This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on December 15, 2005.
Audrey Niffenegger worked for 14 years on her latest book, “The Three Incestuous Sisters.”
The long gestation period is understandable, because this is no ordinary book. Niffenegger, an Evanston native who currently lives in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood, paid meticulous attention to detail as she created 80 illustrations using the time-consuming aquatint etching process. Then she put the book together herself.
“It took me a year just to bind 10 copies,” she says.
Niffenegger sold those 10 handmade, leather-bound books for as much as $10,000 each. That may sound like a lot, but she points out that it was a “total steal” when you consider the number of aquatints in each book. All the while, Niffenegger dreamed of selling her book to a publisher, but she didn’t have much hope. With sparse text and illustrations, Niffenegger’s work resembles a children’s book, but its story — a tale of sex, jealousy, levitation and headache-inducing birds — is too surreal and adult for kids. Who would want to publish it?
But then Niffenegger, who teaches art and printmaking at Columbia College, wrote “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” an entirely different kind of book — a novel without pictures — and it became a best-seller. Suddenly, publishers were interested in Niffenegger.
The editors who came calling included Tamar Brazis, who was at Harper Collins and now works at the art-book publisher Harry N. Abrams Inc. She asked Niffenegger if she’d be interested in writing the text for a children’s book. Brazis didn’t know Niffenegger had created a couple of visual novels in limited editions years earlier, but when she heard about those books, she was interested.
“After I saw this amazing book, it was so special and wonderful, that I thought thousands of people would enjoy it, not just 10,” Brazis says. Abrams published “The Three Incestuous Sisters” this fall (for a list price of $27.95).
Niffenegger’s illustrated books are not easily categorized. Their format is similar to graphic novels, but she prefers to use the term “visual novel.”
“Graphic novel has come to mean a very particular thing,” she says. “People have been taking me to task about calling them ‘visual novels,’ saying that sounds very pretentious.”
But, she says, it’s the most accurate description she can think of. “The Three Incestuous Sisters” is reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s illustrated books, but Niffenegger says that, while she admires Gorey’s work, she never thought of Gorey as an inspiration.
Rather, she traces her interest in visual novels to the Victorian art of Aubrey Beardsley. She was also fascinated by the illustrations in 19th-century novels, which often use an excerpted line from the text as a caption. Niffenegger compares the skeletal, poetic story of “The ‘Three Incestuous Sisters” to the synopsis of an opera.
“It started out as a dream: three women with long hair, sitting in a room, glaring at each other,” Ntffenegger says. “I would call it a melodrama. To me, it kind of resembles a silent film. The text is almost like intertitles.”
The title characters of Niffenegger’s book are a trio of grown sisters — one blond, one brunette and one redhead — who “lived together in a lonely house by the sea, near the lighthouse, miles away from the city.” Their peculiar existence is disturbed by the arrival of the lighthouse keeper’s son.
Each illustration in the book began as a zinc plate. Niffenegger covered the plate with an acid-resistant ground, drew a picture with a needle, then immersed the plate in a nitric acid bath. The acid penetrated where she had drawn the lines, etching the image into the metal. Niffenegger created tones by melting fine rosin dust onto the plate, bathing it in acid multiple times. Then she colored each print by painting watercolors onto the paper.
“There’s no other way to get that look,” she says. “It’s a pretty unique texture and tonality. Also, I don’t know — I just like doing that.”
Although Niffenegger describes the etching process as “working backward and sort of blind,” she has mastered it to the point where she doesn’t have to worry too much about surprises emerging in the final prints. But, she says, “There’s still this moment when you’ve been thinking in your head what it will look like, then you see it — ‘Aha!’”
During her “long siege on this fortress of a book” (as she calls it), Niffenegger used printmaking facilities at the Evanston Art Center and Northwestern University, and also worked on book during residencies at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest. Niffenegger sees an advantage to spending such a long time working on a work of art. In the book’s afterword she writes, “‘The Three Incestuous Sisters’ became itself through the passage of time and gradual changes in my skill and imagination.”
Fans of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” may be surprised to discover this other side of Niffenegger’s work, but she insists, “This is what I really do.”
After years of concentrating on her work as an artist and creator of handmade books, she felt a little odd to be touring the country as the author of a popular novel. “It was really very funny going around being ‘Author Girl,’” she says.
Director Gus Van Sant is now working on a screenplay for a film adaptation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and Brad Pitt is apparently still interested in the project, Niffenegger says, adding that she has not been closely involved with the plans to turn her book into a movie. [Note: Neither Van Sant nor Pitt was involved in the film that came out in 2009.]
Niffenegger continues working on her next novel (without pictures), “Her Fearful Symmetry,” but she says, ‘‘Nobody should expect to see this novel for several years. I’m not in any hurry.” [Note: “Her Fearful Symmetry” was published in 2009.]
In September, Abrams plans to publish ‘‘The Adventuress,” an earlier illustrated book that Niffenegger worked on as a college student. “It’s about a young woman who is the result of cloning experiments in Napoleonic France,” she says.
In the afterword to ‘‘The Three Incestuous Sisters,” Niffenegger explains the motivation behind creating her unusual visual novels: “I make books because I love them as objects; because I want to put the pictures and the words together, because I want to tell a story.”