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Ghost Writer: Writer Audrey Niffenegger Discusses 'Her Fearful Symmetry'

The author of "The Time Traveler's Wife" isn't aching to see her new work "Her Fearful Symmetry" onscreen anytime soon.

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Author Audrey Niffenegger

Photo By Robert Mitra

Author Audrey Niffenegger didn’t see the film version of her best-selling novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which came out this summer, nor does she ever plan to. “Once other people are working with your characters, they’re not really your characters anymore,” she says. “I’m happy when people like the movie, but it isn’t the book.”

(Her attitude is probably a good thing, considering the film, which starred Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, was panned by critics and audiences alike.)

Now Niffenegger is promoting her second tome, “Her Fearful Symmetry” (Scribner). The story revolves around twin sisters Julia and Valentina, who move from Chicago to London to occupy the flat of their deceased aunt, Elspeth. Eventually they realize Elspeth haunts the apartment, which is adjacent to London’s renowned Highgate Cemetery, and begin communicating with her through writing and Ouija in an effort to uncover family secrets.

Like “Time Traveler’s,” Niffenegger’s latest work is full of mystical elements that have become her signature. Just don’t expect it to hit the big screen anytime soon. “For me to be happy with the film, it would have to be shot in Highgate Cemetery,” says Niffenegger, who has become a tour guide at the site. “And that might be tough.”

On book tour in New York, Niffenegger sat down with WWD.


WWD: How did the story for “Her Fearful Symmetry” come about?
Audrey Niffenegger: The idea was that there would be a man in this apartment who couldn’t leave, and there would be a girl who comes to visit him. And the girl was Julia and then Julia had a roommate and I thought, ‘Well that’s not very interesting.’ So I thought ‘OK, no, they’re twins.’ When you start to work on any kind of thing, you’re fumbling around in darkness. Every decision calls for a whole bunch of other decisions. So just by making Julia and Valentina into twins, I immediately had a structural device — the idea of symmetry. That started to dictate a lot of other decisions in the book.

WWD: Your characters often cross over into a fantasy world. How do you do that but still maintain a sense of reality?
A.N.: Everything that happens, whether it’s fantastical or not, has to be based in how real people would really act and think and feel. As long as you have a good grip on your characters, you can put them in odd situations.

WWD: Do you know what your next novel will be about?
A.N.: A nine-year-old girl who, I think, lives in Skokie, Ill. She has hypertrichosis, which means you’re covered in hair. And so she looks like Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, but she’s very cute. So far, the story has to do with the little girl wanting to go to school — she’s been homeschooled because her family is afraid she’ll be teased. She does go to school, and of course, she is teased. But it’s not “Lord of the Flies” or anything.

WWD: Everyone in publishing is talking about the Kindle. What is your take on it?
A.N.: I think it’s fantastic if you need to cart hundreds of books around for some reason, or people with impaired eyesight say that it’s wonderful to be able to enlarge the type. But I think it would be a shame if they took so much of the book audience that something ceased to be published physically, because in the future, these computer platforms may not be supported.

WWD: I take it you don’t use one.
A.N.: I’m not an early adopter of anything.

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