Andre Aciman is an Egyptian Jewish writer living in New York City. He is also a distinguished professor at the City University of New York and has received the Whiting Writers' Award. This acclaimed writer was a Visiting Distinguished Writer at Wesleyan University as well.
SoR: What is your writing and editing style like?
Aciman: I approach everything I say with total and complete mistrust so that I rewrite while I’m writing. I’m constantly changing. It’s not straightforward writing because basically nothing comes naturally to me. It is the most artificial way to say something naturally.
art by Nick Lopergalo
My editors love me because whenever they say “why don’t we change this?” I always say “yes!” I resist an editor 5% of the times but there is a point when I know I’ve said what I wanted to say or discovered what I wanted to say while I was busy saying it. If I arrive at that point, then I won’t listen to an editor’s recommendations. Seldom happens, though.
SoR: What are your thoughts on the riots in Egypt over the military’s hold on power and the stability of the Middle East in general?
Aciman: Is one supposed to be surprised by any of this? I think it is absolutely amazing and fantastic that democracy is desired in those parts of the world but what I find particularly strange is that democracy is always bringing out something regressive in the Middle East. Theirs is a religious culture and it always takes an anti-Israel position which I find abominable. I have no trust over what is happening in the Middle East.
SoR: What motivates you to write?
Aciman: I’m usually after something. One of the reasons I said I discover what I want to say while I’m busy writing it is because writing is my way of finding out what I want to say. I don’t know what I want to say before I write though I may suspect there is something I want to say; it isn’t clear what it is. Writing for me isn’t just communication, it is excavation—otherwise known as thinking.
SoR: What do you feel is the responsibility of the writer and vice versa, the responsibility of the reader?
Aciman: The reader should have fun and I mean anything from simple entertainment to the highest levels of enchantment. The reader needs to be enchanted in one way or another. As far as the writer is concerned, a writer’s commitment is to be as sophisticated as he or she can be - no easy answer, no facile notions, nothing safe. Look for that which has been eluding everyone around you and then attempt to say it
SoR: You teach Proust, edited The Proust Project, and your work is often compared to that of Proust. When much of your work seems to delve into the theme of identity, how do you feel by such a strong association with Proust?
Aciman: He teaches people how to look within. If you tell a reader highly personal things about yourself in a highly crafted manner—i.e. in a manner intended both to highlight what is most intimate to you as well as to reach someone who may never have felt those things before—then the reader will “feel” as though he or she herself had felt those things before. A writer is nothing if he cannot reach a very deep part of the reader.
SoR: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Aciman: I don’t know. There are many reasons why people may be “blocked.” Some people are always fluent therefore they can easily start writing. It just comes to them. Other people are traumatized by the white page or the blank screen. My way of piercing through the block things is to find something desirable in the work I’ve set for myself. You have to fall in love with whatever topic has been given to you. You have to become eroticized by it.
SoR: What do you feel is essential to a “good” story?
Aciman: I don’t know. I’m not interested in stories. Plots never excite me. I prefer introspection. That’s a plot with its own mishaps, its own twists, and its own denouements.
SoR: In Out of Egypt and Call Me By Your Name, I noticed exceptional use of description and imagery and yet in Eight White Nights you barely describe the character of Clara beyond “beautiful.” What are your favorite literary devices and how do you use them to maximize their effect?
Aciman: I was more interested in Clara than most characters in my novels. My favorite characters have something far more interesting than their features. They have a level of energy which I find absolutely attractive. They have the sort of energy I find arresting, threatening, and at the same time compelling. I was more interested in the kind of attitude she had than in the shape of her breast.
SoR: You mentioned in a 2009 New York Times article, “Take away our things and something in us dies.” How do you view the things taken from you and don’t you think that loss is inevitable?
Aciman: There is a world of a difference between losing something and having something stolen from you. Having something taken from you adds an injury to the actual loss and therefore you feel like you can’t overcome it. Losing those small things alters your standing vis-a-vis the world, vis-a-vis life. Our identity, even when we’d like to think of ourselves as non-materialistic, is indissolubly fused to the things we possess. Take away someone’s home, or take away a boy’s bicycle, and you’ve altered him forever.
SoR: What discoveries have you made about yourself through your writing?
Aciman: I discovered I had, among other things, a sense of humor; that my irony wasn’t as biting as I thought it was. I love sentimentalists more than anyone else but never in a straightforward manner. I discovered that I knew how to tell a joke.
SoR: What advice do you have for budding writers out there?
Aciman: If you are young, try not to write about what is immediately around you: i.e. about youth and problems of the young. Get out of your skin and see the world or the people around you from another perspective. Try to understand all people, old people, middle-aged people, yourself in ten years. And stop reading authors who are writing in your day and start reading authors who are already established in previous times.
SoR: Why do you feel contemporary literature lacks the essentially unusual manner of representing humanity that the classics prior to 1850 have mastered?
Aciman: They were fundamentally sophisticated. Nothing about them is straightforward. Their quarrels with life are never straightforward. I find that many contemporary writers lack the depth of wisdom, which is another way of saying the depth of irony. There is something fundamentally complicated in great literature. I want to be told things I always suspected but never knew as opposed to what I can find readily predigested for me in any magazine lying in my dentist’s waiting room.