read a lot of fairy tales. If my readers are interested in fairy tales, I would encourage them to look at Angela Carter. She has a book called The Bloody Chamber, where she went in there and really did some crazy things with fairy tales. I don't think my work is especially like hers, but I do admire her very strange imagination. She was one of the people I was reading. I went back and looked at Grimm's Fairy Tales. There's a couple of wonderful books now that are footnoted, annotated Grimm's collections. I went back and read Hans Christian Andersen and generally got a feel for the classics. I also went to a few ballets, things like Cinderella, just to see how these stories have morphed into dance. I read as much as I could of the Grimm's collection, but it's a cousin rather than a brother or sister.

GR: You're both an accomplished writer and a visual artist. Do you think of yourself as one first versus the other? How do you balance those two skills, which are quite different?

AN: I think of myself as moving back and forth between them. When I was younger and it was time to go to college, I went to art school. That might tell you something, but I've always been writing and making images.

GR: So from the beginning you were sort of synthesizing the two skills?

AN: Yeah. I'm having a retrospective of my artwork this summer in Washington, D.C. It's at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. There is a catalog that turned out quite nicely, which Powerhouse is publishing. The retrospective will be up from June 21st to November 10th, so it will be up in the museum for a long time. The best thing about having a catalog is that it shows people more of my artwork. If you're a visual artist, your artwork tends to disappear in the collector's living room, then to libraries and special collections. Very few people have seen my artwork, except on my Web site. Whereas, my writing is widely available because of the power of quick, mass production. It's kind of an uneven context in terms of distribution. I think a lot of people think of me as mainly a writer and think of the art thing as my weird little hobby.

GR: You're also a letterpress printer. With books becoming digital, what are your thoughts about the role of the tactile in the creation of art or even in books?

AN: One thing that I worry about with digital is that it won't stay supported. In other words, that we'll keep changing platforms a hundred years from now. If I do something really spectacular in e-book, will it still be readable in one hundred years? Whereas, if I do something spectacular with letterpress, as long as it doesn't catch fire or something, it will be there. Longevity has a certain attraction. I think right now, we're incredibly pleased with the things our new digital technology can do that no one's minding very much if it lasts. I have files that are five years old that I can't open. I remember in the early days of CD-ROMs, Voyage would put out these really cool CD-ROMs, but I can't play them now. That was back in the '90s—not that long ago. I just worry that no one is taking care for all this. Historians of the future are going to need this stuff. All our e-mails, digital calendars, and all this crazy stuff that we're all generating. There is so much of it. It's just going to vanish. If everyone is OK with that, then I guess I'll be quiet. Yet I think in the future people might wonder about us. Like, "Whoa, who were those people?" They won't know because it will be gone. If you're going to make an e-book, fantastic, but I wish people would also make a print version, so there will be something left.

GR: Do you think that the change of format is affecting writing skills? What about all those thousands of e-mails we write to one another?

AN: Your grandchildren might want to read them. Things that seem ephemeral to us now might not be later. If enough time goes by, your grocery list is going to be interesting. The first time I was ever in Paris, which was in 1985, I was in Musée de Cluny. Cluny is full of amazing stuff, but there was this weird little shelf, with this flat, brown thing on it. I thought, "Well, what's that doing on display?" It looks like a piece of trash. It turned out to be a shoe from the 12th century. A 700-year-old shoe. I thought, "Wow that is the coolest thing I've seen in Europe." It was so humble, and it had survived. I think a lot of people don't want to have to think about this. It's an annoyance. It seems like a hindrance to all of the great, fantastic progress. Getting rid of paper. Not that we are getting rid of paper; we're making more paper than ever.

One of the advantages of the book is that if you leave it closed and it doesn't get light or air, even highly acidic paper will last quite a long time. There is a book by Nicholson Baker, called Double Fold. This whole argument is in that book. He went up against the librarians and got into the nitty-gritty of this whole thing.

GR: Do you think the experience of reading one of your books in paper form versus e-form is really different?

AN: No, I hope not. The container is supposed to become invisible when you're reading a novel. You're not supposed to sit there thinking, "Wow, I really like this typeface." Ideally the container vanishes. You shouldn't be thinking about your iPad or whatever the whole time you're doing it. You should be mindlessly flipping pages or screens and thinking about the book. If you're thinking about the device, it's not a well-designed device, whether it's a book or an electronic thing. I don't particularly care how people consume novels. That's people's personal preference now. I think we have a long way to go in terms of e-book design, in order to make it easy, stress-free, and transparent. There are still things that people need to be thinking about design-wise.

GR: Goodreads member Bryn Hertz would like to know, "Which hobby or passion you picked up while researching Raven Girl? She always seems to pick up a new life pursuit while writing each book."

AN: Well, I didn't pick up anything new, but I did buy a lot of taxidermy.

GR: Really? Why?

AN: Because I needed to draw a lot of raven wings. I'm standing in my flat in London and I have four ravens, one crow, two jackdaws, two magpies, and a rook. There are ten corvidae in here, which is the family ravens belong to, looking quite stunning. I already collected taxidermy. My place in Chicago is chock-full of stuffed animals. I didn't have any over here, though. This has become the decorating scheme of the flat: large black birds looking kind of threatening.

GR: That is quite a mood.

AN: It does take people aback occasionally, but most of the people I know are thrilled by it.

GR: Where do you get your taxidermy? There is supposed to be an amazing place in Paris.

AN: That's called Deyrolle. I did a bunch of artwork about Deyrolle back in the '90s. These all came from one taxidermist in the UK.

GR: I can imagine those birds must be spectacular. Do you have them hanging?

AN: A couple of them are stuffed as if they're in flight, which is particularly great for the types of drawings I was doing.

GR: Back to more member questions. Snapekat asks, "Reading your stories, I felt such emotion toward your characters. I was practically in love with Henry from The Time Traveler's Wife. When writing, do you find yourself in love with your characters? Romantically, girl crush, or perhaps in just an infatuation way?"

AN: No. What I find is that I am my characters. You don't really fall in love with yourself, if you know what I mean. When I'm trying to be someone like Clare, I might definitely be thinking about how she feels about Henry. Vice versa as well. You have to hop around from one character to another. I don't love them in quite that way. If I loved them like that, I couldn't do terrible things to them, which you kind of have to do.

GR: Do you find that they start to pervade your dreams, where you go through an experience like you're interacting as that person?

AN: They don't usually get into my dreams, but I definitely attend to them, like sort of having a little radio station in your head that channels whatever book you're working on.

GR: Many, many users asked if you were ever going to revisit The Time Traveler's Wife and write the main character's daughter's story of jumping through time.

AN: I'm involved with Zola Books [Niffenegger is an investor in the company], and we're putting out The Time Traveler's Wife as an e-book sometime in the next couple months, and as an extra I will write about Alba when she's a grown-up. There's about 30 pages in that book about Alba.

GR: No plans for a book, though?

AN: I don't really know. I used to say never, but now I say I don't know. It was interesting for me to write about Alba. It's taken me a while to wrap my head around that.

GR: Which books and authors are you really excited about right now?

AN: I'm teaching this spring, so mainly my reading time is devoted to my students. When I get a spare minute, what am I reading? I just started reading How Music Works by David Byrne. It's such a good book, and I love him so much. He's got a great writing voice. I'm a non-musician, so I'm really curious about the stuff he's writing about. I liked the Bicycle Diaries, too. So that's one I'm in the middle of. I just finished teaching The Great Gatsby. I hadn't read it in quite some time, so it was really lovely to go over it with the students. Having them read it because of character and structure, but of course there is so much more. I'm sure everyone on the planet has read it by now.

GR: Was there anything that surprised you reading it again? You know how you see things with a different lens at different points in your life?

AN: You know what's funny is that I hadn't read it in ten years and I had actually forgotten a good chunk of the plot. I forgot, for example, that Gatsby dies. So I was reading along and I was like, "Oh! Oh, really?" I felt so daft, because I've probably read it five or six times. I thought, "Boy, my brain is really failing." I had vivid images of certain things, like Gatsby throwing his shirts on the bed in front of Daisy, but I had no image at all of him getting shot. Then I realized that Nick isn't present when he gets shot, so it's not really described much. It did make me realize how being vague about something can lead it to not really imprint on the reader's brain.

There's some absolutely marvelous writing in that book. You can see why it's held up all these years. Of course, now we're reexperiencing a time period where it seems really relevant.

GR: Finally, Goodreads member Magdalena wants to know whether The Chinchilla Girl in Exile is still happening and what else you are working on. Any chance there will be another novel to look forward to in the future?

AN: Yeah. Maybe if you just remind everyone that the first one took almost five years and the second one took seven years. It's not that I'm deliberately slow, but I just took a year off to do Raven Girl. Chinchilla Girl is definitely still happening, quite happily. I'm just a slow writer. I'm sure there are people out there slower than me, but not too many of them. I've been getting a lot of e-mail lately from people going, "So when is Chinchilla Girl coming?" I'm thinking, Well, when I write it. Please thank her for her interest. It's nice to know that somebody cares whether it comes out or not.


Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Spaka (new)

Spaka Eon Looking forward to this book, would be nice to see ballet and read the book!


message 2: by Virginia (new)

Virginia I'm waiting for the book to come out!


message 3: by Elisabeth (new)

Elisabeth Anxious to get this book when it comes out:)


message 4: by Bondama (new)

Bondama I'd give a lot to see the ballet, then read the book - Ballet is such a singular art form because it tells a story a totally different way from a book.


message 5: by Spaka (new)

Spaka Eon All you got to do is fly to London and go to Royal Ballet! )


message 6: by George (new)

George Eddie Have anyone here read "Good Waters" in this series of excepts found on this webpage?

http://georgeeddieburks.tripod.com/mt....

The main character here was given Starling's wings (accountable in the "Serra's Spite's" except found on the same page.)

You will find that I'm also fascinated by the same concept in use by Niffenegger.

I'm looking forward in reading her book as well as sharing my viewpoints on her works in this forum in the future.
Thank You


message 7: by Pamela (new)

Pamela I have loved all her books thus far so I'm anticipating a good read.


message 8: by Soul (new)

Soul She is great with her words.. :)

Enjoyed that chat!


message 9: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Yoder Ooooh--Alba as an adult? I will have to get that ebook, then. Time Travelers Wife still hits me in the gut--what a lovely, complicated book.


message 10: by Marcia (new)

Marcia I loved "Time Traveler's Wife," one of the few books I've read more than once and enjoyed it the second time, though the surprise of the plot turns was gone. Something about the character of Henry and the love between them, even though it was so difficult at times, really resonated for me. I'd love to read more about Alba. I liked the movie, too, though not as much as the book


message 11: by Kams (new)

Kams Kiss ok forward to read this mystical book


message 12: by Kams (new)

Kams Kiss ok forward to read this mystical book


message 13: by Lisa (new)

Lisa She makes a really good point with the ebooks and will they be readible in 100 years. I think its a good reason to still do both as a precationary measure.


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