In her book Three Incestuous Sisters, Audrey Niffenegger tells the tale of a trio of sisters, each with her own special trait. There is blond Bettine, the beautiful one, blue-haired Ophile, the smart one, and then there's Clothilde. While hardly unintelligent and certainly not unattractive, it is still probably no coincidence that Niffenegger decided to cast her fellow redhead Clothilde as the talented one considering that she is so abundant in talent. A gifted illustrator and writer, Niffenegger is parlaying her quirky imagination into one of the most interesting bodies of work in contemporary literature.
Niffenegger's love of writing developed when she was a young girl, quietly spending her time writing and illustrating books as a hobby. Her wonderfully eccentric imaginativeness was in play from her earliest writing efforts. "My ‘first' novel was an epic about an imaginary road trip [sic] I went on with The Beatles," she explains on her website, "handwritten in turquoise marker, seventy pages long, which I wrote and illustrated when I was eleven."
Niffenegger's mini-magical mystery tour may have been her "first novel," but the first one to which the rest of the world would be privy came many years later. She had already established herself as a prominent artist whose work had been shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Library of Congress, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University when The Time Traveler's Wife was published in 2003. "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple," Niffenegger told bookbrowse.com. "The title came to me out of the blue, and from the title sprang the characters, and from the characters came the story."
The Time Traveler's Wife, a sci-fi romance about the mercurial time traveler Henry and Clare, the wife who patiently awaits his return to the present, became a sensation upon its publication. This thoroughly original love story captured mass praise from USA Today, The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Denver Post, not to mention celebrity couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, who promptly purchased the rights to the book and are currently developing it into a motion picture.
Now that she had established herself as a talent to watch, Niffenegger finally had the opportunity to produce a book she would describe as "a fourteen-year labor of love." Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel, is a gorgeous, modern-gothic storybook about the love and rivalry shared between three women. With its minimal text, Niffenegger's chiefly uses her eerie illustrations to convey the sisters' story. Booklist summed up Three Incestuous Sisters quite succinctly by stating that "Niffenegger's grim yet erotic tale and stunningly moody gothic prints possess the sly subversion of Edward Gorey, the emotional valence of Edvard Munch, and her very own brilliant use of iconographic pattern, surprising perspective, and tensile line in the service of a delectable, otherworldly sensibility."
Now, Niffenegger is turning her attentions back to straight prose as she works on a new novel. "It's called Her Fearful Symmetry," she revealed in an online chat with the Hennepin County Library. "It's set in London's Highgate Cemetery, and features as many of the cliches of 19th century fiction as I can summon." Amazingly, with such a wide variety of styles in her still budding body of work -- from science fiction to fairy tale to her impending period piece -- Audrey Niffenegger's books still share a strong sense of unity, a distinctly peculiar and particular vision. "The thing that unites all my work is narrative," she said on her website. "I'm interested in telling stories, and I'm interested in creating a world that's recognizable to us as ours, but is filled with strangeness and slight changes in the rules of the universe."
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In our interview, Niffenegger shared some fun facts about herself:
"My current job is teaching graduate students how to write, print type on letterpresses, and create limited-edition books by hand. I work for Columbia College's Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. I helped to found the Center, and it is the center of my universe nine months of the year. The other three months I try to ignore the phone, and I do my own work."
"I make art. Readers can see some of it at Printworks Gallery in Chicago. They have a web site: printworkschicago.com."
"Almost all of the places mentioned in my book are real places that you can visit. The Newberry Library is open to people who have research projects that fit the collections of the Newberry. Vintage Vinyl is a real record store in Evanston. The Aragon Ballroom, South Haven, Michigan, Bookman's Alley, The Berghoff -- I heartily recommend them all."
"I collect taxidermy, skeletons, books (of course), comics (mostly Raw and post-Raw independent stuff, no superheroes). I only collect small taxidermy, no bison heads, my place isn't that big. I don't own a TV. I spend a lot of time hanging out with my boyfriend, Christopher Schneberger, and attending Avocet concerts (Avocet is the band Chris plays drums with). We travel a lot; my new book is set in London, so there's lots of research to do. I garden, in a rather haphazard way. I also enjoy finding, buying, and wearing vintage clothes. All in all, it's a pleasant life."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Audrey Niffenegger had to say:
I tend to like long books in the summer, when I have all the time in the world to read. Here are some favorites, old and new:
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman -- My essentially atheist nature is thrilled by a children's book in which God dies and it doesn't matter, and people's souls take the form of animals which accompany their owners everywhere like pets. A great read late at night on a screened-in porch.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- I first read this in a cabin in the Hiawatha National Forest, and so for me it's always associated with the smell of pine and the lapping of Lily Lake. It's grand and so beautiful.
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg -- A boy falls off a roof in Copenhagen, and Smilla is the only person who notices that his footprints run off the roof. Who was chasing him? This is a quiet, meditative thriller, fun to read in hot weather for obvious reasons.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -- This hardly needs any promotion from me, but I've re-read it every summer since I was twelve; these are my quintessential summer books.
Trash Sex Magic by Jennifer Stevenson -- This book is just coming out in June. It rocks. It's funny, sexy, and weird. It's about sex magicians who live on he banks of the Fox River in trailer homes. The women in the trailers onsort with the tree god across the road. Then some developers cut it down to build town homes and the fun begins. Very strange, very cool.
Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill. A little girl falls into an abandoned mine shaft. While we are waiting for the rescue crews to get her out, Ingrid Hill takes us through her family tree (she's Finnish/Chinese) and shows us all the amazing lives that accumulated to make this tiny girl who is waiting at the bottom of a hole. It's funny, it's huge, and it gives you a sort of History Vertigo.
Was by Geoff Ryman -- A dark, inspired riff on The Wizard of Oz. There are
three interwoven stories: Dorothy as a real Kansas girl in the 1870s and 80s; the making of the movie The Wizard of Oz and the childhood of Judy
Garland; and a fictional character named Jonathan, who's obsessed with Oz and history and who is dying of AIDS. This one always makes me cry.
The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki -- This is a must-read, summer or winter. Written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, a court aristocrat whose father was a Buddhist priest, it's romantic, exotic, and a real page-turner. If you like to read bodice-rippers by the pool, this might work
for you. (Then again, you might think I am nuts.)
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler -- Need I say more?
Black Water by Alberto Manguel -- A great collection of short stories; they are
all fantastic (in both senses: weird and wonderful). This book was my introduction to many of my favorite oddities including The Sick Gentleman's
Last Visit by Giovanni Papini and Father's Last Escape by Bruno Schulz.
In the fall of 2003, Audrey Niffenegger took some time to talk with us about her favorite book, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I first read this book when I was nine. I identified with Harriet so completely that I went out and got myself a spy notebook and wrote in it all the time. My teachers made my mom take it away from me. I think I loved Harriet the Spy because I was a loner, because I read all the time and no one I knew did that, because I wanted to feel powerful, and writing can do that for you. I loved Harriet because she spoke her mind, because she lived in a big city and traveled around by herself without fear, because she knew what was what. The Long Secret, Fitzhugh's sequel to Harriet the Spy, is also a wonderful and very odd book.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In no particular order:
Maus by Art Spiegelman -- I am a visual artist as well as a writer, so many of the books I love are visual. Maus is a comic book about the Holocaust. It's the story of the Spiegelman family and their experiences in Auschwitz and afterward. It is extremely complex, subtle, and I cry every time I read it.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt -- Donna Tartt is a terrific writer, and I envy her ability to make a world that goes down and down, and has no bottom; the characters are so seductive, you love them, and it's painful when things go wrong, as they must. I read The Secret History when it first came out and was entranced by the clashes between Greek ideals and ordinary life, and between desire and the onset of adulthood.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers -- This is my favorite mystery novel, but it's really much more than that. It was written in the '30s, and it's set in a women's college in Oxford. Miss Sayers explores the questions of what it means to balance work and love, and whether men and women can ever understand each other. My characters Henry and Clare are somewhat inspired by Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Aubrey Beardsley by Brian Reade -- When I was 14, I had an earache and had to stay home from school for two weeks. My mother went to the library and brought home a big stack of art books, and this was in the stack. Aubrey Beardsley was a famous English illustrator who died of TB at the age of 26, after creating a truly peculiar and scandalous body of work. I began copying his style, which eventually led me to my own style of drawing.
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers -- It's very hard for me to pick just one Richard Powers book. The Time of Our Singing is marvelous, and The Goldbug Variations is probably the one to start with if you haven't read any of his books. But I love this one because of Helen, a computer neuralnet that the narrator, whose name is Richard Powers, teaches to read and understand English literature. Helen is sublime, and if I could have one wish I would wish to talk to her -- about Emily Dickinson, about anything at all.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon -- A novel about comics artists in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. I adore comics, and Michael Chabon has done excellent research, and understands the joy of making drawings that can talk.
The Waking Dream -- This is an anthology of prints from the 16th century through the 19th century. All the prints are grotesque, or just weird. There are anatomical illustrations, engravings of things from wonder cabinets, wars, fantasias, dancing insects. I deeply need strangeness, and this is very fulfilling.
The Depository by Andrzej Klimowski -- This is a novel without words, by English illustrator Andrzej Klimowski. It is like a silent film, a film noir, slow and dreamy, in fact it is a dream. An artist falls asleep at his worktable and dreams of flying people who have books growing out of their shoulder blades as wings. I love the style, and the blackness of the images, and the story.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell -- What can I say about Rilke? He seems to sum up my feelings about many things: love, work, death, seeing, being human. This is my favorite translation. Mr. Mitchell makes me forget that I'm reading in English.
Vox by Nicholson Baker -- It's a smart book about sex (phone sex, that is). The world needs more of these. I was very impressed with the technical aspects of Vox, too, the way Mr. Baker renders complete persons using only dialogue, and the layers and nuances of both the man and the woman. Nicholson Baker's great strength as a writer is in his extreme use of detail, and looking at sex in extreme detail is a fun and disorienting experience.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to
you?Dead Man -- Jim Jarmush
The Tango Lesson -- Sally Potter
Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet -- David Lynch
Vertigo -- Alfred Hitchcock
Waking Life -- Richard Linklater
Wings of Desire -- Wim Wenders
Nosferatu -- Both the original and the Klaus Kinski versions
I love films that are intense, creepy, beautiful to look at, morally complex. I want a film to be smarter than me, to leave me with mysteries, to haunt my sleep.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to
listen to when you're writing?
Punk and indie rock, and classical music. I listen to the Gang of Four, Golden Palominos, Elvis Costello, the Beatles, the Poster Children, Built to Spill, Crooked Fingers, Duvall, the Sex Pistols, Joni Mitchell, Bach, Chopin, the Kronos Quartet, early classical music, Lene Lovich, New Order, Andrew Bird, Dianogagh, the Pixies, the Breeders, Kate Bush, and Björk.
I can only listen to things I've already heard a thousand times while I'm writing. Otherwise I pay attention to the music, and I can't write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I'd like to have a Complete Works Book Club. We would read the Complete Works of Wilkie Collins, Chris Ware, Edward Gorey, Josephine Tey, Dan Claus, Julie Doucet, E. B. White. No rhyme or reason, but always everything they wrote.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Art books always please my friends -- they're all artists. I like to give Pat the Bunny as a baby shower gift. And I give cookbooks to my mom.
I like to receive books from friends who have seen my bookshelves and know that I collect old medical texts and Rosamond Wolfe Purcell books. Books that are bound in interesting ways are always welcome, especially if they are old. I like old books a lot.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on
your desk when you're writing?
No special rituals. I'm so busy that I'm like a starving person: I sit down and I write. I have no schedule, either, I just write whenever I can squeeze it in. I have a photograph of my great-aunt Dulcie on my worktable. It was taken around 1900. She's a young woman, and she looks very benevolent. I only met her once. She was old, and she was driving a tractor.
What are you working on now?
A new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. It's set in London, near Highgate Cemetery. I'm trying to include all the clichés of 19th-century English writing: mirror-image twins, mistaken identity, mysterious death, obsessive-compulsive disorder. And I want all these things in there, and I want to make them new, and interesting, and contemporary. That's the idea, anyway.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Um. I guess I'm more or less an overnight success story. I worked on The Time Traveler's Wife for four and a half years. It took me nine months to find an agent, and we found a publisher quite quickly. The manuscript was rejected by about 20 agents. All I can say is, keep trying -- it only takes one agent and one editor who love you.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Josie Kearns, a poet who lives near Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her most recent collection, New Numbers, is wonderful. She invented numbers and wrote poems about the emotional and physical properties each one possesses. The poems are surprising, thoughtful, sometimes downright spooky.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
People kept telling me not to expect much. Everything I read that was directed at writers trying to get published hammered in the fact that writers are plentiful, editors and agents are overworked, and the odds are against you. So I would say, hey, be realistic, but also keep your hopes up. Make sure you don't send anything out until it's wonderful. Work hard at revising. Do not give up. Keep writing. The submissions process is like dating. It only takes one person who thinks you're fabulous to make it work.
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