An Interview with Audrey Niffenegger
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a
writer -- and why?
Harriet the Spy, 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?
Maus, 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 Auchwitz and afterward. It is extremely complex, subtle, and I cry every time I read it.
The Secret History, 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, Dorothy Sayers
This is my favorite mystery novel, but it's really much more than that. It was written in the thirties, 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, Brian Reade
When I was fourteen 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, 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 neural net 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 and Clay, Michael Chabon
A novel about comics artists in the thirties, forties and fifties. I adore comics, and Michael Chabon has done excellent research, and understands the joy of making drawings that can talk.
The Waking Dream (I'm afraid I've forgotten the editor's name)
This is an anthology of prints from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth 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, 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, 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
Erasorhead, 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 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, Bjork.
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?
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.
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, 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 nineteenth 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.
Give us three "Good to Know" facts about you!
1) 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.
2) I make art. Readers can see some of it at Printworks Gallery in Chicago. They have a web site: printworkschicago.com
3) 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.
What do you do like to do in your spare time?
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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