‘Our years between then and now were but a hiccup in that long itinerary called time.’
It would not remotely be an exaggeration to say that Elio and Oliver are perhaps some of the most beloved characters of this century for both readers and cinema lovers. Call Me By Your Name bewitched the hearts of many, both as a book and as a film that had won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2017. A heart wrenching story of unfulfilled love finally found its happy ending after almost two decades — both in the book’s and our actual universe — when André Aciman’s sequel to the book, Find Me, was released in late December last year. Delineated in four sections, the first of which is actually based on Elio’s father Samy’s relationship with a new character Miranda, the book ends with a short but gratifying glimpse of Elio and Oliver, back together, paradoxically aged yet still the same. The two, finally ‘find’ each other, just like millions around the world have been praying and hoping for ever since the book came out. André Aciman has managed to take their story and explore quite faithfully, the aftermath of lost love that is found again. While change is a constant and time passes us by, somethings remain untouched, just like the solace I and many others find in the story of Elio and Oliver.
We had a chance to speak to André Aciman about all things Call Me By Your Name and its sequel, Find Me.
How were you led towards the world of writing?
I think that when I was about nine or ten years old, I wrote a poem and my dad read it and said that it was absolutely wonderful and told me that I should write more poetry. Under my father’s encouragement, who was a very literary man, I began and never stopped writing but I did start publishing very very late in my life.
After all these years, how would you define your relationship with writing as?
Troubled! It has always been troubled because I am a writer who has very little self confidence. So every time I write something, I am sure it would not be accepted and I would be laughed at. This happens all the time and I am never ever happy. So the relationship is fraught. Yet, this is the only relationship I know of, professionally, that I have been successful in. Either I have fooled everyone or I am being misled by my own insecurities.
What kind of authors or books have influenced you and your work the most?
Mostly, classical writers, people who have been established for at least one century. These are the writers that I turn to mostly. I think I am the product of ancient Greece and the great historians of ancient Greece, but also of 19th century French, Russian and English authors. Mostly these are very canonical writers and I have not been very interested in reading books by people who are not established. I don’t read contemporary writers and I am not that interested in them.
Oh god who knows! The reason why it was written very fast is because I started writing it at a point in my life when I was already writing another novel and I was having a lot of difficulty writing it because it was a very complex novel. So I put it aside and started writing something that totally seemed like an insignificant piece of writing. I was writing about a house in Italy and that is how it started. Eventually it morphed into something else during this summer when I had nothing else to do, so I spent it writing this book because I had to go back to the book that I was writing before it, for which I had also received a significant advance. So I needed to get Call Me By Your Name out of my way as fast as I could and I did. I had no idea that I was going to write a novel and that it was going to be this long.
It is commonly known that you wrote Call Me By Your Name in a very short span of time. What was your writing process like?
“CMBYN is made up of some random pieces of my past and are not really thought through. It is actually a good thing I didn’t think it through because otherwise it would have become a very laborious book.”
How did you find the characters of Elio and Oliver along the way?
I really don’t know! I am not sure I found them to be honest. I mean Elio’s father Samy is very much like me, Elio has my kind of personality though at the age of 17 I was not in love with someone aged 24, so there was nothing really that had happened to me that is there in the story. Though, all the cities of Italy and spaces are taken from actual small cities that I know and love. So it is made up of some random pieces of my past and are not really thought through. It is actually a good thing I didn’t think it through because otherwise it would have become a very laborious book. I just put everything together and just went with it. Like the scene at the Piazza where there is a monument, I just decided that there will be a monument of a battle and then I just thought which battle. One thing led to the other and so, I came up with the characters, I really don’t know how exactly.
What was your experience like, watching you work come alive on screen?
I think I always say this, I am one of the very few writers who adore the film that was made from their books. I love the film and I think that it made me very happy to see that things that I had cooked up in rather great haste being put on the great screen. It was a lovely feeling to see that that things that came out of your head had suddenly been given flesh and blood on screen, being applauded and cried over by the whole audience. It is very gratifying really.
You also make an appearance in the film. What was the story behind that?
I had no idea I was going to be in the film. They just told me to come over to the set while I was going to be in Italy anyway. So I went to the set and the next thing I know is them saying that we need to take your measurements for a suit which they put me in later. I had a great time doing it because I didn’t take it seriously. I thought they would eventually cut the scene anyway but they kept it!
What propelled you to finally to pen down the sequel to the book after all these years?
I always was going to do a sequel, it just wasn’t coming through because it felt like I was writing Call Me By Your Name all over again. At some point I just stopped and threw everything out and I am glad I did because eventually I became interested in the relationship between Samy and Miranda. Once I had that down, I decided that this man is going to meet his son, Elio, in Rome. After this was done, everything else just fell into place. It allowed me to go and see later what Elio was doing in Paris and what Oliver was doing in New York City. Eventually both of them had to come together.
The four sections of the book are all based in a particular city topologically, that are Rome, Paris, New York and Alexandria. Could you tell us a little bit about the significance of these cities?
They are all cities that I have loved and I have lived in, so part of me is imprinted on each one and it is always a pleasure to write about them because it is my way of revisting those cities without going through the trouble of taking a plane and going through security and all those things to visit them. I don’t like to travel that much but to be able to travel in my head was very wonderful and to base these characters in these cities was particularly important to me. Bringing Elio and Oliver together in Alexandria was my way of coming back home as it were since it is my hometown.
In the last section, there is a line that Elio says about his relationship with Oliver which is, ‘our years between then and now were but a hiccup in that long itinerary called time.’ Time is an important thematic concern in this novel. How challenging was it to write about Elio and Oliver while navigating the aftereffects of the vast amount of time that had passed by before their reunion?
Well, part of the book was an attempt to explain, as I like to say, that time is happening to them. They are both conscious that a lot of time has gone by but that certain things have not been necessarily touched by time. They have changed, they have aged, yet something of their early years has remained with them. I believe this is in fact true because certain things in our life don’t go away and stay the same, as if we have not moved from them at all. This is why the vigils in the novel are very important because they are an attempt to restore time. It is not easy to write about time because the temptation is to become ponderous and philosophical and I did not want to do that yet it is important to address it somehow. Perhaps my way was to use the characters who always mention it in passing. Always in passing and never frontally.
“I didn’t want to write too long about their reunion and the steps and the missteps in the reunion. It is not the kind of writing that I do.”
In the last section, Elio also says that the little Oliver, the son of Samy and Miranda, is like his and Oliver’s child. What was your intention behind this little detail?
Oh I love that little child. First of all I love children, I have three sons and I love them very very much. I think that little boy is like a symbol, a hand-down from the father to the two of them, saying that I approve of your love, I am sorry that I am not going to be here to watch the two of you but in my place there is going to be this child, who is going to be like your child because you will be taking care of him. The theme of legacy of one person passing through his son or daughter is a perennial theme of the book and you see it repeated time and time again.
The ending of the book leaves us with a very short glimpse of Elio and Oliver’s reunion. What was the purpose of ending the book the way you did?
I didn’t want to write too long about their reunion and the steps and the missteps in the reunion. It is not the kind of writing that I do. I wanted them to basically feel the dislocation that each feels when they’re together initially. In other words they are trying to bond too fast and that does not happen. You really only need two pages for that. I wanted it to happen fast and I am sure my readers wanted me to dwell a lot further in their reunion but for me, and in the end I write for me, it was enough. The sense of the awkwardness that they felt in bed, they end up sleeping because nothing was going to help them and then when they wake up, have breakfast together and meet the little boy, and that’s good enough.
Will we see this book translated on the big screen as well?
I wish, I hope, I would love it, but nobody has made the foggiest mention of possibly being interested. I am waiting. I would love to be involved this time as well.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
I have been working on a very strange story that is finished and will appear on Audible, a novella about the transmigration of souls and what happens when two people meet who have basically had different lifetimes before them.
Text Nidhi Verma