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Things Are Going Very Well for Audrey Niffenegger

With her first novel, the Chicago artist makes the leap to print--and lands on the New York Times bestseller list.



Chicago's Printworks gallery in River North has represented Audrey Niffenegger, now 40, since she was 23 and barely out of the School of the Art Institute. "Ferocious Bon Bons," which opened the Friday after Labor Day, is her eighth exhibit there. "There's always been a buzz about Audrey," says Bob Hiebert, Printworks' co-owner. "She's one of those people whose work somehow lodges in people's subconscious."

Niffenegger, a pale redhead in a bright blue silk suit, greeted one well-wisher after another as they crowded into the tiny first-floor space. The walls were hung with modest drawings and a couple prints, many mounted inside the bindings of early-20th-century books. There were wistful skeletons in tutus, a quartet of chalky skulls borne aloft on embossed silver wings, an anatomically correct heart sprouting blue-veined arms and legs, and a series of delicate inky spirals edged with pithy snippets of text. "You won't be lonely now" read one. "Oh! Pleasure!" read another.

Niffenegger's artwork is housed at Harvard, Temple University, and the Newberry Library and has been acquired by many private collectors as well. But late this summer the buzz Hiebert refers to was starting to sound like a swarm of cicadas. "The phones haven't stopped ringing," he says. "Everyone wants something of hers." By the end of the opening, all but 4 of the 41 pieces in the show had been sold.

The work causing all the new excitement lay in a glass vitrine near the front of the gallery: Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife.

Niffenegger has lived in or near Chicago her entire life. The oldest of three daughters, she was born in South Haven, Michigan, and moved to the North Shore at two. She went to Catholic school in Skokie, then Evanston Township High School. She got her master's in printmaking and drawing from Northwestern.

At one point she thought she'd become an illustrator, but "they sort of drum that out of you in art school," she says. Still, the inclination to merge pictures and words never left her. In 1994 she and about a dozen others founded the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College. She's taught full-time in Columbia's interdisciplinary arts program since '98, focusing on ways to integrate writing and the visual arts. She's done two novel-length "visual books," handmade tomes that tell their stories in pictures with a smattering of text. The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters are reminiscent of Edward Gorey or Aubrey Beardsley--quaint, absurd, and at times verging on morbid.

Then in 1997, she says, "I had this idea that couldn't happen in pictures."

Henry DeTamble is a rakish special collections librarian at the Newberry Library. Clare Abshire is a beautiful papermaker and sculptor eight years his junior--most of the time. They're improbably handsome and witty and creative and madly in love. The catch is that they've known each other since she was 6 and he was 36. Henry suffers from a genetic disease that causes him to inconveniently jump around in time at moments of stress, popping up naked, hungry, and often about to barf at various places in his past and future, including, quite frequently, the meadow behind his future wife's childhood home.

The Time Traveler's Wife tracks the achronological course of their lifelong love affair. Narrated alternately by Clare and Henry, it's a meticulously plotted Mobius strip that has more in common with heady, literate love stories like A.S. Byatt's Possession than with The Time Machine or Back to the Future.

The novel takes as its starting point a classic romantic fantasy--the bittersweet desire that the boy you love will one day grow up to be a man. "I'm sorry," says Henry at 28, when he meets 20-year-old Clare. "But the person you know doesn't exist yet. Stick with me, and sooner or later he's bound to appear." Henry's perpetual disappearances are in some ways an extended metaphor for the mysteries of any intimate relationship. But because Clare knows that the reckless younger Henry will become the fully realized Henry she knew as a child, she's able to go through life relatively calm and hopeful.

"Part of what I wanted to do was have Clare represent some sort of optimistic idea that yes, we have free will and you can make choices and your choices have power in the world," says Niffenegger. "While Henry, being tossed around a lot by random forces, represents the point of view of a sort of fatalism: you can't change anything, it's all happened before and you just have to live it.

"A lot of it just comes down to whether or not you believe in God," she adds. "And the reason it's so inconclusive is that I don't have any decisions about that myself."

Clare, like Niffenegger, is a redhead. Henry at 28 is sort of an idealized rock 'n' roll boyfriend (conveniently, he's not in a band). He's gaunt and sardonic, at times a strung-out asshole, but he quotes Rilke and knows how to cook. The two of them inhabit a bohemian Chicago peopled by musicians and scientists, dissolute Marxists and benevolent drug dealers. The characters go to the Riv and the Aragon to see the Violent Femmes and the Stooges. They browse the bins at Vintage Vinyl and the shelves at Bookman's Alley, and the real-life proprietors of both Evanston stores make cameos. "I tried hard to stick with real things that were in their real places and looking like they really look to support this outrageous premise," Niffenegger says.

Niffenegger's never been married, and says that when she was writing the book she was "just running into total lemons with the boyfriend thing." For a while the character she identified with most was Henry's ex-girlfriend Ingrid--the only character who never achieves absolution. The cool Teutonic pillhead is a minor player, but her presence resonates. She struggles with Henry's peculiar problem only to lose him to Clare, and she remains to the end a bitter mess and a reminder of the dark underbelly of what Niffenegger otherwise paints as a charmed world.

Capturing the warp and woof of Henry and Clare's marriage required the biggest imaginative leaps. The science fiction was easy. "I got the title first," says Niffenegger. "The title implies a lot of things--that there's a time traveler, and that he has a wife. So all of a sudden you've got these two people, and the thing that occurred to me first was that it would be no fun to be the wife. You wouldn't get to have all these adventures, and you'd always be waiting around.

"What I was thinking at the very, very beginning was of my grandparents, to whom the book is dedicated." Niffenegger never met her maternal grandfather--he died at 42 from a brain tumor. Her grandmother never remarried. "A lot of it's the answer to the question of what it would be like to be married--to have a really great marriage with someone you know really well. But also, it's just about this idea of waiting. My grandmother was basically waiting her entire life to die. She wasn't a morose person or anything, but you could tell that the best part of her life was over."

For the first year or so that she worked on the novel, Niffenegger didn't do much writing. Instead she boned up on physics and philosophy, reading everything from Kant and Heidegger to Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams and "basically just pulling little nuggets here and there and walking around chomping on them." As the human genome project progressed, she read up on genetics as well. To keep the book's intricate narrative from getting hopelessly snarled, she set up two time lines, one to keep track of the story in chronological order--Clare's time line--and one charting the order in which things take place in the narrative.

After she finished the manuscript, in January 2002, she began the process of finding a publisher. "Coming at it from a completely different field, and not having gone through an MFA program, where I would have some wonderful mentor who would introduce me to their agents, I just kind of read a bunch of books on the subject and did what they said," she says. She sent it out to about 25 agents, but it was nine months before anyone read it. Then, in the same week, she heard from Joseph Regal, a young agent in New Jersey, and the independent San Francisco publishing house MacAdam/Cage, where she'd submitted the novel over the transom.

"I got an e-mail from Joe saying, 'I'm reading it--I love it,' and then I got a phone call from Anika [Streitfeld, a MacAdam/Cage editor] saying, 'We want this.' At which point I said, just hold on a minute. And I called Joe and said, 'Are you my agent?'"

Regal shopped the manuscript around to several larger New York publishers, setting off a bidding war. After six weeks MacAdam/Cage offered Niffenegger a six-figure advance, the largest in its relatively short history. It was more than any other house came up with. Niffenegger took it.

"It was a painful decision in a way, and in other ways it was really obvious," she says. "Because if you compare it to the record industry, it would be sort of like having a choice between Kill Rock Stars and Sony. Do you want to go and be a big deal at a small publisher or go and be just another new novelist at a big publisher? The MacAdam/Cage people are just so enthusiastic that I got the feeling from them that they would jump and shout until they were blue in the face. And they have."

In the last year word of mouth on the book has spread. This spring a thousand bound galleys were given away at BookExpo America, the industry's main trade show, and paperback rights were sold to Harcourt. The film rights were picked up in April by New Line Cinema and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's production company, Plan B. Copies of the first hardback edition of The Time Traveler's Wife hit stores on September 9, and as the Reader went to press Niffenegger was scheduled to appear on the September 17 Today show, which has named the novel its book club pick for September.

Niffenegger devoted much of the summer to getting ready for the Printworks opening. Now she's preparing for the fall semester at Columbia, where she's up for tenure, and jetting off to bookstore events on the weekends. (She'll be signing copies of the book at Printworks on September 25, but that's her only local appearance in the near future.) She's also working on a second novel, "Her Fearful Symmetry." Set in and around London's Highgate Cemetery, it's the story of a pair of mirror image twins and their respective beaus. The new book, which she describes as "a catalog of every possible cliche of Victorian novels," will be more conventionally structured than her first and refer less directly to her own life. In particular she's making a conscious effort to keep her boyfriend--whom she met three days after finishing The Time Traveler's Wife--out of the book.

Meanwhile Wife is getting rave reviews--Publishers Weekly called it "a soaring love story," People a "powerfully original love story"--and in its first week it was number 35 on the New York Times's best-seller list. On Thanksgiving Niffenegger will read alongside Martin Amis in Toronto; she says she feels like she's opening for a rock star.

"I'm a little worried that when all this is over I'm going to be like, 'Where's my photographer?'" she kidded at the Printworks opening.

Later she amended that slightly: "In a certain way I think I'm getting addicted to having things happen every day, but I think at a certain point it'll be enough. But everything up until now has just been preparatory. Now that the book's out, we just have to see how it does."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.

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