Category Archives: Audrey Niffenegger

Realism, Magic Realism and Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Most performers will have been asked at some time or other how naturalism onstage is different to being natural. My way of dealing with that one is usually to illustrate it. You only need to be the other side of a room from a conversation to see how vague and rapid our gestures and sentences are, how much more comprehensible our meaning when words and gestures are simplified (or edited, if you will). That’s how to get the meaning into the audience’s mind as directly and “effortlessly” as possible. “Naturalism” – a simplified, streamlined version of the truth – conveys more of that truth than “nature” could at such a distance. It’s the difference between a good novel and a first draft. So, yes, a lot of art and effort goes into creating the appearance of the real. And, no, reality itself doesn’t cut it.

Most people grasp that difference, if not with the visual demonstration then with the audio equivalent: for those worried about public speaking, clarity is a much better focus than volume. Focusing on what you’re trying to say, and not what your hair is doing or what the audience might be thinking, you make the point without apologising for it or for yourself with the smaller, awkward false starts and gestures of everyday life. You don’t waste mental space with words that sound big or clever; you choose words because they are the most direct route to your meaning.

I’ve known graphic novels to take similar explaining. We’ll take as read (sorry) the sadly common assumptions about “comics” being “for kids” and go back to directness and clarity. Authorial voice is, of course, saying what you mean as only you can – hence the finite number of basic plots and the infinite number of original voices. Graphic novels do this in pictures as well as words: a beautifully direct route into someone else’s world. My favourite example in a long time is Bizarre Romance, published last month by Jonathan Cape.

This collection of “short stories with pictures” is partly inspired by the long-distance courtship of its creators, Audrey Niffenger (The Time Traveller’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, The Three Incestuous Sisters &c) and Eddie Campbell (From Hell, Baccus, Alec &c). Living in Brisbane, Australia and Chicago, USA, “two cities that are almost exactly opposite each other on the globe”, they heard about each other’s days, weeks and worlds by telephone. Once married, and asked by the Guardian to collaborate on the “Novelists Do Comics” section, they revisited other stories by Niffenegger: “In the past I have been my own illustrator… Taking risks is always surprising and often uncomfortable… The result has been a book that neither of us would have made alone – a book that is ours.”

Mental and physical distances, familial and romantic relationship, endings both happy and unhappy flit between the world as we know it and beyond with courage and precision. From angel-infested loft to Victorian asylum, cruise-ship to afterlife, from parent to friend and pet to partner, every love and every story is crystal-clear in voice and insight. The introduction is Audrey and Eddie’s courtship, a beautiful love story that means the punches the next few pack catch you off guard. This is not romanticism, it’s nowhere close: it is magic realism, fully deserving both parts of that name. You’ll recognise yourself, your loves, your fears. The truth and beauty of magic realism, like realism onstage, is the strange brings the familiar into sharpest focus. Reading Niffenegger is like the first day of wearing new glasses.

April writing tip inspired by this month’s authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell:

Get Real…
Forget the reader just for a minute, or just for a page. Forget what you think you “should” write, “normally” write, or “can” write. Look at the image in your head, look at the reason it’s there. Pick up the pen, and say what you see. Don’t stop until the page is covered. Now look back. Maybe cross out the conjunctions. See how clear, how simple, how specific you can be. Anything that apologises for what you want to say, cross it out. It doesn’t matter how big or small what you want to say is – you have the right to say it.

…But Don’t Stop There
We don’t live only in here and now. We’re worrying about what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. We’re associating, and remembering, and hoping and fearing. Why put all that in backstory when the little voice in your character’s head could be a bird/rabbit/dragon sitting on the nearest wall? Just as an experiment, add an extra dimension to the world you’ve created and see what happens next. You might find the questions you’re asking have more ways to venture out. That’s how to start freeing your voice and ask your questions.

Example from this month’s author:

“The thing that makes us want God is the same thing that makes us want Art – we want meaning. We want there to be more than meets the eye. God is an attempt at an explanation for the universe. Art is not an explanation. Art is a question permanently unanswered.”

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes. Private sessions in Ealing, Piccadilly, Barnes, Putney and by Skype.

Book now at