Successfully recruiting Neil Gaiman to join the faculty last year was more than just a brilliant branding maneuver for Bard College; it also pays ample dividends in terms of being able to offer public events with powerful appeal to the superstar fantasy author’s ever-growing fanbase. Despite being blindingly busy churning out new books, short stories and screenplays, doing endless rounds of publicity appearances, literary conferences, sci-fi and comic book conventions and visiting Syrian civil war refugee camps for charity, Gaiman has also agreed to host a series of onstage conversations at Bard’s Fisher Center with some of his most respected colleagues in the fields of speculative fiction and graphic novels.
The series kicked off in April, with Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author/illustrator of Maus, joining Gaiman in a decidedly informal, sometimes-rambling discussion about writing and art, history and mythology, media and pop culture and whatever else came to mind. Seated in a pair of ugly overstuffed armchairs in a distressing shade of Howard-Johnson’s-roof orange that looked like they had been liberated from a student lounge, two of the giants behind the graphic novel’s surge of popularity in recent decades chatted as if they were in a friend’s living room and commented on a slideshow of Lorenzo Mattotti’s powerful woodcut illustrations for Gaiman’s new retelling of Hansel and Gretel. It was an enjoyable and memorable evening that packed the house with fans, some of whom had traveled a long way for the opportunity.
More folks who have never set foot on the Bard campus before are likely headed this way for the second installment in the series on Friday, October 3. Once again, Gaiman will be conversing with a fellow author with a penchant for the fantastic, and once again it will be a bit of a Mutual Admiration Society meeting: His guest this time will be Audrey Niffenegger, whose first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was a huge best-seller in 2003 and later inspired a movie that was rather less enthusiastically received.
Onscreen disappointment aside, the tale is remarkable in the fact that it not only manages to add an original spin to the well-worn time-travel subgenre, but also paints compelling, psychologically nuanced portraits of two people in love, Henry and Clare, as they cope with the stresses of a marriage involving frequent and uncontrollable periods of separation. Henry suffers from a genetic anomaly called Chrono-Impairment Disorder, which frequently transports him into the past or future without warning (and without his clothing). In addition to the difficulties, dangers and disorientation that Henry endures on account of the disorder, it also causes Clare to miscarry repeatedly when their fetuses start time-traveling in utero. The Time Traveler’s Wife is social sci-fi of a high order, as well as a metaphor for the challenges facing every couple where one partner is stationed overseas in the military or is required to travel frequently for work or even just has “commitment issues.” A sequel about Henry and Clare’s chrono-impaired daughter Alba is in the works, to the delight of Niffenegger’s many fans.
Friday’s conversation will touch on topics including time travel, Doctor Who, graveyards, taxidermy, graphic novels, pictures, books and long-distance romance. Both authors have written hit novels that take place largely in cemeteries and involve ghosts: Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) and Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which was the first book ever to win the English-speaking world’s two top kid-lit prizes, the Newbery and Carnegie Medals, along with the Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel of 2008. So it’s a fair bet that a mutual fascination with burial grounds will indeed be mentioned.
Less commonly known is the fact that Niffenegger considers herself first and foremost a book artist, which was her field of study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has published illustrated novels and comic books, including The Three Incestuous Sisters, The Adventuress, The Night Bookmobile and Raven Girl, as well as what she calls “visual books,” The Spinster, Aberrant Abecedarium, The Murderer and Spring among them. She co-founded the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, where she is a faculty member, and had her first art retrospective in June 2013 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Perhaps this Friday’s event will lead to a return visit to the mid-Hudson for a workshop at that hallowed ground of artists’ books, Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale? In any case, graphic novels are also bound to be a matter for discussion.
According to the foreword that Niffenegger contributed to Hayley Campbell’s new book The Art of Neil Gaiman, the two have known each other for a long time and share many cultural interests. And this will not be the first time that they have had an onstage conversation: A similar talk at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival can be seen online in its entirety at www.edbookfest.co.uk/media-gallery/item/neil-gaiman, if you’d like a preview of what might be expected at Bard. It runs a full hour, but a 17-minute excerpt, in which they discuss the influence of fairy tales on their writing process and Gaiman tells how he came to write his first Dr. Who episode, is also available on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDmR26rkp5c.
It’s an event not to be missed, if works of art and literature that plumb the darker and more magical corners of the human imagination are your thing. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 3 in the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater. Tickets cost $25 and can be ordered online at https://fishercenter.bard.edu or by calling the box office at (845) 758-7900.
Neil Gaiman in Conversation with Audrey Niffenegger, Friday, October 3, 7:30 p.m., $25, Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.