Alumni Q&A: Audrey Niffenegger

Lauren Mogannam

Audrey Niffenegger, author of The New York Times best seller “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” graduated from Northwestern in 1991 with a Master’s in Fine Arts. Her novel, the story of a woman who marries a man who involuntarily travels through time, will be released as a movie starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana this year.

The Daily: How did any of your experiences at Northwestern affect your work?

Audrey Niffenegger: I was a graduate student in the Department of Art Theory and Practice, which surprises a lot of people. Everybody seems to think I was a creative writing major. It was a tiny department. There were only 10 graduate students. It was family-like.

The Daily: When did you decide that you wanted to become an artist?

AN: I’ve always known that I was interested in being an artist, and I have been writing since I was a tiny thing. I was always trying to mix them to put them all together.

The Daily: Who has influenced your work the most at Northwestern?

AN: Philip Chen was my adviser and he was a wonderful, perceptive, calm guy. His own work is astonishing. He was also very acute about how he would look at other people’s work. At the time I was a grad student; I was like a human wolverine. I was sarcastic and not always pleasant to be around, I think, and Phil was a good person for me to interact with because he was kind and very, very interested in what the students were doing.

The Daily: Are the main characters in “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” Clare and Henry, based on you in any way?

AN: Clare and Henry are not based on real people. They probably both have some aspects of myself. You have to give characters bits of yourself to let them grow.

The Daily: “The Time Traveler’s Wife” has been adapted for the big screen; what was your role in that process?

AN: Hiding under my desk, mostly. I didn’t have very much to do with the movie. Whatever is fantastic about the movie will be due to the wonderfulness of the director and the actors.

The Daily: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

AN: Keep doing it. I have seen so many people train in an area and think they really want to do it, and then they get out of school and lose that bunch of people who were giving them deadlines and feedback. Somehow they have a hard time sustaining themselves after they get out of school. My main advice is to persevere and to make some kind of community for yourself so that you have friends that are urging you on and just do it. I mean, you do not write a novel by talking about it.

The Daily: How did Northwestern impact your life?

AN: It was a two-year period where I could reassess what I was doing, why I was doing it and how I wanted to go about continuing to do it. You don’t get to that very often. You don’t get to walk out of the working world and into the school world and think about your work nonstop for two years. That is a gift. The ways it affected me are probably intangible, but essentially it allowed me to contemplate the why and what.

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