Audrey Niffenegger has always been a renaissance woman. Best known as the author of the best-selling novels "The Time Traveler's Wife" (2003) and "Her Fearful Symmetry" (2009), Niffenegger, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is also one of the Windy City's most original and provocative visual artists. Her dark, surreal, stylishly neo-Gothic body of work will be highlighted next month in "Awake in the Dream World," a mid-career retrospective opening on June 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. She has also combined her artistic and literary gifts in hybrid form in the illustrated books "The Three Incestuous Sisters" (2005), "The Adventuress" (2006) and "The Night Bookmobile" (2008).
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With her new illustrated novella, "Raven Girl" — about a postman who marries a raven, their union producing a daughter who looks human (at least at first) but feels like a bird underneath the skin — Niffenegger is colonizing yet another artistic medium. On Friday, London's legendary Royal Ballet mounted the world premiere of a ballet of the same title by Wayne McGregor, the company's resident choreographer, at the Royal Opera House. McGregor and his creative team have based the new ballet on the original story and artwork of Niffenegger, who now divides her time between Chicago and a flat in London. Printers Row Journal recently visited with Niffenegger, 49, at her stately Victorian home on Chicago's West Side; here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How did "Raven Girl," both the book and the ballet based on it, come about?
A: David Drew, who'd been a principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, had received a copy of "The Three Incestuous Sisters" from his wife as a birthday present. He's now 75 years old, so he goes way back with the ballet. These days he's a scenarist, and he looks for things to turn into ballets. In 2006, he wrote me an e-mail saying he thought "The Three Incestuous Sisters" might make a good ballet. I got all excited, because I thought, "This is a whole other alien planet that I don't know about."
I met David, and he started bringing me to rehearsals at the ballet, and I got to hang out in the cafeteria and chat with people. It was funny for someone who's essentially ignorant of ballet to be given the golden ticket, more or less, and most of the time I had no idea who these people were, even though they were super-well-known dancers and choreographers.
Q: You weren't a ballet fan as a child, I guess? Maybe you went to "The Nutcracker"?
A: I was taken to "Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake" and so forth, but no, I wasn't a balletomane. At the Royal Ballet, I would watch people do things in rehearsal, and a lot of times I liked the rehearsals even better than the final performances, because in the rehearsals you could see how something was made. You could see people making judgments — you know, "This and not that." "Do that higher." And you could see how it was taking shape. In the process, David was looking for a choreographer to adapt "The Adventuress" or "The Three Incestuous Sisters."
Q: Eventually he introduced you to Wayne McGregor.
A: Yes. Wayne was exciting to me because he's so multidisciplinary and adaptable. He collaborates with a lot of people who are not dance-savvy; he takes a lot of inspiration from visual art, for example, and has done work with Radiohead and the Harry Potter movies. Anyway, Wayne said, "Let's start from scratch with a new story." And I said, "Great! What kind of story?" He said he would like a "new fairy tale," and later he added that he would like a "dark fairy tale." I of course was thinking, "What other kind is there?" (Laughs.)
Q: He wasn't going to get anything else from you.
A: No. (Laughs.) So I went off and started thinking. I thought that the fairy tale, rather than being based in magic, should be based in science and medicine, in part because Wayne collaborates with scientists at Cambridge and is interested in things like technology and how the body works.
It reminded me that I had this character, this bird girl, who had been inspired by a famous article I read in Harper's, "Dr. Daedalus" by Lauren Slater. It was about a plastic surgeon who was thinking about plastic surgery almost the way a sculptor might think about art. He imagined what it would be like if he could give people wings and tails, modify people however they wanted to be modified without worrying too hard about the ethics of it. He wasn't doing these things, but apparently had all sorts of interesting sketches.
So that got me thinking, "Who would come to him and want to do that?" And of course people really are doing all sorts of crazy things these days with body modification.
Q: You mean people who have those stretcher things in their earlobes?
A: Yes, but there are things that are way, way more extreme. There's an artist in France who's undertaken all sorts of intense body modification, lots of plastic surgery. She's modified, in particular, her face, very extensively.
Q: To look like —?
A: She looks a bit like an alien now, or an anime character. There are also people who've had things implanted under their skin — little bumps, for example, so it looks like they have horns. Anyway, in my artwork over the years, I've played a lot with the idea of levitation, of flying; birds keep coming up. So I was imagining this girl who was convinced that she was really a bird, and wanted body modification surgery so she could be more like a bird. Originally, I was thinking of her as someone who's like a transgendered person, who knows that their interior and exterior don't match.
Q: Gender dysphoria, it's called.
A: Right. I was thinking about her back in 2002 or so, but didn't have a story for her. I knew what she looked like, but I didn't know what she was up to. Later, when Wayne asked for a fairy tale, I thought, "She's like someone in a fairy tale." Fairy tales, you know, almost always feature some kind of transformation. There are so many people and animals in fairy tales that are either between states, or have been turned into something against their will, or they're being turned into something as a reward, or they're trying to get somebody to do something so they can turn back.
Q: The theme of metamorphosis goes back to Ovid, yes, and Greek mythology. There are some cases where people or animals get stuck in the middle —
A: Chimeras, for example. Centaurs.
A: Yes. There's a long tradition. So I started reading a lot of fairy tales, and one thing that struck me was how matter-of-fact they are. People are seldom surprised in fairy tales, or if they are, they rapidly adapt. And I thought that whatever happens in my story, it should be surprising to the audience, but not surprising to the people it's happening to.
Wayne originally wanted to do a ballet with an intermission, so I was thinking of a story that could be split in half. Initially what I knew of the story was the second half. It's about a university student who takes an evolutionary biology class that has a guest lecturer who's a plastic surgeon. He's showing all these slides of chimeras and so on, and she says, "Oho! That's me!" And she approaches him, and he agrees to transform her.
At first I wasn't sure whether that was going to be a good thing or a bad thing. During the period I was working on this, I had season tickets to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and ... they did a season where in every single opera, the heroine dies.
Q: Tosca takes a dive, and Mimi gets tuberculosis —
A: And I thought to myself, "I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to be all moralistic and, like, punish her for trying to become herself."
Q: There's a Boy Detective character, who's sort of the voice of, I guess, reason.
A: He's the voice that wants her to be punished, yes. He's the hysterical moralizer.
Q: Which is kind of unfortunate, because he starts out as a sympathetic character — her soul mate, really, even though she doesn't realize it.
A: Well, this is me, having read a lot of fairy tales. I'm like, "The heck with that character. I'm going to smite you!" (Laughs.) But then she gets her prince at the end, with zero effort on her part.
Q: Going back to the theme of transformation, and of growing up with a sense of being out of place, or of a mismatch between one's form and what one believes to be one's true self — is there some personal resonance in that for you?
A: Sure. If you're asking me whether I spent my childhood feeling ... odd ... then the answer is yes. As a child I was really awkward and really tall. When I started the sixth grade, I was 5 foot 2, which was already pretty tall for my age, and by the end of the school year, I was 5 foot 8. I was 11 years old, and I grew this much. (She holds her hands 6 inches apart.) And it hurt. I would lie in bed at night and just hurt, mostly in my legs.
Q: You literally had growing pains.
A: Yes. And of course all the boys were still quite short. I felt like a giantess, and I was afraid I was going to just keep growing, like Alice inside the little house in Wonderland. Also I was interested in stuff that nobody else was interested in. My passions were drawing and writing little stories, and folding up little pieces of paper to make books. So like a lot of people who grow up and become artists, I was always thinking, "Where are my people?" But I couldn't find them, and so now in my work, this condition of being a weirdo keeps coming up. Oh well.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
By Audrey Niffenegger, Abrams ComicArts, 80 pages, $19.95Copyright © 2015, RedEye