Thursday, July 19, 2007

e Meets Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife

Have you ever been looking forward to something, but as it approached, you suddenly no longer wanted to do it? That was how I felt Tuesday night as I was struggling to get ready to head out to the Chicago History Museum and see Audrey Niffenegger, the author of one of my top five favorite books of all time, The Time Traveler's Wife. She was going to speak about the process of going from getting the idea for her most excellent story, to writing it, to having it published, to now overseeing (from afar, it seems) its development into a major film (starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana - shooting begins in the fall). For weeks, I had been anxious to see her, but now that the time had come and I was tired, cranky and lazy, I was reconsidering.

I'm so, so glad that I kept my plans!

Her talk began at 6:30, and there is a bus from my place that lets off right in front of the history museum. However, I had to feed and let out my dog, eat, change, and by the time I had done all of that, it was 6:15. D'ah! There was no choice but to take a cab... and as I sat in the back seat collecting my thoughts, I became confident that I had not put my dog in his crate (he destroys things if he's not kept in there when we're gone). Should I turn around and go back? Had I actually locked him in but just didn't remember it? I decided to take my chances and kept heading south.

When I arrived at the museum a few minutes before 6:30, the auditorium where the event was being held was already pretty packed. I wanted a seat up close, and luckily there was still one in the third row. Shortly thereafter, Audrey was introduced and came on stage. She has a very distinctive walk... very light on her feet but deliberate, with her hands clasped in front of her and in each step she rolls from her heel to her toes. Her head was down as she crossed the stage, she had on a plaid skirt and tights, and quite frankly, I thought she fit the picture I have in my head of "someone who loves books." I also thought she would be nervous or shy, but that was not the case.

She spoke very clearly (no "filler sounds," which always impresses me) and her words seemed to be chosen in the same deliberate manner in which she walked. It was like you could almost see the gears turning in her head as she would pause, glance upward and think about how she would answer a question. Her voice was a lot deeper than I expected... not strange by any means, but once again, just not what I necessarily would have imagined. She's in her mid-40s but could pass for younger, and her long hair was a fiery red - clearly not natural in that it almost looked neon under certain lights. You can read here why she changed her hair color. What I first thought when she came on the stage was: "She is Tori Amos' long-lost sister." After hearing her speak for 1.5 hours, I feel that way even more - she's very new-agey and philosophical and is most definitely a free spirit.

Audrey began her talk by saying that she was going to project images on the large screen that filled up the stage area (she talked off to the side of the stage behind a podium) - they were paintings and other artwork that she had created. I really liked them - several were funky self-portraits (not included in the link above), all of them were fairly depressing, but there was something I was attracted to in them. She has a studio called "Printworks" that I am thinking of visiting one day and maybe I'll get one of her pieces.

It became clear to me that she thinks of herself more of an artist than as a writer; she said she describes herself as a "visual artist" when someone asks her what she does. Interestingly enough, she makes books by hand - usually only one copy or perhaps as many as ten - quite unique, wouldn't you say?

About half of her talk was her description of the experience she's been through with the book becoming a bestseller, the other half was a question and answer session with the audience.

At this point, if you haven't read the book, you need to stop reading this site and go get it, because the rest of this post will discuss plot points and will ruin it for you. You should know by now that I don't lie to my faithful readers, so I don't know why you haven't read this book since I've told you how much it rocks many times!

For the rest of you who are fans of the novel - read on. And before I go any further, I must give a shout-out to TV who encouraged me to read the book, and to KG who told me about the event!
Now on to some highlights from the session:

- She began by expressing joy (and humble surprise) that there were so many people in the audience. Apparently, there is always a worry about "what if no one comes? What if it's only my mom?"

- The title of the book came to her first, oddly enough. She thought about what a drag it would be to be the wife of a guy who was always going on adventures through time while she needed to just wait around. That idea percolated around in her head for a bit... and then, the very last scene came to her. She clearly saw Clare in her coral sweater with her cup of tea, waiting for Henry's last visit. So she had the end of the story first, which I found absolutely amazing.

- There were two color-coded timelines she created in a Word document to keep track of what was going on - one was Clare's and the other showed Henry's jumps and what each character would know at that point in time, as well as what the audience would know. It sounded like the hardest part was that "there was a restricted flow of information... both from the characters and the readers."

- She did not write the book in any order, she wrote scenes as they came to her. Her favorite scene was when Ingrid shot herself, because Ingrid was originally developed as a take on herself, though she claims that by the end of the character's development, Ingrid barely resembled her at all. But she described it as "very freeing" to be able to essentially kill yourself through fiction. And apparently, the scene where Henry was there to witness it was not supposed to be that way... she had said that Ingrid was only going to impart some troubling words on to Henry. But as she kept writing the scene... "All of a sudden - Ingrid had a gun! And it kept going and going... I always knew Ingrid was going to kill herself, but hadn't planned to show how it happened."

- She does not own a TV and therefore doesn't watch TV, but she strongly believes that the success of any given book is unfortunately dependent upon television in this day and age. She thinks this because when she was going through the process of getting "blurbs" for the cover of her book (quotes from well-known people saying how great the novel is), she called Scott Turow, famous author and lawyer (who lives in the Chicago area, as does Audrey). Instead, his wife answered the phone and told Audrey that SHE would read the book, and if SHE liked it, she would get Scott to do a blurb for it. Well, she did like it, Scott wrote the blurb, and then when he was asked on "The Today Show" to pick a book for The Today Show Book Club, he mentioned The Time Traveler's Wife! The the next thing Audrey knew, she was getting a call to go on the show herself, and then it hit the bestseller list. Ironically, she said that two days before she went on TV, she had a book signing and only 2 people showed up. One of her funnier quips was about how often, at book signings, book store employees will come and sit down to make the author feel better. On that note, believe it or not, she had THIRTY-SIX rejection letters from agents! It just goes to show the power of persistance as well as a good bit of luck (she chalks it up to "luck and serendipitous events").

- She had originally envisioned the story to be much darker. They were never going to have a child ("It would have been miscarriage after miscarriage"), and, as I read in another interview with her, Clare was supposed to have gone insane. But, despite the fact that she is drawn to darker, sad topics and that a fan rightly pointed out to her that all of her works revolve around loss, she said that even she wouldn't have read the book if it was that depressing.

- When the movie rights were optioned, she really didn't think anything would ever come of it. "For every 40 books that get optioned, only one movie actually gets made." If you were not aware of this, it was Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's company, Plan B, who bought the film rights. When they divorced, she said a ton of people were coming up to her, asking her if she was OK. "Yeah, I'm fine!" was her response. She has never met either of them.

- The original cover for the book was something she didn't like at all. Then, since she's an artist, she tried to design something, but was politely told that it was not right. Finally, her British publisher actually hired people and did a real photo shoot, which resulted in the picture used on the paperback cover (which she was happy with).

- She's originally from South Haven, Michigan (as is Clare in the book). She said that many things in the book are based on real events - like the Violent Femmes concert was something she actually attended. This led her on a slight rant about how Chicago needs to be represented more in fiction (there's actually a tour happening on Saturday that goes around to all of the places in the book - but alas, I need to be focused on Harry Potter)... and then ended it with, "You know, so that's why my next book is set in London."

- She has read four different screenplays for the movie so far, and they are all drastically different. Seeing her book turned into a movie script has been strange for her, "because someone is essentially re-writing you. In a book, there is no time limit, but in a movie, apparently everyone will turn to stone if it goes over two hours. So characters have to get cut out, and characters say things they never would have said in my mind." She has two main hopes for the movie version: 1. That the ending stays exactly the same, and 2. That otherwise, they bring something new to the story, or else "it's just an illustration of the books, like the Harry Potter movies." She knows that they will have to change certain things and tone down the language because "They want it to be rated PG-13. But my perfect film would be NC-17 - full-frontal male nudity!!!"

It was a really fun time and as I mentioned before, I am SO glad I went. A lot of the questions she answered were covered in other interviews with her that I had read online (yes, I was a good little fan-girl and studied up!), so I encourage you to read them if what I've covered above has interested you.

I then stood in line for 45 minutes to have her sign my copy of the book, and rode the bus home that night extremely, extremely happy, and with a renewed inspiration to one day become a published writer. I am looking forward to her next novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, but it won't be out for at least another year or two. She is actually a tour guide in a cemetery in London as part of her research for the book (it's still fiction, but set in that cemetery). Regarding her follow-up act to such a beloved story, she admits it's much harder the second time around - now there are high expectations!

When I arrived home... my dog was in his crate and all was well. A successful night indeed!

- e


Anonymous said...

as per your recommendations, I just bought this book. But will it make me cry? I'm not into depressing forms of entertainment.

singapotter said...

Man, you are so lucky to have met her.

I'm a huge fan of the book, read it countless times and tabbed every sentence/paragraph that I like with Post-Its, but so far have been unsuccessful in getting my boyfriend to read it.

I've never cried reading a book or watching a movie before, but I absolutely lost all inhibitions when reading this one!