Most of my writing before 1997 was meant to go into artist’s books, or to be performed as a monologue, or sent on a postcard, or hidden away in a diary. I wrote short stories but didn’t publish them. In 1997 I had an idea for a novel. It took almost five years to write and eventually became The Time Traveler’s Wife.
I prefer working on large projects that take years to complete. Right now I am working on two novels (The Other Husband and The Chinchilla Girl in Exile), as well as a collaboration with Eddie Campbell that involves his art and my short stories.
— Audrey Niffenegger
THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW WITH AUDREY WAS CONDUCTED BY KEN GERLEVE — WITH QUESTIONS BY TODD SUMMAR AND KEN GERLEVE — DURING THE AUTUMN OF 2014.
You began your career as an artist, but gained wide recognition with your bestselling novels The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry. You’ve said that your interest in writing grew when you were charged with writing catalogue copy for the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. Have you always written stories?
Yes, I have been writing since I could write. When I was a tiny child I used to write limericks and poems and stories and I used to fold up paper and make little books and illustrate them. So I’ve been doing all that since I was a kid. The difference between me and some other people is that I didn’t stop doing it.
When I was first involved with the Center for Book and Paper, it was not especially glorious in real life. It needed a lot of help. But I realised that I could create its gloriousness on the page by writing about the Center and its doings as though they were way more interesting than they were. It was self-fulfilling. It became interesting because people reading the catalogues imagined it was going to be interesting. I conjured this fiction of the marvelous Book and Paper Center and then it became actually quite a good book and paper center. I believe I wrote about 32 of these catalogues and at a certain point I ran out of sensible ways to say ‘take bookbinding classes,’ or ‘we’ll teach you to set type.’ And so the catalogues became ever more peculiar. Eventually they hit a mannerist stage and became completely insane at which point I quit writing them. A lot of people told me that they never set foot in the Book and Paper Center but that they really enjoyed the catalogues. During that period, I had the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife. Something about the never-ending relentless epic nature of the catalogue writing project made me think that I had the stamina to write a novel.
The idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife came to you as you were drawing. Is this how your other written pieces began as well, or was it an accident?
I would say that everything about creativity is something of an accident and also completely intentional. You prepare yourself to have certain kinds of ideas. You have an interest in certain kinds of ideas but you can’t pre-order those ideas. You can’t click a button on the internet and have the idea that you want. The idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife came while I was drawing because drawing is a sideways frame of mind. Drawing doesn’t require language. It’s like driving, washing the dishes or taking a shower, these activities allow your mind to drift. I think many people would agree that these moments when you’re awake and doing something but not necessarily engaged in a way that needs language or problem solving - those are the moments when you’re most likely to have some interesting idea. But having the idea is not the difficult part. Everybody has loads of ideas. The trick is recognizing the idea and having something you want to do with it so the idea doesn’t just sit there uselessly.
In the case of The Time Traveler’s Wife, I thought of this phrase: “the time traveler’s wife.” I wrote it down and immediately, I started wondering, “Who is this time traveler and who is this woman who was silly enough to marry him? Where do they live? What do they do? How does the time travel affect their marriage?” There were all sorts of questions I could ask about this idea. And I think this is how you differentiate an idea that has some juice versus some little idea that isn’t going to go anywhere. Once you have some experience, you can recognize ideas that are suitable for you, ideas that belong to you, and you don’t get too caught up with ideas you shouldn’t bother working on. I admire a lot of abstract art, but I’m not all that interested in making it. I could have ideas all day and all night about abstraction but I would not pursue them because it’s just not my thing. I think all of us have ideas that we recognize are somehow not ours. This is particularly interesting to me as a teacher because I look at others people’s work all the time and I’m perfectly capable of having ideas about their work and asking them questions but I don’t confuse that with me making their work. I think it’s important to know what belongs to you and what’s going to be fruitful.
When you develop ideas for novels or short stories, do you create illustrations or other visual elements to help facilitate the writing? Conversely, do you ever write in response to visual prompts such as photographs, paintings, etc.?
I flip back and forth between thinking in images and thinking in language and depending on which project we are talking about, each one would have started as an image or a phrase. Her Fearful Symmetry started with a mental image of a man in an apartment that is completely full of boxes - a man who can't leave his apartment and has filled it with all this stuff. That image led to everything else. I could walk around inside this image in my head. One of the things that I knew about it was that the apartment that the man was caught in was next to a cemetery. Those two things in conjunction opened up the path to everything else in the finished book. In the case of The Time Traveler's Wife, I started with the title which allowed me to imagine Henry and Clare, and to ask many questions about them. I didn't make any images for that book until I was finished writing it and my publisher asked me to make a cover. I made a couple of drawings which they didn't want to use for the cover, but it did cause me to actually try. I had resisted making any art for that book because I wanted to see if I could do it entirely with words. Which isn't to say I didn't have strong mental images, but I was trying to channel it into the writing, to make the writing visual.
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.
I very seldom use other people's images as writing prompts myself but I do ask my students to do that because I think it can be helpful, especially for non-artists When I'm teaching, I'm always looking for exercises that will cause someone to write from a place that's new. To make them slightly uncomfortable and give them good limitations. I think the ideal assignment involves creating limitations that the student would not necessarily have made for themselves. Usually we are doing this in a timed situation so the student has to immediately respond. I have a big bag of family photographs that belonged to one of my great aunts. She didn't have any children and so this bag of photographs ended up in my possession and for years, I've been shaking the bag out in front of students and everybody picks what they like and tries to make stories. So all of these dead relatives have had surprising afterlives as characters in the stories of my students.
How do you decide whether a story needs to be a novel, short story, graphic novel, etc.?
Sometimes I am making a thing as an assignment and in that case the form comes first. For example, I just wrote a short story that was supposed to be 800 words, which is absurdly short even for a short story. It’s almost micro-fiction. I’m accustomed to writing very long things. I was bearing down and creating a level of detail that was only going to work for something much longer and I realised that I needed to go swooping over swathes of plot in order to get into that 800 word corset. It benefited the story to have that alternating tightness and looseness, but I wouldn’t have set out to do that. It’s interesting to work toward a form. That can get you to places that you didn’t know you wanted to visit. The novel, on the other hand, is so capacious that anything can happen. The limitlessness of the novel has slight disadvantages in that it’s not steering you in any way. You have to get in there and shape it with intention.
When you're trying to choose a form, long or short, pictures, words, or both, you have to think about the scope of the story. For example, you can be very economical with a fairy tale because there are so many fairytales before it. When you're doing something very compressed, you do have to avoid opening up vast areas of plot and creating unanswerable expectations. Last summer, I was reading a book (which I won't specify) which was much acclaimed.. I read it and I thought, there's only half the story here. There's a whole other half of the book that hasn't been written. I wonder whether the writer will eventually write that other half as a sequel or was it just something that I intuited about that story that nobody else cares about?
It’s an interesting problem, this question of large or small, words or images. It’s good to work both ways because the harder I compress something the more of a relief it is to go huge in the next thing I do. And if I am writing I want to be painting. There's always a desire to do the opposite of what I happen to be doing at the moment.
Few artists are successful at crossing the lines between novel, short story and graphic storytelling, but you have clearly mastered them all. Other writers who have done this often view it as speaking different languages, depending on the format. Do you view it this way, or is it all just storytelling to you? How do you approach each form?
I'm not sure that I've mastered them all. Mastery is a big claim. These days there are many people who work in more than one art form. I was just reading an article in the Guardian about musicians who also paint.
The guy who wrote the article was mocking. He was critiquing pieces by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Wood and so forth and it was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. But Joni Mitchell is an accomplished artist and has been painting seriously for decades. Patti Smith is an excellent photographer. Brian Eno crosses many boundaries and his practice would be hard to describe. Now that technique is not as big of an issue as it once was, people cross over quite fluently.
I've been drawing and writing since I was a kid. I never thought it was a big deal to do both, and I was encouraged by my teachers to do both. I think the walls between disciplines are somewhat artificial and people who try to maintain these walls - I'm not really sure what the point is. If you can practice convincingly in more than one form,why not do that?.
The perfect artwork would require more than one medium. It’s important to think about the properties of each form; for example, in writing it is very easy to specify names. Everybody and everything has a name. There can be dialogue, every character can speak. You can be specific about abstract concepts. You can roll backward and forward and jump around in time very easily. You can get inside somebody's head. There are all sorts of things that are unique particularly to fiction, although memoirists and non-fiction writers use these techniques. Whereas if you are making a drawing, you can show with great precision an expression on someone's face, a gesture, you can create a very individual portrait. You can also make something completely abstract. There are properties of music that don't belong to any other medium. The perfect artwork would be one that brought these things together.
Do you write on any set schedule, or does it vary? Is there a typical writing routine you could walk us through?
Ha! I am such a creature of chaos. I read interviews with writers, they say “...oh, you have to get up early. You have to write several hours a day. You have to do the same thing every day. You have to. You have to.” I don't. I get things done by mulling it over for days, weeks, months and then I will tentatively put things down on paper. My schedule varies depending on how far along I am on a project. At the beginning I write very sparsely and hesitantly. When I'm in the middle of something and I feel more solid, I will maintain a more regular schedule. At the end of a project, when I'm nearing a deadline or just want the thing to be done, I will write faster and faster and work longer and longer hours. It’s quite variable.
How do you prefer to write – longhand, computer, typewriter, etc.? What drives this decision? For instance, some writers choose to write longhand because of its immediate, organic feel.
Well, I have to say that I truly do love writing on the computer. It's so convenient. As a printer - a letterpress printer, who sets lead type slowly by hand - I enjoy the thrill of seeing what I write on the computer immediately in type. To me that's a very great advantage, to be able to look at it on screen, in paragraphs, nicely set. I do write longhand. Usually this is because I'm in some odd location like a train or in bed or I'm carrying a small notebook because I ‘m not in the mood to lug a computer around. Writing longhand is pleasurable but I'm much happier to type it out on the computer. I do think it affects how you proceed. When I'm writing in a notebook I have developed a habit of only writing on the righthand page. On the facing page I will make all the corrections, I'm correcting as I go which is how I work while writing on the computer.
I’ve read that while writing The Time Traveler’s Wife, you wrote character notes and two timelines, but no outline of the plot. Is this how you typically work, or do you use outlines? Does this differ for short stories vs. novels?
I did have an outline for The Time Traveler's Wife. It was a very simple outline, I made it close to the beginning of the project. It is a funny outline because it doesn't describe the way the eventual published book is put together. It describes Clare's experience. The plot is simple. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. First date. Courtship. Marriage. Try to have a kid. Eventually have a kid. Things go wrong. Henry dies. Clare has to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. That's the plot. It's not a very original or complicated plot. Because of the complexity of the time structure it needed a really simple plot. If I had produced a super-complicated Hitchcockian plot, every reader would just lose the plot.
My most detailed outline was for Her Fearful Symmetry. I made a careful outline of the story after thinking about it for a year or so, and I started writing the book into the outline. Essentially the outline got bigger and bigger until it became the book. This is one of the reasons I like working on the computer, you can have an expanding document. I don't work in drafts. I just keep tinkering and fixing and enlarging until the thing is done.
I don't outline for short stories because I don't need to. I only outline if I can't keep the thing in my head all at once or if I need to see a big thing compressed, like a sketch. There's no need to outline anything small - less than thirty pages or so.. An outline can give you the opportunity to see the spine of the story in a very stark way, to tinker with it and find any logical contradictions..
How do you approach the research process?
It depends on the nature and scope of the research. For The Time Traveler’s Wife, my research consisted of reading a few books about genetics and physics. Then I was able to go merrily on my way through the rest of the book. I was very familiar with the city of Chicago because I live here. I was pulling a lot from my own experience of Chicago and therefore didn't really need to do much research about the city. For Her Fearful Symmetry, it was a completely different thing because I had decided to set the book in London and in 2002, when I started to write it, I wasn't very familiar with actual London. I had read a lot about London, but I hadn't spent much time there. Highgate Cemetery in 2002 was not something that I could research from afar. There wasn't a lot written about it. What there was, was out of print. And so I rapidly realised that I was going to need to go over there and talk to the people who knew it well. I was extremely fortunate that Jean Pateman and the other Friends of Highgate Cemetery decided they were willing to talk to me. At least half of the seven years I spent working on Her Fearful Symmetry was research. It was very hands-on, on-the-ground research. I spent a lot of time in the cemetery, tromping around. I was also getting to know London. I was trying to look at London through the eyes of Julia and Valentina, these young American twins, but also to think about London as it would seem for somebody who had lived there for their entire life. It was a stretch for me, but it was very absorbing. It got me thinking about the fact that when you choose a project, you should try to be very clear-eyed about the research and the kind of experience that you're signing up for.
I have a project that I'm working on right now, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile, and there's a minor part of it that is set in New Orleans. A city I love, but not a city that I have lived in. So that involves going down to New Orleans and hanging out. A fantastic excuse to go grooving around New Orleans. I do think that when you embark on a project you need to think about how you're going to get the information you need and whether you have the access or not. Someone once said to me that a major aspect of fiction is that it should take you into a secret enclosed world and show it to the reader. In order to do that you have to show mastery of that world, whether you're completely fabricating it or working off something real. I think that's a very valuable idea. This business of needing to get your project completely under control in order to properly execute it, yet allowing the experience to change the work.
In your experience, what is the most effective approach to rewriting, or does it vary per project?
I tend to work my way very slowly through a book, writing and rewriting as I go. Once I have at least two hundred pages I will print it out, go through it and stick post it notes in all the places that need attention. Then I begin to fill in empty places, rewrite existing scenes to fit with new scenes, and make changes so that as my understanding of the book expands so does the book itself.
Your writing and your artwork, often deal with difficult subject matter – death, loss, sex, heartbreak, mental illness – but often with a tinge of dark humor. However, readers sometimes have a hard time differentiating the writer from her work. How much of your own personality and experience do you infuse into your characters?
Well let's just say that if I were to write a memoir, it would be incredibly boring. I am able to have intense experiences in my fiction writing and art making because I have a relatively placid real life. I do think its a mistake to conflate the artist with the work. I think if you stop and think about all the different writers you realize that we are in the habit of collecting experiences and then intensifying and editing and sharpening them for the purposes of art and if you expect fiction to be faithfully derived from reality, you will be disappointed. I think that unless you are a newspaper reporter, you are pretty free to rewrite your experiences. The outrage that readers have when they realize that something that was purported to be memoir is actually fiction, that's misplaced. Anna Quindlen once said, (and I paraphrase) that when she was a journalist, everyone wondered if her stories were perhaps not completely true, and when she started writing fiction, everyone assumed that she was basing it at least somewhat on her own life. She seemed to feel as though she couldn't win and I do think there's a lot of truth in that.
I do think people are curious and they want to know how you imagine things. My father is not a very copious reader. He doesn't read very much. A while ago, my family was passing around the Harry Potter books and he felt left out and decided he'd have a crack at one of them. He got really into it and he read them all. After reading it, he said, how does she make all this up? And we all looked at him and said, well she didn’t make all of it up. There are such things as boarding schools and there is a long tradition of magic and myth and she's drawing on fairy tales and all this stuff that other people have created. She didn't create every single thing in every sentence. His face kind of fell, so we had a conversation about how marvelous it was that J.K. Rowling was able to build on these traditions and create new stories that reasonate with centuries of other stories. It did make me more conscious of the fact that every reader brings a different level of sophistication and different expectations to the project of reading and that we have to be clear about what the project is so that they don't feel like they are being fooled.
Why do you think you have an interest in the darker side of human experience?
You know that phenomenon where people only write in their diaries when something is wrong? People don’t tend to write long diary entries that say, "I am so happy, everything is so great, let me tell you how lovely my life is." People are more attracted to writing out heartbreak and craziness. I don't think that heavy things are more worthy as subjects for art. I am interested in the everyday mixed with the extraordinary. Sometimes the extraordinary is some kind of crisis - the terrible things that break into our placid lives. But mostly I'm just interested in the unusual. I'm interested in making extraordinary things seem ordinary and accessible and I'm interested in how peculiar everyday life can be. It’s really an interest in the exceptional combined with the domestic. That's what I'm after. I'm not attracted to the supernatural per se, but it does come in very handy when you're trying to look at something ordinary from an unusual point of view. For example, in The Time Traveler's Wife, the time travel is a mechanism for looking at a marriage from a fragmented, cubist point of view. By juxtaposing two people at various stages in their lives in ways that would not be achievable if both parties were living chronological, forward-directed lives, I can get at all sorts of ideas that wouldn't be possible if I were a staunch realist. I'm interested in strangeness and making people aware of things that might not ordinarily merit their attention. It is an almost Buddhist perspective - becoming conscious of yourself in your life, moment to moment. I've noticed that the culture now is very interested in these things. Everybody wants that jolt of the unusual. It has become much more acceptable for so-called literary writers to incorporate strangeness into their realism.
Do you think that this is partially because there is so much 'realism' being directed at us - or at least what the media calls 'realism,' with reality television, celebrity gossip shows and twenty-four hour news cycles. People want an escape.
I think that people do have an escapist impulse and to me that seems like a perfectly valid reason to make and consume culture but I wonder if some of this is perhaps due to the increasing secularisation of society. In the past, you had a culture that was very reality-based, very naturalistic, but you also had the religious thing going as a major part of the culture so you would have as your everyday train of thought, a very strong connection to all the stories and structure that a religion would give. Somebody who is living out their lives in a strongly Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu context might not feel so much of a need for the vampires and werewolves and witches and everything else because they have an invisible world that they feel connected to and that’s guiding their daily lives. I think there's a very strong craving for art to be more than. Viewers want art to be more than some paint on a board. Readers want fiction to be more than a trashy paperback. We all want to transcend and art is a very culturally acceptable way of transcending daily existence.
Have you had readers who have either praised or challenged you regarding issues explored in your stories? I’d imagine that, since you deal with fairly heavy themes, you must get some passionate reactions either way.
I have had quite a large number of readers who respond to the theme of loss. That seems to be the major thing that elicits email from people. No one ever says 'you shouldn't write about this, you shouldn't write about that.' I think they recognize that the big themes belong to all of us and are legitimate topics for art.
Ernest Hemingway, who drew from his own life for much of his fiction, was asked to comment on the process of turning a real-life character into a fictional one, and he responded that it would be a handbook for libel lawyers. How liberally have you borrowed from real people in your own life for your fiction, and how was it received?
I have several different kinds of characters. There are characters who are completely made up. They don't, in my mind, derive from any specific real people. They might be a certain type of person but they aren't connected to any particular person. There are characters I've made who are portraits, and those characters are done with the consent of the person whose portrait it is. For example, Jessica Bates in Her Fearful Symmetry is pretty closely based on Jean Pateman, who in real life was the chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery and I did this with Jean's permission and showed her chapters as I went along and was very careful that she was happy with it. There are characters that are somewhat based on myself and it’s funny because readers never recognize that. They always ask, are you Clare? Clare has been given outward attributes of me - she's an artist and she went to Catholic school. But it's Henry that is the character who is actually based on my personality. When I tell people this, they just look at me funny. You can start with a very small part of yourself and build it into a character who doesn't at all resemble you. Another character that I think of as a self portrait is Elspeth from Her Fearful Symmetry, and people look at me with complete horror when I say that. The beginning point for that character was a sort of independent, willful streak, which I certainly possess, and then I grew it into someone who was a bit monstrous, which I hope I am not. There's a lot of possible ways to generate characters and I don't think that people need to worry about libel as long as they aren't maliciously satirizing real persons who can recognize themselves. I've occassionally had people - close friends and family members – ask if such-and-such a character is based on them and generally they are not, at all, and I'm kind of horrified. It intrigues me that people would be trying to see themselves in these fictional characters. It’s an odd business, this interchange between art and life.
How important do you think it is for the writer or artist to discuss how much nonfiction she blends into her fiction, if at all?
I think that can be interesting for students but I am not sure if the general reader needs to know or care, it could ruin the illusion, like seeing the mechanism of a magic trick. In my case, the things that are reality based tend to be really boring. There are objects sprinkled throughout the various pieces of art and writing that are real things that I really own and real locations that I have an affinity for, but so what? I hope my powers of description and imagination are sufficient; you don't need to be shown an actual place, thing or person to believe in the story.
When you are writing, do you read certain literature that inspires you, or do you try to avoid it so as not to inadvertently mimic it?
I am so slow and I take so long that if I were to avoid reading while I write, I'd never get any reading done. I always have a project going. I read quite freely. I'm a grown lady - I don't feel like things can take me over and possess me so much that I don't have my own style anymore. I'm not worried about that. I think when people are quite young it’s possible to be briefly inhabited by powerful styles of other artists I remember being quite taken with the collage novels of Max Ernst and the assemblages of Joseph Cornell and making things that were very much in their debt. But once you are a grown artist, you have to have your own style. I think once you have your own style, it's very hard to get kicked off base by somebody else’s stuff.
What authors and novels have inspired your work?
It is a motley list. I think you don't realise until long afterward what your influences are. I would consider Henry James a big influence and also Dorothy L. Sayers. Raymond Chandler, Katherine Dunn, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Kelly Link, Louise Fitzhugh who wrote Harriet the Spy, which completely possessed me when I was nine. I wanted to be Harriet and I wanted a spy notebook. I think this is a common response to that book. You must have a spy book. Nobody, when they are nine, seems to take the lesson that a spy notebook is maybe a bad idea or that it might get you ostracised by your friends. I think it’s funny, when you are younger, books can become enormous and take over your mental landscape. And then the more books you have read, the harder it is for a book to do that.
Donna Tartt, I think, is quite marvelous. I'm always very envious. All her books are wonderful and I wish that I had written them. Susanna Clarke, too; she is formidable, I bow to her. Sarah Waters is magnificent. I'm up to my eyeballs in unread books right now. David Mitchell is quite wonderful. There are so many people writing right now whom I really respect.
As for the art, Aubrey Beardsley, Horst Jansen, Gwen John, Max Klinger, Joseph Cornell, John Singer Sargeant, Charlotte Salomon, Paula Rego, Francisco de Goya. That list goes on and on. There's a neverending supply of amazing things to think about. Kiki Smith. I just really admire her. She's so interesting. Rebecca Horn. Kara Walker. William Kentridge. That was an eye opener, the first time I saw his work.
People bemoan the state of the art world, but art right now is so various that there's something for everyone to be interested in. The people I'm not interested in - the Jeff Koons sort of people who seem so commercially-minded as to be somewhat nausea-inducing – they are having a moment, but I don’t think they will have much staying power.
Do you find that the books and art that you are interested in could be categorised together or are they all over the map?
Most of the people I've just mentioned use some sort of figuration or narrative. Then there are people I haven't even mentioned like Franz Kafka. Kafka was huge - really huge - for me, especially in my twenties. I have a strong interest in surrealism and expressionism. Oskar Kokoschka was big for me. If you are involved in a lifelong engagement with this art, there are artists who are life-long relationships. And then there are artists who are more recent additions to the list or they have a massive impact on you for a while and then you wander away. My true list of influences and involvements would have hundreds and hundreds of names and we're not even mentioning music. Music makes a very powerful environment when you're trying to write or draw. One of the things I think is incredibly helpful and also somewhat difficult is that we now have access to so much. If you're just casually moving through the day, you don't even have to go to a museum. You're constantly exposed to images and music and writing. It's all there. Even if you didn't turn on your computer you'd still be seeing things on the sides of busses. Not too long ago I was in a grocery store and they had a Muzak version of London Calling (by the Clash) which just appalled me. There's no escape. It's much harder to be alone with your own thoughts than it is to be bombarded with everyone else’s creations.
Music is an important element in your stories, especially The Time Traveller’s Wife, as the character Henry, like you, grew up loving punk and new wave. What role has music played in your creative process? Do you listen to it while writing?
I always have music on in the studio when I’m making art. I cannot listen to anything with words when I'm trying to write. When I am writing, I'm usually sitting in a quiet room and trying to block out everything else. But I do write in cafes. My writing partner, Janet Lefley, and I sit in Kopi Cafe and write in the midst of everyone else’s conversations and they're blasting music and there are noises from the espresso machine, so it's not absolutely essential to work in complete silence. I do think the different parts of the brain that govern language and images need different environments. If I'm drawing, I can also use part of my brain to sing along with the Beatles or Joni Mitchell. There's no way I can do that and write a sentence. I think this is purely to do with brain organisation.
Though your work has had international reach, you built your career and have made your home in Chicago. The publishing industry is still centered in New York, but Chicago has maintained a thriving literary scene by producing best-selling authors, notable zines, literary blogs, growing small presses, numerous literary events, and bookstores that support the literary community. What are your thoughts on Chicago’s literary community, and how do you view your role in it?
When I started trying to get published I didn't know many writers in Chicago. I was very much a part of the art scene and not at all part of the literary scene. I've discovered that Chicago’s writers are very supportive of each other. I try to be supportive, too. Whereas with art, people cluster around studios and they know each other because they went to school together and there are galleries and there are openings. With the literary community, things are centered on readings and poetry slams and any kind of spoken word or performative evening. There's a big culture based around going out and listening to people read, which I'm somewhat less a part of, partially because I'm out of town a lot. I have been impressed by how many people are here doing very high quality work. Most of them have to go out of town to get published. Because of the centralized nature of publishing, that is not such a problem because if you are published in New York your book will certainly be in your neighborhood bookstore in Chicago. It isn't a matter of having people's work go somewhere else and not being available to us here in the community. It would be great if there was more of a publishing scene in Chicago. It seems a little unlikely to me because the dominance of New York is based on personal contacts and established practices. There's a lot of lunching involved, especially between agents and editors. However, that doesn't stop people from doing that here. It simply means an ecosystem would have to develop. If you only have writers, then they have to go somewhere else to be published. Here there are writers and a few publishers, but no agents. That's different to be sure from the way it is done in New York. You have writers trying to figure it out for themselves. If a culture of writers, agents, publishers and reviewers sprung up here, then I think we'd be cooking with gas. But until then, people will continue to go to New York.
Chicago has a pretty vibrant comics scene. Independent artists are creating work here and there is a support structure of stores that specialise in indie comics and also the various comics conventions such as CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) and the more conventional mainstream comics at Wizard World Comic Convention or C2E2. Do you see small independent publishers piggy backing on the momentum of Chicago indie comics?
There's a strong DIY element to indie comics that interacts well with the independent comics shops like Quimby's and Chicago Comics. Quimby's will accept a zine or an artist’s book if you have at least a hundred copies and everyone can assemble a hundred copies at their friendly local xerox shop. You've got a copier and a stapler and you're in business. I think in Chicago we are fortunate because we have some of the great geniuses of comics living here and also we have some wonderful comics shops. So you have the creators and the distrubutors and some publishers as well. Again, the infrastructure for reviewing is not very good, but I guess that's just the state of reviewing everywhere. I think that for literary presses the process is different, in order to be real you need national distribution.
In what ways is Chicago different (for better or worse) than traditional literary epicenters like New York city?
Chicagoans have this endless ‘second city’ noise going in our heads. I think Chicago is pre-eminent: music, theater. I don’t think we need to apologize to anybody. As an art center, we have attracted and nurtured some really excellent people. The question is always how much attention are these artists being given nationally? When I’m in Europe and I mention Chicago artists and some Chicago writers which I think of as very well-known famous people, I get blank looks. There’s a little bit of a recognition issue. I think it’s healthy to have people who are locally important and specialise in being here. I was kinda shocked recently to learn that Tony Fitzpatrick was relocating to New Orleans. I thought - can he do that? Is that allowed? Because he’s such a fixture here. He’s such an important part of the scene. It was somewhat surprising, but I guess no more so than me gravitating to London as much as I do. I think the culture is a different flavor here and I think that’s good. I don’t want everything to merge into a homogenous mega-culture. (It turns out that Tony is staying in Chicago after all, whew.)
Are there any specific Chicago authors, literary events, or small presses you’ve worked with or associate with that you would like to mention or discuss?
I have always been a big cheerleader for Featherproof Books, which has recently got a new editor. It is now being run by Tim Kinsella after Zack Dodson has moved to Finland to teach. Featherproof was initially a project of Jonathan Messinger and Zack Dodson together, so it had a real emphasis on the design of the books as well as very carefully chosen odd, interesting books. So yeah, Featherproof Books, - long may it wave! Curbside Splendor seem to be doing very good things and to be punching above its weight. I’m excited about them. Any small publishing project that’s here, I’m all for it. I want them all to grow up and be marvelous and large if they so desire.
Can you name some of your favorite books by Chicago authors, living or dead?
Oh, this is a test, isn’t it? Some of mine are - I don’t know if everybody would agree with my selection - there is a book called ‘Trash, Sex Magic,’ by Jennifer Stevenson, that I’ve always quite loved. That’s set in the St. Charles area. Charles Dickinson, I think, is underappreciated. He wrote a series of books that are set in the Chicago area. I think he lives in Palatine? He’s a marvelous writer. He was a journalist for years, I believe he worked for the Sun Times. Aleksander Hemon is incredibly interesting, impressive, generous, lovely, charming. He’s important to Chicago - he and Teri Boyd, his wife, host a regular salon for writers which has been a terrific way to get people talking and connected. Sara Paretsky has been really important and Scott Turow, too. There’s just so many, it would be tough to list, it would be like a telephone book.
If you had to predict, what do you see for the future of Chicago’s literary scene, and its place in the external world of literature?
I hope that we’ll be able to build on the thriving literary culture that we already have. I hope it will become more recognized in other places. I don’t know if it’s important for readers to recognise a unique Chicago voice because we are actually quite diverse. I have recently taught a lot of young writers who I am quite excited about, and they are now beginning to publish. Chris Terry published Zero Fade last year with Curbside Splendor. Erik Fassnacht is publishing A Good Family this coming year with St. Martin’s, and I know there are a number of people I have taught who have books almost ready to send out. From my little perch I can see that there’s a lot of really great work being done. There are so many high-quality writers working everywhere, we all have access to so much now and even things that aren’t getting published by the big presses can still be self-published. So more than ever before, there’s the possibility for finding out about other writers in other places. There’s so much in fact that there’s a glut that overwhelms anyone who wants to try to read their way through the current offerings. I know that feeling of being inundated with other people’s writing, much of it wonderful, most of it I won’t be able to get to because I have too much to do. I think Chicago in particular is not lacking in talent. It is lacking in infrastructure. If people are willing to build that infrastructure - if we have presses and editors and agents and reviewers, I think that would greatly promote and foster any Chicago movement that might be prepared to emerge. Until all those things are available to us, Chicago writers will be going through New York.
I remember hearing writers at a panel discussing the idea that if you are published through a university or small press in a regional area, you’re kind of ghettoizing yourself into this regionalist publishing scene and you won’t be taken seriously by the New York houses. I wonder if that is the case, or if that will continue, because it seems to me that in the modern world, with travel and communication, you wouldn’t need to be a moth flying in the glow of New York City. You can live where you want, you can be writing wherever you want. You just have to find an agent and a publisher, probably in New York City, in order to have a national or international reach.
I think what you’re talking about, this problem of regionalisation and ghettoization, has to do with the money available for promoting the books. A university press or regional press might do an absolutely creditable job in producing the books. The books might look wonderful, they might be incredibly appetising. The problem is getting bookshops to order enough of them and getting reviews and ads and visibility and awareness. A lot of the time, these universities don’t have big budgets, they may not even have publicists. They share this problem with the small presses, there is not enough firepower being directed at any one book. They might be trying to promote the whole list at once or the whole season’s offerings at once. That can be a difficulty. The current notion that authors are responsible for promoting their own books - well sure, of course we are going to promote our own books. But the big houses, if they decide to get behind you, it is such a gigantic advantage that it’s almost a little obscene to compare the kind of promotion that goes behind someone who already has name recognition versus a first time novelist or a poet or anybody who is publishing with one of the smaller presses. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of caché behind publishing with one of the smaller houses like Small Beer or Melville House. Those are excellent houses. Anyone should be proud to publish with some of these wonderful, smaller presses, but they aren’t going to buy you a full-page ad in the New York Times. I don’t know how valuable that really is or how many more copies that would sell, but there’s kind of a pecking order that is established based on what any given publisher has the resources to do for you. It is one reason why I would usually recommend a writer go with one of the larger houses. My first book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I published with MacAdam Cage, which was a medium-sized independent based in San Francisco, they did an excellent job. They did everything that could possibly be done for my book, and they treated me like I was some kind of big, important author, even though I was an author that nobody had ever heard of. Partially as a consequence of their efforts, the book did really well. I am sorry to say that MacAdam Cage doesn’t exist anymore. It had all kinds of financial problems, but while I was being published by them, they did everything that a Random House or a Penguin might have done. Occasionally, you have a small house that gets ahold of a big book. I’d also say there is an advantage to the smaller presses in their daring and their interesting taste that gets things published that might not have a suitable home in a bigger press. I think the important thing is that we support variety, that there be big and small, corporate and independent, trade and scholarly. All these things need to be there to publish the vast variety that is being created.