Audrey Niffenegger: An Interview on Writing Books, Creating Art, and Teaching

Illustration of Audrey Niffenegger by Lynn S. Schwebach

by Lynn S. Schwebach

When you discover an author who is also a visual artist, you’re on the path to uncovering the secrets of creativity. Someone who works in both artistic domains is defying those experts who say we are either “word” people or “image” people.

Which happens to be the case with Audrey Niffenegger. After reading her 2003 book,  “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” I researched Niffenegger, curious as to how she wrote such a unique book. All fiction writers strive to innovate, but few are able to truly achieve.

The bios that I read on various websites and in her many interviews proved my suspicions correct. Niffenegger was as interesting as her first novel. She was in fact a visual artist, and a writer—and also a teacher.

Her paintings, artist’s books, drawings and comics have appeared at Printworks Gallery in Chicago since 1987. And “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” her first novel, was such a huge success, that Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster, bought the rights to publish her second novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry” for close to $5 million  in 2009.

But how does she do it all? What are her secrets – her keys to the creative process? How does she seem to move so seamlessly between images and words? To take on so many projects in addition to teaching at Columbia College in Chicago?

When I found myself spending a month in Chicago this past summer, where Niffenegger lives, she gave me the opportunity to ask these questions. I was rewarded with a great – and inspiring – interview.

The Interview           

When I talked with Niffenegger, she was working on six major projects with two upcoming deadlines. One of those projects was a story for a ballet called “Raven Girl” for the London Royal Opera House Ballet. Collaborating with choreographer Wayne McGregor, the ballet premiers in May 2013.

Bravelycreative: How do you divide up your work? Do you spend a couple of hours each day writing , and then work on a drawing or painting?

I’m sort of deadline driven, and at the moment I have six largish projects, and the ones that are getting all the attention this summer are the ones with deadlines. So with the Raven Girl – everything has to be turned in at the end of August.  Therefore I just get up everyday and work on that – everything else just goes by the wayside. Another thing I’m working on this summer is that I’m having a retrospective next spring of my artwork, and for that to happen, the catalog has to be entirely ready more or less the same time as Raven Girl, so that’s almost a housekeeping type of project as in answering questions like “What year did you do this painting?” and  “What are the dimensions?”

If there were not deadlines at all, well then you just get up in the morning and ask yourself what you’re in the mood for.

Bravelycreative: Are you done with your third novel, “The Chinchilla Girl in Exile?”

No way. My first novel took five years and my second novel took seven years. This one is probably going to take longer just because of the other projects getting in the way.

Bravelycreative: How do you get stuff done when teaching?

I only teach one class a year. So it’s not that hard to squeeze it in.

Bravelycreative: I’ve participated in many writing workshops over the years. I always hear the advice: Get a day job that’s not creative like working in a coffee shop or an office so that you can save your creativity, writing in the morning or at night. Yet you switch between creative jobs. Does one feed the other? When working on your paintings or drawings, is the book idea percolating in the background?

 “The Chinchilla Girl In Exile” will benefit by being on the slow burner while everything else is being attended to. I do think the more time you spend on something, not just the actual hours you spend on it, but the amount of time in your life that you live while doing it, can only benefit the project because you have more time to come up with more interesting solutions to problems.

Getting back to this idea of advising people to take jobs in coffee shops – that’s just bullshit. Unless someone is very interested in coffee, they should get the best, most interesting, most stimulating job they can get. I mean, please. The thought that we’re all going to be in food service until we get that book contract is just nuts.

Bravelycreative: In the field of the psychology of creativity, there’s this concept of a combinatory process or taking what’s in your memory and combining it with new, incoming information to create something original or to solve a problem. It seems to me that your idea of “living your life while working on a project” is a reference to this combinatory process.

My own experience is that in the beginning, most large projects begin very slowly, and most of the work is being done in your head. The more solid you feel about what you’re imagining, the easier it becomes to get it down on paper. And as it gathers more and more of a word count, the faster it will go. I’m not operating on cruise control with the setting at some specified rate. Some people just need numbers to get them to do it at all. Someone needs to say to them, write 2000 words or 10,000 words a day – a game they have with themselves.

Bravelycreative: Do you have those “aha” moments that provide solutions to problems you’re trying to solve?

For me, the book should feel from the very beginning—when you are reading it—as though evfearful symmetry bookcovererything that’s going to happen in the book is possible and present in the beginning.  The idea that you would start writing and on page 300 you make a discovery—to me that would show in the writing and might not feel like the whole book is integrated.

For example, I recently thought to myself: There are two characters in the new novel that until recently I didn’t think had anything to do with each other, and then I suddenly realized that they ought to have an affair.  So now when I write the scene when they meet each other, it will be a different scene than what I would have written had they meant nothing to each other – ever. It makes foreshadowing possible.

Bravelycreative: When I read your other interviews, I hear you talk about starting in the middle or at the end of the book and working backwards. This sounds to me like you’re “designing” the work, which is similar to drawing or painting. In other words, visual artists are often taught not to spend an inordinate amount of time on one area but to sketch in the whole image and then work back, sketching in around the picture or image.

Yes, it’s very similar. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” was  written all over – a bit here and a bit there. The ending was written first. But I had in my head a kind of architecture for it that made it possible to skip around and let the characters be who they were no matter what age they were in a given scene.

Bravelycreative: Am I making a huge jump to say that when I look at your art on your website, I see a connection between the timing of your novels and your visual art? For example some of the art that you were working on while thinking about or working on “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and also “Her Fearful Symmetry” remind me of those books.

I hope they’re connected. It’s interesting to have a retrospective because it makes you go back and look at all your old stuff, which I rarely do. It makes me realize that I do return over and over again to similar ideas. I always sort of prided myself on having a diverse body of work, but now that I have 30 years of work behind me, I look back and say, oh, I was actually somewhat consistent. I mean, there are certain themes that just come back over and over again.

Bravelycreative: You became a visual artist before you were an author, and I know you were always interested in bookmaking, and you’ve done fine art books. But did you make a separation in your head between writing and art, or did you always consider yourself both an artist and writer?

Very early on I thought of doing both. My mother is an artist and also an English major so I grew up in a house full of books. I was encouraged by all the adults around me – teachers and so forth – to do both and was praised for both. It was my own preference to go to art school. It never occurred to me to get a writing degree.

Bravelycreative: For me, working in both writing and painting is a challenge. For instance when writing, sometimes I have to physically to turn my brain off, or switch my brain, or feel different parts of my brain working. It’s hard to describe.

The physical feeling of switching back and forth I think is quite real. If you’re attentive and you’re paying attention, you really can feel it. Take the example of a figurative drawing class. Students come in and make all this chit chat: what did you do over the weekend; where should we put the model – here or make him lie down? But then once everyone settles in, no one talks. My God, you couldn’t talk and draw at the same time. All the language receptors in your brain are switching off because you have to look and it’s so different – when the drawing is going well, there’s a literal sensation in your head. I couldn’t really tell you what it is… it’s almost like a meditation.

However, comics is one area where both writing and drawing processes are taking place. These authors are able to switch back and forth.

Art students that I teach are much better at developing their writing skills than the writers are at developing their drawing or art skills. One reason is that our educational system has put so much effort into teaching us how to read and write, and virtually no effort into teaching us how to draw or think visually. People in many fields have to read and write, but if you’re not actually a visual artist, nobody is demanding that you draw anything.

But people can be taught to look and see and draw without a huge herculean effort.

A couple of years ago I was tphoto of bookcover of drawingrightsideofbraineaching a course called “Visual Book.” The point of the class was to take a bunch of writers and help them develop their visual thinking. We did a bunch of exercises that involved putting images with words. I assigned each of them to do a one page comic, and they could do whatever they wanted. One student told me she wanted to do a story about people but that she couldn’t draw – not even stick figures. So here’s a comic about a worm. And I said “oh this is very sad” and so the next class I said, okay everybody, we’re going to have a drawing lesson. I used exercises from Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain”  and by the end of the class, they were drawing portraits of each other. That was probably one of the more informative classes that I’ve ever taught from the point of me kind of experimenting with people to see what you are able to do because the difference was so startling. The students were startled – they couldn’t believe that they could actually learn to draw.

Bravelycreative: Do you think you can teach people how to be creative?

Yes, absolutely.

Bravelycreative: How?

The job of the teacher is to provide the correct limitations so that when students do exercises, the exercises actually force them to have certain kinds of “thinking experiences.” You’re getting them to think differently. You’re not trying to produce a particular kind of idea – you’re trying to get them to go through a different route in coming up with a solution. You’re trying to change their processes. So for me, the most fruitful thing has been in class exercises in which they have to do things to which there is no correct solution, and usually it’s timed so that the stakes aren’t that high. You have to artificially simulate conditions that artists have for themselves when actually creating.

Bravelycreative: So you’re teaching divergent thinking, or coming up with as many different solutions to a problem as possible. How do you then get them to choose the best solution – when working on a book or painting, for example?

In class we talk about  how ideas are a dime a dozen but it’s recognizing the better ideas. Experienced artists have a track record and they can tell if an idea is fitting in with what they’re already doing – they recognize something as being for them or for this particular work. Most artists who have worked for awhile know not to toss something just because it’s startling. So part of it is about practice. As a student you don’t have it.

One thing useful for writers is reading out loud and feeling the response of the audience or classmates. Sometimes people just don’t know what they’ve got. There’s just a vibe in the room when an idea really hits people.

Also the process of editing. I teach people how to edit and how to be edited. And this idea that okay you’re going to open your mind to hearing someone else’s ideas about your work, and of course, what you’re doing is listening attentively and quietly so if someone is giving you a good piece of advice you can recognize it.

The problem of talking about all of this is – what’s a good idea for one person is a useless idea for someone else. So it’s all very individual.

Bravelycreative: Have I overlooked anything on creativity?

Suzanne Cohan-Lange founded the  Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Columbia College – the department I taught in before moving to the Fiction Writing Department. She always would say:  “We teach courage.” I think that is actually really important that people have to somehow learn to be fearless, because if you’re too worried about how something will be received or if people will think you’re nuts, you can’t really get the most out of your creativity. The self-censorship, this fear that you’re not coloring in between the lines,I think scotches a lot of amazing stuff before it has a chance to take shape. And so I would encourage people to be fearless.

See Audrey Niffenegger’s website for more information on her artwork, books, and upcoming projects.

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