The PEN/HG Wells Lecture 2014: Audience Q+A with Audrey Niffenegger

On 15 August, English PEN hosted Audrey Niffenegger at LonCon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention where she delivered the inaugural PEN/HG Wells lecture

To be held annually, the PEN/HG Wells lecture showcases visionary writing and new thinking that embodies the pioneering spirit and activism of former PEN President, author, visionary and human rights campaigner, HG Wells.

Taking Wells’ 1911 short story ‘The Door in the Wall’ as starting point, Niffenegger spoke movingly about the relationship between art, science and society. Below, you can read a transcript of the lively audience Q+A session that followed.

In your speech, you mentioned the fact that politicians get more publicity than artists – how might we make the arts more attractive for politicians? It’s usually the most junior department given to the most junior minister (except perhaps in France)…

That’s a really good question! I sure do wish I knew the answer because we’ve got that problem back where I live in Chicago, too. It has been doing weird things to its educational system. I think the most longsighted answer is that we need to completely change the way we teach children. We need to re-prioritise the arts and make sure that everybody’s getting their music, their visual arts and all other kinds of art. For one thing, art is really good for attention: people stay in school longer if they can take art classes. And I think that people who are raised to think that that’s a perfectly normal thing to do, an important thing to do in fact, are more likely to become the politicians who prioritise it. But of course, that does not help the immediate situation. I guess the immediate answer is that we go and smite them all at the voting booth. I can’t vote over here so I’ll have to go over and smite the US politicians!

How do you think that we ourselves can start the process of elevating the importance of the arts?

These days we all live a lot longer than we used to so it’s possible to do more than one thing with your life – someone might start off a musician and turn into a politician. Like Jello Biafra who I think is now a California state congressman, whereas he used to sing for Dead Kennedys. Interesting transformation! Part of the trick is that we all need to be broadly educated enough – or to re-educate ourselves every now and then so that we can be lots of different things and everybody’s not just stuck in their little hole. If you’re going to live to be 80 or 90 or 100 you’ve got so much life ahead of you that you might as well be lots of different things and then you’ll just know more things about more things. Especially for someone like a writer it’s useful to be a lot of different things – and then you can write about them.

You’ve talked before about how you don’t like to categorise fiction in specific little boxes – I wondered if you could talk a little about blurring the lines between literary fiction, science fiction and speculative fiction. Can you talk a little bit about where that area of literature is going? Is there more emotional realism in things that are speculative? And can you say a few words about your writing process?

That’s a pet topic of mine – this business of everything getting bigger and overflowing its categorisations… I think that there are two directions: one is that everything is becoming ever more specific to its genre, and on the other hand people are just writing right out of that and kind of jumping at whatever they happen to be able to imagine. I think for people who really like certain genres there’s a very strong, happy tendency for people to really go for them – if you like certain things you can get an infinite supply of them, which is great. And then there’s other people, like myself, who say ‘oh, well now I’d like to make a ballet!’. I didn’t make the ballet myself – I was collaborating with a choreographer – but that was just stupendous because it gave my storytelling a whole different path to follow.

I’m happy for people to do either or neither of these things. But I think it’s good that people realise that they don’t have to follow the well-worn paths. My own process tends to be slow – I don’t know if any of you have noticed but I don’t exactly crank out a novel every two weeks… Sorry!… At the moment I’m working on two different novels and they lead into each other – suddenly I realise that I’m writing the same novel twice! So I’m trying to build little fences between them… Anyway, one is a sequel to The Time Traveller’s Wife. The other is a book I’ve been working on for just about forever called The Chinchilla Girl. It’s about a 9-year old girl who has hypertrichosis which means she’s covered in hair. The sequel is the harder of the two to write because I’ve already built a world and I have to follow the rules of the original book and yet manage to make something that has a reason to be in the world and isn’t just one more of the same. So, my process is basically that I wander round and I distract myself and I don’t have a schedule and I do all the bad things they tell you not to do in writing class… one of my students is actually here I’m sure she’s laughing at me!… But yeah I’m completely chaotic and silly and bad but somehow I manage to write it anyway… it just takes a long time. But thanks for asking.

I teach primary school children and one of the things I find with writing is that it’s really difficult to strike the balance between giving them the freedom to write what they want to write, giving them a blank page (which some of them like and some find terrifying), and giving them a structure/topic etc. As a teacher, I wondered what you would advise is best for their development – do you have to go through that terrifying blank page, or is there another option?

Good question! Personally I think that limitations are incredibly helpful and whether they are limitations of form – say, for example a sonnet: ‘This is how a sonnet is put together, now you write a sonnet!’ – or genre or any other kind of shape. I think it’s so much more fun! I think if we pitch form to kids as a fun game they can participate in, quite a lot of them will enjoy it. Children are constantly making rules – it seems to me that’s what they do all day all night, you know ‘You be the postman, I’ll be the nurse!’ or whatever. When I was seven I would be making up rules all over the place, and I’d be bossing people around and they me in return. I don’t think the children would mind one bit. I think the sooner they realise that there are all these wonderful literary shapes, the sooner they’ll get down to writing and start working on it.

I was very intrigued by this idea about having ‘a place to dream and canoodle’ that you discussed in your speech, especially thinking about making a garden, your rallying cry at the end. How important do you think physical space is, actually having a space to write?

Yes, the room of your own idea – extremely! When we have to, we can write on trains and lock ourselves in the bathroom and make everybody leave us alone – people try really hard to get that space around them so that they can be with their own mind long enough that they can write things down. I’m very grateful to the existence of writers’ colonies. I’m a long time visitor at one called Ragdale which is right outside Chicago, and there’s another just outside New York called Yado which is a very venerable one. What they provide is time and space to work. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also unbelievably scarce and helpful. These days I see people in cafés with their laptops and their giant cup of coffee, and I think that’s kind of a temporary, one-person writers’ colony, because it’s such a perfect venue for being with people by yourself. There’s an etiquette to it – you wouldn’t just go up to somebody writing in a café and start distracting them because, you know, that would be cruel.

So I think it’s incredibly important. But I think we all have our own ways of accessing that. One of the things PEN is so great for, actually, is helping out the people who don’t quite have access to their own creativity. There are programmes to help teach writing classes in prisons and places like that. I think every one of us on a daily basis could do with accessing our own solitude a little bit more. But we can also help other people do it too, you know, ‘Oh honey, it’s OK I’ll mind the kids! You go write!’ (I don’t even have kids but this was the constant plea of everybody I know, that somebody else would please just take care of the kids so they could get a little work done…)

I was much struck by your point that science fiction can predict the future, but is most powerful when it tells the truth – can you expand?

I think that that is also a statement that you could also reframe as ‘art is most powerful when it tells the truth’. I think that no matter how fanciful something might be, as long as the characters are truly made, that they are psychologically plausible people, and that the story is trying to tell us something about being humans in the world – I mean it might be being humans on Mars or being humans underground or any of the places that science fiction can take us, but my own experience is that you tweak the rules of your world in order to more clearly show something about our own human experience. So for example in The Time Traveller’s Wife, one of the biggest reasons to have Henry be a time traveller is so I can show his marriage to Clare in this kind of multifaceted, Cubist way where I’m constantly taking a different vantage point and showing how each one of them is experiencing their relationship. But I’m also constantly throwing them into different relations with each other – OK, now she’s six years old and he’s forty… now she’s thirty six and he’s ten… there’s a million ways you could do that. Making something happen that isn’t possible under the laws of physics as we know them, I’m able to do something which resonates for people and they say ‘Oh that’s kind of like my marriage!’ and I say ‘Oh I hope not…’. But I get so much mail from people who are dealing with a great amount of space in their relationship – wives whose husbands are in the military, for example – who say that the book reminds them of their own relationship. I also get a lot of mail from prisoners. So I know that somehow I’ve told somebody something that feels true.

The great thing about science fiction is that you can perform these thought experiments – you can say ‘What if?’ I like to read realistic books as well but a lot of the time I’m thinking ‘That’s really cool, it would be even better if she was an alien’! I think science fiction is one of the great literary inventions because it enables us to throw ourselves forward and think ‘Oh what if we could do that?’ There’s so much we’re doing now that would have looked like witchcraft 200 years ago. I think we’re living in a science fiction world now, I don’t know if we’ll recognise the world 100 years from now. And some of us will probably live that long because we’re extending our longevity as well… We’ll see.

I believe HG Wells published 900 stories. So I’d like to know the process by which you found that particular story (‘The Door in the Wall’ [1911], discussed in the speech) or how it found you?

I mentioned in my talk that I found it in an anthology called Black Water. There were two of them, great big books that were edited by Alberto Manguel, who is Canadian. He’s done a number of different collections. Many of them are meditations on the experience of reading. This particular set of collections was wonderful – everything you ever wanted to know about speculative fiction. He writes great introductory paragraphs to each story. And in this one particular collection he included ‘Door in the Wall’ and, having read it in college, it really hit me – it was so perfectly evocative of people who had wanted to go to art school but had decided it was probably better if they did not. It felt like a kind of prophecy of what might happen if you don’t go with the thing you’re really meant to do. I hope you find his collections – I don’t know if they’re in print but they’re really great!

I’m an editor and one of the things I always tell writers is disconnect yourself from Facebook/Twitter and leave your shrink before you start writing – or you’ll have no material left! I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on how to teach someone how to write; how to unlock his or her creativity? And, sort of along those lines, what do you think the greatest threat to the arts is today?

Well, let’s start with teaching. My own practice of teaching – what I’m teaching these days is a seminar for people who are in the midst of writing a novel. In order to get into my class, you have to submit a chapter or two of your novel and write a letter discussing what it is you think you’re doing. Typically I have between 10 and 12 students, so it’s quite a small class. We meet six times, and each class session is a Friday night, all day Saturday. Between each class there’s anywhere from two to three weeks, so they have time between classes to get some writing done. Before the class begins everybody exchanges their entire manuscripts, whatever they’ve got, to the whole class, and everybody reads everything – it’s not one of those classes where you’re writing a novel but everyone only reads 15 pages of each others’ work. So before the class begins, everyone has hopefully already read everybody. The other thing I do is I meet with the students three times, one on one, for an hour each. If you start doing the math you realise this is very labour-intensive! But I only have one class. So I’m lucky, I’m privileged that way: I don’t have a gigantic class load. My idea about this is that, like the editor-author relationship, it has to be very intensive, very attentive and very much focused on making the writer more like themselves. I’m not trying to reproduce my own style or interests – I’m interested in what they’re doing and trying to make it even more so. So that’s basically what I’m doing and it’s really very similar in some way to the relationship I have with my editors. That’s really what inspired this method of teaching, this great attention and care that I was getting from my editors. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a class like this?’. I’ve done this class three times and the people from my first group are starting to get published now – one of them has already got a book out and the other is coming to Europe, coming here. There were nine of them so I’m waiting for the other seven! But yeah, I have this luxury of being able to devote lots of time. It’s not necessarily realistic to replicate across an entire programme or an entire planet, but I think that’s what it takes, actually, I think that’s what really works. There are a lot of different ways to do it; everybody’s got their own thing. Mostly what we do when we’re in class is a lot of exercises, which are incredibly focused – they’re all about limitations, all about making them do this very narrow thing that I’m particularly trying to work on. And so a big part of my job is just to design exercises that work. And to be attentive – everybody reads out loud, which is another skill that I’m trying to develop, because some day they’re going to have to stand up in front of a microphone and they can’t be shy. So, yes, we work on all those things.

In terms of the biggest threat to the arts right now – wow, there’s just so many things. Amazon. Amazon is the biggest threat to the arts that I can think of right now.

We fight against censorship at PEN – it’s a lot of what we do in our campaigns. I wondered if there had ever been a time when someone had told you that you shouldn’t write something, or you shouldn’t make a particular piece of art – maybe an editor or a critic, or maybe another part of your brain (self-censoring!)?

Well there’s the whole issue of having parents. So, when I was much younger I would write things but then I would hide them because I didn’t want my parents to see them! But the only time anybody has ever said ‘Oh you shouldn’t publish that!’ was the time I wrote an essay called ‘Digging Up the Cat’. It is literally about digging up my poor dead cat in order to move him to a different back yard. My agent thought this was too weird – that people would think badly of me for it. That’s the only time anybody’s ever said no. What happened was that some lovely cat rescue charity based in New Zealand came along and said ‘could you write something for us?’ so it got published in New Zealand (and I think nowhere else)! But my agent wasn’t really trying to censor so much as he was just concerned that everyone would think I was a weirdo…

Considering your remarks, I am curious about your thoughts about the role of the artist in society in the context of societal problems. I heard your call for an organic process where the artist creates the garden that people serendipitously find their door to… I wondered how you felt about the apparent dichotomy between the roles of artist and social critic/essayist? Make art and let people find solutions in their own way through it versus being a more didactic writer…

HG Wells would have a very different opinion on how to order your life to be effective. But out of the 80 books that he wrote, which ones can you name? It’s mostly the fiction, right? So these other ones that he wrote that were kind of do-gooder, trying really hard to make a point? I think a lot of them are still in print… but it’s kind of the same as Wilkie Collins: he wrote 26 books, 4 are still read, and they’re not the ones where he had ‘do-gooder-itis’. So I think it’s the same with Wells – he is effective still, yes, but perhaps not in quite the way he meant to be? Of course I can’t go back and ask him but I think that as artists, when we’re over-trying, when we’re really trying to ram it home – obviously there’s great, fantastic examples of political speech that really do what they’re meant to do – but I think that a lot of the time it’s the imaginative work that gets at it sneakily, sideways, is the stuff that really does the effective political work. Whether Wells would agree with me or not, I don’t know. But after a lifetime of reading, that’s what I’ve come to feel – sneaking it under peoples’ preconceived ideas is more effective than jabbing them in the eyes with it. As I say, I can’t speak for Wells… but we can honour him.


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8 Comments on “The PEN/HG Wells Lecture 2014: Audience Q+A with Audrey Niffenegger”

  1. English Pen is really a very praiseworthy initiative. It vanishes the barriers of lands and distances and brings world literature together !! My best wishes to English Pen.

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