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Travels with Audrey Niffenegger
We board the Brown Line at its farthest northwest stop, Kimball. We're headed downtown. We're on a mission to prove that Audrey Niffenegger, who grew up in Evanston with few friends and is at work on a novel about a 9-year-old girl covered in fur ("The Chinchilla Girl in Exile," a title she is firmly committed to), is ubiquitous. The idea, initially, was to ride the CTA for a couple of hours and talk about books. Then Niffenegger, who identifies herself as an artist and teacher, cemetery guide, writer and author of graphic novels, mentioned she's never really seen anyone reading her books on any public transportation.
This seemed remarkable because she said she rides the CTA about once a week.
I tell her nearly every time I take the train -- maybe every day -- I see someone reading "The Time Traveler's Wife." It's one of those public transportation staples, like Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" or "The Devil in the White City," only more viral. She says she once spotted a man reading "Time Traveler's Wife" in the London Underground.
I ask what edition, the movie edition? She says she didn't remember but there's "a medallion thing" on the cover of some editions that mention the film. I ask if there's an edition with more -- a movie poster perhaps?
She shoots me a look.
The unspoken meaning of which, I presume, is that she has the clout to make a cover like that go away. Indeed, she does. She wanted nothing to do with the film, a modest late-summer success -- "It was not my movie, it's the movie of the people who made it. I haven't seen it and feel no responsibility to it."
Instead, Niffenegger has a new book, "Her Fearful Symmetry," which arrives in bookstores Tuesday with outsize expectations. It's her attempt at "a 19th century ghost novel set in the 21st century, using the old tropes," about Lake Forest twins who inherit a London flat haunted by a ghost. For the next year, she will be on a book tour to promote it, a luxury when publishing houses are cutting back. Still, she seems unhurried by the attention, more amused (a word that comes up often in conversation with her) than urgent.
The reason, perhaps, is that she wears many hats: For 25 years, Niffenegger has had solo art shows at Printworks Gallery on Superior Street, with portraits of herself as Siamese twins, etchings of dead starlings pulled in funeral coaches by skeleton horses. She was discovered as an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For 13 years, she worked on 10 editions of an enormous book called "The Three Incestuous Sisters," published by Abrams as a graphic novel, but in its original form contained 80 pages of text and 80 etchings, each of which she reproduced, then hand-painted.
She sold all 10 books, for $10,000 each, to Harvard University and collectors.
This novel thing? It's gravy.
"It's nice to take a fling at something and see it work. Not that I didn't take (writing) seriously, but the stakes were not what they'd be for somebody coming out of a writer's program at University of Iowa with an MFA (Master of Fine Arts)."
Before meeting Niffenegger, you hear things. Nothing horrible, nothing shocking. Just things that suggest the person telling you does not know what to make of Niffenegger, who is 46 and so successful that, on a good day, when you Google "Audrey," her name comes up first, just in front of " Audrey Hepburn." You hear, "She's ethereal" (two times), "different" (three times), "intimidating" (one time). "No, ethereal, she's definitely ethereal," said Mary Jean Thomson, who has collected Niffenegger's art for 20 years. "Mysterious too. Her garments surround her. You never see her in jeans or sweat shirts -- there's always this feeling she walked out of another time and place."
Bob Hiebert, who runs Printworks Gallery, says he remembers meeting Niffenegger nearly 30 years ago. She was showing "this strange adult fairy tale art book," and even then "she came off extremely shy for an art student, like a Victorian figure, watching people."
Niffenegger was born in South Haven, Mich., and grew up on the Evanston- Skokie line. Even as a child, "People thought of me as aloof, but it wasn't from a lack of desire to have friends. I never knew how to engage."
When I arrived at her house, which is on a quiet street on the Northwest Side of Chicago, she answered the door holding up a finger -- she was on the phone with the editor-in-chief at Scribner, Nan Graham, who's worked with Toni Morrison and Hillary Clinton.
Hanging up, she apologized for being on the phone, then, mysteriously, apologized for not revealing what they were discussing. I spotted a groundhog, dead and stuffed, with a silver bow around its neck -- a gift, she explained. Not unlike the fox lording over her writing desk from the top of a bookcase. Or the armadillo in the living room, or the badger climbing a branch in her kitchen. There's a curated air, shabby chic couches beneath wall-length bookcases. Her home is beautiful, full of light.
It's a late 19th century Victorian with a large Japanese maple in the front yard, surrounded by sculpted gardens of tall grasses and short grasses and mums and a shock of stray rhubarb. Bucolic for a house with skeletons in the attic and, just behind the table on which she draws and paints, a hornet's nest (inactive) dangling from the ceiling. Glancing at her bookshelves, I spotted the fiction of Alice Munro, then, in an opposite shelf, something titled "Spleen Experiments."
She bent and opened a cabinet, pulling out a deck of cards and started to flip. Where a diamond or spade would be, there were hand injuries -- hands with two fingers, hands with holes blown in them by artillery, the number of fingers on each card representing the number of the card. It was her idea, sketched from a textbook of hand injuries.
She showed it to me because I asked if there was anything she had done that a publisher or art gallery would not handle. Not really, she said, then she remembered the cards. "This," she said, holding the deck out.
"This, nobody wants."
Which brings us to the other reason the quaintness of her home seems at odds with what awaits inside:
Niffenegger is rich.
Not Dan Brown rich.
She doesn't talk money. But she is the kind of rich that sold six million books in 33 languages, then had Brad Pitt buy the film rights, and had ABC develop a TV series based on your work. First, you would pay off your credit card debt (which she did). You'd ask for tenure (which she was granted by Columbia College's Center for Book and Paper Arts, where she teaches one class a year on the relationship between text and image). Then you would travel (which she does, to London, several times a year to give guided tours of Highgate Cemetery, which plays a major role in her new novel).
But, moreover, you would take your sweet time, which she has. She spent years teaching art, in Evanston, at Columbia, worried about money and doubling as a frame-maker for 10 years. "Time Traveler's Wife" was her first novel, published in 2003 by San Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage. They paid her $100,000 for the rights.
Rather than sell her next book on idea alone -- a common practice when an author is as sought after as Niffenegger -- she took six years to complete "Her Fearful Symmetry." Then Scribner gave her a headline-grabbing $5 million advance, at a time when the book industry is pondering how much of an industry will be left in a few years. She says she remembers a book signing in the South in 2002, where not one person showed. A few weeks later, Scott Turow gushed about "The Time Traveler's Wife" on "The Today Show."
Niffenegger knew Turow's wife, Annette, an artist who has showed her work at the Evanston Art Center. Within a week, the book's entire run -- 15,000 copies -- sold out. Her success was that immediate. No struggle whatsoever. "People should resent me," she said with a laugh. "I have not paid my dues. I'm always saying, 'I spent a while as a struggling artist!' People can feel free to be annoyed if they want to."
Armitage. Sedgwick. We rattle into the Brown Line's Chicago Avenue station, switch platforms and head back, outbound, without a "Time Traveler's Wife" spotting. Then I see it -- a young woman in a business suit engrossed in "The Time Traveler's Wife," and for the first time all afternoon, Niffenegger's eyes widen into something other than bemusement. "Bingo," she says slowly and quietly.
The woman doesn't look up or notice our gawking.
"Dog-eared," I say.
"Puffy," Niffenegger says, watching the woman's face. "I like when books get puffy from being passed around."
We ride to the end of the line. "You know," she says, "you see your book in the world. It's in your computer, they send you the book, people buy it and bring it to you to sign. You never see the last step, someone just reading it." She says it with a thousand-yard stare. "I've got to take a train at rush hour more often. Or maybe I never see anyone reading it because I never look up."
On the Web See a photo gallery of Audrey Niffenegger's art at chicagotribune.com/ audreyart.