“Time is a state: the flame in which there lives the salamander of the human soul.” -Andrei Tarkovsky
Chicago-based artist Audrey Niffenegger has always had a strong sense of storytelling: A compelling grasp of contradiction, humor, tragedy, and fantasy permeates the twenty odd years of her visual art career. Her work, an affirmation of Chicago’s surrealist-inspired tradition, is marked by her own ineluctable narrative style and a sense of metaphor, taking the form of prints, visual books, drawings, and paintings. Last September her first attempt at writing a novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” was released by MacAdam/Cage to considerable acclaim, hitting the #9 position on the New York Times bestseller list. The fantasy realism of Niffenegger’s philosophical fable uses time travel as a means of exposing the painful, uncontrollable, but emotionally essential realities of human existence developed through the two central characters of Henry and Claire. At the time her novel was released Niffenegger’s exhibit of drawings entitled Ferocious Bon Bons opened at the Printworks Gallery in Chicago where the artist shows regularly. The following are excerpts from a one hour interview about the intertwining of her visual and literary worlds, and the kind of sustained imaginative potential she has cultivated between them for over two decades.
Diane Thodos: Your images have a way of giving me a story that I want to know. They have an inherent narrative quality that draws me in. I feel your visual books “The Adventuress” and “The Three Incestuous Sisters,” which have etching prints accompanied by text, have common elements with your current novel in a basic way. What is the common thread you see in all three?
Audrey Niffenegger: The two visual books by necessity tell simpler stories, because when you are trying to tell something in pictures you can’t load on the detail the same way you can when you write everything. To some extent all three of them use the idea of lovers who can’t be together. All of them ask for suspension of disbelief. They all involve something implausible or impossible as their basic premise. The paranormal is a common thread.
DT: I find them all playful with surrealism.
AN: Yeah, surrealism is my favorite fun thing. My feeling has always been why make something that merely replicates reality when you can have reality. My own interest lies in things that are impossible in some way.
DT: Who are the artists you admire, Surrealist or otherwise?
AN: Remedios Varo, Max Ernst, Charlotte Salomon, Goya, Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley is not so much about the impossible as he is about freaks and deformities, but those are interesting to me too.
DT: In Magic Realism as both literature and visual art the necessity of fantasy is intertwined with the inescapable condition of the real. In “The Time Traveler’s Wife” I find it interesting that this is the hinge upon which both the romance develops and tragedy finally unfolds. It’s interesting for audiences – this concretion of the real and this fantasy of escape.
AN: Something which people seem to miss about the book is that it is actually a very stark view of the way things work. It certainly does not hold out any utopia or promise of a better world – it’s just to clarify this sort of feeling I had about time. You live in it all your life and yet you never really experience it directly. You can only see its effects – you can’t taste or touch it. The novel is essentially a kind of prism to get people to think about time.
DT: Can you talk about how dreams were part of your work and how they developed into your writing and visual art?
AN: Dreams are important to me because they are so irrational. I’m attracted to things which seem to fit together but don’t in fact make any sense. Dreams didn’t really have a lot to do with the novel whereas “The Adventuress,” which was my first visual book, is almost entirely based on dreams. I had ten more or less random drawings and then I thought well, I’ll make a plot that connects all of them. “The Three Incestuous Sisters” was kind of the same. The three characters appeared in a dream and I knew who they were.
DT: “The Three Incestuous Sisters” has how many etchings?
DT: Which is a phenomenal amount of work. You must have the patience of a saint to make such delicate acquatints and lines.
AN: I’m attracted to the line and tonal quality that acquatint and etching have which no other medium has.
DT: The Chicago art writer and historian Franz Schulze has described Chicago art and Imagist art as narrative and Surrealist in its basis. Do you feel this is part of your background?
AN: Actually Franz Schulze’s book “Fantastic Images” had a lot of impact on me. Mark Pascale turned me on to that book when I was twenty years old. It was really interesting to see all this art in one place and to have somebody articulate a theory of Chicago art since I already had a real predilection towards Dada and Surrealism. Chicago is just teeming with kooky, whacked-out artists, and I’m one of them in my own sedate way.
DT: When I returned to Chicago after living in New York City I sensed there was something quite distinctive about being an artist in Chicago and the kind of consciousness you could carry about who you want to be. I’m starting to think it’s a privilege to be on the periphery because you can create the circumstances of your own freedom just from the aspect of “benign neglect.”
AN: Yes, certainly. I think that’s definitely true. I think anyone who has chosen to stay in Chicago is embracing that idea, one way or another. The fact that you don’t go to one of the theoretically more important art cities says something about your independence, your ability to resist the urge to conform.
DT: Current audiences picking up your book find a lot of meaning in it. It is your first published novel and has been very successful. It is even currently being developed into a screenplay for Brad Pitt’s and Jennifer Aniston’s production company. I feel like you’ve connected with something in the present state of mind.
AN: I think that a lot of people have a longing to move out of the present. The present is very constricting. You can’t go back to your past, you can’t go ahead to see what’s in your future, so you have to put up with whatever is here now. People have a deep longing to think about something else and move into a fictional world and also to feel there are other possibilities than just everyday reality. I don’t think time travel is actually possible, but as a metaphor it is interesting.
DT: In the novel it seems like there’s a definite sense that emotions are the most meaningful things because they are the only thing that these characters can have given the fragile and random nature of existence. I’m intrigued by this psychological use of time.
AN: Certainly if there’s any underlying message in the book it’s something simple like “don’t take things for granted” and “be conscious.” These characters are always on the verge of losing each other so they are always extra conscious of each other’s presence. I think that’s not a bad thing to be reminded of . Be aware. Be present. Be here now.
“Ferocious Bon Bons” was seen at Printworks Gallery,
Chicago in September 2003