Audrey Niffenegger in Dun Laoghaire

(In conversation with Mia Gallagher in the Pavilion,  part of the Dun Laoghaire Library Voices series: )

Audrey Niffenegger is an artist, print-maker, writer, and book artist, probably best known for her massive bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003).  She was on her way to Listowel when she was persuaded to stop in to Dun Laoghaire first, to chat with Mia Gallagher about her new book Raven Girl, a beautifully illustrated modern fairy tale.

She told us that the character of Raven Girl had been sitting in a waiting room in her mind for years, until a conversation with Wayne McGregor opened the door.  The spark for the story came from a Lauren Slater essay, “Doctor Daedalus”, published in Harper’s Magazine in July, 2001. ( )

The Doctor Daedalus of the title is one Joe Rosen, based in New Hampshire.  Known and respected as a brilliant plastic surgeon, he has extreme, futuristic ideas about the human body’s potential for surgical enhancement: implanting echolocators in the brains of soldiers, for example; or crafting wings that would enable a person to fly.  Contentious ideas about body modification have been front and centre in our culture for years, Audrey Niffenegger said, but Rosen’s ideas are ‘way out there.’  They set her to thinking about transgender people who suffer intense feelings of discomfort because their outer and inner selves don’t match.  From there, she conceived a girl who believes in her inner bird, longs to fly, and searches for a doctor who’ll make it possible.

The story was commissioned by Wayne McGregor, a choreographer with the Royal Ballet.  He gave her a tight deadline of 12 weeks to write it, and to make 22 illustrative prints.  The ballet he choreographed from Raven Girl, with music by Gabriel Yared, premieres at the Royal Opera House in London on Monday (3rd June).  After that, there’ll be a film, followed by an enhanced e-book.  Audrey Niffenegger’s enthusiasm for the last – “There are all sorts of cool possibilities there!” – is  refreshing.  The default response to ebooks at literary events tends towards defeatist gloom rather than upbeat curiosity. She has a lovely, playful kind of confidence about her, the kind that tells you you’re in good hands.

Mia Gallagher asked her what comes to her first, when she writes a story.  Audrey Niffenegger said that it’s sometimes a person, sometimes a phrase, but soon they come together and feed each other.  There’s a process of questioning that must be gone through.  She pointed out that people fetishize the first moment of inspiration, but in fact we all have many ideas, every day. They’ll never amount to anything unless we subject them to a process of intense questioning: Who is this? What’s happening here?  She went on to talk about a questionnaire she’s devised for her writing students to apply to their fictional characters.  Questions like, what job would they prefer to do, rather than the one they do now? Or, who are they in love with?

I’m a bit leery of this approach myself.  Back in my workshop facilitator days, I came across questionnaires that would be about as effective as chloroform on a fledgling character. There are people who fall on these with joy, print them off and spend happy hours grilling their characters as to what kind of fruit they packed in their school lunchboxes, or where they were when their first tooth fell out. I’m sure Audrey Niffenegger’s questionnaires would have more blood, nerve and sinew in them, though. I’d love to get my hands on one, to see how much fun they are.

Another striking thing she said was about how her Art School training gave her a thing she calls arrogance, but she laughed when she said it. When she explained what she meant, it sounded more like a healthy self-belief, the kind that artists and writers absolutely need to have. She said that the critique process art students are subjected to  builds a sensitive, fine-tuned sense of what you’re doing, so that you know what to listen to and what to let slide past you, when it comes to criticism.

The book, Raven Girl, is itself a beautiful thing, gorgeously illustrated on good paper. But it’s hard not to think of it as secondary to the ballet.

(Watch Raven Girl in Rehearsal:

What is the feeling of flying?  Asks Wayne McGregor at the beginning of this fabulous video clip, taken from a rehearsal at the Royal Opera House. The clip shows how dancers Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood evolve a movement sequence, under McGregor’s painstaking direction. It’s breathtaking. Watching, your own muscles yearn towards flight. Then they dance the passage, uninterrupted. The dancers don’t need surgery. It’s plain old-fashioned discipline, talent, and hard, hard work that sets them soaring.


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