How Audrey Niffenegger ended up writing a ballet

The author of <em>Time Traveller's Wife</em> speaks to Hayley Campbell about her new illustrated novel, <em>Raven Girl</em>.

Audrey Niffenegger knows nothing whatsoever about ballet. She's pretty blunt about this. Originally it was because like every other struggling artist she could never afford tickets, and then later it was because she had become the kind of opera person who has season tickets and a regular opera buddy she takes to every show. But Niffenegger does know about stories and wonder and the weird. She has two stellar novels under her belt and has populated her home in Chicago with a pair of human skeletons, an eclectic collection of damaged taxidermy, thousands of books, and two cats (one of whom is called Whimsy). She owns a pair of bespoke Victorian mourning shoes with jaybird wings flicking out from the ankles like those of Hermes. So if you want the skeleton of your ballet to be a story that is dark and weird, Niffenegger can piece together those bones. In May, a ballet debuts at the Royal Opera House with Audrey's name all over it. It's called Raven Girl.

Ballet turned up in Niffenegger's life when David Drew, once Principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, was given a copy of her illustrated book, The Three Incestuous Sisters. Light on words but heavy on imagery and melancholy gothic drama, Drew thought the book was a ballet waiting to take the stage. He rapidly realised Niffenegger knew nothing about dance itself so took her around workshops, rehearsals and to shows whenever she was in London. By seeing how the shows come together in this world of rosin and gruelling rehearsals, Niffenegger found an identifiable hook in what is a fairly alien world to a writer and illustrator:

"I had seen them as working artists. I felt a kinship with them because I could see them making things, and I make things, and I couldn't make the things they make but nevertheless I understood more or less what they were doing.

"I was hanging out with David for years, and he was introducing me to lots and lots of people in all capacities of the Ballet. Eventually he introduced me to Wayne [McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet]. Wayne very much liked my illustrated book The Adventuress but very sensibly said, 'We should do something together and we should start from scratch. We should do something new that you haven't already done. And don't worry about the dance, I'll take care of the dance, you just make stories'."

McGregor said he wanted a new fairytale, specifically a dark fairytale.

"My reaction to that is, well, what other kinds of fairytales are there? Some are darker than others - Hans Christian Anderson seems darkest of anyone. But even reading the Grimms' fairytales there are some that are so incredibly dark that you think, 'Well, this can't possibly be for children'. I immediately thought of this thing I'd had sitting around since about 2002. I had a character, this half-girl, half-bird. I had no story for her, she didn't have any kind of narrative at all. She was just a girl who was inwardly a bird and felt trapped in her girl-body."

Niffenegger went to see some of the shows McGregor was doing with his own company, Random Dance. She found that that things he was doing there involved a lot of fairly extreme movement and often included some kind of visual element like film, or an LED display. But most unique to McGregor's work is the thread of mind/body relationship that runs through them - he has worked with scientists at Cambridge and was appointed Research fellow in the Experimental Psychology department where he studied body/brain interaction. "I thought about my little characters and I thought, 'Well, a fairytale is certainly the kind of story she could be in'. She's like a fairytale character - she's halfway between two states and in need of some kind of transformation."

Everybody knows that birds are a mainstay of those in pointe shoes and seamed tights, girls with battered feet and slicked-back buns. Ordinarily it's swans. Elegant, long-necked and romantic: in the minds of people who have only the faintest knowledge of the artform, swans are ballet. But ravens? The scavengers who sweep down on battlefields to pick at the dead, the black birds of myth and superstition whose call sounds like they are saying tomorrow, tomorrow in Latin over, and over and over? Ravens: not so much. But if Niffenegger writes the story, things are a little different – there is a certain kind of tale you're going to get out of her and romantic and ordinary it is not. In Swan Lake the princess is turned into a swan by a curse, while in the topsy-turvy dreamworld of Niffenegger, whose interest is always whacked-out and opposite, it is a girl who has her arms amputated and wings sewn on in their stead.

In this story there is horror, science, death – not to mention the inter-species sex. But we don't see that bit – where, in the novel, there are three asterisks and then it's magically, suddenly, post-coitally morning, in an illustrated book there is simply a blank space.

"Suddenly they have an egg. I just decided I needed to leave certain things to the imagination. It's fun. I feel like I've managed to make a fairytale without actually following a lot of the rules. It's a mash-up, it's genre-bending – it's a fairytale, dammit."

She spent nine months "noodling around" with little gouache paintings and ink drawings and showed them to McGregor over breakfast in London.

"You could tell that there was something about it that wasn't quite doing it for him, and it was finally made clear that what he really, really wanted was aquatints." The thing about aquatints – a centuries-old print-making technique used in both Niffenegger's illustrated books so far – is that they are not only painstaking ("that's okay, painstaking is my middle name") but time-consuming. "The problem was just going to be generating enough images because Wayne's ideal was a book like The Adventuress – mostly image and very little text. Every image you make fulfils a certain chunk of story. And if you can't make enough then the story becomes very blocky and gappy, unless you're going to use words. I had 12 weeks to do all the art. My assistant Ken and I were incredibly pale by the end of that summer."

Niffenegger's fairytale comes out in May to coincide with the dance's debut. It's been years in the making and Audrey has been in London so frequently that she ended up buying a flat here. It houses all the stuffed birds she bought to sketch from - ravens, magpies, rooks, jackdaws. There are ten corvids in her sitting room, perched on bookshelves or swooping with curled toes and tongue. Although she has been absent from the rehearsals for a couple of months now, she's confident everything will come together in the end. "I'll be back in April and by then everything will be so far underway that I will just go, 'Uh huh, amazing'. But I kind of like the idea of being surprised and just walking into it and going, 'Wow'. I have so much faith in Wayne, unlike my Hollywood experience where I had no faith. I know I can count on him to be interesting and intelligent about it, so even if dance people don't like it, it'll be interesting to me because I'm such a little naïve thing about what ballet is. I'm just kind of hanging in, waiting for spring."

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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