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Stranger than Fiction

Printmaker Audrey Niffenegger's (G91) fascination with the bizarre has guided her artwork and her writing, including her blockbuster first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife.


by Kate Johnson (J05)

Artist printmaker Audrey Niffenegger (G91) features crows and skeletons in her art, lists Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice as influences and shares her northwest Chicago home with two cats — Claudine and Muybridge — as well as about 20 taxidermic animals, including a stuffed badger from the famous Deyrolle shop in Paris and a 25-cent toad she bought at a garage sale.

Niffenegger easily explains her obsession with the odd. "My family is nice. No one is alcoholic or crazy or mean, but I'm into anything from deformities of nature to strange behavior, anything out of the ordinary," she says. "I think my fondness for strangeness was born out of a happy, secure childhood."

As a student at Evanston Township High School, Niffenegger learned etching from teacher Bill Wimmer. She went on to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and earned her master of fine arts from Northwestern in 1991.

Niffenegger taught printmaking for 15 years at the Evanston Art Center. Since 1993 she has been a professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches writing, letterpress printing and fine edition book production.

Her own work is represented by the Printworks Gallery in Chicago. "In her art, she seems to be hung up on hair and death," says Bob Hiebert, a director at Printworks who discovered Niffenegger 20 years ago. "Her work is a marvelous mix of Edward Gorey, Aubrey Beardsley, Gertrude Abercrombie and Audrey herself. She has a weird but magical art sense."

A morbid sense of humor lightens the dark side of Niffenegger's work, says Northwestern Professor William Conger, who owns a Niffenegger print, Birthday Boy.

"When she came to Northwestern, Audrey already knew how to do what she wanted in a medium that is very difficult to master," said Conger, a professor of art theory and practice. "I think what makes her unique is that she bridges the visual and the verbal and is interested in maintaining that duality rather than letting one interest drift away."

Niffenegger likes to put images and words together tangentially. Her most recent book, The Three Incestuous Sisters (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2005), is a story in pictures.

Her debut literary novel, The Time Traveler's Wife (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) — about an artist, Clare, whose librarian husband, Henry, suffers from a genetic time-traveling disorder that makes him pop in and out of her life at random — was a Today Show Book Club selection and New York Times bestseller.

The book is slated for a 2006 movie adaptation, directed by Gus Van Sant. The author is holding her breath, not wanting The Time Traveler's Wife to seem like a "squishy, mushy" sentimental love story, whether in print or on screen. At the same time, she said, books and movies are different media. "They could be really merciless and do it right — I'd rather they make a good movie than follow all 560 pages of the book."

Niffenegger's forthcoming book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is a "modern Victorian novel" set in a flat near London's Highgate Cemetery. With mirror-image twins, ghosts and an obsessive-compulsive, the book should exhibit more of Niffenegger's trademark taste for the strange.

Kate Johnson (J05) of Pendleton, Ind., is a literary agent's assistant at Georges Borchardt Inc. in New York City.
Audrey Niffenegger (G91)
Photo by Mary Henebry