Niffenegger, Audrey: *1963

The Time Traveler's Wife, 2003 - Transcript Interview

  • Hans Fischer    Welcome to SwissEduc. My name is Hans Fischer and my guest today is Audrey Niffenegger. Welcome Audrey Niffenegger.
    Your book "The Time Traveler's Wife" is basically a love story between Clare, an artist, and Henry, a librarian, who is the time traveler. What is a time traveler? And how did you get to the idea of using one in a love story?
    Audrey Niffenegger    Well, the idea first came to me in the form of the title. I was just drawing one day and I had this phrase pop into my head: "The Time Traveler's wife." And so I immediately knew, that there would be two characters, and they would be married to each other. And the husband would be a time traveler. And as I started to think about it, I realized that it would be really difficult to be the wife. Because she would be the one, who'd have to stay behind, and he would be the one who'd have all the adventures. And so as I thought about it more and more, I started to think about who the characters might be, and what sort of adventures they might have, I realized that what I really cared about was the marriage and the relationship that these two people had, where one was always waiting and the other one was always going and coming. And so, as the story developed, that was kind of the main linch pin of it, was this tension between activity and passivity.
    HF    Now that one character travels between times makes the book not an easy read ... and there's e.g. an age difference between the main characters of 8 or 7 years. And they meet each other for the first time in different years: like Clare meets Henry in 1991 and Henry meets Clare for the first time in 1997. What help can you give students, so that they can follow your plot more easily?
    AN    Well, I think my main advice to people, when they first start to read the book, is to actually let go, don't try to keep track. Just follow the ages because ... at the beginning of the scene I tell you how old they are. And if you know that, you begin to get a feel for what's happening to each one of them at different times in their life. And people have told me that they sometimes flip back through the book to see, you know, how old somebody was in a particular scene. But for the most part, I think, if you just pay the normal amount of attention and don't try too meticuously to track the dates, as though it was a mystery novel, you'll be ok.
    HF    By the way, I love that sentence "When do you come from?" As I first read it I said, "Oops, is that a mistake?"
    AN    Not so many people you can say that to.
    HF    The book is about love, aand Clare wonders why love is intensified by absence. Could you tell us how we should understand this?
    AN    Well, I really do believe that this is true. When someone is present all the time, you have a chance to get bored with them. When you have somebody and you know they're going to be there ever day and you're going to wake up and they are there at breakfast, you tend to lose the keeness of your appreciation for the fact that they are there. Some of us are good at remembering that this is sort of a miracle, that we have someone to love. But I think a lot of people ... it seems more romantic, if someone is far away and they come home, and there is a big reunion, and it's exciting. And there is a certain tension, when the person that you love is doing something dangerous, you know, like an astronaut or a policeman or something. And so when you combine these two things of danger and absence, it sort of ups the stakes for the relationship and it makes it easier to remember that it's exciting to have someone.
    HF    But the book is also about determinism and free will. And Henry, e.g. cannot decide when to time travel and he says once, "If you are in time, not knowing, you are free." Are we free when we know little, not knowing?
    AN    Well, by definition we never know. We don't know really what the future will bring. And we can make our best guesses, but you and I don't know what's going to happen to us in ten minutes from now. We guess we'll still be doing the same things. But we never know when, you know, meteors may hit the earth and cause a new ice age, and so - probability is one thing and fate is another thing. And in the book I never come down on one side or the other. I never say these characters are completely ruled by fate. I never say these characters have total free will. And even though Henry knows the future, I don't think he has any more or less free will than the rest of us.
    HF    You use facts not everybody might be familiar with. E.g. Henry gets invited to the Christmas dinner with Clare's family and when they are called to the table you say "and they stand up Pavlovian-like." \Or Dr. Kendrick looks like D.H. Lawrence. And another example, when Clare and Henry look for a name for their daughter, a song is quoted in French without any translation. Now, do you expect your readers to be well educated or can such passages be overread without losing anything?
    AN    A little of both. I pay my readers the respect of assuming that they get out in the world and read books and so forth. But what I love myself, and have loved since I was a child, is to read something that's a little over my head, you know. Or a book that refers to something I don't know about, and then I'll go look it up. So certain things in other peoples' books have become important to me, because it was the first time I had ever heard o that thing.
    HF    But later on Henry quotes the last stanza of Rainer Maria Rilke's Fith Duino Legend ... Elegie, and then only the beginning is in German and the rest is translated. Why is there the translation necessary?
    AN    Sometimes I don't want to leave it up to the reader to go look it up ... you know. Some things ... it was very important to me that people get what it was ... you know ... and so I provide the translation.
    HF    When Henry time travels he cannot take anything with him, not even his clothes. What do you mean by this expression? Why can't he take things with him?
    AN    We have not talked yet about the fact that Henry's time travel is the result of a genetic mutation. And your genetic mutation is not going to get your sweater to move across time with you. And so when I was thinking about the fact that this is his body we are dealing with. I though, ok, well, naturally he is going to have to go naked, because you can't bring anything with you, I mean, he even has a tooth pulled, because he can't keep the filling, because it isn't part of him.
    HF    Is it only Clare, who sees his nakedness or do others see it too?
    AN    Oh, anybody would, I mean, he is a real person.
    HF    Because the strange fact is, when he ... appears from another time and seemingly from swimming in Lake Michigan, the police only fines him for swimming when no life guard is on duty.
    AN    Well, I don't know if you read a whole lot of comic books, when you were young.
    HF    No, I have not ... I have to tell you that.
    AN    All right, in a way I'm kind of ... it's a little bit of a parody, because in comic books with super heroes, Superman, and Batman, and all these people, they're constantly doing things like changing from Clark Kent into Superman in a phone booth and no one notices. And so I've given Henry a little bit of this obliviousness of the world around him, when it suits me, as an author, when it happens to be convenient for me to have no one notice him.
    HF    The book is called "The Time Traveler's Wife." So actually Clare seems to be the more important character. And on the other hand that Henry is a time traveler makes him very fascinating. Why did you give the book this title?
    AN    Well, as I was talking about at the beginning, the title was the first thing that I thought of, it's the germinating seed. And for me really the book is about their marriage. But after I had been working on it for a while, I fortuitiously found this quote that appeared on the title page, by J.B. Priestely, and the quote, which I'm about to read to you ...
    The quote says,
    "Clock time is our bank manager,
    tax collector, police inspector;
    this inner time is our wife."
    And once I found that quote, the whole thing made complete sense to me, because Henry is not only married to Clare, but he is married to this quirky out-of-sinc time that he is living. And it is such an intimate part of him, that it really is inseparable.
    HF    What could the reader in general learn from the Time Traveler?
    AN    Well, the most obvious moral of the story, I supppose, is carpe diem: seize the day. Don't put things off, be mindful and value the time that you have. I think, quite a lot of people who have written to me said it made them appreciate their husband or wife or lover more. I have got more mail from people, who suddenly had this new found ... sort of a renewal of the sense of being lucky.
    HF    Well, thank you very much, Audrey Niffenegger, for taking your time and giving us all this great information.
    AN    Thank you.
    This interview took place in Berne, Switzerland. November 9, 2004