Love, Death and the Paranormal

Isthmus | October 13, 2005
Audrey Niffenegger Q&A

The best-selling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife is a professor of art and printmaking at Chicago’s Columbia College whose new book, The Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel, was published in September by Harry N. Abrams. Readers of The Time Traveler’s Wife may be surprised by The Three Incestuous Sisters, which relies on glowing hand-colored aquatints to tell its dark story.

Q: The Three Incestuous Sisters is quite distinct from The Time Traveler’s Wife. How do the two books reflect the complementary aspects of your creative impulse?

NIFFENEGGER: These are only two works from a career that spans 20 years, so while I see them as parts of a continuum, to someone else they may look quite different from each other. Most of my work is narrative and the themes that run through my work include love, death, peculiar pregnancies, deformity, girls who make odd choices in their love lives, and the paranormal. There is always humor and a rather skeptical world-view.

Q: Is it fair to characterize The Time Traveler’s Wife as a departure for you as an artist, or The Three Incestuous Sisters as more representative of your core instincts?

NIFFENEGGER: In The Time Traveler's Wife I was able to be more casual, more contemporary, and to get inside the heads of my characters more intimately. This is partially due to the nature of writing as opposed to drawing. TTW is the more recent work, and I hope each new thing is a departure.

Q: Are you at all apprehensive that readers and critics who have read The Time Traveler’s Wife but are unfamiliar with your art might be startled by how different The Three Incestuous Sisters is?

NIFFENEGGER: Yes, but I can't really do anything about it. I hope they will not be so startled that they choke on their coffee or anything like that. I would not want anyone to get hurt.

Q: Your books, art and Web site give the impression of springing from an unleashed imagination, open to the notion that anything might be possible. To what do you ascribe your acclimation to the fantastical and strange?

NIFFENEGGER: I had a very normal, quiet childhood in a suburb of Chicago, in which everyone was lovely and civil and played Frisbee in the streets until it got dark. I went to a Catholic grade school in which we were encouraged to believe large numbers of impossible things before (and after) lunch. I spent my afternoons at home reading fairy tales and science fiction while stretched out on my bed + eating chocolate chip cookies. This was all very nice and it gave me a permanent appetite for strangeness. It's easy to love the fantastic when your life is stable and quiet. You can think about anything and be happy in your imagination.

Q: The pop-culture references sprinkled in your work suggest an affinity for the new, inventive, esoteric and outside the mainstream. What attracts your eyes? What music was in your ears last week? Do you draw on music while you work?

NIFFENEGGER: Lately I have been listening to Archer Prewitt and Sufjan Stevens, who has a song about John Wayne Gacy that made me cry in the car.

I do listen to music while I make art. Often it is stuff I am overly familiar with, things from high school like ELO or Television. I want it to be there but I don't want to have to think very hard about it. New music commands my attention and I can't listen to it and make art at the same time.

I should add that the stuff I listen to is in MY mainstream; I am surrounded by friends and students who make me mix CDs and tell me to listen to things. I know that there's a whole culture out there listening to Britney Spears, but since no one I know listens to her I would consider that sort of thing to be outside OUR mainstream. So there.

Q: It took you more than four years to write The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Three Inestuous Sisters took 14 years to complete. Where do you find the patience? How do you avoid losing momentum or succumbing to inertia? What is it like to finish something you have created across a span of 14 years? What emotions do you confront after so much time spent coaxing it forth?

NIFFENEGGER: This is a cliche, but it is a lot like being pregnant; friends who have had babies tell me that at a certain point you just want it to be done so you can get on to the next thing. So at the beginning you have a vision of what it could be, and that pulls you in. And then it is very exciting, it's a whole world unto itself and you can move in and live there. But after a while you want to be done, and eventually there it is, the whole complete thing. And you marvel at it for about thirty seconds, and then you have lunch and then it's on to the next idea. Because the next idea is always going to be the perfect one.

Q: Where, when and how do you prefer to write and illustrate your narratives?

NIFFENEGGER: The Three Incestuous Sisters was made in various studios, also in hotel rooms and planes and graduate school. I work whenever I can. The Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, gave me a number of residencies and much of the drawing for the book was done there.

Q: Where were you and what were you doing 14 years ago when you first conceived The Three Incestuous Sisters? What occurred during that moment of inspiration?

NIFFENEGGER: The original idea was a dream. I saw these three women with long hair sitting in a room, not speaking to each other, and I knew, the way that you know things in dreams, that these were The Three Incestuous Sisters. When I woke up I made a sketch, and gradually began to endow them with personalities, and a story.

Q: The Washington Post hailed The Time Traveler’s Wife for its “grace and imagination.” The Times of London called it “wonky, sexy, incredible.” Do you have a favorite review yet for The Three Incestuous Sisters?

NIFFENEGGER: My candidate for the most lovely review thus far would be Neel Mukherjee's review for The Times of London. Conversely, Tom Phillips, writing for the London Guardian, spat on it. C'est la vie.

Q: You’ve called The Three Incestuous Sisters “the book of my heart.” Do you anticipate a book of your soul? A book of your mind? A book of your primitive instincts?

NIFFENEGGER: Uh huh. I made the mistake of being sincere, there. It won't happen again.

Q: Do you have sisters of your own? Brothers? Was there sibling rivalry between you? Was (or is) there a lighthouse keeper’s son in your life? Are you prone to jealousy?

NIFFENEGGER: I am one of three sisters. We are not especially rivalrous. There aren't any divisive boyfriends between us, and I am not particularly jealous.

Q: Your visual style has been compared to the work of Edward Gorey and Edvard Munch. To whom might you prefer to compare yourself?

NIFFENEGGER: I have been influenced by Aubrey Beardsley, Horst Jansson, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, Henry Darger, Charlotte Salomon, Japanese prints, silent films such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I am fond of Edward Gorey's work, but I think we were influenced by the same period and artists. Most of the artists I have loved and studied seriously are not well-known, and so Gorey is the first person people think of when they look at my work.

Q: Is the movie version of The Time Traveler’s Wife still in production, with Gus Van Sant as director and Brad Pitt in the lead?

NIFFENEGGER: Yes, that's still true.

Q: If you were to option the movie rights for The Three Incestuous Sisters but retain creative control, who would you pick to direct and who would you cast as the sisters?

NIFFENEGGER: Guy Madden [director of The Saddest Music in the World, My Dad is 100 Years Old and the forthcoming The Brand Upon the Brain!]. I would love to have it be an animated film.

Q: What was the last book that you read that you would recmmend, and why would you recommend it?

NIFFENEGGER: I'm in the midst of Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. It's marvelous writing, she beautifully inhabits this character of an elderly preacher writing to his young son, telling the story of his life.

Q: What was the last illustrated novel that you read and would recommend, and why would you recommend it?

NIFFENEGGER: The Invention of Paradise, by Peter C. Bener and Daniel Schmid. It is actually a history, an illustrated tour through the late Victorian era which ends with Nijinsky's last performance. It is "a spectacle in five acts," a magic show in which the illustrated history of Europe co-mingles with the concept of paradise on earth. It is very sad. It is probably also out of print.

Q: Do you wear any tattoos?

NIFFENEGGER: Nope. I don't love any one image enough to make it a permanent part of my body.


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