ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For those of us who are totally swept up by her first novel, "The Time Traveler's Wife," Audrey Niffenegger is back now with her second. It's called "Her Fearful Symmetry." And it's a ghost story. Two young Americans, Julia and Valentina Poole come to live in London. They're identical twins and unusually close. Twenty one years old, though, as Niffenegger writes, they were often mistaken for undernourished 12-year-olds. They've come to live in an apartment next to a cemetery. The flat was left to them by their aunt, Elspeth Noblin, who dies straight off in the first line of the book.
Ms. AUDREY NIFFENEGGER (Author, "Her Fearful Symmetry"): I have finally managed to achieve total efficiency in killing a character.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: In the very first line of the book.
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: Yeah.
BLOCK: Well, tell us about the ghost story part of this and how that came to you.
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: Well, it would be somewhat unlikely and ridiculous for two 21-year-olds to be living by themselves in a stupendous flat in this particular part of London. It's a very expensive neighborhood. And so I was thinking, well, how can I get them there? And one of the things I'm doing in this book is taking all the old cliches and the workings of the 19th-century English novel and trying to use them in a 21st century novel in a way that they make sense.
And so, reaching into the big bag of cliches, I decided that they had a rich relative who would die and leave them this flat. And the more I thought about their aunt, Elspeth, the more interested I got in her and the more I wanted to write about her. And I felt very, very sorry that I had killed her before she even got into the story.
And so I started to move backward and finally arrived at the point where she dies, which is the thing that sets everything else in motion in this story. And decided that she would not go, she would become a ghost. And she's a very willful character and it is her willfulness that stops her from simply dying and propels her into this limbo between life and death.
BLOCK: We should talk about I think what is fairly considered to be a real character in the book and that is Highgate Cemetery in London, which is where Elspeth Noblin is buried. Tell us about Highgate.
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: Well, Highgate, of course, is a real place. It was started in 1839 and it's in an especially beautiful part of London. The Victorians decided that it would be okay to have these park-like cemeteries - and they are quite lovely. People came out and picnicked and it was a beautiful place. Also, the city was very polluted and Highgate's on a hill, so people would come out and get fresh air.
And over the years, it filled up with all sorts of super amazing interesting people, some of whom we've heard of, Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti. Some of whom we haven't, but their life stories are fascinating. And I've been getting tours of the cemetery and in the process researching my tour guide character, Robert, I had accumulated the knowledge that you need to actually give a tour and so, the people who run the cemetery noticed and they said, well, make yourself useful.
BLOCK: There is so much death all through the novel and to some extent also in "The Time Traveler's Wife," are you sort of playing with the aesthetics of death? I've been looking at a lot of your visual art online, too, and there are lots of drawings and prints of skeletons and sort of death iconography. What is that about?
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: I think I must have sprung from the womb looking at the other end of my life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: I've always been interested in it. All the art that I was attracted to when I was young seemed to be - if not macabre - at least involving loss in some way.
BLOCK: Well, why do you think it is about death and dying and ghosts and cemeteries that that has this appeal for you?
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: They're beautiful, which I know seems perverse since a lot of the time it's anything but. Violence does not especially attract me nor do I try to aestheticize it. I take violence very seriously and I'm not really too interested in making it into my art. Death, on the other hand, is something that will eventually happen to everybody and it does seem important to think about it.
BLOCK: Did you ever find when you were writing "Her Fearful Symmetry" that you felt you had to pull back a bit - that maybe the death scenes were too much and you might alienate your audience?
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: Certainly. I think there are people who enjoyed "Time Traveler" who may not like this as well. This book is more astringent and less of a full-blown romantic odyssey. I try in this book not to be relentless. There's humor in the book and there are open spaces where I'm not necessarily determining something, where it's possible for the reader to make choices about what's happening and how they're going to think about what the characters are doing.
BLOCK: Well, Audrey Niffenegger, thank you very much.
Ms. NIFFENEGGER: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.
BLOCK: Audrey Niffenegger's new novel is titled "Her Fearful Symmetry." You can read an excerpt and see a couple of her macabre drawings at npr.org.
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