Author’s love’s in Evanston’s past, present and future

Kristyn Schiavone

Audrey Niffenegger has put together dozens of books. There are about 10 copies of most of them. There are two million copies of another: “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”

Niffenegger, a former Evanston resident, a graduate of Weinberg’s art theory and practice program, has been an aritst for more than 20 years, but the book was her first novel.

She published it at age 39, after years of making artist books – hand-printed books of drawings that tell a story – in editions of 10 copies.

“I guess I was kind of a late bloomer when it comes to writing,” Niffenegger said.

Still, it came naturally.

“If you talked to most people who do it, they would say it’s not even a choice,” Niffenegger said. “It’s just what I do.”

She got the idea for the book’s title while drawing, she said. The rest came later. The book is the story of Clare, an artist, and Henry, her time-traveling husband.

“When I get ideas, I just jot them down on the table,” Niffenegger said. “This was too involved – it could either be a film or a novel. A novel is much easier to do by yourself.”

Soon, Niffenegger learned that “The Time Traveler’s Wife” could be both. Before the book was published, the rights were bought and New Line Cinema decided to make the film. It has no set release date, and Niffenegger said she hasn’t heard from the two producers, Gus Van Sant and Brad Pitt, in about four months. As far as she knows, plans are still on.

“Hollywood moves extraordinarily slowly,” Niffenegger said. “Originally, Brad Pitt was supposed to be in the movie also. If he does it, he’ll be Henry.”

Niffenegger has begun writing another novel, which she says is still in its initial stages. It is a ghost story, set in London, but she said it’s only a quarter of the way done because she’s “a very, very slow writer.”

“I usually know how it’s going to end, but I could write all the outlines in the world and it wouldn’t make a difference,” Niffenegger said.

Although it was her book that brought her international fame, Niffenegger has been practicing art as long as she can remember. As a student at Evanston Township High School, Niffenegger said, she learned printmaking and had many teachers who encouraged her.

After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Niffenegger spent 1989 to 1991 as a graduate student in NU’s art theory and practice department.

She also teaches book and paper arts at Columbia College and has very simple advice for aspiring artists.

“I tell them not to think too hard about the career part and concentrate on the writing and art part,” Niffenegger said. “You have to make your art fantastic. If you’re good, a career tends to find you.”

Niffenegger’s career found her at a student exhibition at the Art Institute, where Printworks co-director Bob Hiebert noticed her handbound, 66-print artist book out of rooms and rooms of other work.

“Generally when you look at student work, what you’re seeing is student work – most of these students don’t have their own voice yet,” Hiebert said. “(Audrey’s) book told this wonderful, bizarre adult fairy tale. It was wonderfully absurd and beautifully written. We wanted to show her work right away.”

Northwestern art theory and practice professor William Conger, who knew her as a student, calls her success in both writing and art “remarkable.”

“I believe she represents the best of what we hope for in graduates from our MFA program in art theory and practice at Northwestern,” Conger said in an e-mail. “She’s a dedicated artist who gathers all of her abilities to produce influential art bridging disciplines art and literature.”

Reach Kristyn Schiavone at [email protected]