Audrey Niffenegger: Woman on the edge of time

Audrey Niffenegger is this year's Cinderella publishing story. Kate Zambreno talks to the author in Chicago about skeletons, soulmates - and a certain celebrity couple

Audrey Niffenegger's hair doesn't glow as red as it does on the jacket of her much-acclaimed debut, The Time Traveler's Wife. In person it's actually a pale, lovely shade of orange. "When it's first colored it's like this radioactive magenta," says the author while reclining on a sofa at Bookman's Alley, a rare-book shop that serves as a location in her Chicago-set novel. Of the jacket photo, she explains, "I had my hair dyed the day before so it would really hurt people's eyes."

Much has been made in the press of the revelation that, celebrating the completion of her first novel, Niffenegger then changed her hair colour from brown to a shade that matched her female protagonist's. This led many readers to presume that the character of Clare, an artist married to Henry, a hip librarian afflicted with a genetic disorder that causes him to fall in and out of the past and future, was a self-portrait. But Niffenegger doesn't see it that way. "I was just going through withdrawal and I woke up one morning and said, 'Oh, I'll have red hair for a while'," she says.

The transformation helped contribute to the lore surrounding this year's Cinderella publishing story, a tale complete with a prince and with sales fuelled by fairy godparents - in the form of a certain celebrity couple. The Time Traveler's Wife (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) started to generate a buzz last spring when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston optioned the film rights with talk of the pair playing the two time-crossed lovers. "My agent told me that they were interested, and I started laughing very hard," remembers Niffenegger. "And then he started laughing very, very hard, and we both just laughed and laughed because we thought this was ridiculous."

The hype, however, then took on a life of its own. "Everybody went, 'Brad and Jennifer!'" says the bemused author. "And for a while that was kind of all I heard. They were like, 'Do you know Brad and Jennifer? Have you met Brad and Jennifer? Tell us all about Brad and Jennifer.'"

For the record, Niffenegger does not know them ("They're big movie-star people") and has never seen an episode of Friends, as she does not own a television. She does say that she was impressed with Aniston in The Good Girl and is a fan of her hubby's screen charisma. "He's got this kind of manic energy that will be good for Henry," she says, before a moratorium on Brad and Jen musings is decided.

After all, it's not even sure that the Hollywood über-couple will make a film version of The Time Traveler's Wife, although one can imagine the commercial success of the novel easily parlaying onto the big screen, with or without whatstheirnames. When the novel came out in the US last September, it hit a writer's fantasy jackpot: a New York Times bestseller chosen as a book club pick on the Today Show, and named the best book of 2003 by Amazon.com. Niffenegger had once said she had hoped her science-fiction love story littered with punk rock references would be a "small cult novel for a few librarians". Now she adds that "I thought it would be, you know, people like myself, about my age, who remember the punk scene and were fond of art." She laughs: "It just never occurred to me that it would be something that regular readers would want to read."

In a way, Niffenegger is this year's Alice Sebold. Sebold's The Lovely Bones tapped into a universal longing to be allowed to watch over our loved ones while in heaven. The Time Traveler's Wife also answers a desire, not only to be able to go back and revisit people and times now lost, but also a yearning to uncover the mystery of our lover's childhood - a nostalgia for a past we can never know except through photographs.

Henry travels back to Clare's childhood throughout the novel. "That's the thing that's potent for people, I think," says Niffenegger. "The idea of visiting your wife's childhood. That's a big, big thrill." Clare first meets a thirtysomething Henry as a six-year-old, when he falls naked into her favourite hiding spot on her family's estate. Because of the effects of Henry's condition, Chrono-Displacement Disorder, Clare doesn't enter his life until she is in her twenties and he's just a few years older. In this way their love, and the narrative, unfolds in a non-linear fashion, and is told from alternating perspectives.

Part three of The Time Traveler's Wife is entitled "A Treatise on Longing", a name that would work for the entire book. Clare spends her early adulthood waiting for the mysterious Henry who dropped in and out of the formative periods of her life, as he has told her that in the future they are married. And then, when she and Henry finally meet in Chicago and fall in love, she spends more time waiting. He suddenly disappears who knows where to return sometimes weeks later. She is like Penelope holding tight for the return of her Odysseus, her "time travelling artist".

"It's that way, isn't it?" Clare says to her grandmother, who has been waiting since she was widowed as a young woman. She acquiesces to the line that bespeaks the pain of losing someone, while being forced to go on. Niffenegger says she entitled her love story The Time Traveler's Wife, and not The Time Traveler, because of the epigraph by JB Priestley from Man and Time. It goes: "Clock time is our bank manager, tax collector, police inspector; this inner time is our wife."

"That's actually what the title, for me, really means," she says. "The book itself is really about the marriage. Henry is not only married to Clare; he's also married to time." But if Henry is married to time, then Clare is time's widow, fated to live according to another's clock.

Niffenegger herself knows something about waiting. If we were to pull a Henry and travel back to 1997, when the title The Time Traveler's Wife first popped into her head, we would find Audrey Niffenegger living alone in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, a printmaker suffering from what Martin Amis would call a case of "spinst". "Two cats and a spinster... that would be me," she agrees.

Niffenegger filled her life with teaching book and paper arts, and with making the quirky and decidedly uncommercial picture books that reflect her sometimes morbid sensibility - also revealed in her taxidermy collection. Today the collection includes a mongoose wrapped in a cobra, a rat, two human skeletons, a cat skeleton, animal skulls, a groundhog and, over the most recent holidays, gifts from her two sisters - a chicken and a baby alligator ("which I've always longed for," she enthuses).

In a scene from the book set in the Surrealist section of the art museum in Chicago, a little girl intuits that Joseph Cornell made his famous boxes because he was lonely. Back when she began to work on the novel, Niffenegger had just been dumped by another of the "oddball" guys she always found herself dating. The artist decided to write The Time Traveler's Wife for much the same reason as Pygmalion sculpted his Galatea. She was unlucky in love.

"Some part of me had given up on the idea that any romance was ever going to work out. And some part of me was just like, 'OK, fine. I'll make one. I'll just write it'," she says. "I had kind of got the idea that there's not going to be some fabulous perfect soulmate out there for me, so I'll just make him up." Creating this appealing couple, madly in love, was more science fiction to her than working out the mechanics of time travelling. "Having never been married, having this string of comically unsuccessful relationships, to write about two people who were having this sort of perfect marriage seemed kind of impudent," she says.

Niffenegger based some of Henry and Clare's courtship on the cerebral coupling of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers's mysteries. She had mused elsewhere that in writing the book she was trying to figure out for herself how marriage could remain interesting. "I thought, I'll give them this marvellous marriage and then I'll put all this uncertainty and potential loss in there, and that'll keep it going."

There's a built-in inevitability to the love story. "People occasionally say, 'Oh, this seems like it's too easy, too inevitable, too pat'," she says. "But at the same time, in the present there's always this feeling of things just happening. But when you look back over your life, it seems often like it couldn't have happened any other way."

Niffenegger says that she still does not believe in soulmates. In fact, the word causes her to make a strange noise, something like a "gack". Glamour magazine in Britain had asked her to contribute an essay on what it felt like to finally meet - that word. "This is a terrible term, soulmate," she says. "For one thing, it just reeks of women's magazines."

But underneath the scepticism lies an undeniable, or perhaps newly converted, romantic. "I waited for you, and now you're here," ends the novel's acknowledgments, a nod to a new love, a fellow instructor with whom she went out on a date three days after finishing the manuscript of The Time Traveler's Wife. "It was almost like writing the book was some kind of meditation on what love is all about," Niffenegger explains. She pauses. "That sounds horribly sappy."

Henry theorises his predicament as a philosophical inability to control his own fate. "Is there a way to stay put, to embrace the present with every cell?" he wonders. Right now, Audrey Niffenegger has no desire to go back or forward in time. There's no wonder that she has reached an age of contentment. "It's interesting how everybody seems to have an age that they're wistful for," says Niffenegger. "I'm actually not eager to go anywhere at the moment. When I'm 80 I'll probably want to go back here."

Kate Zambreno is senior editor at 'Newcity' magazine in Chicago

Biography

The eldest of three daughters, Audrey Niffenegger grew up in middle-class Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. Her father is a civil engineer and her mother was a barrister's assistant. A visual artist, she is also professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, where she teaches writing, letterpress printing and fine-edition book production. She makes visual novels, paintings, prints and photographs, which are shown at the Printworks Gallery in Chicago. Her visual novels have print runs of about 10 copies; she hand paints every page of each book. Her last print run, for The Three Incestuous Sisters, took 14 years to complete, and involved hand-painting 1,200 pages. Her first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, was published last year in the US and the film rights were optioned by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. It is published in the UK next week. In her spare time, Niffenegger gardens and collects taxidermy, and maintains a strong interest in all things "different", such as mummies, circus freaks and people who breathe fire. She has just turned 40, and lives alone in north-west Chicago. Her boyfriend, Christopher Schneberger, a photographer, lives nearby.

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