Andre Aciman on the unanticipated response to his book, Call Me By Your Name
What particularly gets me started is the idea of a sentence which has formulated in my head which I don’t want to lose, says Aciman
- Published 6.02.19, 8:14 PM
- Updated 6.02.19, 8:14 PM
Hailing from Alexandria, Egypt, Andre Aciman is an American writer whose book Call Me By Your Name took the world by storm when it was made into a major motion picture in 2017. A young student, attending his session at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet in association with The Telegraph, introduced herself as a ‘Call Me By Your Name fangirl’ during the question-answer round, her voice and her hand gently shaking in the excitement of meeting her favourite author. This fandom is something that the author and professor of literary theory in New York did not anticipate, nor did he expect the sadness readers felt after reading his book.
In between drinking copious amounts of soda water and smiling with an amused expression on his face at Taj Bengal, Aciman chatted with t2 about the book and the promised sequel that broke Twitter for day!
Between teaching and writing, what do you enjoy more?
Andre Aciman: I used to enjoy teaching a great deal because I think I am a great teacher and I like to bring out people to learn how to read. They think they know how to read but they don’t know how to read, because you have to look at every single word in an author’s sentence, that’s the most important thing. So I teach people how to read and I am very good at that.
Ultimately at my age (68 years) I have been doing the same thing all the time, but when you write a story, it’s always new. So there is more excitement in writing at this point. But I still want to continue teaching because I am very committed to it and I have a lot of students who are graduates and they have their dissertations and they rely on me. I am like a good friend to them.
Where does inspiration for an idea come from? Do you think the whole thing and then start putting it down or do you just start writing?
Andre Aciman: Oh! I have no idea where I am going. It’s a combination of two things. If I desire something that in life I don’t have, I can write it and it acts like a substitute. That also gets me going. But what particularly gets me started is the idea of a sentence which has formulated in my head, which I don’t want to lose. I will put it down and immediately think it’s horrible — do I need to make it longer? Do I need to make it shorter? What’s the next sentence going to be? And you go brick by brick by brick until you have a wall.
You love writing about ‘young love’ more than ‘old love’. So are you only writing from your memory?
Andre Aciman: No! That’s where you are wrong. Do you think someone who is 70 or 80 years old doesn’t feel desire? He does too! And it could be a very powerful desire. So desire never changes. It’s just the possibilities of what you desire happening that changes significantly. My father was 93 years old when he died and he liked every woman on the planet. He used to call them, go out with them, I don’t know what else he did (chuckles), basically he was a man filled with longing for other human beings and that never changes. So when I write about a kid who is 17 when I am almost 60, it’s pretty accurate. And I don’t write from memory because you can remember liking someone but the power and intensity of the love is born as writing.
Is there any part of 17-year-old Andre in Elio?
Andre Aciman: Oh my god! There is so much of me. The insecurity, the tentativeness, the hesitation, the self-hatred, the fantasies, that’s still in me, still going on! If I meet a beautiful woman, I want to go out with her, just to get a drink, not to do anything else, because I am a good husband, I still get nervous. I am an author, I am sort of famous, and I shouldn’t be nervous but I am; timid as a 14 year old!
You said that the one reaction to the book you did not anticipate was people crying. You expect them to perhaps get turned on but not cry. Have you figured out yet why they do?
Andre Aciman: No! I haven’t figured it out yet. The scenes of sad moments in the book are actually transpositions from my life. Once you write it down, you lose control of what it was that was triggering it, you forget! So when someone reads it for the first time, they see what the triggers are. And people tell me they read and they cry for days? (Looks shocked) I don’t understand. I mean it is bit of a sad story but it’s a happy story. Why are you crying for four days, five days? And that bewilders me, it still does.
After so many interactions with so many readers around the world, is there any part, you felt, you would have done differently?
Andre Aciman: All the time! After I have said something, I get out of the room and think ‘Why did I say this? I am such an idiot!’ I mean you are basically making things worse, not better. Because we are human beings, we are filled with two things — remorse and regret. For things you never did, or said, or things that never happened to you. So we are constantly pulled one way or the other by the two.
If you were to rewrite Call Me By Your Name, would it be different?
Andre Aciman: It might be different. It would definitely be less tame and it’s not a very tame book but it might be even less tame, because I realise now that I was very cagey and careful while writing it. Okay, we are going to be very upfront about the sex but we have to make it a bit out of focus. Then I realised people wanted to see the peach being eaten, they wanted me to describe the taste, they wanted to see it on screen. And I think, ‘Guys! That’s not me’!
In your session, you said that you hate facts. You don’t want to put a profession to a character or a name to the place. Doesn’t building a character get difficult that way?
Andre Aciman: Not really because I think the characters are a source of energy. Not a face, not a body, it’s an attitude. And you encounter the attitude. If you capture the attitude, you don’t need the rest, because the attitude is exactly what we like about people. It’s not ‘Oh this person is so beautiful. This person is so sexy’. Actually, then they open their mouth and you realise they are boring. As opposed to someone who says something sparky, and funny, maybe not so funny but barby and they dart at you and then you say ‘Oh my god, this is way too much for me. This is amazing’.
I find that most writers, especially American writers, they give you the street, the character, the name of the grandparents, the professions, and they end up writing like journalists write. A journalist is not a novelist. A novelist is not a journalist. They are different professions.
After your session, one realises that there is a sheer nonchalance that you have with the film. An author is generally seen to harbour very strong emotions about their film adaptations and most tend to dislike it. But you are just happy that it did well...
Andre Aciman: The film was maybe not intentional but it was a brilliant film because it realised that the book is happening in Elio’s mind. So they have to convey to the viewer that this is happening in his head. The only way to do that is with a voice-over and they didn’t do a voice-over, which was a brilliant decision. So all you have are actions and little faces that suggest what’s going on in their head. If that’s done well, you’ve got your movie. I will give you an example if you have a minute...
Andre Aciman: The end of the book, the last couple of paragraphs, are filled with yearning and sorrow and the anticipation of loss. The film ends totally differently, yet the same emotion is conveyed. If I were a stupid writer, I would say ‘That’s not how my book is! (makes mock angry face)’ but you have to understand that the adaptation is forced to do other things. I respect the movie director and I think he did a brilliant job. The movie is great. Nobody hates it! Of course some parts of the book were eliminated, which is fine, it’s a movie, it’s a different medium.
How was the experience of watching the film for the first time?
Andre Aciman: It was very surprising because I did not know how it was going to end. For example, in the movie, the director said we are going to have the music of Sufjan Stevens in the background and the boy is going to look into the fire and he is going to start crying. And I am thinking, I have never even heard of Sufjan Stevens! I asked my kids ‘Who is Suf...suf...suf..?’ and they asked me if I was crazy for not knowing such a famous man. And then when he said he was going to be crying into the camera, I thought ‘Oh my god, this is going to be a sob fest!’ But then I saw the film and this scene takes place over four minutes and it is a piece of genius. Never seen a film that does that. It’s not over-stated or understated. And when the credits finally came, for me that was the most poignant moment. Because then you go ‘Oh! So this is the end? They broke up!’ so I was as much moved as anybody in the room.
This is in the ’70s when there was no technology...
Andre Aciman: Yes good question! I don’t know how romance is with technology but I think the telephone is no longer used unless you text. If the kids had texting and messaging and whatever, the story would have been different. The confession that Elio does would have been done via text. I mean it would have been equally ambiguous but he would have done it differently. And even when they don’t speak, the silence would have been very powerful because when you don’t hear from somebody that you sent a text to and they don’t reply, you are devastated. So I know how that feels. I have three sons and I see them, you know? Constantly chatting away!
When you write the sequel, which you said will be the years in between that Elio and Oliver spent separately, you will have to factor in technology and social media. Does Elio stalk Oliver online, trying to find out his whereabouts? Have you given it a thought?
Andre Aciman: No, because the sequel is really the prequel. It is really the moment Oliver leaves Rome and the moment when they meet again — that’s where the sequel is taking place. I have to treat it very carefully because if it is 1987, 10 years after was still not a time when there was a lot of social media. One has to be careful to not exaggerate the importance but you can still stalk somebody online or find them online. You can say ‘Oh, so this is where he is teaching now. Maybe one day I will go and find out’.
In these 20 years that they spend apart, will there ever be any form of contact between them?
Andre Aciman: No. Not at all! But once they do meet and share a couple of drinks, they will continue to keep in touch. And Oliver will realise that even though he has a family now, there is a something about Elio and this relationship that haunts him and he has not given up.
You finished the manuscript in four months…
Andre Aciman: Yes and my editor yelled at me for writing gay fiction. I was expecting her to say ‘Andre, this is embarrassing, you are not a good writer’. I told her to just read it and she called me the next morning. She said ‘I finished it last night and it is fantastic. I want to sell it TODAY!’ So I said, ‘You think?’. Because I am always very insecure. I thought she was probably drunk or something but she wasn’t.
So you knew how Elio and Oliver would end up…
Andre Aciman: No! I thought Oliver was going to die!
Andre Aciman: Yes! I am sorry (breaks into a peal of laughter). Because I needed to get it over with. I didn’t want to keep writing this novel. The most important part of a love story is the longing. The actual affair, the making love and all is incidental. Let him die and that way Elio remembers the longing and not the facts. Remember when there is a boat and Anchise gets the fish, Anchise was going to take another boat ride and Oliver was going to go missing. (laughs) You always think of things like that. Then the time Oliver hurts himself? Who takes care of him? Anchise. Why? Because I thought maybe Anchise is interested in Oliver. So I was exploring this but then I said ‘Andre, this is ridiculous. Stop it!’ But I didn’t want to throw away the pages so I kept it!
There is a lilting tone to your words. The text reads like music…
Andre Aciman: Very well described! Thank you!
Is it something you do consciously?
Andre Aciman: Yes, it is totally artificial! (laughs) It is the craft of writing. I think cadence is the most important thing in anything one writes. Without cadence, it becomes journalism. When you explore the head of someone, you move in, you can’t write it in 10 words! And you have to do it in such a way that it is not a load on the readers. So you have to remove the extra words. Every sentence has to be perfectly calibrated. I think I do that intentionally.
You really don’t read your contemporaries at all?
Andre Aciman: No, I hate them (smirks!).
Who is the author you keep going back to?
Andre Aciman: There are some books that I have re-read many times but they were written by people who have died a long time ago. I mean I am in this business because I love reading. I don’t like modern fiction because it’s too obvious. There is not much thinking that go into it. German writer W.G. Sebald is one of my favourites. Another writer I adore is French writer Marguerite Yourcenar who wrote Memoirs of Hadrian. That’s a beautiful love story.
And films? Any interest?
Andre Aciman: Not really. I watch sometimes. I have watched all the films on the plane because I travel so much. But there is this movie I watched called Ida which is about a nun and a murder that happens in her family. It’s shot in black-and-white and it is beautiful. The movie ends with a piece of music by Bach... ah! I am in heaven!