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"We're going to take off our clothes" - Audrey Niffenegger speaks in Edinburgh Rebekah Send a noteboard - 12/10/2009 11:02:32 PM

This evening Tim and I went to a talk by Audrey Niffenegger to promote her new book Her Fearful Symmetry. The event was part reading, part question session and part signing, and there was a surprise treat at the end (which is what the subject line refers to).

Niffenegger began by reading a chapter ("The History of Her Ghost" ) from the new book.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story, amongst other things. Set in London in a flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery, the book tells the story of Elspeth, who is learning to be a ghost (AN killed her off in the first sentence, a "land speed record" ), her twin nieces who inherit her flat, and Martin, a man who can't leave his house. Niffenegger used the supernatural to create an intolerable situation and then left her characters to find a way out of it.

I wasn't terribly impressed with the start of the chapter. Perhaps it is better in context, but it was all description (slightly pompous sounding description at that) and fairly boring. About halfway through, however, it began to feel alive, with little pieces of wry humour, and charmingly portrayed clichés of ghostly activity. Thinking about it now, it's probable that this move from flat to lively was deliberate: the chapter began to breathe as Elspeth became more of a presence - and triumphed over a paperclip. It was, I think, a good chapter to choose to give a feel for the book, and I know now that I want to read it.

Question Time
(Disclaimer: It was quite hard to hear people, despite the presence of a microphone or two, so sometimes the questions are not actually questions. Sorry. I should also point out that answers are not verbatim [due to the aforementioned bad sound quality] but I’ve only added little words to create sentences. The important words are Niffenegger’s own.)

Highgate Cemetery seems to be a major character in the novel. Was this deliberate?
AN: Fictional London seems to be bigger than actual London. I was drawn to Highgate Cemetery because of the story of the exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal, and on visiting the graveyard became fascinated by how this very tidy Victorian area became overgrown and overtaken by nature. Something about the lack of order is very beautiful and so different from American cemeteries.

What were your initial images for The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry? How did you go from there to a complete story?
AN: TTW was the image of the old woman waiting in the nursing home for Henry to appear. For HFS it was the old man surrounded by boxes who couldn’t leave his room. From there I ask questions: why, who, what if, etc and the story grows.

Some critics have remarked (scathingly) upon the number of clichés in the book. That was deliberate; I "collected" 19th century tropes and clichés and built the novel around them. The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins and The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James were the books I used most.

Do you miss the characters when you’ve finished a book?
AN: A book is done when the characters stop doing anything new. I then hand the story and the characters over to the reader, so the characters really belong to the reader not to me. It’s the readers who give life to the characters through the way they imagine them.

Did you find it hard to let go after writing such a doom-filled ending for TTW?
AN: I wrote the last two scenes first, actually, so when I was finishing the books what I was writing were nuts and bolts pieces: scenes with Henry and Dr Kendrick for the most part.

Did you like the film?
AN: I’ve not watched it. My Dad liked it, though. A lot of people told me to just let go of it, which is hard for a control freak like me. So once I signed the contract the film people went off and did their thing and I just “let go”.

You are also a visual artist.
AN: I create books with pictures, etchings that tell a story. The books took me 14 years (for 10 copies) and I made them all by hand because I am insane. They’re publishing them now, which is really nice, because I put so much effort into those so it feels good that people want to publish them.

Is Her Fearful Symmetry a return to the visual world, then?
AN: It is, in a way. The nice thing about writing is that I can write in 5 minutes what would take me a week to make. It’s more efficient – the reader does all of the work. TTW was very different for me; it is very contemporary, relentlessly in “the now”. HFS is more like me. Some characters are from other books, some are people I know, and there’s a conflict between them.

Were there different reactions to TTW in different parts of the world?
AN: Across the English-speaking world there seems to be a very similar reaction. I’m not able to read my translations so I don’t know what people are reacting to in other countries. In the UK you’d get lengthy articles about the physics of time travelling, while in the US it was “Brad Pitt’s bought the rights!”

Cities seem to be central characters in your books.
AN: I chose Chicago for TTW because I lived there and I needed somewhere very real to ground the book. Plus Chicago is really lacking in literature. London was the setting for HFS because of Highgate Cemetery. But my new book is set in Skokie, Illinois…

What are you working on right now?
AN: Currently I’m working on a unworkable short story which is turning into a novel. It’s called (at the moment) “The Chinchilla Girl in Exile”, and is about a 9-year-old girl who goes to live with her aunt after her parents die in a circus fire. The girl (Lizzie) has hypertrichosis: she’s very hairy. The short story’s about her desire to go to school.

And, as our surprise treat, Audrey read from the short story. It was very cute, sounded like it was well written, and there was definitely the potential for heartache and emotion.

And then it was time to get books signed. Or, if you forgot to bring your book like I did, then it was time to go home.

Her Fearful Symmetry was released on 1 October 2009.


Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. - Groucho Marx
This message last edited by Rebekah on 14/10/2009 at 08:51:09 PM
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"We're going to take off our clothes" - Audrey Niffenegger speaks in Edinburgh - 12/10/2009 11:02:32 PM 5750 Views
Interesting subject line... - 12/10/2009 11:26:51 PM 1626 Views
The second thing she said. - 12/10/2009 11:31:54 PM 1721 Views
Cliches they say.. - 13/10/2009 12:15:40 AM 1605 Views
Yeah. - 13/10/2009 01:37:54 PM 1520 Views
Sounds intriguing. It goes on the List. - 13/10/2009 05:06:28 AM 1517 Views
Cool. - 13/10/2009 01:38:30 PM 1493 Views
awesome - thanks for posting this! - 13/10/2009 05:01:20 PM 1774 Views
You're most welcome. - 14/10/2009 06:19:57 PM 1525 Views

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