Audrey Niffenegger | "The difficulty always, for any book, is the reveal"

Audrey Niffenegger | "The difficulty always, for any book, is the reveal"

Audrey Niffenegger, a softly-spoken American, first started thinking about the novel which was to become Her Fearful Symmetry back in January 2002 just as she was finishing The Time Traveler's Wife, her astonishing debut which has now sold nearly five million copies worldwide and has been translated into 33 languages. "I dread not having anything, and so I was starting to think: 'What shall I do? What shall I do?' because I'm going to run out of 'novel' and I have to keep on going!"

She says the book began with the mental image of a man who can't leave his apartment and a girl who comes to visit him. "In this little apartment in my mind I was walking around, trying to see what was there and out the window was the cemetery." She originally planned this to be Graceland cemetery in Chicago, where she lives, and also the setting for the The Time Traveler's Wife, but later realised it should be further afield— Highgate cemetery in London: "At which point I thought 'uh-oh' because I'd never lived here and I didn't know if I could write convincingly in British English."

Three challenges

In setting the book in London Niffenegger had effectively allotted herself three challenges: to research Highgate cemetery itself, to research the city and to write convincing British characters: "Because I've never lived in London there was all this stuff to learn so I started coming over it took a long time to feel I knew what I was talking about."

The novel tells the story of American teenagers Julia and Valentina Poole, who are not merely identical but mirror-image twins. Upon the death of an aunt, Elspeth, they never knew existed, the twins inherit her flat overlooking Highgate cemetery. When the twins arrive in London they are drawn into the lives of Elspet&'s neighbours, among them Martin, an agrophobic obsessive-compulsive, who lives in the flat upstairs and Robert, Elspeth's lover, a shy PhD student writing his thesis on Highgate cemetery where he is a guide. So, as part of her research, Niffenegger started taking the tour herself on her visits to the UK "over and over and over again". In fact, she became so knowledgeable about the cemetery that Jean Bateman (of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery), suggested she start to take groups round herself and so Niffenegger turned her fictional tour into an actual tour. She still gives these tours whenever she's in London although cautions that "people shouldn't come to the cemetery looking for me, because I'm just not there enough and it will drive everyone else crazy".

Literary influences

Niffenegger intended to write a modern Victorian novel, and says the books which most influenced Her Fearful Symmetry were Wilkie Collins' A Woman in White and Turn of the Screw and Portrait of a Lady, both by Henry James. "The essential plot of the novel is a Henry James plot, the young Americans come to the Old Country and the natives mess with them," she laughs. "A lot of what I was thinking about was about couples coming unglued, couples coming together and the struggle for togetherness or individuality."

Of writing a 19th-century story in the 21st century she says: "You've got to be able to move the plot and have a strong story but, of course, now we're in the age of Virginia Woolf where you have access to peoples' thoughts so if you have access to everybody's thoughts— how can you have suspense?

"The difficulty always, for any book, is the reveal. How much does the reader know at any given moment? Are you being fair if you hold that behind your back and don't tell them until later? So what I'm hoping is that as people get into this they are surprised but then they think: 'Oh my gosh, yes, of course' but that's really hard to do. That's what mystery writers do and I've always had a lot of respect for them because it's such an amazing craft. But essentially this is a mystery or suspense novel."

Niffenegger's first love was fine art rather than writing. She studied printmaking at the Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University. Until recently she taught full-time at Columbia College, Chicago, as part of the "Indisciplinary Arts Dept, Book and Paper Arts MFA programme— you should hear us trying to answer the phone" she jokes, but now fits in just one class a year around her writing. Although The Time Traveler's Wife (2004) was her debut novel, she had previously produced two limited edition "novels in pictures" which Cape subsequently published as Three Incestuous Sisters (2005) and The Adventuress (2006), with another, The Night Book Mobile, due in 2010.

She has already started on her next novel and describes it as "essentially a coming-of-age book"about a nine-year-old girl, Lizzie, who has hypertrichosis— a genetic condition which means she is covered with hair. It's set in Chicago again so Niffenegger won't need to undertake such a mammoth amount of research into location although having spent so much time in London she has developed a real affection for the city and, of course, for Highgate cemetery which will undoubtedly enjoy a resurgence in popularity once the novel is published. Niffenegger has mixed feelings on the matter: "On the one hand it's 'this is a fabulous place and you should come' and on the other hand I'm thinking 'but not too many of you!'."