Books: Death becomes Niffenegger

Best-seller » Author of 'The Time Traveler's Wife,' 'Her Fearful Symmetry' takes her time.
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Among the decade's literary superstars, Chicago novelist Audrey Niffenegger is about as big as they come. Her first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, was published in 2003 and still hovers around near the 100-rank of best-selling books on Its invigorating mix of time travel, family, growing up and romance won enough hearts to find its way to a film adaptation last year starring Eric Bana.

The excitement leading to her follow-up effort, Her Fearful Symmetry, was almost as anticipated as a "Star Wars" sequel, and palpable enough to generate a rumored $5 million publisher's advance, a sum that Niffenegger neither confirms nor denies.

A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she is that rarest of birds: The visual artist who tried her hand at writing after realizing the imaginative limitations of painting and drawing. Her Fearful Symmetry took seven years for Niffenegger to complete, and instead of time travel, the second novel was inspired by the author's experiences of serving as a tour guide for London's famed Highgate Cemetery.

It's a literary world where the lives of Americana twins Julia and Valentina Poole are beset by a manic crossword setter, a history writer, and a ghost after they move to a London house bequeathed to them by their dead aunt. Relationships between the book's many characters shift and sort themselves all within a stone's throw of Highgate, the cemetery which works as a pun on the book's title.

Please expand on the influence of Blake in the title.

"I really admired the title of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials , which was taken from Paradise Lost . It alluded to both the book's main structural device and the content. In Symmetry , everything has opposites and mirrors, but the phrase also implies that there's something disturbing about that symmetry, and that this symmetry belongs in the book."

Were you a sort of stereotypical Goth growing up?

"[Laughs]. No, I missed that phenomenon by about seven years. I was more of the punk movement; listening to Joy Division, Iggy Pop and Gang of Four. I definitely would have been Goth if I'd been a bit older, though. I like the clothes. Steam punk is what's really attracting me right now."

A lot of people have commented on Symmetry 's end, which hangs suspended.

"The end is meant to be a double-ending. It's in tune with the rest of the book. I'm very partial to books that make the reader work a little harder. I've always refused to specify certain elements in my books because I think readers are capable of conjuring them up themselves. You want to reader to be surprised, and yet have the sense that what happened was inevitable."

That sounds analogous to the negative space in painting. Having written illustrated books, how do you decide when you want to write with illustrations, or write only?

"When you write, you only have to be as precise or as vague as is necessary for the reader. It all depends on the story[you] want to tell. If you were able to make a movie about what each person was imagining, there might be scenes where everyone imagines the same images, then others where everything is wildly different. I find that really exciting.Sometimes you want to draw a certain kind of line, which is almost impossible for words to delineate. Right now, there's a company that wants to adapt my graphic novel The Adventuress into a ballet. It's mostly visual, but now with this adaptation you have elements of movement and time. I'm really excited about how it might look."

It's been reported that you've got your heart set on Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen playing the twins for a likely film adaptation of Symmetry . How's that coming along?

"No word yet, but they do look perfect. They're tiny, with heart-shaped faces and big eyes. They've also got great fashion sense."

Novelist Audrey Niffenegger

When» Jan. 20, 7 p.m.

Where» The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East

Info» Admission is $10, or two free tickets with a purchase of Her Fearful Symmetry. Call 801-484-9100 for more information, or visit