Interview: Audrey Niffenegger, author of Her Fearful Symmetry

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IN 2002 Audrey Niffenegger was an obscure visual artist living in Chicago with her cats and stuffed animals. She had written a weird and wonderful graphic novel called The Three Incestuous Daughters, taking 14 years to produce just ten handmade copies. She had also spent years working on a novel, an unconventional story of love and loss called The Time Traveler's Wife that she was struggling to get published. Even while it was being rejected time and time again, Niffenegger was at work on th

Of course we know how the first story ended. The Time Traveler's Wife found its home in 2004 just after Niffenegger turned 40, went on to sell nearly five million copies and was translated into 36 languages. It became one of those remarkable stories of highbrow literature selling by the bucketload. In a readers' poll of the top 50 books of all time it came in at number 11. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston bought the screen rights and last month the film came out starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. Niffenegger has no intention of seeing it. It all seems a bit too mainstream and glossy for this quirky woman in a purple frock coat, her hair still dyed red from Time Traveler when she coloured it to get into the mindset of her protagonist. The impression she gives is of a more mature, equally spaced out Tori Amos.

"I wish it well," says Niffenegger of the film. "As far as I know they changed some things, but you know, it's theirs. If I saw it the characters would always be Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams so I decided to hold on to my own mental movie."

Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is about to come out in very different circumstances to her first, and I'm not sure she's happy about it. "It's ironic that the mainstream came and found me," she says, looking miffed. "With this book I've made something that's almost saying 'okay mainstream, I dare you to come and claim me'." What does she want for her new novel? "You know, for my publisher's sake I hope it sells a gazillion copies," she says. "That seems to make everyone feel better." And for her sake? "I want individual readers to have interesting experiences. I'm not sure I want everyone to feel super satisfied. I'd rather some bits were fulfilling and some bits poke at you after you're done."

Her Fearful Symmetry certainly has sharp edges. Inspired by Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White and other gothic Victoriana, it's darker and less resolved than Time Traveler. Fans won't be disappointed by this curious tale of two sets of twins, a haunted mews house and the distant love affair between a crossword setter with severe OCD and his wife, but it isn't an easy read, and the final third of the book left my head feeling scrambled. She's delighted when I tell her. "My friends read Time Traveler and looked at me as if to say 'we would never have expected you to write this'," she says. "I tend to have a harsher outlook. There is no love transcending time in this one. It's about loss, death, grief. I was looking for something more complicated. I'm a big fan of ambiguity, which a lot of readers seem to hate. I'm going to give you the clues and then you have to think it out. But I hope there is enough beauty and treats to make the other stuff go down."

We meet in a historic pub around the corner from Highgate Cemetery. Niffenegger, who describes herself as a "graveyard tourist", first went there in 1996 and was blown away. Years later when an image came to her ("a man who can't leave his home is visited by a young woman", which turned into the crossword setter with OCD meeting one of the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry), Niffenegger thought Highgate would make the perfect setting. "Suddenly the whole thing jumped over to London," she says. "At that point I had only been to London twice and didn't even know why I needed a cemetery."

Niffenegger contacted the chair of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, a formidable octogenarian called Jean Pateman. "Her initial reaction was, 'Oh my dear, I don't think that would be a very good idea,'" says Niffenegger. "I quote that back to her now and we laugh and laugh." She sent Pateman an early manuscript of Time Traveler, and her reservations promptly vanished. Niffenegger started flying to London and "hanging out" at the cemetery. She even became a tour guide, just like the protagonist of the novel, Robert, who is haunted by his ex's death, and she still volunteers there when she can. She also based a character on Pateman, dedicated the book to her and now stays with her whenever she is in London. "If I was going to write some zombie thing Jean wouldn't have let me near the place," says Niffenegger. "After reading Time Traveler she gave me a couple of rules. One was not too much swearing, the other was no sex in the cemetery. Time Traveler was about a fairly rabbit-like couple, but this book is about a certain kind of restraint."

Talking to Niffenegger, it is apparent how much reality bleeds into her fiction. There's the dyed red hair, becoming a tour guide and the way she calls Robert her surrogate. Her books have such lengthy gestation periods that life inevitably elbows its way in. "I'm a somewhat slow maker of things," she says. "I'm always impatient at the beginning to get my little world up and running and then I just want to swim around in there for years until someone stops me. For the original edition of The Three Incestuous Sisters I listed all the things I did while I made them. I moved house twice, went to Europe five times, had x number of cats and boyfriends, went to graduate school."

Niffenegger isn't recoiling from her success but she doesn't seem fussed by it either. The best part has been making friends with writers such as Tracy Chevalier and Neil Gaiman, meeting Susanna Clarke and "seeing the coolest bookstores in the world".

And the worst part? "The dark side is the halo of extraneous stuff that surrounds the books," she says. "What if the people who might have liked them don't pick them up because they think only bad books are bestsellers, you know? I'm enough of a snob to hesitate before I pick up a copy of something that has sold millions. It would be so nice if people could accidentally stumble upon this book." Of course she knows that won't happen. v

Her Fearful Symmetry is out on 1 October, Jonathan Cape (18.99)