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An interview with Audrey Niffenegger – Part I

Audrey Niffenegger in the print studio
Audrey Niffenegger at work in the Penland printmaking studio

A few weeks ago, between summer classes and fall concentration, artist and author Audrey Niffenegger was in town to speak at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, and spent about a week working in Penland’s printmaking studio. This wasn’t Audrey’s first visit; she’s taught here a couple of times (which we talk about in Part II). We’re big fans, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down with our multi-talented guest and ask her a couple of questions.

You’re relatively well-known, and there are many written descriptions of you out there. How would you describe yourself?
I’m a visual artist and a writer. My main interest is in narrative and storytelling, and that crosses the boundaries of whatever media I might be in. I’m an American artist, based in Chicago, but also spend a great deal of time in London. At this point, I have a kind of strange hybrid of the English and European things I’m interested in and the American things I’m interested in, and I’m never entirely sure how that’s going to manifest. That’s important to me – to be someone who is from Chicago, but is heavily invested in London, having a kind of parallel life there.

Do you enjoy speaking engagements like the one at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival?
Once I actually get out on stage, and I’m in the midst of it, I do enjoy it. My favorite part of speaking at any kind of event, whether it’s a visual thing or a literary thing, is definitely the Q&A. I would just do total Q&A if I could get away with it.

One of the things I like about things like the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival is that it’s a community gathering. This is an especially nice literary festival because the community is not huge, and everybody knows each other. As it goes on, I’m sure it will pull in more and more people who are not close friends of the people involved, but I did notice that most of the authors were from this area, and there was this conversation going back and forth between the readers and the writers. Of course, writers are always readers, too – I know almost no one who writes who isn’t also a voracious reader; it’s just about the only way you learn anything. It impressed me, that feeling almost like a town meeting or going to a potluck, it had a real homemade quality to it. I’ve been to some festivals that were very, very large; I just got back from a lit fest in Edinburgh in August, which is one of the largest in the world. I think there were 750 authors there. It’s impressive and crazy, and has a lot of things going on, but it’s not like everyone in the audience knows each other and knows the person on stage. That’s a different kind of connectedness.

Having made works that would traditionally be called artist’s books, hand bound, in small editions, some of which have gone on to be much more widely published, how do you feel about the difference between an artisan-sized book and an industrial-sized book? Is there a meaningful difference?
For me, the meaningful difference is in the distribution. It’s pleasing to control all the aspects of production and to have exactly what you want, which is what an artist’s book is all about, but having a trade edition of an artist’s book is kind of the best of both worlds, because then you get the distribution. Most of the things I’ve done, I’ve made 10 copies, and generally they end up in the hands of private collectors, who I think will one day give them to libraries or museums, and then there are a few museums and institutions that just bought them outright. So they’re ending up in places where it’s hard for people to stumble across them accidentally. If you go to Harvard, or the Newberry, or some of the places that own my work, and you know what to ask for – because this isn’t the type of library where you can browse – then you get to see it, but if you’re standing in a Barnes & Noble, wandering around, you stumble across all kinds of things that you didn’t know existed. Even if you’re looking online, at a place like Amazon, you have a hard time stumbling. Amazon will stumble for you, you know, “If you like this, you’ll like that,” but that’s just some strange algorithm. Most of the important discoveries of my life have been through browsing. It worries me when real spaces with books in them become endangered, because it’s such a different discovery process. I worry that people’s worlds may become strangely narrow, if they spend all their time looking at them through a screen. We’ll see. I doubt that people will really let that happen.

What have you been working on while you’ve been here in the studio?
I’m working on some etchings. The thing I’m supposed to be working on…. I’m collaborating with a choreographer on a ballet. My responsibility is to write the story, which I have done, and now I’m supposed to be storyboarding, to make it from a word thing into a picture thing. Then the choreographer will take the storyboards and start thinking about dance, and I will design the costumes and sets and also make a graphic novel out of it.

What I’ve been doing is collecting and amassing all this reference material. The ballet is called The Raven Girl. It’s about this girl whose parents are a postman and a raven, which sounds like some sort of Lewis Carol joke. The beginning of the story is about how her parents met, and how they came to have a girl. She feels… although she looks like a girl, she feels like a raven, a raven inside and a girl outside. When she grows up, she tries to do something about making her outer self match her inner self, and she finds a plastic surgeon who’s willing to try to give her wings. There’s a lot of stuff sort of swirling around, and I’m hoping that…. One of the things I like about collaborating is that other people often seize upon elements that you yourself might have left dormant. I’m curious to see what directions my collaborator will take it in.

Will you let her have her wings? After reading The Three Incestuous Sisters and seeing the prints of the Saint with his stunted little wing stubs, I hope you’ll let her have beautiful raven wings. Or are planning something terrible for her?
I’m trying to resist. I’m collaborating with Wayne Macgregor, a very wonderful choreographer, who is based in London. Wayne’s work with his own company, the Random Dance Company, is incredibly physical. There’s a very high degree of athleticism – huge, challenging levels of physicality in his dances. He’s very interested in the science of the body, the science of movement, and collaborates with scientists sometimes. When I asked him what sort of story he wanted, he said, “Let’s have a new fairy tale!” So I went and read a pile of fairy tales that had previously been used to make dances. Quite frequently, the protagonist is a young girl and terrible things happen to her. That matched up pretty well with what I like to do, but then I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we subvert these expectations a little bit, and don’t kill her, or…. So I’m endeavoring to fit the mold of the fairy tale without necessarily doing all of that pre-feminist stuff that the makers of the older fairy tales do to their young girls.

I’m trying to think, out of all the ballets I’ve seen, if there are any that really end happily. There’s The Nutcracker, which isn’t too dreadful, but then again, that’s for children. Sleeping Beauty ends okay. Snow White – we kill off the characters we don’t like, and retain the ones we do. Nobody dies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone is restored to their proper forms and put back where they belong. I think it depends on whether the story comes from a comedy or a tragedy. There are things you can probably do in ballet, because it’s somewhat abstracted, that might be less palatable in certain other forms. Things are highly symbolic and the level of gore is generally lower.

Is this your first time in the new print studio?

Now that you’ve been in here for a couple of days, what do you think of it?
It’s fantastic. I can tell it would be an excellent studio to teach in, just because of the way things are laid out. Everybody’s obviously thought very carefully about how all the parts relate to each other. That’s exciting. It’s kind of a rare experience to be in a studio where everything is new. Obviously, the machines are old, but the layout is new, and everything works, and everything is very nicely planned. It’s a pleasure. I’m sort of scheming to teach here again.

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