The original writer of the 2007 novel.
Where did the inspiration come for your first novel, Call Me By Your Name? It’s very hard for an author to know what the inspiration is. The real inspiration is that I saw a picture of a house that I liked a lot, and then I thought of a street lined with pines leading to a private villa and then I imagined a car coming and then I saw myself as a child or as a young man, but more as an early adolescence, then the story sort of took off from there.
The real source of the story might be found in the first tale of Enigma Variations, my latest book, because the boy is 12 and he does have a crush on an older person, and the irony, if irony you want to call it, is that he has absolutely, absolutely no idea of what’s happening to him. He doesn’t know the first thing about sex, let alone gay sex, so he’s totally lost. And in a sense, this was the beginning of the story, I decided to make the young man a bit older, I didn’t want him
to have any inhibitions of the sort that most people go through. And I wanted him to know exactly what he wanted from Oliver.
What were the initial reactions to the
publication of the book? Online you saw it more often, there was some reservation about, ‘How could a married man, who has three children, understand what our life is.’ This is – what is it called now? Cultural appropriation.
I mean there was some version of that going on, without the distinctive name for it. ‘How could he do that’, ‘What does he know.’ Oh my God… What did Shakespeare know about murder? And you can go on and on and on. People who were gay would usually comment back on those sites and say, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s a story about love. It doesn’t have to be about gay or not gay,’ or this or that. Although I do think to sort of counter the disclaimer, this is a gay story. There’s no question about it, yes, it is about love and love exists in all forms on this planet, but if I gave it that particular imposition it means there must have been some gut reality to the tale, the way it came out. I don’t think that this story could have happened this way between a boy and a girl.
How long after publication did the
film start to look likely? I think it took at least seven years. A lot of people wrote to me. Somebody even wrote to me and sent me his musical version of Call Me by Your Name. It had some songs in it that were nicely done. I mean the man really put together a CD of the words that were taken from the book and yet made them into songs. And it wasn’t so bad – but I’m not a musical person. I mean, I don’t like musicals as a rule, so I’m the last person to judge, but I passed that on too and it kind of went nowhere.
What were your thoughts on seeing the
finished movie? Well I knew the story… [Laughs] I like how it was made. I was very nervous about the peach scene, because I just had a feeling they were gonna show a bit too much, and I was going to feel repelled by the thing. And yet they did it extremely well, in a very sort of chaste manner, that at the same time did not cheat what was going on.
But you wrote that scene, it came from
your mind! Well come on, I mean… All the things that come from your mind, do they not repel you sometimes? How could I even have thought of that? I always ask myself where did that come from? [Laughs] I’ve never done anything close, I’ve never fucked a fruit in my whole life [Laughs]. I thought of erasing it when I was writing and I said, ‘No, no it has to stay.’
And the film of course I was expecting... were you going to see semen? Were you going to see him eating the semen? I mean it could be grotesque, and it wasn’t, it was done exceptionally well. And if anything, immediately after that scene it transitions into a moment in which Elio bursts out crying. In the film it’s done so well that you forget the peach, and you see them both embracing each other.
I think Luca had the perfect instinct for this because he realised that actually the story is about emotion and less about the physical acts themselves. Well, let’s say that it becomes about emotion over and above the physical act. And he captures that brilliantly, without being melodramatic in the slightest, because there’s a sense of irony punctuating the whole film.
And there’s also quite a bit of humour, which I don’t remember having in the book, but it was done perfectly in the movie.
Did you visit the set at all? I was invited to visit the set. Part of me felt, ‘What do they want the author on the set for?’ Well there was a reason – they wanted me to play a part. It’s me, and the producer of the film, playing one of the two older gay lovers who show up at the dinner.
I don’t know if you ever read Tintin when you were a boy, and there are those two twins? What I wanted to do was portray gay men the way people have notoriously always portrayed gay men. And I wanted that to be sort of in the background, at the same time that Elio and Oliver were going to sleep together for the first time. So, I wanted that to be there, and
to prove, just to basically if one could wipe the slate clean of any ridiculous incidents that people always made, particularly when I was growing up and I was growing up in the middle east so you can imagine what things were being said. Playing that part was wonderful, I enjoyed it totally, and I thought I was going to be nervous but I wasn’t. We had a great time.
Did you get to see much more of it being
filmed? The thing that moved me the most, is that when I arrived, they picked me up from the airport with my wife and they said, ‘We want you on the set right now.’ I arrive, and they are actually rehearsing and playing the scene that I thought was the most difficult scene to write. Which is the scene when Elio tells Oliver, ‘I know nothing,’ and Oliver says, ‘Do you mean what I think you mean?’ and he says, ‘Yes, I do,’ and it’s the concession scene, and that was very hard to do, because I wanted it to be done in the most subdued manner, the most ambivalent and the most ambiguous manner possible.
So that there was always room for, in case it needed to happen, for retraction. And of course, it didn’t need to be because Oliver responded more or less right away.
Didn’t you think that the fathers speech at the very end was amazing? It’s an amazing, amazing moment in the film. I can’t say I choked up, but I could feel that if I didn’t know this so well, I would have probably been teary eyed, because the fathers speech is a speech that every person wishes their father had told them, and never did. But I was lucky because I had a father like that. But that’s a totally different story.
It’s a very different ending to your
book... It doesn’t forgive you, it doesn’t relent. And I thought it was perfect. In fact, you want to walk out of this movie theatre by yourself. And eventually sort of having a drink with somebody, and basically spill the whole movie as you understood it, but for a few seconds as you’re walking out of the movie, ‘Don’t talk to me, don’t say anything, I’m still there.’
Will there ever be a sequel? No, I wouldn’t, because it would spoil everything, and essentially the book I wrote most recently, Enigma Variations, is really the story of a bisexual man, from his childhood into his late adulthood. And it takes various segments of his life and portrays them and I think that’s a good enough way of having a sequel to this. I don’t even know how the book [Call Me By Your Name] ends, because the book ends in a conditional mood. Which is a way of saying, is Oliver going to stay in house forever? Or is he leaving the next morning? We don’t know. Is Elio with somebody? Is he partnered? Is he married? Is he gay? Is he bi? Is he whatever? I didn’t want to answer any of these things, I didn’t even want to delve into it.