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Audrey Niffenegger on art, writing and Aubrey Beardsley as a Manga illustrator

An interview with the The Time Traveler's Wife novelist

Audrey Niffenegger is best known for her novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, which sold in its millions across the world. But the author, who also published a second prose novel Her Fearful Symmetry (2009), doesn’t limit her creative bent to writing. She started out as an artist and is also a prolific graphic novelist and illustrator. It might surprise you to learn that she has published more visual books than written ones.

Her illustrations are full of heavily drawn lines, deep colours and shading and that blocky texture which comes only from printmaking. She uses an intaglio etching technique called aquatint, passing various layers of inked plates through printing presses onto paper to build up colour.

As a working artist and professor at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, Niffenegger is still getting used to being viewed by the world as a novelist. Bemusedly describing the moment she hit the big time with The Time Traveler’s Wife in 2003, she says, “I was teaching when the novel came out and everybody said ‘My goodness, a brand new writer!’ which was kind of hilarious, really. Now people say to me all the time ‘What is this funny little art habit that you have?’”

Publishing was nevertheless a primary focus for Niffenegger in the early Eighties when she was at art school and started making artist books by hand. She made up to ten copies of some of her books, but mostly they were unique. “For many years I was making these stories which are carried by the pictures,” she says. “A lot of my books have very minimal text.”

Somewhere between science fiction and romance fiction, The Time Traveler’s Wife was initially envisaged as graphic novel. Niffenegger says she had always intended to write a novel but she had to wait for “that great idea that sticks” first. The story, which was recently turned into a movie starring Rachel McAdams, is about the relationship between a woman and a man with a rare genetic disorder that means he involuntarily time travels. Writing the novel while still teaching and creating art took the author five years.

Does Niffenegger see herself foremost as a writer or an artist? “Well, I do have to admit I definitely went to art school. It is perfectly possible to train as a writer by reading. Jane Austen did not get an MFA [Masters of Fine Art]. On the other hand, with art there are a lot of skills that you have to actually study; somebody has to show you. So it made sense to me to go and get the training, which isn’t to say there aren’t people doing brilliant things teaching writers. What I required is a lot of big equipment and chemicals, so art school seemed to me to be the right way to go.”

Niffenegger is further exploring her love of graphic novels at a brand new festival of comics in London next weekend. At the BD & Comics Passion Festival she will give a talk about the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley whom , she postulates , would have been drawing Manga-style comics and animations were alive today. “Don’t you think?” she asks, when I quibble slightly. “If you look at his work it’s so Japanese-influenced and so narrative. I’m quite sure Manga would appeal for him today. Besides, it’s easy to speak for dead people, they can’t defend themselves,” she adds, laughing.

The author, artist and illustrator extraordinaire is currently working on her third novel, of which the working title is Chinchilla Girl in Exile. “I’m not very far with it yet. I’m still at that part where you walk around thinking about it all the time and don’t do much actual typing.”

Click here to read extracts from one Niffenegger's graphic novels The Night Bookmobile

'Audrey Niffenegger – On Aubrey Beardsley' is a part of the annual BD & Comics Passion Festival (7-9 October), Saturday 8 October, 6-7pm / followed by book signing: 7-8:30pm, www.institut-francais.org.uk/bdandcomicspassion