Time Bending: An Interview with Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife (MacAdam/Cage 2003) explores an unusual relationship, that of Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. Like many love stories, the novel develops the relationship from courtship to marriage, but, adds a twist. A genetic disorder causes Henry to time travel, thus interrupting the ordinary patterns of his and Clare’s life — the couple first meets when Clare is six, and Henry, as an adult, has traveled back thirty years — and challenging notions of free will (Henry is unable to change events, and the couple seems almost fated to develop their romance). The novel also diverges from some love stories, exchanging sappiness for a realistic, though sometimes dark, portrait of a relationship.

I invited the book’s author, Audrey Niffenegger, to discuss the novel, her current projects, and her recent reading.

Below is the interview:

You’ve mentioned that The Time Traveler’s Wife originated with the title. How did the story evolve from there?

I wrote the ending, then the scene in which Clare loses her virginity, then a prologue which I later ditched,

Audrey Niffenegger (Photo by Christopher Schneberger)

Audrey Niffenegger (Photo by Christopher Schneberger)

then I stopped and tried to think how to structure the thing. I made a sort of list of scenes, organized them into three acts, and then started randomly working them until there was enough to see what it might be. The manuscript leant itself to being repeatedly restructured.

How did you manage the novel’s structure?

Originally it was thematically organized, but early readers found that confusing. Several people suggested following Clare’s chronology, which is mostly what I ended up doing. The story itself is very simple: courtship, marriage, Henry’s death, Clare’s life after that. It seems complicated because it is told out of order.

Present tense seems perfect for this novel. To me the choice of present tense seems to indicate that every action is in the here and now or suspends time. Which certainly seems true for Henry. Why did you decide to use present tense?

I couldn’t figure out when the present was; there was no baseline, no now, no past. By putting it in present tense the reader experiences what the characters experience, so that resolved all sorts of problems.

When I first started reading the novel, I began to think of a moment in The English Patient when Almasy in that novel talks about wanting to be a historian of Katherine’s life. In my experience that happens with couples: they want to be historians of each other. Was this a concept you worked with? It seems this is what Henry is doing with Clare, becoming a historian of her life.

Henry and Clare are each often in possession of information the other doesn’t have; they are not only historians for each other but also detectives and protectors for each other. It is never made clear who their narratives are addressed to; themselves? Each other?

Another novel I thought about was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, because of its time travel, and because it’s a love story of sorts, as well as an interesting gender-bender. Had you read Orlando? Was it an influence?

Orlando is a novel I am very fond of, but it wasn’t really an influence on TTW. Woolf’s techniques for rendering consciousness have been interesting to me vis a vis the book I’m currently writing, which has many characters and is told in close third person.

Were there other influences on the novel?

Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Henry James, Dorothy Sayers.

Time Traveler’s Wife is often considered dark. I didn’t see it as particularly dark, especially not considering Henry and Clare’s circumstances. Do you consider the novel to be dark?

Very dark indeed. It is meant as a meditation on free will and posits a universe in which even a time traveler cannot change a thing. I get a little amazed when people see it primarily as a lovely love story about soul mates.

You’ve recently published graphic novels. Did you ever consider writing The Time Traveler’s Wife as a graphic novel?

For approximately thirty seconds. Then I remembered that one of the things graphic novels have difficulty depicting is time shifts. So I opted for prose, which is more fluid, abstract and easily specific.

Are graphic novels a preferred form? Does your writing process change for graphic novels?

I think the graphic novel is a perfect form in many ways. It marries words and images and creates something new. It leaves things to the imagination of the reader, but also allows an infinite number of styles and ideas. Unfortunately it is a very slow form to create; I’ve been doing a weekly serial for the London Guardian, and it takes me four days to make a page.

In the graphic novel one doesn’t have to describe things too much; that is usually the job of the images. So when I am adapting a short story (as I am for the Guardian) I cut most of the description and often dialogue, which can be replaced by facial expressions.

What are you writing now?

I am near to finishing my second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s a ghost story set in and around London’s Highgate Cemetery. I hope it will be published next fall, if I can meet my deadline.

What are you reading now?

A biography, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants; also Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, and The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel.


Audrey Niffenegger is a visual artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA from Northwestern University. She is one of the founders of the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, and teaches in the Center’s MFA program in Interdisciplinary Book Arts. Miss Niffenegger’s work is in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Newberry Library. She is also the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a novel which has been translated into more than thirty languages; a movie based on the novel will be released in 2009 by Warner. Her visual novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress have been published by Harry N. Abrams. She has just completed a graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, which was serialized in the London Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/nightbookmobile). Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, will be published in October 2009.


11 thoughts on “Time Bending: An Interview with Audrey Niffenegger

  1. I enjoyed reading the interview! How fun that you got to ask her questions. I’m interested in her point about how people misread the novel — see it as a love story when she didn’t intend it primarily that way. I’d imagine that would get frustrating, although on the other hand if people are enjoying your work, that’s a good thing even if they miss some things!

  2. Karen: Yes, it is an inventive book. And a surprisingly quick read, given its length. Her graphic novels are interesting, too, at least the one in the Guardian is.

    Dorothy: I like it that writers are willing to do interviews for blogs. I’m still a little surprised that it’s viewed as a dark novel; while it’s not uplifting in a sappy romance-novel way, it seems to portray a realistic relationship, especially given the circumstances Henry and Clare find themselves in.

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