Interview: André Aciman

André Aciman has an aversion to onscreen sex. It’s too mechanical, he says, too precisely orchestrated down to every last thrusting, frictional movement. He prefers the literary variety instead, and there’s certainly no shortage of it in his work — especially in his recent book-turned-Oscar-winning-film Call Me By Your Name, where it occurs after aching passages of first crush and indecisive infatuation.

SURG talked to him ahead of his appearances at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival about repressed desire, modern love, and warped memories.

Michael Sun: This is your first time in Australia, and you must’ve had countless first visits to other countries on press tours for Call Me By Your Name. Given that your work revolves so much around geography, is there something you like to do when you travel to new places?

André Aciman: I don’t see — I go to places and I usually don’t see what’s interesting. What I will remember once I go home and start typing the piece that I’m supposed to write about travelling is what I evoke in myself through memory and the imagination, what the place looked like. I may have totally warped it and changed it in my mind, but when people read it they say my god, you really captured Paris for me or you really captured Rome. But I’ve transformed the whole thing! Somehow the process of writing that alters everything nevertheless rehabilitates something so people recognise it through my voice.

MS: Is that something that defines your work as both a memoirist and a novelist? Do you take life experiences but write about them in an incredibly subjective or warped manner?

AA: Yes, although I don’t think it’s warping. It’s not that I change anything: it’s that I remember it, and that’s a particular kind of filter that may initially seem as if I’m transforming. Actually, I’m restoring. I’m restoring an experience I wasn’t able to acquire or observe when I was there, but somehow memory just rehabilitates something in my mind and in my prose, and the process of writing is itself an attempt to recapture something that has already been forgotten a bit and therefore needs to be restored.

MS: That leads me onto Call Me By Your Name, which takes place not only in a very specific Italian setting, but also a specific 80s time period — one that already has so many representational tropes attached to it in literature and pop culture. How much of your own memory of the 80s made it into that book?

AA: God, I think none of it! The film is far more specific than the book, which was set somewhere in Italy — the town is never mentioned, because it’s only one letter. The hit parade of the songs in the film, too: I never mentioned the songs. I make no reference to anything and the town itself is a collage of many small towns along the shoreline of Italy. Everything is totally mutated, if you want, and I’m irresponsible sometimes. I’m impatient with details, and what I call information and facts. I really don’t like these.

MS: Do you think, then, that stripping away those important details made the story more universal?

AA: I think the story is universal in and of itself. What makes it universal is that by halfway through the story, nothing has happened. I think that’s wonderful, that’s the best thing — you wait and wait and wait, and you have no idea where this is going. And there’s a kind of suspense there. You agonise and you desire and you desire. You fight your desire sometimes, and sometimes you incubate it. That’s what makes it initially universal, because we all go through these long periods of courtship that are difficult to tolerate. In the book, it’s particularly analysed so everybody says yeah, I’ve gone through that.

MS: Do you think setting the book in its time period was an important choice with regards to the increasing digitisation of romance and online hook-up culture that exists now?

AA: Well first of all, no one had any devices in the mid-80s — they don’t have phones or computers. So yes, you don’t have that culture of immediate and easy hook-ups. I didn’t want that, because I really wanted to have two individuals who are going to have a normal conversation. I mean, seriously, that was a big decision.

MS: I read an interview where you say that when you write about love, it’s always about people who can’t seem to actualise what they want. What is it about that kind of self-repression that interests you over other forms of love?

AA: I think that one could easily write about two people meeting at a party and having sex the same night and then sex again the next day, and so on and so forth. And that can happen. But that is not what I consider interesting. What I find interesting are the difficulties that we have when the man and the woman, or the man and the man, are both experienced. They’re honest with themselves, they know where they’re going, there’s no mystery there. But — there’s a kind of reluctance to actualise it. In other words, I want a romance to last a bit longer. I want the period of what you might call “the cradling of the desires” to last a bit longer. That allows the reader, amongst other things, to begin to understand the colouration, the inflection of that desire, as opposed to just saying: he desired her, she desired him, they went to bed and had sex and it was great sex. What does that get us? Nothing.

MS: You wrote Call Me By Your Name very quickly — in 4 months. Can you tell me about that process and how it came about so fast?

AA: Initially, I was writing a book about a man and a woman who met at a party and were having difficulty having sex. But as I was writing that novel, I took a step back and said, I have to do something else. So I started writing Call Me By Your Name, which I was going to fool around with for 2, 3 pages before going back. And 3 months later, I was still fooling around with Call Me By Your Name, which was very exciting to write.

MS: When you wrote it, did you expect or imagine the huge reception that it’s had?

AA: No! Absolutely not. The story is a famous one: I went to my agent, and I said: I wrote a book. She said: you finally wrote the book! And I said: no, I wrote another one, I wrote a gay story. She said: what? Why did you write a gay story? I said: I don’t know, all my friends are writing gay stories, so I wrote one. I said to her: if you don’t want to publish it, we’ll put it in a drawer and we’ll never mention it again.

I was convinced this was where it was going to go. I had fun writing it — it was much longer. But the next day she calls me and she says: I read the book, I want to sell it.

MS: That’s so surprising, especially because your name is almost inseparable from the idea of queer fiction now! Do you think you’ve made an impact on queer representations in literature?

AA: I think my contribution to it is that it seemed so natural that the two (Elio and Oliver) should desire each other. I didn’t want to have death, accidents, hooligans, boors, murder, AIDS — I didn’t want any of these villains in this scene. I just wanted to say: this is a normal story between two human beings who are attracted to each other, let them even fun. There shouldn’t even been parental guidance, so I removed that away. Once you remove all those unavoidables — because they’re always there in every queer story you see — eventually you realise, “it’s just a regular story, isn’t it?” That’s about it. You can still go and have villains coming and shooting and conquering whatever it is, but that’s going to feel a bit artificial at this point.

André Aciman’s new book Enigma Variations is out now through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.