A summer romance: Talking about first love, desire and sexuality with Andre Aciman

André Aciman’s upcoming follow-up to his 2007 novel, Call Me by Your Name, is among the biggest talking points in the literary world this year.
Andre Aciman at JLF 2019
Andre Aciman at JLF 2019

André Aciman’s upcoming follow-up to his 2007 novel, Call Me by Your Name, is among the biggest talking points in the literary world this year. We caught up with the writer to learn that he’s actually working a prequel — and he’s not really thinking in cinematic terms...

Whoever you are, the other person is. Which means that whatever you want to be, the other person already knows about.”

Those are the words of André Aciman, discussing the title of his Lambda Literary Award-winning novel Call Me by Your Name (2007), in a tears-inducing session to a packed audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival, earlier this year.

As I met him for a one-on-one conversation about the phenomena that is Call Me By Your Name, and told him that the festival bookstore was all out of the copies of his book, the author took his time to believe it, asking incredulously, ‘How many copies did they have?’

When asked whether he ever expected his book to garner the kind of attention that it already has, the American author, who was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, was quick to reply, “Of course not! I had no idea!”

He went on to say that he wrote the book as he was “enjoying writing it. It was obviously something that came out of my heart”.

Set in 1980s Italy, and centred on a blossoming romantic relationship between a 17-year-old American-Italian Jewish boy (Elio Perlman) and a 24-year-old American Jewish scholar (Oliver), Call Me by Your Name picked up the 20th Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Fiction category.

A film adaptation of the novel was released in November 2017, to much acclaim, and even picked up an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In a wide-ranging interview, Aciman spoke about writing on first loves, the much-awaited sequel to the bestseller, and a dearth of gender-fluid characters in English literature. Excerpts from the exchange: 

Siddharth Shanghvi in conversation with André Aciman at JLF 2019

What draws you to write love stories? What is it about first love that continues to fascinate you? 
First love is the easiest one to write about, because it is a new thing, so there is no background to it, there is no antecedent. There is nothing to compare it to.

It’s just what it is, and so you experience it as it comes about and sometimes, not always, you don’t know that it’s even love, you don’t even know what it is — as is the case for Enigma Variations, where the boy in the book doesn’t even know what sex is, and if you don’t know what sex is, how can you want to sleep with someone?

You don’t even know you want to sleep with them, but you know you want to be very close to them, and you want them to love you just as you love them.

You may not know that you love them, but you want their love. I find that that particular moment is priceless. Nobody is jaded...

You either want to be loved or you expect that you will not be loved. It’s one of the two.

And basically, the pain can be absolute, because there is nothing to block it — no wisdom to come in the way. And, that’s why the father says, “don’t kill it, because it’s the best thing that can happen.” I love that moment! 

Desire and sexuality are at the centre of your works. Would you say there is still a dearth of gender-fluid characters, when it comes to mainstream English writing? 
Oh God, they don’t exist, I think!

It’s because people are not taking positions — either they are totally straight, or they are totally gay, and if they are totally gay, they have female friendships that are entirely platonic, or if they are straight men, they have friends that are gay and they understand that the gay men may want to sleep with them, but they have no interest… There is a kind of repudiation of sexuality. 

But the in-betweenness? I don’t know of any. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. I feel most comfortable in the fluid mapping of sexuality. 

Tell us a bit about the Call Me By Your Name sequel. Are you writing it keeping the cinematic medium in mind? 

No, no absolutely not. I don’t even know how to write that way. I can never write with cinema in my mind, because it’s not how I vision the page and the rhythm of the sentences… What I do like is, it’s not a sequel, it’s more like a prequel...

It all happens before the 20 years after they get together and they will meet — that’s a fact 
I want to explore. That’s the most I know about the sequel.

It takes the father’s life at a particular moment after the 15 years; it takes Elio’s life in that space of time, and it takes Oliver’s life who is married, and has children. His children are now in college, and he is a bit tired of his wife, and he begins to think of Elio again. 

André Aciman

The book received a lot of popular attention after the film adaptation came out. Were there any concerns regarding lending the book to a cinematic medium? 
No. I felt it was in the hands of two absolute professionals. One is a very famous, established movie director, and the other one is a younger but a very, very, very talented and established movie director.

Together, I expected miracles to happen. Turns out, that one wrote the script and the other one directed, and I think it went very, very well. I was pleased beyond belief. And I took my sons to see it and I said, ‘What do you think?’ They said, ‘Dad this is a terrific film.’

Tell us about your journey as a writer — was this something you always wanted to do? 
It was the thing I wanted to do the most, and therefore, the thing that I was most scared of —  which is why I put it off until I was forty. 

I worked as an advertiser, I worked in finance for about five years, I was a teacher, I was also unemployed for a while. And I was always writing, but never never publishing it. 

What is your writing process like? 
I don’t have a schedule, I don’t have a system. 

I don’t have anything. I just sit in front of the computer, and what comes comes.

I have no plot, no outline, nothing. I don’t know where I am going. 

How did you manage to finish Call Me By Your Name in just four months? 
I was enjoying it. The first day, I wrote almost a page.

The second day, I wrote another page and then I wrote five pages, and the next thing I knew, it was eight pages, 10 pages, 30 pages in more than two weeks... which for me was like unthought of.

And the next thing I knew, it was like chapter one, chapter two, and I was going on — and it was so easy to do. 

Are there any other writing projects that you are working on, besides the sequel? 
There is a book of essays coming out in a few months, and it is about not being in the present. 

What are you reading right now? 
Right now, I am reading a book called, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, who is the brother of Lawrence Durrell.

And of course, I have always liked Lawrence, and therefore, I figured, okay let me read this other book by his brother, and it is very, very well done.

Extremely well done. So, I am reading something that has no plot. 

— Simar Bhasin

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