Friday, June 02, 2006

A talk by Audrey Niffenegger - author of The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey NiffeneggerThe other day I went to a talk and book-reading by Audrey Niffenegger (or, as I like to call her when I forget her real name, Audrey Whiffleburger), author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I'll be telling my book club all about it next week, as many of us have read the book and we all loved it.

We only had Audrey for an hour or so but she told us quite a bit about the mechanics of writing the book, which I thought I’d share with you. I’m assuming you've read the book, by the way. If you haven't - go do so now!

  • Audrey began with the title - The Time Traveler’s Wife - which popped unbidden into her head one day when she was drawing. She says she often gets story inspirations when she’s in "the zone" (it's all that right-brain energy) and they generally come as a phrase or a title. She said most of them are not very useful for story-writing, but they do sound like great names for bands - so if she ever gets a band together, she’ll be fine!

  • From that title, she began to think about what it would be like to be actually be the wife of a time traveller, always waiting, never knowing whether or not he’ll be here today, or tomorrow, or not until next month or next year or ever - and she thought about her mother, who lost her dad at the age of 16 and whose husband was often away traveling - and what it must be like to have to carry on when you have lost the most important person in your life.

  • She began by writing the final two scenes in the book, because (I think) she needed to give us that single bright ray of hope which those scenes bring to the conclusion of the tale. Then she wrote the scene where Clare loses her virginity "just to get things warmed up a little!", and then she got stuck in to the rest of the book. The order in which she wrote the book was completely different from the order in which it ended up.

  • She told us about the timelines she used when she was writing the story, because it's such a puzzle - jumping around in time, with pieces being added all over the place to build up the picture. She used two timelines - one for Clare - the static, "real time" timeline; and (interestingly) one for the reader (and also Henry) - so she could keep track of what we/Henry know and don't yet know at any stage in the narrative.

    I'd love to have found out what the timelines actually looked like - were they on a spreadsheet, or did she stick great long pieces of paper all across her walls for example - but alas, it did not occur to our chairperson to ask.

  • It took three and a half years to write the book, and Audrey sent the manuscript to many agents and editors before it was accepted. She thinks the problem was that many publishers only have time to read the first few pages of a manuscript - and although she realised the first 20 pages or so of this story were the weakest part of the book, she couldn't seem to fix them.

    Finally publisher Jonathan Cape said yes - and she thinks that's because the editor there takes the time to read every manuscript in his slush pile, rather than giving them to an intern or student to read first. She acknowledges that most manuscripts are really rather awful, and so she guesses that editors probably begin reading by assuming that it will be no good, and wait to be proven wrong.

  • Audrey related a story she'd heard about a big book conference held recently in New York, where a discussion panel of eminent editors were holding forth on various literary topics. They were asked if there were any books they regretted turning down, and the first one said "Well I did turn down The Time Traveler’s Wife". The second one said "Yes - I turned that book down too" and the third one said "So did I..." She said that story made her feel good.

  • Audrey read us a few pages of the book, and chose the part where Henry buys an old TV and brings it home as a surprise for Clare. While they are making dinner, he asks her about her dream studio, which she describes, reluctantly at first, until she realises how much this unattainable fantasy means to her. At 8 o'clock Henry switches on the TV, hands her a lottery ticket, and they watch the Illinois lottery numbers being drawn. Of course the numbers on the screen match the numbers on Clare's ticket, and they are instantly 8 million dollars richer.

    Audrey said she wrote this scene for her own amusement, and talked about how it emphasised the fact that although Henry cannot take anything physical with him when he time-travels (such as clothes, money and supplies), he can take knowledge, although for the most part he chooses not to use that to any unfair advantage.

  • Audrey talked a little about Chicago, the setting for the book, and how she used real places and real people to provide a solid grounding for this fantastical story. She knows Chicago very well - it's her home - and she felt that in order for the reader to accept the fact that Henry travels through time, everything else needed to be as real and as solid as possible.

    She told us that the record store in the book is the same one on which the film version of High Fidelity is based, and that people often wander in there just to see the reality that inspired the fiction. They also turn up at the Newberry in large numbers wanting to see The Cage, which is really annoying for the library staff because, as Audrey said "It's just a stairwell!"

  • The film rights for The Time Traveler’s Wife were purchased quite a while ago - by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston of all people - and when they split up, they split up their projects too - and this one is Brad's. However, it's proven extremely difficult to write the screenplay.

    This is mainly because the book is so complex, it's almost impossible to take anything out. If you do remove a scene, all of a sudden other parts of the story start falling apart too - which makes it very difficult to pare it down to a manageable size. Audrey told us that one page of manuscript generally equates to about a minute of screen time, and that her manuscript was 600 pages long - so it's quite a challenge!

    Two screenwriters have tried so far - the first she said was horribly sentimental - which is exactly how she didn't write the book to be - and the second wasn't right either, although it was better. She said she'd really like to have a go at writing it herself, and she seems like the kind of woman who could make it happen.

  • Of course we then moved on to who she would like to play the lead roles in the movie. She said her perfect choice would be Adrian Brody (The Pianist, King Kong) for Henry and Lauren Ambrose for Clare (she plays the younger daughter in 6 Feet Under). And if not them, then maybe Johnny Depp and someone-I-can't-remember.

    Our chairperson suggested maybe Brad could play Henry opposite Angelina's Clare - which elicited horrified groans from both Audrey and the rest of the audience!

  • At the end of the talk there was time for audience questions. One woman asked Audrey, as the vast majority of our audience was female, and she assumed this might be a repeating pattern for Audrey's talks - how did she think men related to her book? Audrey told us that she knows very well how men relate to her book - because they email her about it! In large numbers!

    They pretty much always start with "my girlfriend made me read this book", and then tell her all about how much they enjoyed it. It seems that some men really like the idea of meeting your significant other when she is very young, and getting to know her long before you get together. Hmmm.

I thought she was lovely. She has the palest skin and long red hair, and she's quite tall. When she spoke she seemed rather serious at first, but she turned out to have a lovely dry sense of humour - she made us laugh. Although the questions asked of her were somewhat long and involved, she had no problem picking up on the essence of the question and telling us real things, the little details that make this kind of talk really fascinating.

My book signed by AudreyAfterwards I got my rather dog-eared copy of the book signed by Audrey (she has lovely writing - as if a very elegant and long-legged spider had danced across the page), and I told her how much I loved the book and how easy she had made it for the reader to suspend disbelief. I’m sure she hears that all the time, but it was nice to be able to say it for myself.

I got quite tongue-tied when I got to the front of the book signing queue, but there was a guy ahead of me who chatted away enthusiastically to her - so I thought I'd just do the same and pretend she's not a famous author, but just someone I happened to be talking to. My self-deception didn't quite work - I still felt like I was trying to speak with cotton-wool in my mouth - but I'm really glad I told her how much I loved the book. I would have kicked myself afterwards if I hadn't even managed to say that!

Thanks to the New Zealand Book Council and all their sponsors for making this talk possible, and thanks most of all to Audrey Niffenegger for having the vision - and for bringing it to life.

The Time Traveler's Wife book coverUseful links:

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newlie said...

Thank you for this fascinating glimpse into Audrey's creative process!
I love learning how different people create...

I had writing aspirations once, but find I don't quite have the patience for it...
I do love to read, though, and now that I have long bus commutes to and from work, I'm always on the lookout for a good book. I will surely add The Time Traveler's Wife to my list.

webweaver said...

Oh yes! Do read it - it's wonderful!

Anonymous said...

This is Joyce from Wisconsin again. I didn't sign up as a blogger but did want to tell you how much I enjoyed your comments on meeting Ms. Niffenhegger. I have suggested this book for my month to be hostess of the book club I belong to.

webweaver said...

That's brilliant, Joyce! Let me know what your book club members think of it, OK?

Silver_Gurrl said...

WW Alison,

I picked up TTTW at my local B&N one day last fall. I read the first chapter while sipping my chai tea and fell in love! Asked my daughter to buy it for me for Christmas - she did! (What a girl -maybe I did raise her right; she's got her mama's passion for fiction!)

Anyhoo,the rest of the story . . . began reading TTTW while on vacation during the holidays and couldn't put it down! What a story. Good TT fiction is the best.thing.evah! How lucky you are to meet and chat with "Ms. Whiffleburger" - hee!

BTW, have you ever read Diana Gabaldon's work: The Outlander series? If not, YOU MUST! This continuing saga of Jamie & Claire is my favorite work of fiction!

Clay Aiken: yes, he is the 8th wonder of the modern world! With a voice that makes me !GAH! and the look of ... well, he's indescribably delicious! (The jury's still out on what I think of the "new hair.") Waiting for some new music from him is killing me!


brtsgrl said...

I can't remember how I heard about this book, but I so desperately want to thank the person or website that I first stumbled upon that introduced me to this brilliant novel! So, I will send my thanks out to the world and the author here and thank you for posting some insights from the writer herself.

I must confess, when I first read the book, the first person I though of for Henry, was Skeet Ulrich. He's sort of a younger, taller version of Johnny Depp. And if you look into his personal history a little, he has some striking similarities, not just physically to Henry himself.

I hope they can create a screenplay that is worthy of the book and I will be first in line. I hope there will be a sequel....the Time Traveler's Daughter???

magpie said...

I read this book quite a while back and thought that it was absolutely wonderful! Really! Your reviews and comments are right on the spot and I am doing an assignment for my english class and feedback like this is definitely what I need to get background info on the book. Well done! :)

webweaver said...

Hi magpie,

I'm so glad my review will be of use in your english assignment - that's great to hear!