As the best-selling author of The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger is already well known for her writing. But her latest release, The Night Bookmobile, is a graphic novel that unites Niffenegger's words with her artistic vision.
"Making a comic was ideal in certain ways because I was able to bring my visual and written worlds together," Niffenegger said, adding that the book is only the first in a series she's calling The Library. "I hope it will be an ongoing series. I have ideas for the next two installments."
The Night Bookmobile, a new release from Abrams ComicsArts, tells the story of a young woman named Alexandra who goes for a walk one night and comes upon a mysterious "bookmobile" that contains every book she's ever read, igniting treasured memories of her past. The library eventually disappears, and Alexandra becomes obsessed with finding it again.
Niffenegger got the idea for the story from a dream, where she found a door in her grandmother's kitchen that led to a very impressive library — "understood in the dream to be the afterlife, a sort of heaven," she said. The writer also credits the influence of the H.G. Wells story The Door in the Wall, where a young boy discovers a door to a wonderful garden, but he later can't find it.
While The Night Bookmobile has an obvious appeal to book lovers, it strikes a familiar chord to just about anyone with a desire for times past, or a longing for something that can't be recaptured.
"I do think that longing is very common, especially amongst adults," Niffenegger said. "The more of a past you have, the more remote it feels, the more there is to idealize and be nostalgic about. Children and teenagers are more forward-looking, more focused on the next birthday, the driver's license, going to college... The most powerful separation is from people and places we love. Alexandra feels almost like a refugee from her real home, which is the book-world.
"The Night Bookmobile depicts a longing that supersedes and interrupts daily life," she said. "This is dangerous by real-life standards, but in the comic, Alexandra does attain a version of the thing she most longs for."
Niffenegger admitted that she has her own "bookmobile," which is just the memory of everything she's ever read and looked at.
"It's stocked with novels, comics, various books I've read for research purposes, poetry, printmaking manuals, art history books, travel guides, plus all the ephemeral stuff like signage, soup labels, math tests and so forth," she said. "I have been reading avidly since I was a child, so my daily life is partially real and partially literary. It makes my imaginary world stronger, to feed it on a diverse diet of books. Too much ordinary life is limiting to the mind."
Although the author may claim to dwell in books — and her stories often feature the supernatural — she has a life story that emphasizes real world investigation and study. She's a professor at Columbia College in Chicago, and is a faculty member at the North Short Art League. While doing research for her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, she began working as a tour guide at London's Highgate Cemetery, where the novel is set.
She also writes columns from time to time in literary publications. In fact, The Night Bookmobile was first serialized as a weekly comic in the UK's Guardian newspaper, having been adapted by Niffenegger from a short story.
"It was a challenge to make it so fast; the weekly deadline was daunting," she said. "I'm in awe of artists who do daily strips. It's much easier and faster for me to write a novel, but the delights of drawing make up for the lack of speed."Niffenegger said she also had difficulty translating her short story into something she could draw. "I wanted a certain amount of realism, rather than an overtly cartoonish drawing style, because the story has fantastic elements," she said. "And I wanted to ground it in the actual world, real-life Chicago. I decided to approach it as though I was going to make a film. I enlisted friends to play the characters and shot still reference photographs of them acting out the story in the actual locations. I had storyboarded the whole comic before we shot the photos. It was interesting to hop back and forth between thinking with a pencil and thinking with a camera.
"The other challenge was to divide the story into weekly installments," she said. "Inevitably, there were weeks in which not much happened, so I tried to make those images as interesting as possible. I knew I wanted it to eventually come out in book form. It's a better read when you have the whole story together."
This isn't the first time the author has put words with her pictures, having illustrated her books The Three Incestuous Sister and The Adventuress — both released before she became world-renowned for her first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife.
And, the writer admitted, she even used to make comics in high school. "I feel lucky to have lived my life in Chicago, which is to comics what Florence was to Renaissance Italy," she said. "I read Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan while it was coming out in NewCity and then the [Chicago] Reader, and though I could never quite figure out the story until it came out as a book, I knew I was seeing something ground-breaking in the nature of narrative. And Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek was a huge influence on me; when it first appeared it was very New Wave, and it evolved into her empathic goofy child-universe.
"Recent comics that I admire include Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum. They are librarians, so their humor is very book-centric. They do book reviews in comics form too," she added. "Stitches by David Small is a very intense memoir, palpably enraged. And Walking the Dog by David Hughes is inventive and beautiful, with lots of spleen."
Because she's both artist and writer, Niffenegger has the luxury of choosing the medium that's most fitting for her idea. "But occasionally someone asks me to do a particular sort of thing. For example, at the moment I am working on a story that will be a ballet, and it can be helpful to have that limitation imposed on me at the beginning," she said. "It clears the mind."
Film may be the next medium that Niffenegger explores, since the writer intends to have creative control of any movie adaptation of her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. She has little enthusiasm for the film adaptation of The Time Traveler's Wife, which she did not control.
"I have not seen the movie version of Time Traveler's Wife," she said. "And I do plan to work on the film of Her Fearful Symmetry myself."
Although Niffenegger thinks modern comics are very informed by cinema, she's not sure if her experience writing a graphic novel will help her with the transition to making a film.
"There is interesting dialogue between the two art forms [of comics and film] that goes all the way back to Winsor McCay. I'm also thinking of the movie version of American Splendor, and Ghost World, both innovative in their re-imagining of comics and visual imagery," she said. "I am not sure exactly how comics might help me in the world of film. I'll have to make a film before I know that. So much is implicit in comics that has to be overt in film."
And could the story of The Night Bookmobile be translated to film? Or is it too reliant upon the experience of reading?
"The Library is much larger than this first installment, so it's premature to say whether it can become a film," she said. "Perhaps by the time I'm ready to do that, there will be some new half-film/half-book hybrid that will be better suited to a story about reading. I keep hoping that e-readers will be the new venue for this hybrid."
As Niffenegger works on her third novel, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile, she intends to also revisit her ideas for The Library's next two installments: Moths of the New World, about a stolen book, and The Angel of Obliterated Books, about censorship.
"Moths of the New World is about a Real Book of that title which is accidentally placed on someone's bookmobile and gets lost in the ordinary world," Niffenegger said. "In The Library, a Real Book looks very much like a person, so Moths of the New World tries to fit in as best she can, with mixed results.
"It exists as an outline at the moment," the author said. "I am going to begin work on it after I have my next novel well underway. I like to work on several projects at once. I'm planning it as a graphic short story. It was very pleasurable to work in that form, and now that I don't have a deadline or a format I need to follow, I can experiment more."