Steven Winn: Good evening. Welcome to you all. I’m Steven Winn and I’m very happy to be here, and you all should be especially happy to be here, cause you’re basically on half-price tickets tonight. You’re getting two authors for the price of one. So, looking forward to this evening very much.
André Aciman is the author of “Call Me By Your Name,” as you all know, I’m sure, and its just published sequel, “Find Me,” for those of you dying to know what happens to Oliver and Elio. He’s al–his other books include “Eight White Knights,” “Enigma Variations,” and “Out of Egypt: a memoir.” He was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and lives in teaches now in New York City.
Our other guest tonight is San Francisco hometown hero, Andrew Sean Greer. The home team always gets the applause. He’s the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Less,” the international picaresque of a mid-level middle-aged writer, named, appropriately, Arthur Less. His other books include “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” “The Story of a Marriage,” and “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.”
Please welcome André and Andrew.
Well, thanks to you both for being here. I want to start with this sort of meta-moment. I was rereading “Less” and came upon this passage.
“What does anyone ever ask an author except ‘how?’ And the answer, as Less well knows, is obvious: ‘beats me.'”
I hope I don’t have to ask the how question tonight.
Andrew Sean Greer: I’m sorry, yeah. The interview is done.
Steven Winn: I know, we might as well pack up and go home. We’re all done with that.
Let me ask both of you a little bit about being interviewed and how that experience has maybe changed for both of you because of big events in the lives, in your lives, and the lives of your books. Andrew, winning the Pulitzer, and of course the movie, which brought you, André, I think we can safely say, renewed attention on a grander scale.
Let me ask you both how life has changed for you in terms of–well, personally, and also about how it’s inflected the way you are in public, in the way you talk about, or the way you relate to the public about your works?
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh my gosh. Well, I don’t have a Hollywood connection, so it’s a little different probably. I bought this jacket. That’s what happened. That’s about it.
Steven Winn: And we imagine you can afford it.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. It was, I… I remember–the person who told me I won the Pulitzer Prize was Michael Chabon, cause he had–I saw a message on my phone. Like five from him and his family.
Steven Winn: Was it a screenshot of the front page of the Chronicle?
Andrew Sean Greer: Yes, it was. Yeah. Yeah. And I talked with, I was like, “what’s happened?” And he said, “now you can–there’s no downside. Now you can write anything you want.” And I thought, “there’s always a downside.” C’mon, you’re Michael Chabon. Probably not for you.
But there wasn’t a downside. That was the thing. Yeah. It, I think what changed is I actually had to–probably I got a little full of myself for, my family’s here, so they will agree with this, that the following Christmas I was insufferable.
And then I realized that actually now it was weird. Like I was a weird person for other writers to meet who hadn’t met me, cause I was this weird thing. And that I had to like reach–present humility in order to talk with like new writers, whereas before they would be like, “could you pass me the cheese?” And now it’d be like, “should we ask him to pass the cheese,” you know, there was like a weird thing that I had to like pull myself together and be a more generous person.
Steven Winn: Well, speaking of meta, there’s actually two things in “Less” that are like weirdly resonant with you winning the Pulitzer. One is that one of your characters wins the Pulitzer, and the other is that someone advises Less, you should never win a prize because you’ll never write something, you’ll never write anything again.
Andrew Sean Greer: Well I didn’t know then did I?
Steven Winn: I mean, did either of those things sort of weirdly echo for you when, at some point?
Andrew Sean Greer: I sure didn’t put it in, the Pulitzer, in the book because I thought it would get me a Pulitzer.
Steven Winn: I said, echo, not predict.
Andrew Sean Greer: Like some witchcraft of my magic book.
Steven Winn: If only it were that easy.
André Aciman: He had the pronunciation of Pulitzer played on.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah.
Steven Winn: That was good.
Andrew Sean Greer: Pull it, sir. That is from their website that like it is pronounced “pull it comma, sir.” I’m like, Oh, Oh, is it? Yeah.
Steven Winn: There’s a reason to win. To know how to pronounce it. Yeah.
André, for you, the movie is the, is I guess somewhat of the parallel event in your recent life. How was that?
André Aciman: The movie, I think I’m one of the very few writers who has liked the film that was drawn from the book. But by and large, I don’t think it has changed anything. A film is nice. I mean, it’s nice to have a film done. And people buy your book because of the film, which is a nice thing too. And then they buy the next book, as well, because of the film of the previous book.
But by and large, I don’t let it change anything. I don’t want it to. I’m sort of going on my business, as everything else. I mean, I teach graduate students and we discuss very sophisticated issues, and as they’re staring at me in the seminar room, I know what they’re thinking: “he’s the guy who wrote the peach scene.”
So that has changed, because everywhere I go, I see peach, peach, peach. But by and large, it has not changed anything I do. I still do the laundry. I still do everything the same way.
Steven Winn: Let’s hope it’s not in the first sentence of your obituary. The peach scene…
André Aciman: I think it’s going to be there.
Steven Winn: Maybe the second page.
André Aciman: On my tombstone. Peaches are crying.
Andrew Sean Greer: People will come and just leave a peach.
André Aciman: Yes. We were here.
Steven Winn: I guess I should have asked if it’s changed your relationship to peaches over the years.
André Aciman: I think I’m not allowed to get close to peaches.
Steven Winn: Well, one thing that people may not know is that, “Call Me By Your Name” was actually published 10 years before the movie came about. I think people, maybe people assume that, you know, it was a quick turnaround and it was a hot book turned into a hot movie property, but it went along and it was sort of a decent, was selling decently, it had a following. But…
André Aciman: It did. Yeah.
Steven Winn: And when did the movie start to percolate, or when?
André Aciman: The movie started to percolate almost immediately. I would say within a year of the publication of the book, somebody called me, after having spoken to my agent, and they said “we’d like to make a movie.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a great idea.”
And so a couple of things, “they want to make a movie.” So I was just joking about it. I never believed they would ever make a movie. And even when the film was finally released many years later, after many directors sort of optioned it and so on. Finally, they made a movie and they said, “it’s showing at Sundance. I think you should come to Sundance.” I said, “no, it’s too cold.” And I figured I’d see the movie some other time, you know? And then they told me that it was very successful, that people were crying all over the place. I said, “okay, fine. I’ll see it the next time it comes around.”
Steven Winn: So you kept yourself completely clear of the film?
André Aciman: Yes. Yes. I didn’t want to get…
Steven Winn: You never went to the set? You never…
André Aciman: I did go to the set. I was put in the film. I didn’t know I was going to be put in the film, but I was.
Steven Winn: Oh that’s right, of course you were.
André Aciman: And, but I like the idea of–I’ve never been on a film set in my life. So here I was on a set and it was lovely and I was seeing them play the same scenes that I had written, so I was very happy with that. But then I left.
Steven Winn: Were you able to separate, you know, the filmic versions of your characters from the fictional versions of your characters? Was there any kind of cognitive dissonance for you?
André Aciman: No, actually not. I mean, I had never imagined the characters were going to look like Timmy and like Armie. I had no idea that this is how they would look, but, and I didn’t even know who they were, because I don’t go to the cinema, but. Nothing against films, I just don’t go. It’s not that I’m very busy, I just, I don’t go. I don’t like people munching popcorn behind me. But by and large, I saw them and I said, yeah, it’s completely credible. Very credible.
Armie is blonde, and I think that in my mind, Oliver was probably very blonde. And I had never decided whether Elio was going to be either dark skinned or dark hair or sort of fair-haired. I didn’t know. Hadn’t decided–I don’t care about those things actually, so I let the director do it. It worked perfectly for me. And I think the father was absolutely magnificent.
Steven Winn: I suppose this is a bit of a how question, for which I apologize, but in your original conception, I’ve read, you were originally thinking that Oliver was going to be a female character.
André Aciman: Yes. He was, he was going to be a she. No, that doesn’t sound right. No, I wanted–because I really wrote the book because I wanted to be in a house in Italy, and that was the initial sort of beckoning thing. Because I was going to go to Italy to rent a house and we didn’t go that year. So I figured I’m going to write about a house. And then I said, who’s going to be in the house? I don’t know. And eventually I decided, boy, girl, but then I said, boy, girl, it’s too obvious. Everybody’s done it. I have nothing to say. So I said, boy, boy. Okay, let’s see what that does. And I just went with that. And it had its own life. I had no idea what I was doing.
Steven Winn: Once you’d settled on that, did the book sort of come relatively easily?
André Aciman: Very easily, extremely easily. It’s like my subconscious was sort of being exposed. And I was–it was finished in three and a half months, so…
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh my God.
André Aciman: It was, there was absolutely–but I had another book to write, which I was overdue on, and therefore I wanted to get this done fast enough and just get it out of the way. And when you don’t take something very seriously, you probably do your best work that way.
Steven Winn: Prescription for success. Andy…
Andrew Sean Greer: Who knows? That’s his answer. Who knows?
Steven Winn: Who knows, exactly right.
Andrew Sean Greer: Like you can’t take that and write your own book from it.
Steven Winn: “Less” did not come in three and a half months, I take it.
Andrew Sean Greer: No, it didn’t. But once I figured out what I actually wanted to do, it came really easily.
Steven Winn: Didn’t you, like your hero, have a book that you were struggling with, that being this book, and that you were somewhat recasting it? Is there a…
Andrew Sean Greer: You’re blowing my mind. Yeah. Yeah. I was struggling for like a year and a half with a very poignant novel about a 50ish gay man in San Francisco with poignancies. And I couldn’t stand him. I couldn’t stand him. And it was, it was sort of, I was basing it on the “Chéri,” the novel by Colette, and I was like, “I’ll write a gay ‘Chéri.'” And which was, turned out not to be a good idea.
Steven Winn: So disliking the book you were writing and disliking the character you were writing, why didn’t you dump it? Why?
Andrew Sean Greer: I’m very tenacious about something, and I didn’t have another idea. Yeah. I’m not one of those writers that are like, “I don’t have enough time for all the ideas I have.” I’m like, “I have plenty of time and no–I got the one, so I have to turn it around and around,” you know. It’s like a grad student who has only so much furniture and they’re like, and “we’ll just put it there. What about there? How does that look?” You know, I’m limited.
But I was, I’m happy to belong to the dolphins swimming club. Is Hal here? Yeah, alright, Hal. Hal is here. In the sauna today, he said he was coming, so I’m glad you made it. And it’s a crazy thing where you go swimming in cold water. And I was out there swimming one day and it struck me, the only way to do it was to make fun of him instead of feeling sorry, being with him. Yeah.
Steven Winn: Have either of you ever abandoned a book partway through?
André Aciman: Oh, yes. It’s a good thing I’ve done that. They’re terrible books. I know how to sort of cut loose appendages very easily.
Steven Winn: And not feel sort of regret for the lost time or the…I just do it and pull it off or…
André Aciman: No it just wasn’t working. It’s not good. It’s not, so should just, just put it away.
Steven Winn: How far in?
André Aciman: Oh, you can be quite a bit in. You could be even a hundred pages in, and say, “this is not going anywhere, I don’t like it, and I don’t find any way to salvage it, so I’m going to just start something else.” Yeah. You hope there’s something else.
Steven Winn: And that’s not happened for you?
Andrew Sean Greer: In a way. You know, I’m just, again, the new book I’m working on, I abandoned the first version of it, but now it, I seem to have just remade the same book with different characters and plot and point of view. I don’t know if that’s–that’s like throwing it away, isn’t it? Yeah.
Steven Winn: Or writing between the lines or something.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. I do remember for a book, “Story of a Marriage,” I had a really hard time and I wanted to throw it away. I called up our agent and I said, “I want to give back the advance.” And she said, “I think you’re reacting strongly to the editing process.”
André Aciman: Oh, I can just see her saying that.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. That was, she said it very, very clearly. And I was at a dinner party that was–this is so glamorous. It was, it was A. M. Homes, and it was Michael Chabon’s house. And I said, “I want to give up my novel.” And Michael said, “give it up. Give up the novel.” Because he’d done it with a book, “Fountain City,” and then he wrote “Wonder Boys,” in three months or something, less. And then A. M. Homes said, “don’t give it up. Do it anyway. I have written books that came out easily and ones that were really hard and the readers can’t tell the difference and I won’t tell you which is which.” Yeah. So I took her advice somehow? Yeah.
Steven Winn: You’ve both written multiple books, does it get easier or is each one its own…
Andrew Sean Greer: No.
Steven Winn: Mountain that you’ve never seen before?
André Aciman: No, it’s always difficult. It’s actually, it’s horrible. You say, “why am I doing this? I’d rather go and play tennis,” which I don’t do anymore, because of my knees. But yeah, I’d love to do other things. But it’s always difficult. But it sits with you. It doesn’t let go of you. So you, you’re constantly saying, “Oh, maybe we should do that, maybe I should write this. Maybe I should just do…” You want to be freed of it, but you can’t.
Andrew Sean Greer: It’s the awful, like when you actually finally finish it and go through and it’s the way you want, and then you’re like, finally, I have made the thing in my head after much struggle, and then the next day, you’re empty again and you start, you think, I’ll never write another book. And then, you start, it is awful. I mean, no one should feel sorry for either of us.
Steven Winn: It sounds apocryphal, but I think wasn’t it the case with Trollope who wrote, you know, 40,000 words a day, that he literally would finish a book in the morning and start the next one in the afternoon or some…? It seems apocryphal, but…
Andrew Sean Greer: I have watched Daniel Handler do that in a cafe. He was like “the end.” Next page, yellow legal pad. Duh duh duh duh duh. I was like, “Oh my God.” Some people I think can do that.
Steven Winn: Our very own Trollope.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah.
Steven Winn: There’s a line, one of the characters in “Call Me By Your Name,” Marcia, I think that’s her, how her name is pronounced. She says this: “people who read are hiders. They hide who they are. They don’t always like who they are.”
Is that true about writers also? Do writers hide in their work? Do they reveal or conceal or is it some combination of both?
André Aciman: I like the last part of that statement. People who read like to be by themselves because they don’t like who they are, or they don’t like themselves very much. And I think this is true of every person on this planet. We don’t really like ourselves that much. Oh, we claim we do. We claim we accept who we are. I like who I am. I like what I do. I like this. I like that. Frankly, you don’t.
Steven Winn: You’re in San Francisco. We all love ourselves here.
André Aciman: I know you guys have, you have a blessing here. I should take some of what is, whatever it is that you consume. But I do think that people who read are putting something between themselves and others, but that’s what we do. All of us, in our professions, in everything we do, we put the profession, the whatever it is, the vocation, we put our families between who we are and the world out there, so that we at least have a kind of trajectory between ourselves and the rest of life. And we put things between us. It’s very seldom that you have a person who will put nothing between himself and the rest of the world.
Steven Winn: Does that chime for you at all?
Andrew Sean Greer: I’m just thinking about your new book where it seems to be a book about people who aren’t doing that, consistently.
André Aciman: Not consistently.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. But you get moments of incredible vulnerability and surprise.
André Aciman: Yeah. But we were all…
Andrew Sean Greer: It’s for sale outside.
André Aciman: Oh, I didn’t know.
Steven Winn: Well I was actually thinking about the first book, when you were saying about, “Call Me By Your Name,” that the rawness and the lack of things between the characters in that book, certainly the lovers, is an incredibly raw and rough… I mean, it’s a book about young love, which I think we remember fondly through rose colored glasses.
One of the things that the book does so well, I think, is talk about the violence and the real sort of emotional brutality of young love in some ways. The father in that great conversation at the end, which is perhaps even more effective in the novel than it is in the film. And it’s certainly effective in the film. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone else.”
Talk about, a little bit, about that, about writing, about love between two young people and how–I mean, Elio says at one point, “I wanted Oliver dead, so that if I couldn’t stop thinking about him and worrying about when the next time I’d see him, at least his death would put an end to it.”
André Aciman: Oh, we do that when we love someone. You want them dead because at least that’s one way of knowing how to manage the emotions that you feel. But the kind of love that I wanted to portray is a love that is so totally uninhibited and unashamed of what it wants. There are scenes in the book where clearly, if you are a bashful person, you wouldn’t do those things that they do. But if you are bashful, it means that you’re also putting an impediment between yourself and the intimacy that you’re seeking from someone else and that you’re willing to offer.
So I always think that shame, which is this kind of thing that we all talk about, but it’s extremely deep and it basically dominates everything we do and say to other people. Shame is something that is an obstruction to intimacy. And so in the new book, I have a scene where a woman will confess some things that she’s very ashamed of, because she says, “after that, I have nothing to hide from you. I may have other things to hide later on, but right now, that’s the one that I’d never confessed to anyone, and I’m going to confess it to you.”
Steven Winn: Now, we certainly won’t give it away, but it’s a very powerful scene. There’s a different temperature to the second book. I mean, the first book ends, the last 20 pages or so end, with a kind of scaffold of where Oliver and Elio might go. It projects them forward 15, 20 years at one point. Did you, in writing that, were you conscious or semi-conscious that you were going to revisit these characters?
André Aciman: That’s a complicated question, but it’s a good one and a fair one.
When I was writing “Call Me By Your Name,” I had to finish very fast. And so one of the ways in which I was seeking some form of closure is by projecting who they would be in 10, 15, 20 years.
Steven Winn: You thought of it sort of as, sort of the coda?
André Aciman: It was a coda, yes. It was basically a way of closing the story, which I didn’t have time to really flesh out. I just didn’t have the time. And eventually, a few years later after I finished the subsequent book, I went back to and was trying to write about Elio in his twenties, you know, what, who is he and how much does he pine for Oliver still, etc., etc. And I realized after many attempts that this was not going to work. Having Elio longing for and still having a life was actually boring. It was boring me.
Steven Winn: And just to clarify, was this–this was before the film?
André Aciman: This is, oh yeah. Way before the film. Long before the film.
Steven Winn: So several years after the book came out. And you, you, you…
André Aciman: I tried to revisit the book because I knew I had to fill those years up. And then I abandoned the whole thing. It was not just, it wasn’t going to work. That’s one of the things that you just throw aside and you say, “I’m never going to do this again.” But then…
Steven Winn: You tried to write some of it though.
André Aciman: I did. I did try to write, and actually I would say about two, two and a half years later. But it just wasn’t working. So eventually at some point I was on a train and I ran into this woman on the train and she had a dog and she said she was going to go to the bathroom and would I mind holding the dog for her. And I said, fine. She was absolutely beautiful and gorgeous actually. And so, and she got off the train two stops later.
And right away I decided I’m going to write something about her. And I basically, I had no idea that this was going to be Elio’s father, but I was just going with that, and just writing about a man who’s met a woman and who is going to be meeting someone else. Not necessarily Elio. But that all morphed over time into something else. And at some point I said he’s going to go and meet someone very important. It’s his son. And I only know of one father in my fiction, and it’s that. So, Oh my God, this is all making sense. It all came together that way.
Steven Winn: You didn’t have to go for a cold swim for this to happen.
André Aciman: No, I don’t. I don’t. No, no, no, no. I can’t think when I do anything else. So.
Steven Winn: Again to, just to return to this idea of young love, writing about it from the perspective of, you know, someone who, you were in middle age when you were writing that.
André Aciman: I was fifty-four, fifty-three.
Steven Winn: Did that again, I tend to think that we look back on first love with a kind of rosy nostalgia about it. Did you have to cut through any of that or was that accessible to you?
André Aciman: It was very accessible. I don’t think you have to go back to sort of dig out a first love. You can imagine it right there with this–I mean, I think our libido is not attenuated in any way. When you get old, it’s still there. My father certainly had it at the age of 90 so, and he made no secret of it to my mother. So.
Steven Winn: So I’ve read.
André Aciman: Yes. So no. So that’s the example I have in my own life. So, but essentially I didn’t have to go back and recollect and recreate something that had happened to me when I was younger. No, it was just instantly I recognize what it is and I felt it as I was writing.
Steven Winn: I’m thinking about Less, a line that he has. “How can so many things become a bore by middle age, but heartbreak keeps its sting?”
André Aciman: Yeah.
Andrew Sean Greer: Okay. There it is.
Yeah. I mean, I think what that book did for me, and I’m sure for a lot of people in the audience was it was so–it didn’t touch on anything I remember, because it was the kind of first passion I wish I’d had. You know? With all the complexities and not ending the ideal way, but it just felt like it was, seemed like some kind of wish fulfillment for me to read that, because it hadn’t been in my life. And I think that I was just, it’s so moving.
Steven Winn: Did you, Andrew, read the father’s response to the, his, that speech that he gives his son, or that talk he has with his son, as tinged with the kind of regret or the wistfulness or the something that he, that the father might’ve missed that as well?
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. I mean, that’s how I read it.
Steven Winn: Yeah. Fair reading, or is that..?
André Aciman: There are two readings and both readings are equally valid, though I think the second one is better because I didn’t make it up. It’s the audience that gave it to me. It’s, you know, there’s a moment in which the father says wistfully and, says you know, “I could have had what you’ve had, but it never happened. Something always got in the way.” And the kid asks his dad at that moment, “does mom know?”
And when I wrote the scene, it was, “does mom know that Oliver and I were sleeping together?” But after the way it was delivered, and the words are the same, but it was delivered slightly differently by Michael Stuhlbarg. People think “does mom know,” and people think what it really means is “does mom know that you could have been gay?”
And I said, “you know what, I never thought of that, but that makes perfect sense. So thank you for that. I’ll log it in.” And readers always provide information that you were totally not privy to, and it turns out to be much better than the one you had concocted.
Steven Winn: Well, I mean, you know, it’s true about great writing, is that it doesn’t submit to a single reading. All great writing, I think, is like that, that we can read as if it’s a translucency. There’s this way to read it, and there’s this way behind that to read it. And…
André Aciman: Yeah but do you know, how many authors do you know who do that? There’s my way, and then there’s no other way at all. Most authors are like that I think.
Steven Winn: I had an author who shall remain nameless, who once said–well, I don’t know why I’m keeping it nameless, he’s dead anyway. But I asked him if his characters or his books ever seem to have a will of their own, or if they had some volition, or that they, that he was surprised–never. He was never surprised by anything that happened. He knew from day one, you know page one through page three-fifty, exactly where it’s going.
André Aciman: Are you that way?
Andrew Sean Greer: No. Who is it? Come on now. It starts with a…
Steven Winn: Initials HK. He was, he’s a mys…He’s sort of, it was Henning Mankell. Why am I hiding?
Andrew Sean Greer: Okay, thank you.
Steven Winn: But he was absolutely adamant about it, and almost all writers say that’s not the case. That they’re writers, that their books, their characters do surprise them and say things that they don’t fully… Would you both?
Andrew Sean Greer: I mean, I don’t think of them–I’m not very spiritual about the writing process, but I do think that I’m really bad at getting to it when I make an outline. And the older I get, the more I don’t outline and I just walk into the abyss and try to take all the wrong paths before I find the right one and move to the next, you know, move that way, which is very inefficient. But it’s actually faster than when I follow my plan and then have to throw it all away and start again. Does that make sense?
André Aciman: Outlines are horrible things. I cannot write with an outline.
Steven Winn: Were there books that you wrote that way, the hard way, before you hit on this?
Andrew Sean Greer: Which way’s the harder way to you?
Steven Winn: The outlining way.
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I think like “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” I outlined the whole thing and then I–but then I threw away the first 200 pages because I got to a scene when I was like, “or we start here.” And it took a week of like, what am I, what, you know, and then finally I was like, “okay. It took you this long to get here, so you can throw them away.”
Steven Winn: One of the fun things about about preparing to do these interviews is all the stuff that you learn. When that book came out, or when you were being prepared, apparently you didn’t know that Fitzgerald had written a book called “Benjamin Button.”
Andrew Sean Greer: I didn’t.
Steven Winn: Nor that Brad Pitt was about to make a movie.
Andrew Sean Greer: Well he wasn’t in it yet. Yeah. Yeah. No, no. I didn’t know any of it because also we weren’t such Googlers back then. You know I did, after I’d finished the draft and turned it in to my editor, I was like, “I’m just going to, what’s this Google thing. I’m going to look up on Alta Vista,” or whatever it was. It used to be Alta Vista. Remember Alta Vista?
Steven Winn: Ask Jeeves or something, huh, right.
Andrew Sean Greer: Ask Jeeves, like aging backwards, and then I was like, “no.”
Steven Winn: Just in case we’re keeping anyone in the dark here, both the Fitzgerald story and Andrew’s novel age the character in reverse.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. And then I, so I called my editor and my agent and they’re like, “we’ve never heard of it either. No one’s ever heard of it. It’ll be nothing.” They really did. We were all so naive back then. Could have helped me–if I had Twitter back then, I could have just been, “I have a new idea for a book,” and they would’ve killed it in a second.
Steven Winn: You stay away from such things, do you not? From social media, and you don’t go to the movies you said. And I read you don’t read magazines either.
André Aciman: I don’t read magazines. I don’t do anything.
Steven Winn: You write a few books. And you teach graduate students.
André Aciman: Yes. Who think about peaches all the time. No, I mean, I, you know, I try to read things, but, and I was a voracious reader when I was very young. But I never read magazines. I never liked magazines. And, otherwise–I publish in them and they’re very nice to me sometimes. And sometimes they’re not nice to me. But by and large, my world is sort of very reclusive. I mean, I have friends.
Steven Winn: We’re relieved, we were getting worried about you there.
André Aciman: Well, there’s reasons to be worried, there’s no question. No, but I have lots of friends and wonderful people, and one of the reasons why I will never move elsewhere than New York is because what do, how do I, I can’t make new friends. I like the friends I have and I want them to visit me. And if I live abroad, they won’t come. Or they’ll come once a year or every two years and say, that’s it.
But by and large, it’s the social media, I’m not even good at it. So, I don’t like to do things like that. And, although, I do consult Google almost on the hour every day. I mean, I’m sure I do. Constantly, words, whatever it is, little factoids that you want to check.
Steven Winn: Impossible not to. Yeah. One thing that you do do, is that you teach Proust. That’s one of your specialties, and indeed you were sort of a Proust scholar, and it would seem a missed opportunity not to invite some of your thoughts about Proust, specifically people who may be thinking that they want to read Proust, that they should read Proust, they–what sort of, you know, what sort of advice do you have for the Proust novice who faces one of the great reading experiences of all time, but feels a little bit gun shy of it for some reason.
André Aciman: Shy, reluctant.
Steven Winn: Intimidated.
André Aciman: There’s actually nothing in Proust that you don’t already know. I mean, that’s the funny part. Proust is a man who gives you everything you’ve thought about all your life. You’re familiar with everything he says, except you’ve never focused on these things. He does. And he does it for you, so that as soon as you start reading Proust, you’re really reading yourself. I would always suggest people to read the beginning of a section in the first volume called “Swann in Love.” It is not the beginning of Combray, it’s the middle part. And it’s a story of a love affair that goes very sour. And it’s absolutely brilliant.
It is brilliant. And I’ve taught Proust to graduate students. I’ve taught Proust to college students. And I’ve also taught three volumes to high school students. And because Proust, don’t forget, is always writing about an adolescent. That’s the character. He’s an adolescent. And high school students immediately understand it. They devour it, believe it or not, you know, they devour Marcel Proust. Because they recognize themselves. All the qualms they have, all the questions they have, are there being asked again by Proust.
Steven Winn: And do you care for the new Penguin translation, or…
André Aciman: I do not care about it, for it at all. In fact, I reviewed it and panned it and made an enemy of the person who translated the book.
Steven Winn: There are different translators. Lydia Davis did the first one?
André Aciman: Yes, that’s the one I made an enemy of.
Andrew Sean Greer: That’s the one.
Steven Winn: Okay that’s the enemy. There we go.
André Aciman: Although I think she’s very talented as a writer. I think as a translator, she couldn’t even begin to understand how Proust works. But that’s my impression. And of course I’m right.
Steven Winn: So is the Moncrief translation still the one to read?
André Aciman: Oh, the Moncrief is the most beautiful one, but it’s filled with mistakes. Which are easily forgivable, because you know, it’ll say “she,” instead of saying “he.” I mean, it’s at that level where…
Steven Winn: Those kind of mistakes.
André Aciman: They’re silly mistakes, but the grace of the prose is such that you say, “my God, he’s the closest that the English language can do.” But D. J. Enright is also a very good translator. And I like what he’s done.
Steven Winn: Proust has figured in your life in several ways. He’s–Proust turns up in “Less” at one point. And Proust was invoked in that astonishing wonderful review you got by by John Updike of “Max Tivoli,” in which you were compared to– talk about having a shivery moment when you read that review, or that review was read to you when…
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Proustian, that was the word. Yeah, you’re looking for.
Steven Winn: Was that…
Andrew Sean Greer: Well, I was heavily, I was reading Proust throughout writing “Max Tivoli.” In fact, I’ve taught Proust only once, and I wrote to André and I said, “do I have to use the new translation?” He said, “by no means.”
André Aciman: And so you went and did it anyway.
Andrew Sean Greer: No, no, because I loved the whiff of galacism or something of it. I love it. And I thought, I’m trying to transmit my enthusiasm, and I don’t see why I wouldn’t transmit the thing that I fell in love with. And I don’t know, I haven’t read the French, and I haven’t read the Lydia Davis. I just keep rereading that one. I did–my class was less successful. I started with 40 students and ended up with four.
André Aciman: That’s a good number. That’s a good number.
Andrew Sean Greer: But it was, they were really devoted by–maybe I made a mistake. We did the whole first volume, and it is hard for them at the beginning. We didn’t just do “Swann in Love.” But I thought it was important, all of that. And I wanted them to get the Madeline in the… Anyway.
Steven Winn: Well, as long as we’re talking about Proust, it’s, it seems to me both your new book, André, and yours, Andrew, are both very preoccupied with time. Big, important themes. There’s a line in the new book. “Time is just a wobbly, unreliable metaphor for how we think about life.”
And for Anthony in “Less,” right from the first scene, he’s sort of out of joint with time. He’s 15 minutes off and time just seems–he’s going through these times zones and… Were these things that you were conscious of, these kinds of themes that readers or critics or people like me insist on imposing on. Was time, the musical time in “Find Me,” the…
Andrew Sean Greer: I really liked the part in “Find Me” where, I’m trying to remember which couple it was, where it’s the older man and he says, “when I’m with you, I don’t, I notice your youth, but I don’t notice that I’m old.” And I thought that makes a lot of sense to me. Is noticing someone else’s youth, but there’s a disconnect of that self somehow. And that the feeling that there’s a timeless attraction. And, but that there’s, the youth of this person is different. I just found that so true.
André Aciman: I, what am I going to say? Ah, I think that time is very important in this book. Because there are people who are confronted with their own time and the time of others. And one of the parts that I liked the best is when the father of this woman who’s dying, and he’s not dying, dying, but he’s going to die and he knows it and everybody knows it.
And he says something, you know, “I don’t understand time. I think time doesn’t care how we think of time. We are insignificant to time. Actually, it’s not we who are wrong for time or that time is wrong for us. It may be life itself that is wrong for us.” Which is, it’s a baffling statement.
In other words, life itself is a big issue problem and he’s battling one thing in particular, that he feels that he’s going to die, and that he doesn’t want people to regret him or to miss him or to think of him. What he wants them to do, since life is so cruel, he wants them to finish off whatever project he was working on. To basically extend his life in their own life. To continue doing what he would have done had he stayed alive. And I think that is a metaphor that stays throughout the whole book. Everybody has someone else that is basically projecting what it is that they started into the future.
Steven Winn: Hmm. Hmm. Yeah. And again, the musical metaphors that run through that, music, of course, is something that exists absolutely in time, rhythmic and all of the way that music is measured. And a line, “music is the unlived life,” at one point.
André Aciman: Yes. It’s because music is so perfect that when we are in touch with music and we understand what Bach was trying to do at that very particular moment, and we don’t always understand, you realize that your life is insignificant. This is significant. What you’ve done, what you want, what you love, is meaningless, because this is perfect. And it is in fact a reminder that the best part of you has not even been lived yet.
Steven Winn: When you’re writing about music, which as you say, is perfection, or operates on this sort of different plane, is there a sense in which language is just simply not adequate to it in some ways?
André Aciman: Yes. Language is a very inadequate tool, and we have to realize that, and particularly writers realize it all the time, which is why you’ve heard us complain. Because language is not, it’s an imperfect tool. You have to basically tame it and make it do things that it was not meant to do. And in fact, every contribution of every author is to essentially change the language that they’ve inherited so that they can make it say what they’re trying to say. And, so how did we start there?
Steven Winn: I’m not sure we’re…Somewhere back in time somewhere.
André Aciman: Yes, yes, yes. You’re right. It’s about time. Of course. Yes.
Steven Winn: Yeah. Let me ask you a little bit about about your past times and what you think both of you, made you writers or moved you in this direction. André, you were raised in Alexandria and I take it numerous languages were spoken in your household, is that right?
André Aciman: Yes.
Steven Winn: And your mother was deaf. Was sign language one of the…?
André Aciman: No, she didn’t even know how to sign.
Steven Winn: She didn’t sign. How did you communicate with her?
André Aciman: She read my lips. And I also learned how to read lips because how we spoke in public. If we were in public and she wanted to say that somebody was an idiot, she would say, and I’d understand perfectly well what she was saying, and I would come back with something similar. And everybody said, “Oh my God, they know how to talk to each other.” “Yes. We were just talking about you.”
Steven Winn: And the other languages that you with or that you heard spoken in Alexandria?
André Aciman: Oh, yes. I mean, there were lots of languages. I grew up in a household that was fundamentally French. They spoke French, but it was an acquired French. So they knew it perfectly, because when you acquire a language, you know it perfectly.
Steven Winn: Wait I’m sorry, I’m not following–acquired in the sense it was a second language?
André Aciman: It was a language that was brought through the schools. And therefore they knew the subjunctive perfectly. Which no French person knows the subjunctive perfectly.
Steven Winn: Or English speaking person either, perhaps.
André Aciman: Well you’d hardly have a subjunctive remaining in English, but in French it’s, you should know how to use it. And my grandmother was perfect, but she had learnt it at school. And her Italian was perfect, and we knew Italian as well. She knew Greek, and I knew some Greek, but I forgot. Arabic was also spoken in the household.
And, but Ladino was the language that was the currency of the family, so that everybody spoke French, they spoke Italian, but eventually when they sort of let loose there, everything about them, it was Ladino that they wanted to speak. It was the language of the heart. And my mother didn’t speak Ladino, she only knew French.
Steven Winn: So do you think that kind of stew of language that you were in growing up had much to do, anything to do with your becoming a writer?
André Aciman: No, I don’t think so. I mean, it, what it did teach me is that whatever language you speak, your voice changes. Whenever, in other words, when I speak English, I have a particular voice. When I speak French, I have a different voice, and I have a different…
Steven Winn: And a different timbre and a different rhythm.
André Aciman: Yes, actually the voice, the register is different. And, which also tells you something more profound, that whichever language you speak, your identity changes. You’re not exactly the same person. So that if you cannot articulate a particular thought in one language, you will revert to another language and therefore change the identity that you have. It’s a constant thing. So you don’t have one identity. You have as many identities as you have languages.
Steven Winn: Well, that’s sounds exactly like what a fiction writer does. Be able to assume different identities.
André Aciman: Yes. Yeah, you could say that. I never thought–.
Steven Winn: But you wouldn’t necessarily.
André Aciman: I’m thinking about, I’m going to think about this tonight.
Andrew Sean Greer: Do you think it lets you, when you’re putting a sentence together, make use of other languages in ways to express it so that you can come up with a sentence that English might–of course you would write it in English, but that you could have access to other words to get at it? Or do you find it doesn’t happen…
André Aciman: Sometimes. Usually my notes, when I take notes down, they’re usually in French or in Italian. They’re never in English. And then I go home and then I sort of chasten the whole thing and make it into English. So for me, the English is the kind of the clean language of…
Andrew Sean Greer: It’s the type-written version.
André Aciman: Yes. Yes, it is. It’s sort of, it’s processed language.
Steven Winn: One of the truly hilarious moments in “Less” is the section in Germany where Anthony’s terrible German is rendered in English.
André Aciman: In English. Right.
Steven Winn: It’s just hilarious. I just wonder how that–is that you?
Andrew Sean Greer: I don’t know any German. I will say I did try to take German when I was living in Berlin. I had like a professorship at the Freie Universität. But, so I took German and I found it hopeless, because it was just like, like I found learning to snowboard, very hard, you know. They kept saying like, “it’s really tough and then, and then you’re great, as long as you get over the first part.” And I’m just like, the first part is the whole–why would I do that? You know? So I gave up on it. Which I found amusing about myself.
And then I was, I wanted to have, he’s traveling around and I thought, well, I don’t want to have other people speaking English in funny accents cause I find that so…
Steven Winn: Labored and…
Andrew Sean Greer: I mean, if someone has learned at least a second language, which is ours, and we don’t make fun of them for that, do we? And it’s also not funny cause it’s a cliché. And then I thought, well.
André Aciman: But you did it perfectly.
Andrew Sean Greer: I wonder what an American sounds like….
André Aciman: No what you did is so perfect, because you put all the words in the right mistaken order.
Andrew Sean Greer: I did try–I’m good at that. Yeah. I’m good at that.
Steven Winn: It sort of reads like, you know, Google Translate gone, you know, mad or something…
Andrew Sean Greer: But that is what I did. I would use Google Translate to translate into German to find the words that would be, one could easily mistake. And then I would make it maybe funnier if I thought there was another way to do it, cause I was like, who cares? But…
Steven Winn: But André’s right, it does have that weird Germanic word order, sort of scrambled in a perfect…
André Aciman: I thought, it fooled me, because I said, “he knows German perfectly.”
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh good.
André Aciman: It fooled me too.
Steven Winn: Then there’s another use for Google Translate. Who knew?
Andrew Sean Greer: Good.
Steven Winn: Writer’s tool.
Andrew Sean Greer: Well, I also, I was in Berlin when I wrote that chapter. So I was hearing German around me all the time, and so I could easily make fun of myself trying to order things.
Steven Winn: Do you both do that, by the way? Is where are you physically or geographically a factor in your writing? Do you always go to the same place, do you go to different places, and do different things happen?
Andrew Sean Greer: I mean, I like to travel…Well, when I’m from the, how am I gonna answer this? I mean, I just took a trip by myself through the American South in a camper van, because I wanted to put part of that in my next book, and I went alone, because I knew that if I were alone, I would not meet people as easily, but I sure would be bored and paying attention to details, which is what I needed to do more than have amazing conversations and stories.
I’ve learned that the hard way. That it actually, the details are very hard for me to make up, so I have to find out how sticky the bar floor is. But that said, we met at Yaddo, the writers artist residency, where you don’t write about Yaddo, you know, you’re in your head. Yeah.
Steven Winn: I want to ask you both about doing research. I mean, the, one of the pleasures of “Max Tivoli” is sort of getting to revisit San Francisco of the 19th and early 20th century. I mean Woodward Gardens, you know, lives in my head now. It’s not just that, what used to be that restaurant under the freeway.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah it was…
Steven Winn: I’ve been there, it was fun. So was doing, is doing research a pleasure for both of you or…?
Andrew Sean Greer: It seems to be necessary for me. I, for “Less,” I actually wrote it in the present tense, in the present day, because my friend Daniel Handler said, “I’m sick of you wasting all this time doing research, why don’t you write a normal book?” So I was like, “yes, sir, I will do that.” You know, he was trying to save me from like the whole of archive stuff.
Steven Winn: All that microfilm.
Andrew Sean Greer: That I had gotten lost in previously. But it turned out that I did research anyway, because I used my travel writing as my research. I just, it felt like it had more depth to me, you know. Those, because I sit and get nervous and start looking at people around me and I, those become novel ideas. And when I sit in San Francisco, it doesn’t quite happen. But then I gather that and then sitting in my home does.
Steven Winn: What about for you André? What’s the…?
André Aciman: There’s a story I can tell you. I was asked by, I used to write for Condé Nast Traveler quite a bit, and they said, “we want you to write about a place that you like.” I said, well, you know, “I can write about Tuscany.” So she said, “great idea.” And I said, “I want to focus on the house of Machiavelli and what happened to Machiavelli, because I’m fascinated by his exile from Florence.” “Perfect.” So, she said, “when do you want to leave?” I said I would leave in the middle of the summer, and, because my family was going to travel with me, we were going to rent a house in Tuscany, which we did almost every year.
And at that point, I began writing the essay, and I called the editor up. I said, “you know, I think I’ve written the whole visit from my little sort of room in Manhattan Avenue and a hundred and ninth street,” and she says, “no, André, you don’t understand. You have to go there.” “But I’ve written the whole thing.”
And in fact, I didn’t change anything. I went there. It was nice to be in Tuscany and having the whole expenses paid. But basically I had used my imagination to examine my disappointment at finding how small Machiavelli’s house was. The scent, the smells of the place and the whole feel of these pine trees and all that stuff. It’s all made up. So I think that the imagination is, for me, I don’t like to consult anything. I seldom look up. I mean, if I want to know how to spell a particular place, I’ll look it up. But by and large, I never, never consult.
Steven Winn: Well, maybe that’s, it’s a good thing you don’t read magazines, cause they’re sort of full of of this meretricious travel writing from people who actually never went to the places that they’re writing about.
André Aciman: Actually, they do go.
Steven Winn: They go.
André Aciman: They do go.
Steven Winn: They go, I know.
André Aciman: And they give you those facts that you say, “Oh my God, this is so brilliant.” But I was once in Bethlehem writing another piece. And I was writing a piece, I was interested in the paradox of Bethlehem being a Christian city in the hands of Muslims. And there’s this Israeli camp outside of Bethlehem. Oh my God, I’ve got my subject made up for me.
And as I’m walking through Bethlehem, I’m with a photographer, and he says, “did you see this guy? He’s wearing no shoes, but he has a cell phone. Did you see this other guy? He has no legs.” Okay. And I’d said, “Oh, yes, of course. No legs. And no shoes. And cell phone.” These are, I don’t see anything, so I needed it to go to process my imagination to come up with something. Otherwise, it just. I’m not a reporter. I don’t know how to do that.
Steven Winn: Before we go to questions, Andrew, I want to ask you a little bit about your past. You were raised in Washington, DC, and your parents were scientists.
Andrew Sean Greer: My mother is here tonight.
Steven Winn: Oh, I love it.
Andrew Sean Greer: Where’s mom?
Steven Winn: Mom? Shout out?
Andrew Sean Greer: Over there. Yeah.
Steven Winn: I may have a perverse fascination with identical twins, but you have one.
Andrew Sean Greer: He’s here tonight too.
Steven Winn: There we go. Or maybe that’s you and you know, or…
Andrew Sean Greer: That’d be, we just take off the mustache.
Steven Winn: Right, exactly. I dunno what I’m asking you about it except, gee, you have an identical twin, who worked for The Onion at one point.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah, he did.
Steven Winn: And you have said recently that one of the things about “Less” was that you sort of found your comic voice. And I wonder if your brother’s having had a comic voice, had anything to do with you…
Andrew Sean Greer: He’s very funny. And my parents are very funny too. But I’m funnier.
Steven Winn: You’re your own funny, right?
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah, no, no. It was, I mean, I think it’s all–I grew up with a funny family and also, I often think of our neighbor, my mom’s best friend, Myrna Cooperstein was where I got my sense of humor, in fact. I found her so dry and wicked, as a local mother in town, as a five year old, you’re like, I can’t–who’s speaking like this? And so I have to thank Myrna Cooperstein.
Steven Winn: Well hats off to Myrna. We’re going to bring up the lights and let you all join the conversation. Now there’ll be two people moving about with microphones, and if you have a question, please raise your hand. And a mic will ideally come to you. As long as it’s a question and not a speech.
City Arts & Lectures: This first question comes to your far left.
Audience Member 1: You both have included intergenerational gay relationships in your books. Do you, can you explain to us why you chose that, and have you given any thought to what is behind such relationships between people who have different generations being in love with each other?
Andrew Sean Greer: André?
André Aciman: Andrew?
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh mine is an easy one, which is, with my first idea, was I was basing this on Colette’s novel “Chéri,” where a 53 year old courtesan, a woman, has a sort of dalliance for years of the 20 year old son of her rival. And I, so I started off with that, and she dismisses him because she’s just his sort of, Nave Scuola, his woman showing him the world. And later to the novel, she realizes that he’s the love of her life and she is his, and that’s a tragedy.
I got their ages a little closer together, but I was interested in how, in same sex relationships, you can have the experience of being certainly the same age, or being the younger and the other one being the older, and then later in life you’re the older and there’s the, like, it just seemed like something I hadn’t seen explored very much and was curious to me. About someone who had been the younger one in a relationship reaching 50 and finding himself on strange footing of having to change his sense of himself.
André Aciman: That’s a good answer.
Andrew Sean Greer: That’s my answer André.
André Aciman: Very good answer. Brilliant answer. I like it.
Andrew Sean Greer: So you’re going to take it?
André Aciman: I’ll borrow it.
Steven Winn: Since you’ve both been writing, do you feel that sort of the–I don’t want to use this term, but it’s lurking under my question a little bit–that there’s some, that there’s a politics of writing about, almost anything, but about same sex relationships that that doesn’t prevail so much in heterosexual relationships? That there’s some–I mean, there’s a, one of the characters in “Less” sort of scolds him, he gets scolded for being a bad gay who makes his characters suffer without reward.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, of course there is. And it’s also why we’re up here today. I think it’s part of why the books are, have been, were exciting for people. And I think it’s because both of us, oddly, did not approach it politically at all. I’m certain that André thought of them as characters, and in fact, secretly my reading, when I first read his book, was, I didn’t think it was a gay book. I thought of it about a story of two people who had a passion, and that they might not later be with other men. It just seemed to be very much specific about these characters. And it’s what I loved about it, because it wasn’t within a context of gayness.
Steven Winn: Yeah, I agree with you completely. And for people who have only seen the movie, and haven’t read the book, it’s really there in the book, it just radiates through the book. I mean, it’s in the movie too, but I think that’s true. Again, going back to the origin story of this book, the fact that it didn’t, you didn’t set out to write a gay story, you set out to write a love story. And the gender identity of the characters was certainly not, it’s certainly germane, but it’s, but it transcends that in a way.
André Aciman: I would hope so. I would hope, I think that all love stories, you know, you should never sort of focus on whether it’s a man man or, woman woman, or man woman, and so on. These are sometimes incidental, as far as I was concerned.
But I do think that the age, to go back to the age question, that’s how the fiction came to me. An older man, a younger woman, or a younger man and an older man in the second story, and so on. It just happens like that. But it’s because, I think, I’ve always been interested in unconditional and sort of unfettered relationships and situations that are not sort of the, what I call the cookie cutter model that we all abide by.
I always think when the question is raised of two 50 year olds meeting on the train and she has a dog and he’s reading a book and she says, “could you hold the dog?” And the, she goes to the bathroom and then they discuss their divorces. They discuss their grandchildren if they have them. And they discuss, and they find that they may have something interesting between them.
That’s not what I was sort of thrilled by. I was thrilled and excited by the possibility of this man who has almost renounced and resigned himself not to have another partner in his life, because he’s divorced, finding someone who at least lets him believe for awhile that she’s interested in him. And lo and behold, she is interested in him and he can’t accept it and he can’t believe it. How thrilling is that? As opposed to the two 50 year olds meeting on the train blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Steven Winn: And watching his defenses that he’s created for himself sort of slowly get eroded in this conversation in the course of the time that they spend to each other.
André Aciman: Yeah. How beautiful is that?
Steven Winn: Yeah, it’s beautifully written. I mean, I know you weren’t seeking that, but it really is something, the first 150 pages of this book. I mean, the whole thing is wonderful, but, and it’s such a surprise to the readers who are coming–I mean, I suppose some readers, maybe you’ve heard this already, that they’ve been disappointed. Like, “this is an outrage, I want to get,” you know. “I want to know what happened to them.”
André Aciman: I’m sorry. Yes. I tell them now, whenever I sign the book, I’ll tell you, “it is not about Elio and Oliver meeting again, because they’re not going to meet. As the story gives it to you in the first volume, they’re never going to meet again until much, much later. So there’s nothing to fill in the blanks here. Okay.” So anyway.
Andrew Sean Greer: It is very satisfying. Ignore what he’s saying. It is, gives you exactly what you want.
André Aciman: Thank you.
Andrew Sean Greer: He is hiding something from you.
Steven Winn: I certainly don’t have the feeling at the end of this book that you’ve, that you have left a door open further, but maybe I’m missing something.
André Aciman: No, I don’t think I have a door. There’s no door. There’s a wall and it’s over.
Steven Winn: Just to clarify. Let’s take another question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from all the way to your right.
Audience Member 2: Hi, my name is Jesse and I’m sorry, my question isn’t the most articulate, but it’s directed for André. You mentioned for “Find Me” that you pulled inspiration when you met a female on a train, and in the book that happens to the character, and I was curious, with “Call Me By Your Name,” did you pull inspiration from any type of relationship or connection you had with somebody for the connection portrayed between Elio and Oliver?
André Aciman: No. But I did borrow many, many things from my own life, transposed and moved around, shifted. And I also stole from other people’s lives. Things that people tell me, stories that people tell me. And of course, the best moments that everybody asks me to write in my own handwriting so that they can have it tattooed on their skin is not even written by me. It’s written by a French woman who died in the fifteen-hundreds.
Okay. So, I mean, basically I steal from everything. And I make up everything. So nothing comes from my own life. The, very little. The wall scene is a scene that I treasure because it means something to me. But it was not with an Oliver.
Steven Winn: Do people mind that answer? I mean, do people–because people feel, get so attached to books, and they feel that the author surely must be, if not identical to the character in some way, so deeply identified with the character that there has to be some tangency, or more of a tangency than you’re suggesting to…
André Aciman: I know people do mind that, and it’s one of the problems of people reading that way, but have you ever read “Crime and Punishment?” How many of you read “Crime and Punishment?” Okay. How many of you think that Doestoevsky had to go and kill the woman, and then kill her sister too, since she was there and she was…And then locked himself in? How many of you, I mean, you don’t have to go kill people.
Steven Winn: You actually might get a few hands raised for that question.
André Aciman: Well, in the States, I think yes, at this point, yes. But anyways, I think that I understand that people want to get a sense that this has been a lived experience. It is lived in the sense that it becomes true because it is coherent and consistent with itself. It has its own coherence and truth value, which may be superior to the–because the truth of a piece of work that has been crafted. It’s over and above ordinary day to day truth.
Steven Winn: We live in an age of memoir, of podcast, of autofiction and so forth. Has it created more of an appetite, do you think, or more of an expectation that the author has to own his or her material in some way? In some…
André Aciman: There are people who feel that way. They’re mistaken, but that’s a different issue.
Steven Winn: Another question?
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from your far left towards the front.
Audience Member 3: Thank you. Hi, thank you. This is for Andrew. This is back to the bad gay writer.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah. That’s me.
Audience Member 3: And I was wondering if you had something of a similar experience, because from after writing “Max Tivoli,” if people were giving you feedback, if people thought that that was somehow a homophobic theme in any way.
Andrew Sean Greer: I did have someone tell me that they thought it was homophobic. And I said, “yeah, I know all about, I took literary criticism, I know exactly what you’re talking about, but that is where the story went.” And I at one point had to go with that, rather than what I would have loved to have happened as a model. But, it didn’t go that way. And I learned an important lesson as a writer, which was that that’s the right instinct, in fact.
André Aciman: Absolutely.
Andrew Sean Greer: And it was, it’s an unpleasant fight within you about what you would love to hold up for, or would you want to leave something very ambiguous? And that’s not always exactly what people want to teach in a course. You know, I know that because I taught those courses, and you know, if they’re muddy, then you have to lead your students through a complexity. So, but muddy is where it’s at.
André Aciman: Do you remember this–there are certain movies where suddenly a good character dies. And you say, “why did he have to die? He was such a nice person.”
And then you say, “why did they kill him off?” Then you find out of course, that he had another contract as an actor. But the point is that sometimes, you know, the creator of the show, of the film, decided that this person has to die. Okay, and it may be a mistake. And people will say, “can you fix it?” And when you think about it, “King Lear,” which is one of the most tragic plays that ever existed, you know, they rewrote it. They rewrote “Othello” as well, in the 18th century, with a happier ending.
Steven Winn: That Lear was performed for decades, if not a century. The Nahum Tate version wasn’t it?
André Aciman: Nahum Tate, that’s right. And so there you have it. I mean, people can change things if they don’t like it. But that’s how it came to me, is the answer that every writer should feel confident giving. This is how I wanted it.
Andrew Sean Greer: Yeah.
Steven Winn: Have you ever, you know, felt the urge to do what would be more palatable, or had to sort of talk yourself down from doing something that would be sort of a, you know, an easier solution, rather than giving your…
André Aciman: No. There are people who would read my manuscript and say, you know, “this scene might have to go, it’s troublesome.” No, I want it there. I seldom insist, but there are times when I have insisted. I said, “no, I want it there.” “But it might create problems.” “I don’t care.”
Steven Winn: Hmm. Hmm. Another question?
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the center of the orchestra.
André Aciman: I feel, this is like Parliament. You have the left, the right.
Steven Winn: They’re out there somewhere.
Audience Member 4: André.
André Aciman: Yes.
Audience Member 4: Do you have any idea–?
André Aciman: Where are you? I don’t see you.
Audience Member 4: I’m hiding.
André Aciman: Okay.
Audience Member 4: Do you have any idea how a poster by Robert Mapplethorpe ended up in Elio’s bedroom?
André Aciman: That was, ask Luca Guadagnino. Because see, there it is again. I’m so not visual. I never described his bedroom. I don’t know what is in his bedroom. But Luca is a very, very visual person. I mean, he’s also, among other things, he’s a home decorator. So, he is, by profession. The whole house, the reason why it’s so brilliantly decorated, is because he is himself the man behind that. Down to the little glasses with chipped china and so on. I don’t know how that poster got there, but it’s a good idea.
Andrew Sean Greer: But it is one of the pleasant things about reading a writer that we only describe a little thing and that it’s more… A reader knows what the characters look like much more than we do.
André Aciman: Yeah, we don’t.
Andrew Sean Greer: I know, that’s odd.
Steven Winn: Yeah, it is. It’s an interesting thing about fiction, about how much the reader is supplying. They’re not just passively receiving the way we, maybe the way we watch a visual medium like film or television more. The reader is really creating along with the writer.
Andrew Sean Greer: That’s why they get, I think you get so attached to it, is because you’ve made up half of it. Theater, I think you do it too.
Steven Winn: Yeah. You’re investing in a different way. Hmm. Another question?
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the back towards the center.
Audience Member 5: My question is for André. I just finished “Find Me,” and one of the concepts that you talk about through the book is the concept of vigils. Can you talk a little bit about that? To me it reminded me of La Madeleine de Proust, and it resonated very strongly, and I think it will resonate with a lot of people. Can you talk about that, that concept of vigil? I had never seen that word used quite in that way. And perhaps both of you can share, if it’s not too personal, what are some of your vigils?
André Aciman: A vigil, in the way that I describe it, refers to some of those, for those of you who have been in old cities, very old cities on the Mediterranean, you have little corners in the little side alleys sometimes, and you have a little alcove that contains a little shrine to the Virgin, and there’s a picture of the Virgin, and there’s a lamp or sometimes a candle. And people pass by, they do the sign of the cross, so they speak to the Virgin and ask something or pray for someone’s health or whatever. And then they go away.
And vigils are–the cities that are constructed so that these parts exist, and Rome is filled with them. And so one of the things that Elio’s father likes to do, is he likes to go to places that he has been to many years before, and just stand in front of them and recollect what it is that happened to him in those years, and sort of try to intimate or to draw a bond between the person he used to be and the person he is now.
We do this all the time when we go visit–I mean, how many of you have visited your old grade school where you went to school, and you walk into the second grade class and you look at it and say, “my God, it hasn’t changed in 20 years, and I could be the kid again.” Of course I can’t. But it’s a nice little game to play. And this is what Elio’s father does.
And what surprises him–and if we had time, I would have read the passage–but there’s a moment in which he walks with Elio in Rome. And Elio says, “I want to take you to the park where I was kissed when I was very drunk and I just thrown up. And I was kissed by Oliver, and he pushed me against the wall, and it was probably the most significant kiss of my life.”
And he says, “that wall is there, there it is, the wall. And if I look at the wall, I’m with Oliver again, and I know that in 20, 30, 40 years, it won’t change. If I speak to the wall, it will speak back to me.” That’s what the spirit of a vigil is.
Steven Winn: I mean, one of the pleasures of this sequel, because it’s not linear, it doesn’t just pick up where “Call Me By Your Name” ends and moves forward, is we get these kinds of sort of chiming moments, and indeed reading that section in “Find Me” just summons back that scene as originally experienced. So we’re sort of seeing it in a kind of parallax view, both through through Elio’s father’s experience of what his son experienced before. So, I mean, again, time is just such a circular, nonlinear force in the book, and those kinds of scenes really drive that home, I think.
André Aciman: Hope so.
Steven Winn: Yeah. Did you have a thought about vigils?
Andrew Sean Greer: No, I was thinking that that maybe there’s an Acimanverse, you know, in which all these characters from his novels live inside. Sorry, I was wool-gathering a little bit.
André Aciman: The books are on sale outside.
Andrew Sean Greer: The books are on sale outside. Can test that theory. But I’m not going to have some personal story if André is not. So no.
Steven Winn: I hope you’re both getting a commission from each other for these book sales. Another question?
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from all the way to the back towards the center.
Audience Member 6: This question is for Andrew. And I think at some point in the book, Arthur Less is flabbergasted because his friend is breaking up with someone, and the friend’s been with this person for like 10 or 20 years. I forget, 20 years. Huge period of time. And he is, he thinks it’s a failure, but then the other person says, and I’m paraphrasing, “the sun is going to implode someday. Would you call the sun a failure? It’s the fucking sun.”
Andrew Sean Greer: That’s your paraphrase? Yeah.
Audience Member 6: Yeah. That is not conventional wisdom. And it’s like fucking deep. How did you, how’d you get the idea?
Andrew Sean Greer: Oh, I know that exactly. There was a writer friend of mine, and we were in Tuscany, where all good things happen, and we were drunk and maybe a little high, and he had just broken up with both his girlfriend and his wife, and he said, “I feel like a failure.” And I’m like, it’s not–and then I sort of said that to him. And I was like, I’m going to write that down.
André Aciman: That was Clark, correct?
Andrew Sean Greer: Yes.
André Aciman: It is Clark, I remember the name.
Andrew Sean Greer: Lewis and Clark. Yeah.
Steven Winn: Are you both with notebooks at all times in case such things..?
Andrew Sean Greer: It doesn’t sound like you are.
André Aciman: I, yeah, I do sometimes. Sometimes I do. I do have a notebook. Usually I like to do it in the subway. Because in the subway, whatever you jot down doesn’t count. It’s written in the subway and it’s kind of… But at the same time, it’s very freeing to be jotting down something without the sense that it has to be fixed now. You just jot down some ideas, you jot down some words, some scene or whatever. Maybe later you pick it up, maybe you won’t, but it, sometimes it comes to you in places that are totally inappropriate. I mean, in the subway you should be reading and not looking at people and not thinking at all.
Steven Winn: It’s another way to avoid eye contact. You look at your notebook instead of the weirdo across the way from you. Yeah. We have time for maybe one more question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is to your left.
Audience Member 7: Hello. Question for André. At several times Elio was rewarded for being bold in his relationships, and his regrets often stem from a lack of boldness in crucial situations. What’s your opinion on boldness, and did you ever consider portraying a story when boldness backfires?
André Aciman: When boldness what?
Steven Winn: Backfires.
André Aciman: Backfires. It comes back to the old sense of is it better to speak or die? You know that sentence that I never wrote, but I quoted it.
Elio is very tentative. He hesitates a lot. He’s even reluctant to do anything about it. He prefers to hint, but he doesn’t really come out and say anything that is declarative enough for him not to be able to backtrack. He always has loopholes in everything he does. And in a sense, I’m the same way, I’ve been the same way.
But there have been moments in life where you have to be bold, because if you do not seize what it is that you want, it will go away and may never come back. And so there is a moment when he decides to visit, at midnight, Oliver’s room. He knows what’s going to happen once he goes in, but he knows he will not be the same Elio coming out again, later that night or later at dawn.
So he says to himself, “do I, why am I afraid if I know that I want this?” And so finally he decides to go ahead and knock at the door. And many of us have had moments in which you walk to a place and you’re about to ring the buzzer, or you’re about to whatever, make the phone call, and you chicken out at the last minute. No. You have to go through with it, you have to do that.
And it doesn’t always come easily for many of us. I think for most of us. Most of us have called people, and when they answer the phone, we’ve hung up. You’re all laughing at me that you know what I’m talking about. And how much safer it was to have the answering machine to leave a message. That was vague. So “if you want, you can call me back. Of course, I would like…” Yeah.
But anyway, I don’t know if I answered your question about boldness.
Steven Winn: Well, I want to thank you both for answering the call completely and thoroughly and engagingly tonight. Thank you both. Both Andrew and André will be in the lobby signing books afterwards, so please join them there.
Andrew Sean Greer: Thank you Steven.