Audrey Niffenegger on Her Ghostly New Novel

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Writer Audrey Niffenegger

If all you know of Audrey Niffenegger is her achingly romantic novel The Time Traveler's Wife, then you're in for a surprise with her latest. Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger's follow-up to her time-hopping best seller, is a Victorian ghost story set in the present that's more in tune with her creepy "visual novels" The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters. Starring a pair of waifish twins who inherit their mysterious (and dead, but maybe not-so-dead) aunt's London flat, the book is set in and around the city's famous Highgate Cemetery. Niffenegger talked to TIME about her favorite gardens of the dead, creepy twins and the subject of her next book.

So much of this book takes place in a cemetery that is often more peaceful and beautiful than it is scary. When you go to different cities, do you check out their graveyards? Were any particularly memorable?
You can't do this in Highgate because it's gated, but there are cemeteries in London where people walk their dogs and have picnics. It's nice. But I have to say that Milan's Cemetery Monumental is breathtaking. I was there in 1985, and it's enormous. It has some of the most amazing memorial sculpture I've ever seen in my life, in a range of styles. Some of it is very expressive and slightly scary. You've gotta see it to believe it; it's fairly over the top.

Is there a noticeable difference between European cemeteries and American cemeteries?
Well, a lot of communities in America have passed laws saying that cemeteries have to be flat so that you can run a lawnmower over it. To me, that kind of sums up the modern American attitude. Some of the European cemeteries, on the other hand, are so old that the graves no longer have family connected with them to take care of them, they're running out of space, and there are issues about who's going to pay for the upkeep. So the gorgeous European cemeteries have their own problems. But of course, in America we've had some weird scandals lately, like the Burr Oak thing in Chicago — apparently employees were emptying graves and reselling plots.

There are many parallels between your last book, a graphic novel called The Three Incestuous Sisters, and Her Fearful Symmetry. Is there something in the way that sisters interact, in your mind, that makes those relationships fertile ground for stories to grow out of?
Yes, though I should hasten to add that my relationship with my own sisters is idyllic and lovely. However, there's so much potential for rivalry and competition. But then there are all the upsides of companionship and that "Who knows you better than your sister?" feeling.

There are two pairs of twins in your book. Is there a reason that twins, in pop culture at least, are inherently creepy? Other than the Weasley boys in the Harry Potter series, you never really see twins portrayed in a happy way.
I suppose one source of unease is this notion that you're not as unique as you think you are. And identical twins, of course, personify that. We don't like that. Or maybe we're drawn to it and repelled by it at the same time. Of course, I imagine a twin would look at the rest of us somewhat pityingly, because if you're a twin, you really do have a soul mate. I've talked to a lot of twins, and they've all mentioned that you feel the need to make yourself into an individual. You're always a twin, but the question, I think, for any pair of twins is, How's that going to work once we get married and have children?

Were there certain pairs of pop-culture twins that came to mind when you were writing this book?
Someone in some review somewhere mentioned Diane Arbus' photo of those young twins, and that's an iconic image for me. I'm a huge admirer of Diane Arbus. And even though my twins don't look like that and they're older, there's something in the way those two girls look at the camera. With her work, there's always this quality of looking at people maybe you feel you shouldn't be looking at.

You used to teach book arts in Chicago, and you actually make books. As someone, then, who is so involved with the physical construction of books, are you concerned that one day everything will be digital?
I'm concerned about the effect of the digital on the world of the printed book. I think there are a lot of things that digital books could do more effectively. I can imagine, for example, that with textbooks and telephone books and all of those resources, it would be lovely for them to be searchable the way we're used to searching the Internet. But to read a novel, I would really much rather have a physical book. I realize that e-books are in their infancy and that the machines will improve, but at the moment, [for art books] the image-rendering qualities are just laughable.

When photography was invented, it took from painting a lot of the more practical image-making and recording tasks. And so painting was left pretty much with its aesthetic qualities, because most of the practical things you could do with painting were much more easily done with photography. Painting got increasingly abstract, increasingly tactile, and moved completely into the world of art. So maybe that's what will happen to books. But I sure hope not.

Do you read for pleasure across genres? Is there a type of book you tend toward in a bookstore?
I try to range freely around the bookstore. I have a fantasy of opening a bookstore, and if I ever do that, it's not going to have sections or categories. I think we should encourage people to get out of their weird little categories. Instead of saying, "I only read business books" or "I only read romance" or whatever it is that people think they read, it would be nice if everybody would graze more widely.

How would that bookstore even look?
You could do it by color of the spine. You could do it by how big the book was. All the little books over here and all the big books over there.

London is literature's Victorian ghost-story capital. Did you have to grapple with everything that came before in that genre?
I definitely wanted to ground my story in all the stuff that had come before. A couple of reviewers have faulted me for using all these terrible old clichés, but that was actually the project — to take all the tropes of the 19th century English novel and try to reanimate them. The book is definitely supposed to comment and hopefully expand on London ghost stories of yore.

We're in the 21st century now, though. What's the continued appeal of ghost stories?
It's sort of like the appeal of macaroni and cheese, don't you think? It's delicious and comforting. Or, in the case of my book, not that comforting. But it's one of those childhood tastes that you never entirely outgrow. Even though I would not give this book to a child, I've been trying to echo childhood, "sit around the campfire"–kind of thrills.

What's the next book you're working on?
The next project is tentatively titled The Chinchilla Girl in Exile. It's about a 9-year-old girl who has hypertrichosis, which is a condition in which you have lots and lots of hair. She looks kind of like Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. She's pretty hairy, and she's been homeschooled because her family doesn't think she is going to succeed socially in school. But she's very plucky, and she wants to have a normal life, so they reluctantly allow her to go to school. I was working on this a few years ago as a short story, and it kind of overflowed its boundaries.