Dedicated readers crammed into the gymnasium at Santa Monica College on May 5 to see and hear Audrey Niffenegger, whose novel The Time Traveler’s Wife is this year’s Citywide Reads selection for Santa Monica.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is a time-travel/romance with a non-linear narrative. Its main characters are Henry, a librarian with a genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily travel back and forth in his own lifetime, and Clare, an understanding and passionate woman who marries Henry but has to put up with his comings and goings.
The book is Niffenegger’s first novel. She lives in Chicago and teaches in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts.
Looking out at her audience, Niffenegger told them: “When I wrote this book I had no real sense of who might be reading it. So to stand here and look at this audience is to think: this is wild!”
She said that it took four and a half years to write her book. “The question I’m asked most frequently is how I kept track of [the time shifts]. I had two documents on my computer with two timelines, one for Clare and one for the reader, to remind me of what the reader already knew and where Henry was coming from. It was important to know what [facts] the characters were withholding but to not allude to something the readers didn’t know about.”
She also admitted to writing the book “all out of order,” beginning with Clare in her old age, then writing several sex scenes – and then working on earlier episodes. This might have been breaking “the rules,” but as she observed, “I teach writing to graduate students, but I don’t tell them they can’t do certain things. After all, I do the opposite!”
Then it was time for questions from the audience. How did the book become a best seller? Niffenegger explained that she got a blurb for the book jacket from Scott Turow, (she happened to be friendly with Turow’s wife) who read her book, loved it and later recommended it as a “pick” for the Today show’s Book Club.
Could she have written The Time Traveler’s Wife with the gender roles reversed? “I could have flipped the roles,” she replied. But she had heard the phrase “the time traveler’s wife” in her head and that phrase was the impetus. “The title gives you two characters and the fact that they’re married – but what about the wife? How does she feel? It would be a drag – she’s stuck at home.” The concept, she said, probably came from Niffenegger’s take on her own childhood: “My father traveled a lot and my mother was stuck with us. That’s not fun.”
The film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife is set to begin shooting in September. But Niffenegger realizes that it won’t be quite the same as her book. “When I wrote it, I made the movie in my head,” she said. “But when you read it you make your own movie. I think reading is such a personal experience that that’s why movie versions are unsatisfying. The movie each reader makes is the ‘right’ one.”
At an audience member’s request, Niffenegger read a passage from The Time Traveler’s Wife. Passing on suggestions to read from the ending (which – spoiler alert – is not exactly a happy ending), she read a brief, funny section in which a pre-teen Clare sees her future romance predicted by a Ouija Board. Throughout the SMC gym, one could see a sight that one might not have predicted for these times – people reading along with their own copies of the book.