Call Me By Your Name author André Aciman on writing about love, desire, longing, and loss
Author André Aciman on writing a love story, rejecting labels and turning a fashion story into a treatise on longing
In 2007, American writer André Aciman wrote a coming-of-age story about a summer romance between a teenager Elio and the slightly older graduate student Oliver.
In 2017, the book Call Me By Your Name, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film.
“I didn’t even think it would get published. When the movie came out, I thought it would be there in the circuit for a few weeks and then sell as a DVD and then disappear,” says Aciman.
In 2007, American writer André Aciman wrote a coming-of-age story about a summer romance between a teenager Elio and the slightly older graduate student Oliver. In 2017, the book Call Me By Your Name, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film.
It was quite the leap for a book written by accident, in three months, and whose writer had no idea of its success. “I didn’t even think it would get published. When the movie came out, I thought it would be there in the circuit for a few weeks and then sell as a DVD and then disappear,” says Aciman.
Born in Alexandria, Aciman and his family moved to Rome as refugees. This journey was explored in detail in his memoir, Out of Egypt. Today, he is a Professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY and the author of four novels. He was recently in India, to attend the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival.
Excerpt from an interview:
Call Me By Your Name has had quite the impact on people. You had fans writing to you for advice, wanting to tattoo their bodies with words from the novel etc. How does it feel to have such an impact?
It’s scary sometimes. When people tell me 'I want your signature' and I give it to them. They say, ‘Look what I’ve done with it’ and they’ve tattooed it on their arm. It scares me because you have power over people. I never wanted or know what to do with that power. It’s frightening but on the other hand, it is very gratifying. If you love my work then I will love my work. Without your love for my work, I have no love for it.
You’ve started writing the sequel to the book. What can we expect from Elio and Oliver’s story now?
You can expect them to meet. That’s where the story will end, in their meeting and deciding what to do. Oliver has a plan, he does.
There is a lot about the body, anatomy, physicality in the book. How easy/ difficult was it for you to write about things in such graphic detail?
It was actually very easy. I had to hold back a bit. You have to use many tricks to capture the joy of feeling a body next to you, and convey it to reader in words, not with images. You have to be very careful not to overdo it but you cannot be coy. You need to be honest, upfront and candid and use familiar terms. I wanted to be as frank as possible without being coy or offensive. One of the tricks I used was, when they get in bed together, Elio loses sense of time [because he has smoked some pot]. It is only later, while they are swimming, that you get hints of what they did. It’s my way of being indirect without being coy.
Love — unrequited or not, memory, identity, longing, passion and loss seem to be common characteristics in your work. Do the stories play out from your own life’s experiences?
It’s a combination of everything that has happened to me. When I write about these things, I assume everybody understands and feels that way. The trouble is that nobody admits it. I am always the first one who says it.
For instance, I think that most people are terrified of making a phone call when asking someone out on the first day. You just don’t say, I picked up the phone and called. We experience fear, regret, shame, nervousness and are sometimes happy when the person doesn’t answer.
You’ve famously said you don’t like using the word ‘love’ in your stories and you don’t like labels. Do you think it is restrictive?
Once you use the name of an emotion or desire, you solidify it. The work of a writer is not to solidify or concretise but to take something and dilate it in such a way that it expands and becomes comprehensive. When you love somebody and say, ‘I love you’, you’ve closed the deal. There’s nothing else left to say. But if you say, ‘In the morning I wanted touch you on the shoulder, in the afternoon it was your knee. Then I regretted even wanting to sleep with you. Then at night I realised I couldn’t fall asleep if I didn’t have you’. When there is want as opposed to love, things become a bit more ambiguous and credible.
My job is to find the right wording so that I can harmonise everything that is happening in your soul as opposed to giving it a direct name.
Your book, Out of Egypt, chronicles your experiences as an exiled Alexandrian teen, someone without a country. How does this sense of displacement affect your work?
Displacement is a tragedy. It doesn’t inspire me, I want to resolve it. Everything I write is an oblique attempt to try and resolve this sense of not belonging. I transplant my Egypt loss into the beaches of Italy. I go to those beaches [on paper] and try to enjoy them. This is my way of resolving my displacement of Egypt. I do it with religion, with nationality, with places and even sexuality.
You are a professor, author and also write articles. A recent piece about pocket squares was a lesson on how to make a piece of clothing – here it was pocket squares – seem ‘human’. Do you actually like pocket squares that much?
The essay on pocket squares is about desiring something and not wanting to desire it. Pocket squares are a metaphor for whatever it is that gives meaning to our lives; it I something or someone we want but don’t have the conviction of wanting it. I don’t care about pocket squares. But, if I have a pocket square that I like, there’s a way in which I go about possessing it. It is typical of André: it is filled with doubt, reluctance, rejection, fear, shame, spite.
Through the article, I wanted to transplant how I long for things. Language allowed me to articulate this as best as I can.
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