‘call me by your name’ author andré aciman on what makes a writer

The author of 'Call Me by Your Name' and new book 'Enigma Variations' shares his advice for new writers.

by Matthew Whitehouse
12 November 2018, 11:01am

There's a great moment in Enigma Variations, where a man is having dinner with his girlfriend and the man he thinks she's having an affair with.

They’re trying to be honest with each other but they can’t. They’re getting a little drunk but not so drunk that they do anything inappropriate. And you know what? After a while, they even start to like each other. They might even start to like each other a little too much.

It’s only a short scene, in the latest book by Call Me by Your Name author André Aciman, but it says a lot about how the Egypt-born, American novelist tells stories. The dynamic between people. The behavior of those people in a particular moment. All of it written with the tension notched-up: hanging in the air, ever so slightly higher, than the actual possibility itself.

He’s already onto the next one, a memoir, Out of Egypt, published by Faber in February 2019. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the sequel to that book: the one which took on a life of its own following a filmed adaptation by Luca Guadagnino in 2017, and that is currently giving it’s writer “a lot of anxiety”.

“You know that people are going to be disappointed, you know the people are going to find fault with it, and that sort of hangs over you. So you don't know what to do,” André says. “You really want to do something so totally different that people will not say, oh, it's an echo of Call Me by Your Name or an echo of Enigma Variation. I want to do something totally new.”

What makes a writer?
Well, to be flippant for a second, to be incompetent at everything else might help. But what makes a writer, first of all, is tolerance for solitude. That's the number one. You have to be able to tolerate yourself to be alone. And I hate being alone! I love being social and I love being telephoned and I love email. I'm always interrupted and I love being interrupted. But it is also, to be a bit more serious if I may, a desire to concretize something that feels important and that has been giving you the slip all the time. So writing, for me, is a way of maybe stopping time or stopping an emotion and looking at it closely. And sometimes it's also stopping my feelings for another person and examining them. And in the examination to capture something about them and to enjoy looking at them through words. So the words have to be well chosen and, as I like to say, the rhythm of the sentence has to be appropriate to the subject that you're dealing with. But you try, we try.

What is the journey to becoming an author?
Well, basically you’ve always been writing. That is the assumption. You may never know why you do it but it becomes something that you do. As a child, I think when I was 10 years old, I wrote a poem and everybody praised me. It was a dreadful poem but they praised me nonetheless. And that made a big difference because it told me, well, I can't play soccer, I can't play this, I can't do many of the things that everybody else did but, frankly, I’m good at this. And I think at some point you also become interested in reading what the great ones did. And every time you read a great writer you want to imitate them.

That's the first thing you end up doing. And after this periodic imitation, you try your hand when you're 15 or so at doing something different. Of course, it’s not that different. It’s flat-footed. But it's a lot of trying. It's trying to basically capture in language something about yourself. I mean you may not want to write about yourself, but it ends up always being about yourself. In other words, you’re projecting yourself onto other people, it’s your experience of life. But it doesn't mean that you have to experience everything in life. But it does mean that you want to capture the essence of what is happening to you and the only way to do that is either to paint, to compose music, or to write.

It's not what has happened, but it’s the experience that you wish had happened. It's the might-have-been that really signals my work.

So your ideas come from experience?
Well, no, not really, because I haven't lived that much. I don’t think I am experienced in the way that people who have travelled the world, met a lot of lovers or done many things. I haven't done many things. I've been a very reclusive person, even though I'm quite social. But I'm very much alone. It's not what has happened, but it’s the experience that you wish had happened. It's the might-have-been that really signals my work. It’s how I imagine a real life would have been like if I had had a real life. I mean, I've been lucky in a way because I've been very sheltered. I have a profession that I allows me to write all day long if I want to. But, at the same time, I have a very strong imagination, I fantasize all the time. Even if they are fantasies that are not necessarily mine. I like to pursue them anyway.

Do you have a routine?
No, I wish I did. I'm terrible. The first thing I do when I wake up is I make coffee and then I check my email. If there are too many emails then the energy to write just dissipates. I'm happy that it dissipates so that I don't have to do it, you see? So, usually in the morning I go to the gym and I come back home. Then I hope I have something else is going to distract me. And if I don't then I start writing. There have been times when the writing has been so fluid and so good that I would put aside things to write. But usually it’s a struggle. It’s, oh god, I've got to write this thing. There's a lot of that. There is no routine. I envy people that have a routine. But then, as I always like to say, routine writers are routines writers. Let's not forget that. They write routine stuff.

What do you use to write?
I always write on the computer. I used to write by hand and then type what I had written and by the time I had finished typing one page I’d already made so many corrections and so many changes that I was a one-page writer. In perpetuity. So when a girlfriend that I was going out with lent me her computer, it made all the difference in the world. I realized that I can change a sentence 10 times and not feel that I have to retype the whole thing. Occasionally when I'm on the subway or on the bus I will take a notepad and write down some thoughts, some kind of conversation. Usually when I'm traveling it means that it's not serious business that I’m attending to. But the fact that it's not serious means that I can explore things a bit more courageously or boldly. And eventually the stuff that I write in the notepads gets transferred and polished and cleaned up so that I can use it later. It's humiliating to know that if you use a ballpoint or if you use a fountain pen, the actual quality of the writing changes. We’re silly people.

Call Me by Your Name, for example, had a different ending and I was never happy with him. So I cut it out and I wrote something else instead.

How much planning do you do?
The answer is none. Absolutely none. I have no idea where the story is going to go, who is going to sleep with whom, if they're going to sleep with each other at all. I have no sense. I just know that, at some point, this is where I have to stop because this is where it ends and let's stop right here. Usually I will write a few more pages after a piece and then cut those pages off so that it ends at a dramatic moment filled with tension and, at the same time, something approaching closure.

How do you know when to stop writing?
I don't know. I mean, usually, I can fall asleep or I feel that sleep is gaining on me so I have to stop. But there's no sense that this is a moment to stop. Usually I just want to watch some television or maybe do something else. But, by and large, I have no discipline of when to start or went to stop. It's just slavish.

How do you judge the quality of something when it's finished?
First of all, when you can no longer fix it. In other words, it could be totally broken but you don't where how to fix it. For me the point is when there's no way it can go from here. When it just can't be fixed anymore and I just don't know what to do with it. You have to know when to stop. Sometimes you have the wrong ending and it sort of hangs in a way that tells you this is still hanging for the closure. Call Me by Your Name, for example, had a different ending and I was never happy with him. So I cut it out and I wrote something else instead. Because it has my voice, it doesn't take place in the present, it doesn't take place in the future, it doesn't take place in any time zone that we know it, incurs in some kind of ethereal realm where things of the past and the present are mixed. So then I knew, this is my voice, this is as honest as I can be.

Learn from people who wrote, not well, but extraordinarily well. Learn from them. Don't learn from Jonathan Safran Foer.

What advice would you give to young writers?
I have two pieces of advice. One is to not write fiction if you want to write fiction, it’s to write book reviews. That's what Virginia Woolf did. Write book reviews. Write about authors. Get to know the editors of the magazines or newspapers you want to write for. And eventually try your hand at something that is maybe personal or maybe a piece of fiction. But write book reviews. It’s the best training and it's the best introduction to the business. The second piece of advice that I have is learn from the classics. Learn from people who wrote, not well, but extraordinarily well. Learn from them. Don't learn from Jonathan Safran Foer. Even Dickens had something to teach you if you like Dickens. Learn from the very, very best.

Read James Joyce’s short stories. Those are the great writers. Just see what they're doing. Try to understand how they write. Because that's the best schooling. It's better than a whole two years doing an MFA. You read one short story by James Joyce or Katherine Mansfield and you have as much training as anybody else has in writing non-fiction. So read the classics and write book reviews, that's what I tell them. And do you know what? Don't trust anybody that tells you they have a routine. I would never trust somebody like that. I always believed that writing is always going to be second tier to life. To having children, for example. To having a family. Writing is second, it's not first. People who think that writing is first lead miserable lives, unfortunately. But that's my opinion. They're selfish people. I think that leaving a book behind is wonderful, but leaving a family behind with children and grandchildren? Oh God, that’s heavenly! There's no comparison. On the other hand there have been days when I've said fuck you all, I want to be a writer, and I'm going to leave everybody and I'm going to write, okay?

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

call me by my name
andré aciman
Enigma Variations