Author Interview

A special Q&A with Audrey Niffenegger about Her Fearful Symmety

Q: Tell us a little about Elspeth. You have said that you had to get these twins into a nice flat in London and the only way to do that was to give them an inheritance. So Elspeth had to die. But then you found that you were interested in her. Tell us about your solution.

AUDREY NIFFENEGGER: The more I thought about the twins’aunt Elspeth, the more I wanted to write about her and I got very, very sad that I’d killed her before she entered the story. I decided that she would not go, she would become a ghost.

Q: One of the things that’s striking about the way you tell this story is that though there is a ghost—we need to accept the existence of the supernatural—everything else about the world in which these characters find themselves is totally realistic.

NIFFENEGGER: One of the things about fiction is that you can do anything. And the ghost is just as real as any of the other characters because they are all made up. In the course of writing Her Fearful Symmetry, I spoke to a lot of people who told me about their own experiences with ghosts. It wasn’t people relating something that happened to someone they knew. They said: “This happened to me.” In most of the stories, someone dead gives a warning or advice to the living. My great-aunt, after her husband died, said that she felt him sit down near her feet when she was in bed. Very simple things like that sound wonderful and amazing to me.

Q: You seem to take delight in the architecture and tools of the nineteenth-century novel. So many of them begin with news that changes the circumstances of the central protagonist or protagonists— Mrs. Bennett learns of Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice; Tess learns of her distant relationship to the aristocratic D’Urbervilles. The lives of Julia and Valentina Poole are transformed at the opening of this novel by the news of their inheritance. Can you discuss your own reading and what books might have influenced you as you delved into this story?

NIFFENEGGER: At the very beginning of this project, I looked through a variety of books to see what overused old plot devices and character types I could steal. From Henry James I got the notion of the young American girls who come over to the old country and run into trouble. And Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White turns on the extraordinary resemblance between two young women who don’t know that they’re related. Every plot move is based on mistaken identity and mistaken parentage and all these other things which have come to seem rather creaky. I thought I’d like to take this big bag of clichés and try it out, and see if I could make it seem compelling and quirky and new. The characters of Julia and Valentina, in particular, are a throwback to a type of girl who hardly exists anymore. They are like nineteenth-century girls who have wandered into a twentyfirst-century book. They may refer to pop culture and to the Internet, but these twins are very involved with each other and they have created their own little world. To a twenty-first-century reader, they would seem, I think, to be strangely isolated. Reading these nineteenth-century novels, I also noticed that quite frequently the women are driving the action. That is true of this book as well. The men spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the women are up to and trying to make sense of it.

Q: Highgate Cemetery itself is a major character in Her Fearful Symmetry. Can you tell us a little about this great nineteenth-century cemetery? About who else is buried there? And about how you became a tour guide at the cemetery?

NIFFENEGGER: I first came to Highgate Cemetery in 1996. I was attracted to it because I’m a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Rossetti family is buried there. But there’s so much more to it than that. It was founded in 1839 as part of a wave of social reform. The idea was to free all the overcrowded churchyards of the burden of burying everyone in London. Seven cemeteries were founded in a ring on the perimeter of the city. Highgate was, by far, the most romantic and fashionable of them all. It has some very famous occupants, including Karl Marx and his family, the novelist George Eliot, and so forth. As I was finishing Time Traveler, I had an idea for a story about a man who can’t leave his apartment and a girl who visits him. In my mind, this apartment was in a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown, which is a hardscrabble place. There’s a large cemetery in the middle of Uptown called Graceland, and I imagined that they lived adjacent to that cemetery. But then I thought, “Is that the best cemetery?” I remembered Highgate, which was simply the coolest cemetery I had ever seen. By choosing Highgate, I immediately propelled the whole scenario into London, and I rapidly realized that writing the book was going to require an immense amount of research. When I contacted Highgate, they were initially very cautious, but they did allow me to come and talk to them. Jean Pateman at Highgate was phenomenally helpful. She and the other people who work at the cemetery are walking history books. Jean and the other Friends of Highgate Cemetery tutored me.

Q: It’s almost impossible to resist talking more about Martin and Marijke because their journeys—though not the central plotline of the novel—are so beautifully developed. How did they come into the story?

NIFFENEGGER: Martin is the agoraphobe who started the story. He and Marijke love each other very much. They are both in their fifties. He composes crossword puzzles. She is a radio announcer for the BBC. Later she moves to Holland because Martin’s OCD has taken over. I know from personal experience people who have OCD, the most lovely, talented people, and it just comes and rules their lives. Marijke realizes that she can’t help Martin, she can’t live this way. The letter that she leaves for him makes it clear to him that she won’t be coming back, but that if he is willing to go to Amsterdam, then they can proceed with their marriage.

Q: There are two sets of twins in this book, and there is no question that one of the formative conflicts in the story comes when these twins—who have lived together so intimately, shared so much— begin to want separate lives, to go different ways. What drew you to twins?

NIFFENEGGER: I suppose one source of unease is this notion that you’re not as unique as you think you are. And identical twins, of course, personify that. We don’t like that. Maybe we’re drawn to the idea and repelled by it at the same time. Of course, I imagine a twin would look at the rest of us somewhat pityingly, because if you’re a twin, you really do have a soul mate. I’ve talked to a lot of twins, and they’ve all mentioned that you feel the need to make yourself into an individual. In the book, there was a certain point in the growing up where the twins would have to decide how much individuality they were going to have as grown-ups. The struggle for these two characters is: Are they going to keep on living in lockstep or are they going to start to diverge?

Q: Let’s talk about process. You’ve said that The Time Traveler’s Wife began with that phrase. You were at your drawing table and it came to you. Once you had the phrase, your imagination took over. So what do you do when you get an idea?

NIFFENEGGER: The original idea was that there would be a man in this apartment who couldn’t leave, and there would be a girl who comes to visit him. And the girl was Julia and then Julia had a roommate and I thought, “Well, that’s not very interesting.” So I thought, “OK, no, they’re twins.” When you start to work, you’re fumbling around in darkness. Every decision calls for a whole bunch of other decisions. So just by making Julia and Valentina into twins, I immediately had a structural device—the idea of symmetry. That dictated a lot of other decisions in the book.

Q: Were there any big hurdles in writing this particular book? Were there any mechanical difficulties? How do you think your writing has evolved from The Time Traveler’s Wife to Her Fearful Symmetry?

NIFFENEGGER: I think that my writing is getting a lot tighter and more controlled. Time Traveler’s Wife is full of exuberant digressions. It’s in some ways a typical first novel where you just pack all sorts of stuff into it and let it rip. Her Fearful Symmetry is pared down because I was writing about a place, London, where I have never lived. So it’s full of the results of a lot of careful observation and eavesdropping and sort of thinking about what belonged in the novel and what didn’t. When I began to write Her Fearful Symmetry, I decided that I didn’t want to just repeat myself. For me the most complicated thing was something which I hope the reader will never notice, which is the way that point of view moves among all these different characters and how we can be intimately involved in one character’s thoughts, and then in the next sentence we are in somebody else’s mind. I was reading writers who do that brilliantly such as Virginia Woolf and trying to learn how to do it myself.

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