Audrey Niffenegger on finishing the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife: ‘I have pushed aside every other creative endeavour to get the book done’

Audrey Niffenegger is one of the world's most popular authors. Her debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife sold millions of copies and became a Hollywood movie, while she famously collected a $5m advance for its hit follow-up Her Fearful Symmetry.

By Richard Blackledge
Friday, 03 May, 2019, 10:30
American author Audrey Niffenegger is both a novelist and visual artist.

But such success doesn't make the writing process any easier, she says. In fact, a talk she is giving at Sheffield University addresses this very dilemma, starting with its title - 'Work habits: Creative procrastination, endless coffee breaks, some thoughts on headphones, or how I eventually managed to overcome inertia and finish the darn book'.

The book in question is The Other Husband, the long-awaited sequel to The Time Traveler's Wife, which Niffenegger embarked on in 2013 – but readers shouldn't expect to see copies in the shops in the immediate future.

"Well, the interesting part is that the book is still not finished," confides Niffenegger, on the phone from her home in the suburbs of Chicago where it's 10am, six hours behind the UK. She and her husband, the comics artist Eddie Campbell, have an assistant who arrives at 11, when it'll be time for more writing.

"When Ken gets here we roll up our sleeves and get to work," she says. "I'm very much not a morning person. I'm really just getting rolling. I tend to do the little chores like answering emails and chatting to people in the morning, then after lunch I'll probably get down to actual work. It's surprising how much admin there is being self-employed, sitting by yourself in a room making things."

Niffenegger began as a graphic novelist and illustrator, and only wrote The Time Traveler's Wife as its plot - the experiences of a woman, Clare DeTamble, whose husband Henry can travel into the past and future unpredictably because of a rare genetic condition - was too difficult to convey visually. For years she taught book arts at Columbia College, where she also led seminars for the creative writing department, but gave up teaching in 2015.

"It's been very quiet, I've been sequestered at home," she says. "It's funny, because I do miss it, but I discovered I was just not getting my own work done. The course I was teaching was a seminar for people writing their first novels. I'd have 10 people and their 10 first novels... it was sort of all-consuming. I tended to think of their stuff rather than my own."

Niffenegger won't give too much away about The Other Husband's plot - "It's a major feat of chronology" - but the story focuses on Alba, the daughter of Clare and Henry. "She was born just before 9/11, in 2001, so today she would be 18. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the news as it blows past us and extrapolating from what's going on today and what might be happening decades from now. It's part of what slows me down, how depressing the news has been for the past few years."

Climate change is a 'lurking feeling' across the pages, says Niffenegger, who supports the likes of the Extinction Rebellion activists who brought London to a standstill in a bid to highlight the environmental crisis. "Good for them. It just feels absolutely inevitable that that's going to be on the minds of people for a long time to come, especially since we don't seem to bother ourselves doing anything about it right now."

Her native America, she argues, would face challenges even if the mercurial President Trump wasn’t in the White House. "It's so different from one part of it to the next. Kentucky is not New York, California is not Alaska - it's a bit like Europe, culturally it's multitudinous. America really doesn't have one united voice, especially not at the moment. If you let California set the pace all sorts of good things would be going on but it's hard because there's places where they really are much more concerned with things like unemployment, and worried that any change toward renewable energy is going to put them all out of coal mining jobs."

It won't be 20 chapters of doom and gloom, however. "Alba has more or less inadvertently managed to be married to two people at the same time. One of her husbands knows about the other, but one is ignorant about the situation, so that's the dilemma of the book."

Originally, Niffenegger had no intention of writing a sequel. The Time Traveler's Wife came out in 2003 and was conceived as a standalone piece, not to be revisited, but that didn't stop her from being badgered. "People used to ask me all the time 'Why don't you write a book about the daughter, you could call it The Time Traveler's Daughter, yeah!' and I'd be like, 'No'. But I had a good idea. I'm just being incredibly slow. The first book took five years to write. I definitely would like to be done in about a year or so. I used to have a writing partner who was so dear to me and she's moved to Amsterdam. Thursdays roll around and I feel a bit sad. That used to be our day to go and sit in a café, not talk to each other and get work done."

She agrees she could, if she wished, never write again, Harper Lee-style. There is certainly no financial imperative. "But wouldn't that be sad. I mean, what would I do with myself? Part of the reason this book has gone so slowly is around the time I started it I met my husband. He was living in Brisbane, Australia, and I was in Chicago – if you get out a globe you'll find that's the furthest apart you can be. We were having a very long-distance relationship and there was a lot of rearranging of lives involved. He lives here with me now but it took a lot of doing."

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She collaborated with Eddie on last year's Bizarre Romance, a book that played to their respective strengths. "We took some short stories and essays I had already written and he turned some into comics and some he made illustrations for. I didn't interfere very much... well, just a little bit."

Niffenegger, 55, has previously said The Time Traveler's Wife was inspired by her own love life - "Some part of me had given up on the idea that any romance was ever going to work out," she told The Independent in 2004. So marrying Eddie was 'very unexpected'. "When we met I was 49 and not really dating or thinking too hard about trying to date. It's that old cliché, you give up and then you meet somebody."

She doesn't compartmentalise her novels and art, instead viewing it as 'one thing together'. "From the time I was a kid I was always making stories and pictures, and going back and forth between words and images. To me those things feel necessary to each other.”

Her early output was produced on a very small scale - handmade art books with minimal text. "I really enjoy craft and working by hand so something like letterpress printing and bookbinding is very exciting to me."

She joined writing groups though, and took courses, but largely worked on her blockbuster novel alone. "I was always trying to get people to read drafts of The Time Traveler's Wife. I think people were surprised later when I managed to get it published. It came out of nowhere to a lot of people in my life."

Niffenegger is fond of the macabre and otherworldly. In her studio she keeps Cecil and Nigel, the human skeletons of two elderly men which she sourced from medical schools. "They're not in a highly-trafficked part of the house," she emphasises, lest potential house guests are put off. "The reason for having them is to draw and paint them, they're not Halloween-y knick-knacks. They have a working afterlife."

Her Fearful Symmetry was a tale about spectral twins set in Highgate Cemetery – Niffenegger has a flat in London where she'll be travelling to Sheffield from – while in 2014 she selected and illustrated a whole anthology of ghost stories.

"There are just certain things that are so elegant and evocative that they are very interesting to play with - they speak to certain deep human longings," explains Niffenegger, whose own beliefs stretch from 'agnosticism to atheism', ascribed to a Catholic upbringing. "We can fly, and cure measles, but we can't yet get back in time or communicate with the dead. Those, for me, are things fiction owns. I love magic realism and science fiction and fantasy because it allows us to problem-solve and think about our situation. Things like going to Mars, which once seemed ridiculous - now we drop little machines there and spy on this planet that we can't get to yet, but you know we'll be there not too long from now."

When such scenarios can be allied to emotional and domestic situations, Niffenegger is particularly enthused. "Time travel, certainly, makes your marriage more complicated but it also allows a writer and a reader to think about marriage in a different way."

Former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has been hired to write a TV adaptation of The Time Traveler's Wife for HBO, which is 'supposed to be on in 2021', says Niffenegger, who is executive producing.

She only started watching television after Eddie moved in, having never owned a set before. Game of Thrones, obviously, is a favourite. And at her writing desk, headphones on, the current soundtrack is Pink Floyd. "Lately I've just been playing Wish You Were Here over and over again. It's a masterpiece, it really is. And if you play it enough it's sonic wallpaper. It's a bad thing to do to an album but it does help me focus. I really have pushed every other creative endeavour aside to get the book done."

Audrey Niffenegger will deliver Sheffield University's third 2018-19 Arts and Humanities Prokhorov Lecture on Thursday, May 9, at 6pm, in The Diamond building's Lecture Theatre 1. Tickets are free, visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/audrey-niffenegger-work-habits-tickets-59753989792 to book.