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What do writers want from their first novel? What could possibly repay the years of toiling in obscurity, the bad pay, the neuroses?

Most are happy just to have a publisher return their phone calls, let alone sign them to a contract. Selling copies barely comes into question. And then there's The Time Traveler's Wife, the debut novel from Chicago-based visual artist Audrey Niffenegger. Before Niffenegger's book was even in bookstores, it had achieved A-list celebrity status when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt acquired the rights to make the film version with New Line Cinema.

When The Time Traveler's Wife, all 500 plus pages of it, finally landed at the Los Angeles Book Expo, it sparked bidding that resulted in its publisher MacAdam/Cage (Knopf Canada here) paying a record, undisclosed price.

When the book arrived in bookstores in September, it debuted on The New York Times Bestseller List at number nine, and after crime-thriller writer Scott Turow (whose wife is a friend of Niffenegger's, she says) chose it as his selection for the Today show's book club, the initial print run of 15,000 was snapped up and an additional 100,000 were ordered. She'll be reading with Martin Amis, just one more laurel for the debut novelist, on Nov. 25 in Toronto.

The Time Traveler's Wife is the story of Henry DeTamble, a librarian with Chrono-Displacement disorder, a rare genetic condition that transports him through time and space, mostly to periods within his own life. It's during one of these jaunts that the Mobius strip of cause and effect takes shape: A married, middle-aged Henry first meets his wife Clare as a six-year-old girl. The book chronicles their tortured relationship through past, present and future.

"It's definitely a love story, and a way to work out some of my thoughts on fate and chance . . .," she says. "I'm a big believer in synchronicity and this idea of following things as best you can and taking things to their logical conclusions. I don't believe there's some kind of predestination, that you're following destiny, or that people have soul mates, for example."

Although she's been active as a poet and short-story writer, Niffenegger, 40, has made her career as a printmaker. She shows regularly (her work can be found in Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts, among others) balancing her art with her work teaching for the master of fine art program at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago. She has published a few books of prints that she describes as "silent films": stylized pieces where gesture is paramount, the accompanying text economical in its narrative. "I'm always looking for the odd thing, that's what I'm interested in," she says in describing her work.

Niffenegger clearly remembers the first sparkle of inspiration for the book: She had been drawing at her desk, when the phrase "the time traveler's wife" came to her. It was a unique description, she thought, since it immediately defined two people and their relationship to each other.

"Everything kind of grew out of that," she says. "And the first thing I wrote was the very end, and the idea of Clare being old and waiting for Henry. It's the central image of the book, but you don't actually get it until 500 pages unto the book!"

When she had her inspiration for The Time Traveler's Wife, she realized it would be too difficult to create in her "silent-film" prints. She had to write a novel.

"It was such a revolutionary idea for me -- I can do this, I can do something that there's already a recognized name for," she says, laughing. "It was fun to write. When you do something visual, if you want a little girl to roller-skate down the street, you have to draw the little girl, you have to draw the roller skates and you have to draw the street and indicate movement somehow, all these technical things. In writing, you can say, 'Giselle roller-skated down Pike Street,' and there she goes! You see her. The reader does all that for you."

It's not that she considers writing easy -- she took 4½ years to write The Time Traveler's Wife, often working well into the middle of the night. But it felt like a form of play -- in early stages of the book she'd call Henry and Clare her secret fictional friends. "There was an enormous sense of freedom after working in a very constraining medium for decades," she says.

Perhaps it's because she's from an art world that resists labelling, but instead embraces and co-opts other processes into her works, that Niffenegger hesitates when asked if her book is science fiction or fantasy or straight-up literature.

"I had never thought of it as science fiction, even though it has a science-fiction premise. That's the thing that's going to confuse people -- it's got this science-fiction title and everyone seems to be very anxious about whether it's science fiction or not," she says. "I think die-hard science-fiction fans might find it to have not enough action. There isn't some crazy amazing thing happening on every page. It's very much about Henry and Clare's relationship, about their marriage and how it plays out through all these rather peculiar events."

There may be certain similarities between Niffenegger, a striking redhead and visual artist who likes punk music and lives in Chicago, and her character Clare, a striking redhead and visual artist who likes punk music and lives in Chicago. But Clare is not Niffenegger's alter ego. "Clare's work is not mine," she says firmly, admitting that her own hair colour only flared into existence after she'd completed the manuscript. If anything, the characters of Henry and Clare "are somewhat informed by" Dorothy L. Sayers's dashing detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his sidekick Harriet Vane.

While Niffenegger can speak smartly and at great length about pop-culture references and charmingly give them the same importance as the quotes from Rilke peppered throughout the book, the most common question she's asked in relation to The Time Traveler's Wife is, "Have you met Brad and Jennifer?" (The answer is no.) Niffenegger takes it all in a good humour. She realizes that without the Hollywood help, her book might have had an entirely different fate.

"I'm very grateful. They were interested very early on, before the hype, even before it was published."

At the moment, Niffenegger is philosophical about how her book might take shape on the screen. Not owning a television, Niffenegger had never seen a single episode of Friends, although the author did catch the actress who inspired a generation of women with The Rachel haircut when she starred in the indie flick The Good Girl and thought she did a "good job," and thinks that Brad Pitt has "an energy about him."

"I don't think they look like Henry and Clare -- they're quite Californian-looking -- but these people are professional chameleons, their job is to become other people. Both of them are talented," she says. "It will be interesting to see what they do."

You can say the same for Niffenegger, who hasn't stopped teaching but seems intent on carving out a career as a novelist -- she's busy at work on her next book about a pair of twins living in London. And the success hasn't gone to her head.

"At best, I thought I was writing a small cult novel for a few librarians," she says. "I've worked so long in the visual-arts world where the audience is small. . . . It amazes me to no end the extent to which regular people seem to be willing to take the book up and read it."

Audrey Niffenegger reads from The Time Traveler's Wife and Martin Amis reads from Yellow Dog on Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. at The Revival, 783 College St., Toronto (416-870-8000).

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