André Aciman on writing Call Me by Your Name: 'I fell in love with Elio and Oliver'

The novelist on his famous romance, initially scribbled as a distraction from the novel he was supposed to be writing

I started writing Call Me by Your Name as a diversion. I had absolutely no idea it was going to be a story, much less a novel. One April morning I was dreaming about being in an imaginary Italian villa overlooking the sea. It was a real-estate fantasy: a swimming pool, a tennis court, wonderful family and friends, plus the attendant personnel: a cook, a gardener and a driver. I had even picked the house from a painting by Claude Monet.

All I was doing that morning was scribbling away in my journal before picking up where I’d left off working on an ambitious and challenging novel that I had promised my publisher I’d deliver by 31 December of that year. It was just a distraction. It didn’t “count”. I certainly wasn’t going to give it a second thought past breakfast.

All of it has to do with my personality: I lack the self-confidence that allows so many artists to take themselves and their work seriously. Instead, I am by temperament irresolute. I allow my mind to skid away from demanding projects in search of pleasure, any pleasure, partly because I can’t believe I am actually working on anything that meaningful. No wonder then that, while pursuing an ambitious novel, I should dabble with a few sentences about a house in Italy overlooking the sea. Just a few sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs, maybe even a touch of romance, but certainly not more.

André Aciman: ‘I allow my mind to skid away from demanding projects in search of pleasure.’
André Aciman: ‘I allow my mind to skid away from demanding projects in search of pleasure.’ Photograph: Agenzia Sintesi/Alamy

And yet I found myself writing not a paragraph or two, but four pages that morning. This was fun. Usually, I fuss over every sentence, every clause, every jolting cadence. But here I didn’t have to answer to anyone. All I had to do, which I always loved doing when we rented a house in Tuscany, was imagine lying at the very edge of a swimming pool, one foot dangling in the water, listening to classical music on my earbuds, and quietly allow myself to drift way. Just a few paragraphs, nothing more – I promise.

But as I kept writing about Italy I was not unaware that I was basically turning back the clock by more than three decades to my own childhood growing up in Egypt. Without an Egypt transposed on to the Italian shore, none of Call Me by Your Name would have been possible. The pages I was writing were letting me take my family’s beach home in Egypt, and everyone in it, to Italy. My difficult parents, slightly altered now, were shipped to Italy as well. My late adolescence, which bristled with so many unfulfilled desires, also landed on the Italian shore.

At some point that morning I knew I was on to something. True, I was on a deadline for another novel, but this was irresistible because it was exactly like love. I fell in love with Elio, I fell in love with Oliver, fell in love with their love and with this whole new world I was cobbling together minute by minute. That morning, after showering and getting dressed, I emailed the pages I’d written to my computer at work. I couldn’t think of anything else. I’d give this three, maybe four months, not a day more.

Find Me by André Aciman is published by Faber (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

André Aciman

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