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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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