Call Me by Your Name, a love story between two men replete with references to the classics, is not the kind of novel that typically becomes a film. The book, which takes place “somewhere in Italy in the mid-’80s,” focuses on Elio, a bookish 17-year-old who barely knows but is consumed with desire for Oliver, a grad student staying with Elio’s family and working as his father’s assistant. Elio’s narration is full of vivid detail, describing both his emotional state and the acts he and Oliver engage in. Which is why, when he published it in 2007, André Aciman did not expect to see ever a film version. “The book has so much interiority that it made no sense to film it,” he tells Vulture. And yet, ten years later, with the guidance of director Luca Guadagnino, the film is here, receiving rapturous reviews, and bringing attention back, once again, to the novel.
Aciman wrote Call Me by Your Name nearly by accident, while stuck on another project. In early drafts, Elio and Oliver never quite consummated their relationship — until Aciman decided to let the characters have fun. He sent a draft his agent, while still not sure if the idea worked. (Luckily, it did.) Days before the film’s release, Vulture spoke with Aciman over coffee in New York to discuss the book’s legacy, imagining sex acts he never performed, and all of its new fans on Twitter.
What was your response when Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory were attached to the adaptation?
When I heard that Luca was involved, I was extremely happy because I figured, here’s an Italian, he gets it. An Italian would understand, not the major, but the minor subtleties, because the major ones are not that subtle. I had loved I Am Love. There are a few movies that have blown me away that way recently. The other one is In the Mood for Love. I was very happy when this was selected, but I said, “He’s going to change his mind. He’s going to have a better deal.”
What minor subtleties do you think he understood?
Intercepted glances. Glances especially, and looks and expressions that suggest this complexity going on. It would be so easy for a less impactful director, after they have sex the first time, the next morning to exaggerate Elio’s sense of dismay. I figured this man [Guadagnino] is very tactful, and you need a lot of tact in order to convey those moments of intense emotion that have no words.
This is the kind of writing I like to do, which is to always seek out the ambiguity as opposed to the direct wording for things. I hate when something gels into one word — “they are gay” or “they are in love.”
This is a love story between two men, but there isn’t an sense of prejudice against them or of historical context.
I didn’t want villains roaming the streets at night, ready to beat them up. I didn’t want any of that, because it doesn’t always exist, unless you are in a small town in Wyoming or Alabama, where there is this intense prejudice. Thank god we’re in a world where these issues, though they still exist, are receding.
In the book, because it’s all from Elio’s perspective, Oliver also remains an enigma.
He still is to me. There are things that I’ve given and that I needed to have there in place, but I don’t know who he is. I’ve never been in his head. There is a moment in which the mother says, “He’s just a shy kid.” He is shy, but you wouldn’t know from the way he says “later.” You also know that his father might have been a very strict person who didn’t pay for his education, and would have sent him to a correctional facility if he knew that he was gay.
In contrast, Elio is such a bookworm. His grounding is entirely in his books, his world, his knowledge. Is that something that you identified with?
That was me. My father used to tell me, “Why don’t you go out and make friends?” I think I loved books more when I was a teenager than I do now. I used to read all the time, and it was a way of protecting myself. Classical music had the same role. I listened to music all the time while I was reading. You create a universe of high art, which is at the same time something that shields you from the real nuts-and-bolts universe that surrounds us. I never liked the real world.
Elio’s father is so supportive. He has that speech, which makes it into the movie verbatim, where, in a coded way, he talks about his own experience.
Most of the mail I got when the book was published was from people who were in their 60s and 70s saying, “I wish my father had done that because we lived through hell.” Nowadays, it’s not that big of a deal. At least I hope it’s not. But what I wanted to do was to give the parents some kind of subtle road map — this is what you could do. I’m very happy that there was this response. A lot of parents who have seen the movie feel, This is something I can do.
We know, at the end of the novel, that Oliver seems less comfortable with the experience than Elio, but that it still affects him in some way.
He wants to integrate Elio into his family and he says, “Come and visit us.” But then at the very end he goes and visits him. It is not said that he is going to leave. Elio thinks, “Tomorrow when you leave.” He might not be leaving. I wanted it that way. We don’t know.
I did not have this experience while reading the novel, but I know many people who’ve said that the last scene makes them very emotional and that they cry.
They tell me this all the time and it is one of those things that a writer is most baffled by. I never wrote it with the intention or even the supposition that people were going to cry. I thought it was just a moment of vagueness and imagination, but people get very emotional. They start getting emotional when they find out the the girl is dead and that the father has died, and they sense this finality coming up.
In the film, it’s very moving. You see Elio’s face looking at the fire, then the credits come up. I’m the author, I know how it’s going to end, so I’m not supposed to be surprised. But the moment the names came up — it’s the end of the movie, and you haven’t had quite time to process. We have to leave the film, but their love has not been resolved, there’s frustration all over place, and that’s the definition of subtle.
In the book, there are several moment where Elio associates his desire for Oliver with his Jewishness, to the feeling of being in temple as a boy and being “now united with a nation that is forever dispersed,” in one passage. How did you arrive at that association being a driving force for their relationship?
I grew up in Egypt, where there weren’t that many Jews. With another Jew, whether you liked the person or not, there was something that took priority over all your bonds with other people. I wanted the Jewishness to be like a sense of cohesion between them that underscored everything else. If nothing else, there was always going to be this common denominator that they both already shared. I didn’t want it to be a statement. In a sense, it’s bigger than brotherhood. There was a bond already established, and that may have legitimized what came after it.
What do you mean by legitimized?
It made the desire for another man more tolerable to him. Elio’s very frank with himself — “I desire him, I want to sleep with him,” there’s no ambiguity — but to get to that point he must have crossed a few barriers, and the Jewishness allowed him to have done that already.
There is so much about their bodies, and the importance of the body, in the book. For instance, the line, “Whoever said the soul and the body met in the pineal gland was a fool. It’s the asshole, stupid.”
That was one where I said “I’m not going to need that. This is terrible,” because I don’t write that way, normally. But I thought, “It is an important part of the anatomy,” and I stayed with it. There were times when I said, “I’m going to cross it out.” Then I submitted the manuscript, thinking, “Let’s see what they say.” Nobody said anything.
The book is full of physical evidence, too, semen, feces, blood, everything …
I wanted them, for six weeks, to do everything conceivable that’s not disease-oriented. I didn’t want to write a graphic novel, but I didn’t want one where there was so much chasteness that you wouldn’t dare go into it. I wanted to go everywhere.
A lot of people feel that they need to either seem amused in each scene, or they think it’s necessary to express a certain degree of being off-put. I was asked, “How did you come up with the peach scene?” And I said, “You know, I never tried …” Our director said, “I tried it and it worked,” and so did [Timothée] Chalamet. In waste, and in vomit, in all those things that come out of our bodies, there is still room for immediate connection. It’s maybe too immediate, but it’s there, and if you’re looking for intimacy and you want to establish that at every single level, because you’re not going to be together for much longer, then you seize every one of those opportunities.
You wrote Call Me by Your Name very quickly — in four months, was it?
Three to four.
Much shorter than other books you’ve written. At what point when you were writing did you realize it could turn into a novel?
There’s a whole set of emails that I sent to a friend of mine, whom I respect a lot. He has a fantastic sense of humor, and I told him, “I’m writing this book and it started a few days ago and now I’m on page 15.” Two days later I said, “Now I’m on page 30 and I think there’s a lot of sex in it.” I don’t usually write about sex. I’m kind of a person who wouldn’t. By the time I’m on page 50 or 60, I sense, “Okay, this has been a wonderful fantasy, but stop.” Something told me not to stop. I was going to have Oliver disappear in one way or another, so there was not going to be any consummation. I said, “No, I want them to have fun. I want them to be sexual.” When I started the Rome chapter, I had absolutely no sense that this was going to be a book. I still felt like it was just a sloppy fantasy to get away from writing another book that I was having a great deal of trouble writing.
Eventually, when I went to see my agent, I said, “I’ve finished the book. No, it’s not that book, it’s another book.” I said to her, “If you think it’s ridiculous just do not discuss it.” I had no idea that it had any merit whatsoever. She said, “Why would it be ridiculous?” “Well, it’s actually a gay story.” “You wrote a gay story?” I said, “Yes, I did.”
Even on an anatomical level, did you ever worry about describing things accurately?
No. I’m open to so much life and I hear and I absorb things all the time. Even, on any level, I could describe to you the most perfect landscape in Iceland. I can do that.
You’ve just absorbed it?
I just have a good imagination. I can write about positions, sexual things that I’ve never tried. That’s the kind of person I am. She called me the next morning, the agent. “Do you want me to sell this?” I said, “Do you think you can?” Because that’s the kind of person I am, so insecure. She said, “Yes, I think I can.” I said, “Well, go ahead.” The next morning, it was sold.
Luca has talked about he wants to do several more Call Me by Your Name films. Do you feel an ownership over the characters, or do you think, “He can go where he wants?”
I’ve said what I had to say. You want to take over? Fine. Be my guest. I don’t own it. You want me to collaborate with you? I’d love to. I think he’s a great filmmaker, because I’ve seen him film. I watched him filming parts of the novel. He gives latitude. That scene where they confess love. It was filmed many, many times and it was always different. Every single time. There is a certain sense of freedom that he gives, and at the same time he must be very particular.
But a sequel would be wonderful. The problem with a sequel is that you need plot. I don’t know what Luca has in mind. I’m meeting him next week to discuss a possible sequel.
Because the film is coming out, I know a lot of people who are reading the book for the first time. Are the reactions any different now than when it first came out? Is there a different tenor of it?
The first wave was people in advanced middle age. Then for the next decade or so there was always very young readers and now you have all these women. Young women, who are all on Twitter. It’s all young women writing to other young women about this great book. It’s the same thing in Italy, and in Indonesia and the Philippines. I don’t understand it.
Why do you think young women connect with it?
How could I know?
I don’t know.
All humans connect with it, really. But the people that I see on Twitter all the time, all girls.
A lot of Timothée Chalamet fans.
I know. It’s amazing. I don’t follow movies. I wouldn’t know what other movie has a totally new thing who suddenly becomes this idol.
Perhaps people of all sorts can connect to the feeling of people being overwhelmed by emotion, which is so key to the book.
That would a nice answer. I hope that’s the reason, but we’ll see. The way I’m made — the person who wrote this book has to be that way — I am so doubtful and so insecure that I’m always expecting the next shoe to fall.
This interview has been edited and condensed.