Interview

Call Me By Your Name author Andre Aciman: ‘I leave it to people with small minds to discuss whether straight actors should play LGBT+ roles’

The bestselling author talks to Olivia Petter about sexual identity, obsessive desire and his long-awaited sequel to the story of Elio and Oliver, 12 years after his debut

Thursday 24 October 2019 19:22
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Aciman’s follow-up is a more complex affair – but just as passionate
Aciman’s follow-up is a more complex affair – but just as passionate

When a film becomes more famous than the book it’s based on, you can understand why the author might feel aggrieved. But Andre Aciman was anything but when his debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, became an Academy Award-nominated adaptation 10 years after the book’s release. “I adored the film,” Aciman tells me down the phone from his home in New York. “I think I’m probably one of the very few writers who doesn’t feel cheated by an adaptation of their work. I had no idea how great it would be.”

Now, Aciman has finally written a sequel, and he’s aware of the expectation. When Call Me By Your Name came out in 2007, it earned its author comparisons to Proust and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Its plot captures the furtive thrills, frissons and torments of first love between two young American men, whose romance unfolds amid the Italian Riviera’s soft, muscular hills and sun-pummelled cobbles. It made for evocative reading, but intoxicating cinema, because on screen, everything that happens between Elio and Oliver is intensified: exchanges more lascivious, kisses more urgent. “Obsessive love is the only kind that exists,” Aciman declares when I ask if he thinks that level of fervour exists exclusively in adolescence. He doesn’t. “We long for people at any age. And if you’re in love with someone and you’re not obsessed by them: what are you?”

One key difference between Call Me By Your Name the book and James Ivory’s Oscar-winning screenplay was the handling of sex. Take the famous peach scene, in which Elio masturbates with the fruit before climaxing inside it. In the book, Oliver responds by eating the peach. In the film, he merely tastes it. Nonetheless, peaches have never looked the same since. “I was pleased with the tacit way with which that was done,” the 68-year-old says, explaining that he finds it difficult to watch sex scenes. “I don’t like all that humping action you see sometimes with what’s his name... West. Dominic West.” Is he talking about The Affair? “Yes, in The Affair, it’s too much sex and I get a bit... I mean I watch it but I’m not exactly comfortable. Maybe it’s because I’m older, who knows. Just a bit of a hug is good enough for me.”

His voice gently lilts with an American accent, softened by his multilingual upbringing in Egypt. He seems a little skittish. Jitters of neuroses surface, like at the beginning of our conversation, when it takes 10 minutes to get him on the phone. “I don’t know why the phones aren’t working. Oh god, this is awful.” Aciman remains haunted for the duration of our conversation, frequently interrupting himself with Woody Allen-like asides about phone signal: “Oh my god. Hello? We’re going to lose this in a minute I’m afraid.”

The film was not completely without criticism, with some arguing that the combination of an amorous plot and utopian cinematography offered a fantasised version of an LGBT+ relationship, free from judgement. “I didn’t want it to delve into the familiar tropes of violence against gay people,” says Aciman. “It is a beautiful love story that unfolds as it would between two straight adolescents.”

Would the book have been as successful had it been about a straight couple? “No. I don’t think so. In fact, that’s how the story started until I decided to take a totally different turn, and I am exceptionally pleased that I did. I like writing about people finding themselves in mildly unusual situations.” Aciman is keen to emphasise the “mildly”, given that a gay relationship is by no means unusual. “An adolescent girl and adolescent boy presented a situation that was quite ordinary,” he explains. “But an adolescent drawn to someone of his same sex presented all manner of psychological hurdles, and that is what I love to write about.”

There’s a perpetual argument in Hollywood about whether straight actors should play gay roles because it takes opportunities away from LGBT+ actors, who are underrepresented on screen. “I leave it to people with small minds to discuss that,” replies Aciman when I ask where he sits on this debate, given that both Timothee Chalamet (Elio) and Armie Hammer (Oliver) are straight. “I find it tiresome. I came up with the perfect metaphor on the matter: If you’re going to have a movie about Jesus Christ, does his mother have to be a virgin?”

Aciman is just as forthright when it comes to discussing criticisms that the relationship between Elio and Oliver is predatory given their seven-year age gap. “Oh gosh,” he moans. “I mean this is a consensual relationship. People saying that obviously didn’t see the film or read the book.”

Twelve years after his debut novel turned him into a literary darling, Aciman has completed the sequel. Find Me is more complex than Call Me By Your Name, with Aciman presenting an assortment of narratives and relationships as opposed to just one, but like its predecessor, it remains at its heart a tale of longing. Those hoping for another Elio and Oliver epic, though, will be disappointed. The first half of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Sami, Elio’s now-divorced father. Elio, meanwhile, has become a classical pianist living in Paris and Oliver is a married professor in New England with two sons.

“I tried to continue the story of Elio and Oliver, but it wasn’t working,” Aciman explains. “There was something weird about it, something artificial.” It felt as if he was writing another version of Call Me By Your Name. “I had already done that novel; why was I doing it again?” Starting fresh from Sami’s perspective was much easier. “Then Elio would come from the wings and I would eventually work my way to his story and write about Oliver too.”

Find Me opens on a train, where middle-aged Sami becomes captivated by a young woman named Miranda. The two exchange pretentious thoughts on love and loss (“I don’t know if I’m the type who even likes people, much less falls in love with them”) and soon tumble into a dizzying romance – it’s less saccharine than it sounds. The inspiration came from a similar encounter Aciman had, only the woman got off the train after two stops – without him. “She was sat alone with a dog and a cake. We only spoke for a few minutes.”

Call Me By Your Name - Trailer

Nevertheless, Aciman began writing Find Me immediately after, though he doesn’t make much of the exchange looking back. “It was a difficult train conversation; you’re just talking to do something as opposed to reading. I speak to everyone, I can’t stand being on a plane with someone next to me and not knowing who they are.” He pauses. “Hello?” Still here. “Oh god. I’m gonna lose you, I know I will.”

Aciman teaches literature at a post-graduate university in New York. Despite his first novel becoming a bestseller and a successful Hollywood film he insists his life hasn’t changed. “Why would it? Every morning I go to the gym, or try to. Then I come back home and I write or grade papers.” I get the sense that Aciman lives in his own world. He avoids films (“I just don’t want to watch them”) and listens exclusively to classical music. He also didn’t know who Chalamet or Hammer were when they were cast in Call Me By Your Name, though he eventually recognised Hammer from “the Facebook movie” aka The Social Network.

For someone who rhapsodises so effortlessly about love and desire in his work, it’s surprising that Aciman bristles when I ask about his personal life. He has been married to Susan Wiviott, who runs a mental health charity, for nearly 30 years and has three children. But the writer refuses to define his sexual identity. In an interview last year, Aciman said “we are all plurisexual”, in other words, attracted to multiple genders. Is that how he feels about himself? “That’s personal, so I would never answer that question,” he replies, brusquely. “But no, I wouldn’t use any label. I have hated labels since I was a kid because you are automatically viewed as someone who is different.”

Aciman recalls being the only Jewish child in his school, which he believes had a profound impact on his feelings towards being labelled. “So I don’t like labels. I also hate flags.” Flags? “Yes, flags. I don’t like flags. And I don’t like people who are proud of their flags.” I’m unsure how we got from sexuality to flags, but we manage to paddle back to the former. Aciman is happy to stress that he is a dedicated monogamist. “I hate the idea of people cheating,” he says, explaining that his father was a serial cheater who “created hell at home”.

That’s not to say he believes in being immune from temptation. “Our minds drift constantly and we have to recognise this. Something may cross my mind for half a second, but I recognise it. Most people who read my books say they’re constantly desiring someone. Desire is a condition of life, it’s like hunger. I am constantly aware of my hunger. Personally, I’m always hungry, I could eat all day long.”

Find Me is published on 29 October (Faber £14.99)

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