Though she may be best known for her fictional take on chronological displacement, Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, tells Melissa Block that she's also attracted to themes of death and dying.
"I think I must have sprung from the womb looking at the other end of my life," Niffenegger says. "Living in America, one tends not to be very death-focused — we're such an optimistic, death-avoiding society. But all the art I was attracted to when I was young seemed to be, if not macabre, then involving loss in some way."
Niffenegger explores some of those darker themes in her new book Her Fearful Symmetry, which features identical twin sisters from America who inherit their aunt's apartment in London. Though the aunt dies in the novel's first line, the author says she wanted to hold onto the character — so she turned her into a ghost.
"The more I thought about their aunt, Elspeth, the more interested I got in her, and the more I wanted to write about her. And I felt very, very sorry that I had killed her before she even got into the story," Niffenegger says.
While Niffenegger recognizes that the setup of her novel may be cliched, she says it is intentionally so: "One of the things I'm doing in this book is taking all the old cliches and the workings of the 19th-century English novel and trying to use them in a 21st century novel in a way that makes sense."
London's famous Highgate Cemetery, where Elspeth's lover works as a scholar and where Elspeth herself is buried, also features prominently in the novel. It's a place that Niffenegger got to know so well while writing that the staff suggested she start giving cemetery tours — which she did.
Death doesn't just figure prominently in Niffenegger's new novel; it's also a common theme of her artwork. In the drawings, paintings and prints she displays on her Web site, skeletons share a meal at a communal table and canoodle with the living.
"Violence does not attract me, nor do I try to aestheticize it. ... [But] death, on the other hand, is something that will happen to everybody, and it does seem important to think about it," Niffenegger explains.
Niffenegger acknowledges that some readers who know her from The Time Traveler's Wife may be startled by her latest effort: "This book is more astringent and less of a full-blown romantic odyssey."
"[But] I tried in this book not to be relentless," she adds. "There's humor in this book, and there are open spaces where I'm not necessarily determining something, where it's possible for a reader to make choices about what's happening and what the readers are going to be doing."