Chicago-based professor Audrey Niffenegger was surprised when her 2003 debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife became a huge national hit, appearing on the New York Times bestseller list for months on end and earning attention from then-couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who bought the movie rights. But she took it in stride and kept right on with what she’d been doing all along: teaching at the Center For Book & Paper Arts at Chicago’s Columbia College, and creating and showing her own visual art. She’s now out on tour behind her follow-up project, The Three Incestuous Sisters, an oversized, eerie, Edward Gorey-like art book that was 14 years in the making. Niffenegger has created miniscule-run handmade art books before, but Three Incestuous Sisters is a new experience for her, in that it’s been reproduced for mass publication. Niffenegger recently spoke to The A.V. Club about her two books, her production process, and everybody’s favorite subject, Brad Pitt.
The A.V. Club: What’s touring behind Three Incestuous Sisters been like?
Audrey Niffenegger: Well, so far, I’ve done exactly two gigs, and they were very different. One was in England, in Sussex, for the Charleston Festival, and Charleston is a 17th-century farmhouse that at one point was inhabited by Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. The two of them were painters and completely covered the house with murals and art, and it’s this amazing place, and the festival was out in their barn, so I was basically showing slides to a couple hundred people and reading books. And then the other gig was here in Chicago at Women & Children First, but a lot of bookstores just aren’t set up for the whole slideshow concept. So we all did our best and it was fun, but kind of hard to show slides. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is the slide show the standard plan for stops on your book tour?
AN: Well, I’m hoping to do that, but some places just are not going to be able to deal with it. So I’m still kind of evolving a strategy. If I can’t show the art, then probably I’ll just tell about how the book was made, answer questions… I don’t know. One person at Women & Children First came up with the bright idea to pass out a copy of Three Incestuous Sisters to everybody, so we could all just have story time. [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s going to work very well. I’ve been asking around. I’m like, “Hey, what do illustrated-book people do?” and everybody just kind of shrugs.
AVC: Has doing press for this book been much different from interviewing about The Time Traveler’s Wife?
AN: Well, one way that it’s different is that the conversation will start by talking about Three Incestuous Sisters,and then we’ll veer off into talking about Time Traveler’s Wife, and people are like, “Hey, what about Brad Pitt?” [Laughs.] I think people are fascinated and slightly apprehensive.
AVC: Well, not to buck the trend… Can you visualize Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as the stars of Time Traveler’s Wife: The Movie?
AN: Well, Jennifer Aniston has bowed out. I think they kind of early on realized that they wouldn’t be doing it together, so it became a project for Brad Pitt, and he’s still involved. Gus Van Sant is going to direct it and is writing the screenplay. I think he’s got a finished draft now, but I haven’t read it. So I’m excited about Gus Van Sant, and Brad Pitt has made some movies that I adore, like Fight Club, so if we could somehow get a nice, tough, edgy movie out of the whole thing, that would be great.
AVC: If Three Incestuous Sisters were a movie, who would you want in the lead roles?
AN: I would love to see it as an animated movie, and, you know, if I was picking a director, I would love to see someone like Guy Maddin. That would be so great. Of course, he just does his own stuff.
AVC: It’s been widely noted that Three Incestuous Sisters was a 14-year project for you. What took so long?
AN: One thing is just the technical process of making aquatints. There’s 80 images in the book. Most of them took approximately a week, so you would say, “Well, you could do that in a couple of years,” but the way I work tends to be, I have this intense period of activity, and then I wander off and go to the movies or something. [Laughs.] So I would have bouts of working on the book, and then I would go to Europe, or go to graduate school or something.
AVC: What appeals to you about aquatints that makes them worth the difficult production process?
AN: I tend to like processes that are very technical and have lots of steps, and I’m especially interested in things that are very linear, because back when I was 14 and 15, everything I was doing was basically line drawing. The thing with making aquatints is that until you actually print it, you’re working sort of blind. You’re working backwards, the image is reversed, you can’t really see the thing at all, it’s in your head as a series of textures that translate into tones. So it’s sort of like being Beethoven, except unlike Beethoven, you get to actually experience the result when you’re done.
AVC: Is aquatinting like making woodcuts, in that you make a template, strike prints, see where it works, and then change the base if you want to try again? Or is it a one-shot process?
AN: No, you can change things. It’s actually more changeable than a woodcut, because with a woodcut, once you carve something away, it’s gone. With an etching, you can coat the plate with another ground and go back in the acid and alter it quite a bit.
AVC: So are there dozens of discarded images for every one that actually went into the book?
AN: No, Lord no. [Laughs.] I’m better than that. No, there are a few plates that didn’t work out, but usually it was because I forgot it was in the acid and went off to lunch or something. [Laughs.] I can be kind of cavalier about the whole thing sometimes.
AVC: What would people who only know you from your mass-published work learn about your art, or about you as an artist, by coming to one of your shows?
AN: Well, the commonality between my visual work and my writing is the everyday with one big change. In Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s this idea that somebody can actually time travel. I do a lot of self-portraits, and generally it’ll be a very realistic self-portrait, but I’ll be Siamese twins, or I’ll have a head full of snakes and be Medusa, or something like that. So I’m sort of interested in this combination of strangeness and ordinariness.
AVC: Where would people go to see your artwork?
AN: In Boston, you could go to Harvard’s Houghton library and look at the original version of Three Incestuous Sisters. In Washington D.C., the National Museum Of Women In The Arts has a copy of The Adventuress, an earlier visual novel that I made. There’s not so much work in public collections out and about. Here in Chicago, the Newberry Library has some things, but most of it at the moment is in the hands of private collectors… Maybe you could get invited to dinner at their house or something. [Laughs.]