On Art and Artist's Books

The first handmade books I ever saw were in a box in the Children’s Room in the old Evanston Public Library. One artist had used xeroxes of the heads of American presidents (xeroxed from money) to make all the characters; It was the first time I realized that people made books, books did not materialize out of the ether. I started making small books of my own by folding and stapling scrap paper.

As an art student I learned to set hot type, print on a Vandercook proof press, and bind books in various ways that do not involve staples. The Adventuress was my first big project. Since then my relationship with books has become quite multi-faceted. I have made unique books, books in tiny editions, books that have been commercially published; I’ve designed book covers and have illustrated books. I recently made a book, Raven Girl, that became a ballet by Wayne McGregor. 

The book is an inexhaustible source of interest to me. Its iconic form, the codex, is a technology that is still marvelous in its practicality, beauty and versatility. A book is made for the human body, its form suits ours. A book is a container of ideas, a time machine, almost a being. A book is a message to the future.

— Audrey Niffenegger


Your early work incorporated illustration, papermaking, printmaking, hand bookbinding, and other older artistic skills. What appealed to you about these forms, as opposed to more modern methods?

I never set out to pursue only older techniques. I was simply interested in the effects. Etching has a beautiful line and is a challenging process. Photography, likewise, is exciting. I always liked darkroom work. When I came to painting, I was particularly interested in medieval techniques like egg tempera, but as I got into oil painting, I became absorbed by the technical side of that.

The modern separation between the artist (who has the idea) and the makers (who actually execute it) - for me, that takes away quite a lot because I think much of the idea happens while you are making the work,  the two are intertwined. There’s a Jeff Koons sculpture which is just this lump of Play-doh that his kid squished up and later Koons had it produced as an enormous replica of the squished up Playdoh at vast expense. For me, that way of proceeding is not too compelling. I don’t want to lose contact with the thing itself. There are things that one person cannot make. They require lots of hands - foundry work, for example. I certainly enjoy having Ken Gerleve print for me, it’s great to have his expertise in the studio. I think that you have to be thoughtful about the way that you do your job as an artist. It’s possible to marry new and old techniques. I write on a computer but also by hand. I sometimes set type on a computer and then make polymer plates and print on a letterpress. So there’s a real blurring of the old/new divide.

I am interested in making things. I do want there to be an object at the end. I’m not all that enamored of stuff that exists entirely in the digital realm or can only be seen when you turn it on. I tried making performance art for a while and gave up because it vanishes and I wanted there to be something that remains after all that work. I want my imaginary world to intersect with the real world.

How do you decide what artistic formats in which to manifest your ideas?

That’s a primary part of the process. The initial idea might be an image that I can see in my mind and it might be a phrase and it might be a character. But very close to the beginning of the process, I have to decide if I’m working on a short story or an artist’s book or a painting or a photograph. There are all kinds of things that it could be and I have to ask myself what form might be the most appropriate. Sometimes I’ll do something in more than one form. At the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife it was just a phrase. The time traveler’s wife. I imagined that it might be an artist’s book or a graphic novel. But as I thought it through, I realised that potentially it could be a complex story and that the story of a time traveler would involve jumps in time that are not natural nor easy to portray in still images. So, almost immediately I realised that the ideal form would be a novel or a movie. And since I was very broke at the time and movies are very expensive to make, I embarked on writing the novel.

You’ve cited Aubrey Beardsley as an early inspiration; when you were younger, you copied his style before developing your own. How does an artist (or writer, for that matter) grow from copying a style to creating his or her own?

I don’t know if that process ever entirely ceases because unless you want to calcify, you should be open to new influences. Certainly when artists are young, they look at what has already been done and quite a lot of people that I know started by copying comics and had an interest in drawing Batman and stuff like that. As a girl, I was somewhat less interested in Batman, but my mother is an artist, she’s a textile artist and quilter. I was always interested in what she was doing. I certainly didn’t have the skills to make a quilt, but I was always drawing, I was particularly involved with the images in books. And from the time I was very small, I imagined that I would be a book illustrator. I was taken to museums pretty regularly. I remember being taken to the Art Institute  of Chicago when I was quite tiny. So, I knew that there were paintings and sculptures and that artists made them. I don’t remember finding this out, it was just something I always knew.

My involvement with Aubrey Beardsley began when I was fourteen. When I started high school, I almost immediately got an ear infection, which kept me out of school for a couple of weeks. So I was lying around on the couch in pain doing more or less nothing and my mother went to the Evanston Public Library and brought back a giant stack of art books. One of these books was the very large Brian Reade book on Beardsley  which is engagingly written and full of just about everything that Beardsley ever drew, it was a great introduction. I lapped it up. Beardsley himself was a very young artist - he died when he was twenty-five - it’s not that big of a leap for a fourteen-year-old person to identify with him. His first work that’s in that book was done when he was a child. His obsessions were not my obsessions. He was interested in opera, particularly Wagner. He got a giant commission to illustrate the Morte d’Arthur, so the work was faux medieval. What interested me was the underlying attitude, which was very rebellious. He was the Duchamp or Warhol of his day. His line quality was attractive to me. Once I was over the earache and off the couch, I got myself some ink and a dip pen and set about trying to replicate that line.

I think what is most necessary for a young artist is an obsession. You see something and you just want it. You want to consume it. You want to be it. That was my way in. Before Beardsley, I had been interested in art and I had been drawing drawing drawing but that was the first time I felt any sort of direction. When I was in high school I took classes that involved drawing still-lives, trying to render things realistically and so forth, but my desire was to draw things that didn’t look particularly real. What Beardsley was doing was not that far removed from the comics of today. I think my strength, especially when I was younger, was always in the linear.

What other artists would you say contributed to your development?

I have long been interested in Charlotte Salomon. She was a young artist who died in Auschwitz but before that happened she made a book called "Life or Theater" which chronicles her family history, which was fairly extreme. Seven of her relatives committed suicide, most of them by jumping out of windows. She was working during the rise of Nazism. Her book is very odd in its format. She was working on individual pieces of cardboard and using gouache. She had about a year of art school before the Nazis made her leave. Her work is incredibly spontaneous, Her style falls apart as the book goes on and she has to work faster and faster because she knows her time is limited.

This might seem odd to people but I'm very attentive to John Singer Sargent, mostly for style. I have to confess that I don't know much about him as a person but his painting abilities are fascinating to me. Another artist that I particularly looked at was Francisco Goya for his aquatints. Horst Janssen is an artist I am hugely influenced by. He was a German artist whose main interests were in drawing and printmaking. He had an abiding fascination with decay and a lot of drawings are of things that are half-rotted. There is a lot of death imagery in his stuff. The Art Institute did two big Horst Janssen retrospectives while I was a student, and to be able to go and look at those shows every single day had a huge impact on me. I've since found other artists in Chicago who also were influenced by him: Elizabeth Ockwell and Jay Ryan. I'm sure there are many others..

In your third year of undergraduate study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, you began a series of drawings that eventually became your first artist’s book, The Adventuress. The book has a dream-like, fairy tale narrative structure. Did the story come to you in random parts, to be pieced together later, or did you craft it as a whole? Can you say a bit about the evolution of the story?

I was working in a sketchbook and started making drawings of the same character over and over and when I had done ten of them I realized that it told some kind of story but it wasn't a story I could figure out at all. The events in the drawings were quite random. I decided to see if I could make a narrative that would encompass these ten images and I managed to do that. The end result retains the original disjointed, dream-like quality. There's a surprise and then an inevitability about every image in the book. The thing that I still like about The Adventuress is that it looked like nothing else that was going on around me. Neo-expressionism was the order of the day. These prints have a Japanese influence and of course a very Beardsley-esque quality.

What physical processes did you employ to create the book (intaglio printmaking, aquatints, bookbinding)? Did you have to learn any new (to you) skills in order to complete the book?

The Adventuress has 68 aquatints - that's an etching process. The type is letterpress printed, it's set by hand and the book was hand-bound. I had to learn some of these processes for this particular project.  Before I started working on this, in 1983, I didn't know letterpress or hand type setting and I didn't have any bookbinding skills so I had to figure out what I needed to learn and then get out there and learn it.

Like The Adventuress, your next artist’s book, The Three Incestuous Sisters, was created as a handmade edition of ten. You have called it a “fourteen-year labor of love.” What kept you dedicated to the project for such a long period of time?

At the beginning, in 1985, I was all excited and everything was new, I was creating vast swathes of story and getting to know my characters and every single image I made or scene I wrote added significantly to my knowledge of the story. That kept me going for quite a long time. At a certain point the sheer weight of what I had already done kept me at it. In all my books I build my world initially with a lot of excitement and then later I have an allegiance to that world. I don’t want to let my characters down by abandoning them mid-story.

For both books, what inspired you to not only write the stories and illustrate them, but also to physically make the books themselves?

The Adventuress was completed in 1985 and at the time the personal computer was in its infancy and the only way to make something that looked like a proper book was to do it by hand. I didn’t have access to commercial binding or printing. With my background as a printmaker it seemed obvious to do letterpress. That was easy for me to learn. The bookbinding I found especially satisfying. I was excited to be able to make stuff that looked convincing, in fact more than convincing. The end result was quite well crafted (if I do say so myself) so there’s the satisfaction of doing these things and having them exist as rather glorious books, but there’s also the fact that there wasn’t a lot of choice at the time.

The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress were made commercially available in 2005 and 2006 respectively by Harry N. Abrams. When they were released, did you have any concerns or wish you had done something different in them? Was anything changed for the release of the books?

Both of the books reproduced the prints at exactly the size they were originally made, which I liked. I think if I were republishing these books today, I might have different covers. I would try to reimagine both of those covers for trade editions. We echoed the covers of the original artist’s books and I think that I would have liked the end result better if we had gotten a little more crazy and imaginative. The original books were the best I could do at that period of my life. To me, it’s important to keep going and to make something new that’s better instead of dwelling on remaking past projects. However, I am happy with these books and I wouldn’t go back and start changing them now.

What became of the handmade editions?

The original books belong to collectors and libraries. A copy of The Three Incestuous Sisters is at Harvard’s Houghton Library, The Spinster is at the Library of Congress, a copy of The Adventuress is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, and another is promised to the Newberry Library.

Spring (1994) has been described as your smallest, most intimate artist’s book. Published in an edition of 100 copies, it was created as a collaboration with Marilyn Sward. It tells the story of a writer who meets Mr. Rain, a character from one of her stories. The images and text were printed using stone lithography, and elements were hand-colored. How did this collaboration occur?

I had started Spring a few years before Marilyn and I started making it. I was just drawing in a sketchbook and I couldn’t figure out how to end it. This happens to me quite frequently, I get halfway into something and then can’t figure out where it’s going. I had come up with the idea of a woman who is by herself, she’s a writer and she’s having all of these solitary experiences. She’s a little depressed. Nothing too bizarre is happening to her. She’s buying shoes. She finds a kitten. She’s kind of hanging out. Then, at the end of the book, she meets this character that she’s been writing about, Mr. Rain, who comes to her door bearing roses. It becomes kind of obvious by the end of the book that someone has just broken up with her or she’s getting a divorce (it’s never spelled out) and that she is quietly losing her mind. I borrowed Mr. Rain from a Velvet Underground song.  

Anyway, I got into the middle of the book and I just couldn’t see it going anywhere so I set it aside. A few years later, I was spending a lot of time with Marilyn Sward because we were in the process of starting the Book and Paper Center and Marilyn, who was ever the optimistic, hard-working person, said ‘oh, let’s do a collaboration,’ even though we were working at the Center from morning till night every day. I thought that would be interesting because Marilyn was a papermaker and something I had wanted for the Spring project was to have the pages start off dark and get lighter and lighter and also to be somewhat metallic like graphite.. I had something very specific in mind and couldn’t just go out and buy it. When Marilyn offered to collaborate I immediately thought of Spring because it required custom-made paper. I showed it to her and she was interested, so then I had to finish the story.

The thing I remember best about Spring was making the paper because we made did it at Marilyn’s wonderful log cabin studio up in Saint Germaine in Wisconsin. She had one of the nicest studios I’ve ever known anyone to have. We were up there in spring and it was really cold, we’d get up each morning and light this little pot-bellied stove that she had in the studio which was the only heating source and if you’ve ever made paper, you know that sticking your hands into a freezing cold vat of paper pulp is not the most delightful experience first thing in the morning. But anyway, we made a lot of paper. Thousands of sheets of paper. Little sheets – it’s a small book. It was really quite a pleasant experience. The cover looks like mud that’s been splashed on, it’s a technique called papermaker’s tears. To do this, we made very thick sheets of paper with a big deckle box and then before the sheets were dry we took them outside. We were hoping it would rain but it didn’t, so instead we sprayed the roof of her studio with the garden hose and then put the wet sheets of paper underneath to catch the water dripping off the roof. The result looks as though the surface of a rainy puddle has suddenly frozen.

Spring was a very satisfying collaboration because Marilyn was so great to work with. We printed everything at Anchor Graphics and they are always a delight to work with. It was a little different from what I usually do. It was lithography rather than intaglio. It was this funny little book, when you see them all laid out together they look like grey pieces of toast. It wasn’t a multi-year project. I think the whole thing took about a year which still seems like a long time to most people, but when you’ve done much much longer projects this seems like the blink of an eye.

To what extent do you think some of the themes of this early work (waiting for love, disappointment, supernaturally-charged relationships) recur in later work such as your graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, Raven Girl, or your novels The Time Traveler’s Wife or Her Fearful Symmetry? Are these concepts that have always interested you?

I never consciously took loss as my big subject, but it snuck up on me somewhere along the line. A while back, I was giving a reading at Women and Children First, and we got to the Q&A and a woman put her hand up and asked, “Why is all your work about loss?” I stood there  for a second before I opened my mouth and I said, “Well, you might be right but I have never given it any thought, so I’ll go home and think about that.” I’m still thinking about it. I don’t really have a genius answer for that. It does seem to me that the grand themes available to anybody - artist or non artist - are intrinsically connected to loss because time is passing. No matter how magnificent something is, it will be slightly less magnificent tomorrow. Entropy rules us all, and it rules art, too.

Could you discuss your other artist’s books from the late 1980s?

My first book, The Adventuress, was a big departure for me. It marks the beginning of my ‘real’ work. The Aberrant Abecedarium and The Spinster were two smaller works that were made the following year (1986). The Murderer was made in 1987. It was a relief to do smaller things which were more easily and quickly made. The Aberrant Abecedarium is an alphabet book made of small aquatints and each letter of the alphabet is embodied by some very peculiar, grotesque little person. It has a dark carnival feeling to it. It’s certainly not meant for children. I think I started making it because I encountered the word abecedarian somewhere and I thought it was a great word and got interested in the idea of animated alphabets. The Spinster was a tiny story. It gives the reader a little window onto the extreme loneliness of this woman. There are only four images in the book but I feel it is a complete book. It conveys a real sense of being bereft.

Similarly, The Murderer was a short story - a series of dreamlike vignettes - where the narrator witnesses the murder of a woman, and is subsequently hunted/haunted by the murderer, who leaves cigarette butts in an ashtray in her apartment or appears on the bus or at a friend's party. In the end he confesses his love for the narrator and the story ends.  

When I was having my graduate thesis show at Northwestern in 1991 - the work in that show was really dark, that’s probably the darkest show I ever put up – somebody who I knew slightly came up to me and said, ‘Are you ok?’ and I said, ‘Sure, why do you ask?’ She was worried about my mental health. The work I was doing at this time was just especially grim. I don’t think that I myself was particularly depressed.  It was the thing that interested me and seemed important - this deep darkness. The Spinster, The Aberrant Abecedarium and The Murderer all have a sense of nightmare about them.

When looking at your earlier works, it is hard to categorize them into one group - they all combine text and image to varying degrees. Some would simply say they are artist's books, others would say novels in images, others would say they are illustrated stories or even graphic novels. But it wasn't until The Night Bookmobile, which you originally produced for the Guardian, that you began working in a definitive way with comics. How did your process differ with the Night Bookmobile from previous works?

For The Night Bookmobile, which I wrote as a short story and then later adapted into a comic, it was very interesting to think about what parts of the story belonged to the words and what belonged to images. For that particular project I asked a couple of friends of mine to model for the characters. We went out on an actual bookmobile and I took photographs of them and used those as the basis for the images. So in a way I was making a sort of movie with still photographs and then turning that into a comic.

In your essay, you said: “Given more time, I could have made enough images to tell the Raven Girl’s story, but as Wayne McGregor said, when he saw the proofs for the book, he would make the graphic novel on stage. The dance would be the leap from language into pure image.” In light of that, how did you decide what images to produce for the book?

Raven Girl is different from some of my other books because it is a short story with illustrations and any illustrator faces this problem of deciding which parts of the book should be turned into pictures. I’m not replacing any of the text with images so the images need to extend the words. They need to show you something that’s not being described. So I was reading through the story to find the moments that are interesting either there is conflict, or something fairly dramatic has happened or perhaps there is a state of mind that I would like to emphasize. For example, there are a few images that have to do with how the Raven Girl feels about her wings. Those are interesting to me. There is one in particular, which we used for the cover, which shows the girl outlined in red super-imposed over the body of a raven. It’s trying to get at this dual sense of self that she has. There are things that words can do and things that images can do and sometimes the combination creates an idea that is unavailable otherwise. So with Raven Girl, I was trying to show things that were suggested by the text but weren’t  very thoroughly described by the text, the images are there to pull more out of the story than is inherent in the story alone.

How did the project come into being? 

Quite a few years ago, I got an email from David Drew, who was a long-time principal dancer for the Royal Opera House Ballet in London. David had been given a copy of The Three Incestuous Sisters by his wife June for his birthday, and he thought it might make a good ballet. So the next time I was in London I met David, who turned out to be the most charming, lovely man. He rapidly realised that I didn’t know a thing about dance, and so he started to bring me to the Royal Ballet to watch rehearsals, to talk to people and just hang around. Since David was a long-time teacher at the Royal Ballet School, he knew everyone. He would tote me around and introduce me to people. We never did get the Royal Ballet interested in doing The Three Incestuous Sisters as a ballet, but eventually David introduced me to Wayne McGregor, who is the Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet. Wayne was interested enough to say Let’s start from scratch. Let’s make something new together. I asked him what sort of story he would like and he said he would like a dark fairytale. That reminded me of a project that I had set aside some years earlier, which originally was going to be called The Bird Girl, it was inspired by an article in Harper’s Magazine called ‘Doctor Daedelus’ by Lauren Slater. The article was about a plastic surgeon who was interested in doing very avant garde experimental plastic surgery, body modification as a form of self expression. So for example, if you wanted a horn, a tail or wings, this guy was ready to give them to you. This is a really interesting article. The author raised all sorts of ethical questions that were quite profound. So I had this idea for a character who believes that she is a bird and wants to have her outer reality match her inner certainty. There are obvious parallels between someone being certain that she is a bird and trying to achieve that through surgery and people who feel that they’ve been born into the wrong gender. Obviously, these days, there are quite amazing things being done with gender reassignment surgery. I felt like that was a natural echo for this particular idea - the bird girl. I described all of this to Wayne. He thought it was interesting. The ballet has a long history of strange stories about women and birds. It was, in some ways, a natural fit for ballet.

What was it like to work with Wayne McGregor?

Wayne is brilliant. He is very quick and perceptive. He gets a tremendous amount of stuff done. I really don’t know how he does everything that he does. He’s very enthusiastic and has an immense amount of energy and I always felt whenever I’d met with him that he’d given me an energy transfer. He’s very invigorating to talk to. He’s very adventuresome. He’s willing to try all kinds of crazy things. He’s great to brainstorm with. He has immense experience and is willing to bring all sorts of different approaches and different media together which other people might not expect to fit together.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of two people collaborating when you aren’t familiar with the others medium?

The major advantage is that the other person has skills that you don’t and each of you extend the other person’s abilities. The other thing is that if you don’t know anything at all you can have ideas that somebody that’s more skilled and experienced might not have because maybe those ideas are stupid or maybe they’re interesting. Sometimes Wayne would ask me a question, I’d think, ‘well of course,’ and then I’d think, ‘well no, that’s not so obvious.’ I don’t know if I was doing that for him or not. By providing a basis for his dance, I felt like I was opening up avenues that he might not have thought of himself.

To what extent have fairytales influenced the overall body of your work, from your visual art to your written stories? Are there other examples of modern fairytales that you’ve particularly enjoyed, or that provided inspiration while writing and illustrating the book?

I would not have said until recently that fairy tales were a big influence on me. I read reams of them when I was a kid, along with all sorts of other stuff like Greek myths, Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy Sayers’ novels. I was pretty widely read as a kid. My mother was an English major so she had a wonderful selection of books, many of them way too complex for me back then, though I read them anyway and didn’t get them. Fairy tales were just one component of a varied reading diet. Somehow recently, I seem to keep coming back to them. I’ve written several short stories that involve fairies. The first one was at the request of the Guardian. They were asking three different writers to write fairy tales. I sat there all frozen brained, thinking, huh, what? Eventually I came up with The Ruin of Grant Lawry about a guy who gets picked up in a bar by a fairy and she ruins his life. For me, the book that showed me you can do something interesting with fairies was Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s a masterpiece. It’s a fairy tale, to be sure, but it is also a novel - a historical novel. She’s so inventive and gloriously rich in her imagining of how fairies and humans might interact and what fairies could be like. Raven Girl has absolutely nothing to do with that book, but it does partake of the form of a fairy tale. I tried to adhere more closely to the older fairy tales with Raven Girl than I ever had previously in any of the stories I’ve written that have fairies in them. Partially because I feel that the form, characters and structure of fairy tales are so deeply ingrained in us that it would help when it came time to translate it into a ballet; I felt that those deep structures would carry over into the dance. It would help to give it a strong narrative that would propel the dance.

What is the future of Raven Girl, in as much as you can discuss publicly? Are there any additional related projects being considered, such as film, animation, an enhanced e-book, additional productions of the ballet, etc.?

Raven Girl will return to the stage in October 2015 at the Royal Opera House Ballet. I think that one of these days Wayne and I are going to work on an enhanced e-book version. Other than that, I really don’t know. Wayne and I have ideas but none of them are very firm yet.

We’ve talked about your collaborations with Wayne McGregor on Raven Girl and Marilyn Sward on Spring. Have there been other notable collaborations in your career?

I worked with Tricia Hammer with Sherwin Beach Press on a project called Poisonous Plants at Table - my contribution is called Prudence: The Cautionary Tale of a Picky Eater. It is about a young girl who is anorexic, although that word is never mentioned. She has starved herself into a coma, and in her coma she has marvelous dead visitors from the nearby cemetery and they invite her to picnics and banquets and all sort of things, though she has a hard time convincing herself to partake of their hospitality. That was a limited edition that was designed and bound by Tricia and printed by Martha Chiplis. I believe they made 75 of them.

Recently I collaborated with Teresa James and Kari Laine McCluskey of White Wings Press on a print called The Changeling. It was great to work with them, I’d never done photogravure before and it was fun to have them do all the plate processing and printing. Teresa is an excellent printer and the camaraderie at White Wings made me eager to show up each day and get to work.

The collaboration I’m currently engaged in is with Eddie Campbell. We are working on a book of comics - he’s adapting my short stories into comics. We made Thursdays, 6 - 8 pm for the Guardian and then another comic based on my story called Backward in Seville which was in an anthology of short stories that were written as tribute to Ray Bradbury. The original anthology is called Shadow Show. I wrote an essay for the Guardian on our collaboration:

In your experience, what are some of the roadblocks or challenges in any collaboration?

In my experience, if it’s not going to work it stops before it starts. Most difficulties are the result of imperfect communication. The more carefully I listen the smoother the path to making something interesting.