By Elizabeth Buzzelli
In a true double header, the National Writers Series is bringing best
selling writers Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Travelers Wife and Her
Fearful Symmetry) and Walter Kirn (Up in the Air) to the Traverse City
Opera House on July 15, 7 p.m., to talk about their books, writing,
life, art, and inspiration.
Audrey Niffenegger, a native Michiganian, was born in South Haven and
now lives in Chicago. Far from starting as a writer, she wanted to
paint, training as a visual artist at the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago, and receiving an MFA from Northwestern Universitys
Department of Art Theory and Practice. The wildly successful writing
career came later, with The Time Travelers Wife, which shot to the
top of the New York Times Best Seller List, and has now been followed
by her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.
While plotting the second novel, Niffenegger says she set out to do
something different from the first, a poignant story of time travel
and a transcendent love. She turned to London, and an apartment house
adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, a hauntingly dramatic cemetery in North
I had been there in 1996, she said in a recent interview. I took
the tour and was completely amazed by the place: so beautiful, so
bizarre. When the novel I was writing acquired a cemetery, I was
planning to use Graceland Cemetery in Chicagos Uptown neighborhood,
but soon remembered Highgate and decided to get
in touch with the group that owned it to see if I could set the novel
there. At the time there were no ghosts in the novel, Robert (the tour
guide), long preceded Elspeth (the woman dead at the beginning) as a
character in the book.
WHOS WHO OF GRAVES
Choosing Highgate was an inspired choice; from its impressive front
gates to its haunting walkways passing the graves of people such as
Karl Marx; John and Elizabeth Dickens, parents of Charles Dickens and
the models for Micawber and Mrs. Nickleby in Dickens books; George
Eliot; Christina Rossetti; and even Adam Worth, a criminal said to be
the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes Professor Moriarty. And it was
used as a setting in Bram Stokers Dracula.
Against this impressive backdrop, Niffenegger set her ghost story of
couples coming together and coming undone, where two sets of twins
are entwined and separated, where a lonely ghost roams the rooms of
her old apartment being felt by her lost lover and others but still
alone and unseen.
The title of her latest book, Her Fearful Symmetry, comes, she says,
from William Blakes poem, Tiger, tiger, burning bright and is
about doubling, twins, about death and loss.
Death has been a theme in all of Niffeneggers work, beginning with
prints she did in the 1980s and 1990s which portray skeletons and
suicides. Asked whether the prints and their portrayal of death came
first or if the visual leap followed the written page, Niffenegger
says, The images tend to be first, but the images always hint at
The Time Travelers Wife was originally planned as a graphic novel,
leaning heavily on her artistic background, but she quickly found it
too difficult to represent sudden time shifts with still images and
her writing career was born.
Now teaching courses in text-image relationships at Columbia College
in Chicago, shes discovered the close relationship between the arts
of writing and painting. Many of the writers I teach are artists,
she says. Ive noticed that description, physicality, and a sense of
place are all very easy for artists when they become writers.
With death being a major subject in both of her novels, I asked
Niffenegger her own feelings about this very deep and eternally
I am not at all religious, and believe that death is the end for each
of us, so we had all better live as beautifully, kindly, and honestly
as we can. Of course, in my stories, people often fail to do this and
trouble ensues, she answered.
And as to love, another of her themes, sometimes skewed by time
travel, sometimes by death, she says Its a simple and important
facet of our existence: we are brief creatures. We love, we die.
Most of literature sprouts from these hard facts.
As to coming to Traverse City for the Writers Series, she says in an
email interview, I have only been there briefly, always on the way
to somewhere else, so it will be nice to get a longer glimpse of the
city. I am typing this in New York City, its almost 100 degrees, and
I imagine that Traverse City is cool and green, very inviting.
Walter Kirn, New York Times best selling author of the 2001 novel, Up
in the Air (turned into the successful film of the same name starring
George Clooney), will be guest host at the opera house event, giving a
talk, signing books, and interviewing Niffenegger.
Writing during a tough winter on a ranch in rural Montana, Kim was
inspired to write the book by a first-class passenger he had once met
on a plane. That man became Ryan Bingham, a man who makes his living
traveling to workplaces around the United States and laying off
employees for bosses too cowardly to do it themselves.
When Ryan encounters a young coworker promoting a plan to cut costs
and lay off people over the internet, he grows incensed, and claims
she knows nothing about the process of firing people. Together the
couple learns some hard truths about hard times though the truths
dont quite stick and Ryan is soon back to the life he knows.
With this kind of doubled talent, the new National Writers Series
event shapes up to be one of the best. The series, spearheaded by our
own best selling author, Doug Stanton, is fast becoming nationally
important due to visiting writers such as Tom Brokaw coming to
Traverse City. Monies raised will go toward providing scholarships for
local writers on their way to college, with winners of the first
scholarship contest to be announced this fall.
Tickets for An Evening with Audrey Niffenegger are $15 advance/$20
at the door for adults, and $5 for students. They can be purchased at
the City Opera House box office or online at www.cityoperahouse.org
Doors open at 6 pm, complimentary desserts provided by Morsels.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis mystery, Dead Sleeping Shaman, is in