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Cemeteries in British English

Lucy Tomlinson interviews Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler'ss Wife, about her new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry

Written by . Published on October 15th 2009.


Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Travelers’ Wife, was an international bestseller which was recently made into a film starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. She is also a visual artist and has published graphic novels as well as lecturing in book arts. Her new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is set in London, as a ingenuous pair of young American twins inherit their aunt’s sumptuous flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery. In the finest tradition of 19th century novels, the bequest is more than they bargained for…

The new book was partially formed by an agreement I had with Jean Pateman, the chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. I gave Jean a galley copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife as it hadn’t been published yet, and she said, “Oh my dear, there is so much swearing, we can’t have that” and the other thing she said was, “No sex in the Cemetery”.

Your first novel is a love-note to Chicago. Why did you decide to move your next novel to London?
Her Fearful Symmetry began in Chicago, it was originally about a man who can’t leave his flat and the young woman who visits him. It was going to be in a neighborhood called Uptown, which is appealingly murky, and every flat has a view of the cemetery. So the flat had a view of the cemetery, and kind of like Chekov’s gun on the wall, if you are going to have cemetery, you should do something with it. And if the book is going to be about a cemetery I thought to myself, ‘which is my favourite cemetery?’ and that would be Highgate. I had visited in 1996 and taken the tour and had clear recollections of how crazy and cool it is, and so immediately the entire niblet of a novel just moved over to London, and that got me thinking that the entire book could be an homage to the 19th century English novel, particularly Wilkie Collins and a couple of Henry James novels I had in mind.

The book is in British English, was that difficult for you as American writer?
It was incredibly interesting, because at the beginning I thought it would just be a matter of nouns, boot for trunk and all the obvious ones. That turned out to be the least of it. Trying to get the slang, the sentence structure, all of it. I spent of lot of time in London just listening in. But I did get a lot of help and any mistakes, I’m sure I will hear about via email.

There are a few risqué scenes in The Time Traveler’s Wife. Is there anything similar in the new book?
The new book was partially formed by an agreement I had with Jean Pateman, the chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. I gave Jean a galley copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife as it hadn’t been published yet, and she said, “Oh my dear, there is so much swearing, we can’t have that” and the other thing she said was, “No sex in the Cemetery”. And I agreed to that too, as, quite frankly, it had never occurred to me. I’m not as deviant as I thought, sadly.

The plot of Her Fearful Symmetry centres on a ghost. Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
I’m actually a sceptic. I’ve found I can’t will myself to be superstitious. However, because I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve been collecting all these stories from people I met who’ve had these experiences. I should write an anthology.

How did you feel about the film version of your first novel? Any plans to make a film of the second?
The first thing I should say is that I haven’t actually seen the film. Before the book had even been published we sold the film rights, and at that time a number of people said to me: “and now let go”. And I said “Oh no, I’m going to help!” and everyone just laughed at me. One thing that happened that I was quite heartbroken about was that they filmed it in Toronto, and I thought it was all going to be in Chicago. As for the second, I can’t imagine any other cemetery playing Highgate, it wouldn’t be right.

Are you working on anything new?
I’m kind of in the incubating phase. I wrote a short story that never quite worked but I fell in love with the characters and I thought, I will come back to these people and give them a real story. At the moment it’s called The Chinchilla Girl. It’s about a nine-year-old girl hashypertrichosis, which means she is covered in hair, and she is extraordinarily beautiful, but also extraordinarily odd. She’s cute, I like her.

Audrey Niffenegger is appearing tonight at Waterstones Deansgate at 7pm, tickets priced £3. Her Fearful Symmetry is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99. Signed copies will be available after the event.

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Dick ShoneryOctober 15th 2009.

"Traveler"? It's TraveLLer!Also, there's no such thing as "British English". In Britain 'English' is spoken. The weird foreign variations spoken and written elsewhere are the ones that require a qualifying prefix.

Lex IconOctober 15th 2009.

She spells 'sceptic' properly though.

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