“I don’t think our courtship was that bizarre,” says Audrey Niffenegger, 54, the Chicago writer, artist and best-selling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a 2003 first novel that struck publishing gold.
“Depends on one’s definition, I guess,” answers Eddie Campbell, 62, Scottish comics artist and cartoonist best known for illustrating From Hell, a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper.
The two—he with a rooster comb of grey curls, she with flowing ginger hair—are now husband and wife after a years-long, dual-hemisphere courtship that racked up impressive frequent flyer miles, massive numbers of emails and astronomical phone bills. Sitting around Comix Revolution, an Evanston store that sells new and used graphic novels and comics, the couple are getting ready to promote their collaborated book Bizarre Romance (Abrams, $24.95) and speak to an audience about “Creating with Your Better Half.”
This is a subject they know well: For Bizarre Romance, she wrote the 13 stories and he drew the elaborate illustrations—except when she drew a few illustrations (including the one of the bird and the cat, two natural enemies, embracing on the cover). And he brainstormed with her about an ending for a story that lacked one. Some of her stories were subsumed completely from straight prose style into cartoon strips or detailed drawings by Campbell. He came up with the title, which she hated at first.
“Anything with ‘romance’ on it will end up with little flowers on a pink cover, consigned to a dark corner of the bookstore and no men will ever see it,” she protested. She was partly correct about the cover—it is pink and does sport little flowers, but her drawing of the cat and bird is a spooky and ironic counterpoint. Niffenegger and Campbell call the book “a modern romance comic” and it showcases their mutual love of the weird and creepy.
By most definitions, except perhaps their own, theirs was an unusual romance. In 2012, Niffenegger, a confirmed Anglophile, was spending time in London, when Hayley Campbell, a young journalist there, asked about Niffenegger’s flat. Hayley’s father was going to be visiting from Brisbane, Australia, and he needed a place to stay. “Well, he will have to put up with me,” Niffenegger recalls saying, “because I’ll be staying there, too.” Campbell says he knew almost immediately upon arrival that this was true love. Niffenegger wasn’t sure—for at least several months.
The two then embarked on a long distance courtship, she based in Chicago and he in Brisbane. It spanned 10,000 miles and multiple time zones. They would meet up for dates that lasted six weeks: in Columbus, Ohio (for the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum) or Pouton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, so she could meet his parents. He travelled to Chicago to meet hers; she flew to Australia. She suggested collaborating; he said, “Oh no, darling.” But in 2014, to mark the British Library’s forthcoming exhibition of British comics, the Guardian Weekend sponsored a “Novelists Do Comics” exhibition and Campbell and Niffenegger were asked to work together for it. From that effort, they went on, over the years, to create Bizarre Romance.
They did have one fight while working on the book, which Campbell says was his fault. “See, all comics are in present tense,” he says. “You’re here and now when you’re reading a comic. Your life is running parallel to the one in the comic.” So he changed the past tense of one of Niffenegger’s story to present when he illustrated it. “Oh, it was very disturbing,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “I was just, ‘You did what?’” They worked it out line by line, adding back past and past perfect tenses, she says, “and it only took months of refusing to discuss it, then edging up to the problem, then ignoring it for awhile.”
At the end of 2015, they married at Chicago City Hall. Now they divide their time between a Victorian house in Chicago and a London flat close to Highgate Cemetery, home of the finest funerary architecture in the U.K. and the setting for Niffenegger’s second novel Her Fearful Symmetry. So things have settled down a bit. They now live in the same hemisphere and often the same house. Niffenegger, who always refused to own a television, got one two years ago and “I quite enjoy it.” She recently allowed The Time Traveler’s Wife to become an e-book, something she had vigorously opposed in the past. And Campbell is adjusting to bicycling over Chicago’s speed bumps.
“I love Chicago,” he says, “but it is the flattest place I have ever lived. I think they tried to elevate it a bit by using Scottish names.” “He says everything is mispronounced,” she says. “It is!” he counters. “It should be GLEN-coe and Mon-TROSE and HIGH-land Park.” “Let’s not forget DEV-on Avenue,” she says.
They don’t rule out collaborating again, but for now they’re busy with separate projects. Campbell says he will spend the next two years colorizing From Hell and Niffenegger says she is trying to wrap up the long-awaited sequel to Wife. “It’s called ‘The Other Husband’,” she says. “She won’t let me look at it,” complains Campbell. “Just as well,” she says.