David Cronenberg tells us everything about his first novel “Consumed”
With his very first novel, “Consumed”, mythic film director David Cronenberg has produced a consummate thriller that weaves a heady tale of sex, disease, geopolitics and 3D printing. He spoke to Numéro about its genesis.
Numéro: When did you start writing Consumed?
David Cronenberg: It started as a screenplay around 2008. There was the idea of this French philosophical couple, a sort of naïve North American journalist couple and the apparent murder of the wife from the French philosophical couple, which the journalists had decided they should investigate. But at a certain point I couldn’t continue – sometimes something dies, you just don’t know why. In retrospect I may have romanticized it, but I felt I couldn’t have fulfilled the promise of the premise in movie form. I’d pushed up to the limit of that form, while the novel could give me so much more room to move in terms of complexity and intellectualism.
At what point did you turn to fiction?
There was a phone call from Nicole Winstanley at Penguin Canada. She said, “I’ve seen your movies, I’ve read your screenplays, and I really think you could and should write a novel. Have you thought of that?” Only for about 50 years, actually! I always thought I’d be a novelist, never a film-maker at all. My father was a journalist and a writer – I used to fall asleep to the sound of his typewriter. Our house was full of books, so the idea of writing was very normal to me. Being an author seemed a comfortable and obvious choice.
So how did you end up making films instead?
I was at Toronto University at the time, the New York underground was taking place – Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol… They were making movies on their own. It was the 60s, you know, you’d grab your camera, do your own thing. You didn’t have to go to film school, didn’t have to be part of Hollywood, you just did it! The technology of film was also intriguing. How do you get the sound to synchronize with the picture? People shoot with their iPhones and don’t event think about it because it’s automatically synchronized, but in film it isn’t. I was curious. I literally looked up “camera” and “lens” in the Encyclopædia Britannica and tried to figure out how you do all this stuff. I got a subscription to American Cinematographer Magazine. It was all very exciting, because suddenly I saw how films were made, whereas I hadn’t had a clue before.
What’s the difference between writing a screenplay and a novel?
Turning to literature wasn’t a quick switch, though to me writing has been neither obscure nor intimidating. Screenwriting is very, very different from prose writing. Most of my friends who were aspiring film-makers didn’t know how to write. I felt that I could, because I’d written some short stories that were published in university magazines and for which I even won some prizes. Screenwriting is a very bizarre, hybrid kind of writing, and you’d usually not get high marks for your style. When you get a screenplay that is very fulsome in its prose people say, “Oh God! This guy is a frustrated novelist, he should know he’s writing a screenplay.” In a screenplay you don’t describe the hero in great detail because you’d cast Tom Cruise and he doesn’t look like that. The only thing that goes directly from the screenplay to the screen is the dialogue. If you can write good dialogue, and have some sense of narrative structure, you can be a screenwriter. As for the quality of your prose, forget it! Some famous screenwriters can’t write at all – bad grammar, bad spelling, it’s pathetic! But they’re still good screenwriters. What’s more, there’s the pressure of commercial release versus art release. As time goes by, I realize that to make an unusual or a subversive film is very difficult because it’s extremely hard to find the financing for it, and this consideration comes into play when writing a screenplay.
The minute your book was out, people asked if you would adapt it to the screen. And you said no. Why?
When I directed the opera version of my movie The Fly in Paris, people said, “Obviously, you’ll be wanting screens and stuff.” And I said, “Absolutely not, I’ve made the movie, I don’t want to make it again. So no video trickery, just the complete theatrical experience. I want to do what somebody would have done a century ago doing an opera, using the music, the choreography and so on.” The same goes with the book: I didn’t write it as a template for a film, it doesn’t need a movie to validate it. Five or six producers approached me about adapting Consumed. But I just think of myself as the novelist who is quite happy to sell them the option and the rights. Give me the money and I’ll come to the première!
In fiction you can bring out certain details, like your character who notices that another pronounces “migraine” the British way.
You wouldn’t even get that in a film, or it would last a second. And the American audience wouldn’t understand that that was the English pronunciation. In fiction you can get the richness of detail. The way you can describe reality in depth is the name of the game for me, whether it’s physical, psychological or technological.
Why French? You’d never get that in America – a “public intellectual,” a philosopher who writes books, who’s involved in politics and is a celebrity – it’s quite unique to France.
And then there’s the way you’re able to convey the sense of time.
Yes, the subjectivity of time in fiction is something that beats cinema: the interiority of time, the way your mind slips back and forth in time as you’re experiencing something. To do this in a movie is heavy or precious, and basically very distracting. It’s something you usually avoid unless you’re doing an experimental film where time is the subject. In narrative films, the geological layers of time are usually all translucent. As a writer, you have a fullness of time that would be impossible in cinema. All of my movies are well under two hours. So my feeling about movies is “Get in and do it and get out,” and that served me well enough. But a book’s different: you allow yourself to be slower, you can spend time building your characters, their psychology, going into the intricacies of their relationships. It’s the voluptuous art of the novel: you can be expansive and your reader accepts it!
Who are your influences?
I went through a very long Nabokov period, as well as a very long William Burroughs period. Very different authors, but I admire both nonetheless. One of the problems for me was that I found myself writing pastiches of, let’s say, Nabokov, without being him. I always felt I was doing pseudo-Nabokov or pseudo-Burroughs or pseudo-something. Going into films I found I had no influences. I’m not Brian De Palma who is constantly redoing Hitchcock. With cinema there was no one there oppressing me. Coming back to literature at my age, all these authors feel distant, whatever their influence might have been, and I’ve absorbed so many writers since then, no one is influencing me directly. I’m happy having people say, “Hey, strangely this section reminds me of David Foster Wallace,” or whatever. I’m sure there are many voices in my head. But there’s really no profit for the reader to try to guess the influences.
Why Paris, why this French intellectual power couple?
Obviously Sartre and De Beauvoir are the basic model, transported into the future. And then Aristide Arosteguy [the male philosopher] is kind of a mixture of Sartre and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, because Sartre, even if he had affairs, wasn’t very sexy or sexual either. So I’d cast a voluptuary like Strauss-Kahn if I made it into a film. Why French? You’d never get that in America – a “public intellectual,” a philosopher who writes books, who’s involved in politics and is a celebrity – it’s quite unique to France. Shifting the scene to Paris and Europe made it possible to compare both European and American viewpoints. It’s my version of Henry James. James did the naïve, innocent Americans who come to Europe where they are seduced by the cynical, sophisticated Europeans. Though it doesn’t really hold anymore, and I hadn’t thought of it when I was setting up the characters, it is a nice structure.
There’s also a rogue surgeon experimenting on the human body. Merging the technological and the organic is a recurrent motif in your work…
It’s part of public discourse: every newspaper has a health or science section now. In The New York Times you always get an article by a doctor on cellular biology and ageing and the like. “Merge” is absolutely the right word, because seeing science through the lens of 1950s science fiction – where technology came from outer space and was destructive and menacing – is wrong. It comes from inside nature as well. I was reading an article on how trees are evolving in order to control the insects that try to kill them, and how they marshal all these defences in a very animalistic way. It’s quite shocking how they find ways of defeating the caterpillars that try to devour them. We humans are reacting like those trees, fighting against ageing and diseases that invade us, not just with our bodies but with technology too. I don’t separate the technological from the organic.
Will you write another book?
I’m working on a novel. I actually made a false start, 10,000 words or so, but didn’t find it interesting enough. So now my only project is the phantom of the next book – I don’t have another film project.
Consumed, by David Cronenberg, Penguin, 368 pages.
Interview by Sean J. Rose.
Check out the full article in the March issue of the Numéro Musique, available in newsstands and on iPads.