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7 October 2011

The NS Interview: Audrey Niffenegger, artist and author

“Only a pathetic excuse for a story ends with everybody doomed”

By Sophie Elmhirst

Are you an artist first and a writer second?
I suppose they coexist evenly. I don’t worry about it much. You know – what am I really? It’s a question I never ask myself.

Do the two inform each other?
Absolutely, and they always have. It’s not like I suddenly took up writing. I’ve been writing my whole life.

Are there stories you know will be better told visually than in a written form?
It doesn’t take long to sort out what something should be, but sometimes an idea sits around for a very long time before I realise what I want to do with it. There are things that images don’t do and there are things that words don’t do.

Does your mind work differently when you’re dealing with words or images?
They’re definitely two different parts. For example, when I’m writing I can’t listen to music, especially music with lyrics, but when I’m drawing I put on the music and blast it loud because the part of my brain that listens to music is not making the drawing.

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Your graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, suggests that books can be a source of solace, but also of sadness and isolation.
To me, the library represents an ideal that’s worth sacrificing for. The world of the library in the book is idiosyncratic and not something that everyone would choose, but there are people for whom that’s a true ideal. Some people react to religion that way.

The character sacrifices her life and relationships for books. Isn’t that extreme?
I guess it depends on how much stock you place in relationships. Society puts forward the true, rounded life as one involving relationships, but what we’re talking about here is like a monastic order. Not everybody would chuck away their life the way she does – she overreacts – but at the same time she’s an idealist and a purist.

Your love of books and libraries is evident in The Time Traveler’s Wife and other works. Have they always been important to you?
Ever since somebody put a book in my hand, I’ve loved them. My home library was in Evan­ston, where Northwestern University is located. A bunch of arts students had made all these books by hand and donated them to the library. I remember looking at them aged about five and thinking, “Whoa, somebody made that.” To me, that was just as impressive as if somebody had made a car or a shoe or a refrigerator.

Do you worry about the book disappearing?
The book has been with us for hundreds of years. We’ve had so long to make it interesting and well suited to us. A book is built for the human hand and we’ve made all these glorious physical environments for books. We’re moving towards this ethereal space where books are yourself. It doesn’t seem quite as fun.

What’s wrong with e-readers?
They look like 1970s calculators, with the exception of the iPad, which is the usual Apple extravaganza. But in the future I’m sure they will be more aesthetically glorious.

Will we lose the pleasure of book design?
I don’t think many readers are conscious of what book designers do – the refinements in design and typography. There is definitely something lost, because designers subliminally affect your reading experience.

Many of our libraries in the UK are endangered. Does that concern you?
You guys are experiencing something extreme. It makes me wonder if the people doing the cuts are deliberately trying to make everybody stupid. Maybe they think people who don’t have access to information will be more sheeplike. The idea that you take the epitome of culture and withhold it in the name of austerity seems to me the stupidest thing they could do. The waste of talent will be impossible to calculate.

What’s the situation like in the US?
I’m not saying that the cuts over here can be made up by individuals, but there’s a lot more private giving going on. I’m sitting here in Chi­cago, which built 30-odd libraries over the past decade, and they’re not closing them.

What does God mean to you?
I’m happy for other people to believe whatever they believe – but I don’t myself.

Do you vote?
Oh yes.

Is there anything you’d like to forget?
No, if I could have total recall I would.

Is there a plan?
The plan was to make things and try to be happy. It more or less worked out.

Are we all doomed?
That’s a heck of a question. No, I don’t think so. I’m a storyteller and it’s a pathetic excuse for a story that ends up with everybody doomed.

Defining Moments

1963 Born in South Haven, Michigan
1978 Begins making prints
1987 Printworks Gallery in Chicago hosts the first public exhibition of her work
1991 Gets MFA, Northwestern University
2003 Publishes her first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, an international bestseller
2009 Her Fearful Symmetry appears
2010 Book of The Night Bookmobile
2011 Speaks at a BD and Comics Passion event (8 October), Institut Français, London

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