Award-winning writer André Aciman discusses his semi-autobiographical new novel Harvard Square, about an expatriate Harvard grad student’s unlikely friendship with an excitable cab driver.
Zola: Is this novel more or less autobiographical than your other fiction?
André Aciman: It draws on autobiographical material, the way many of my books and essays draw from my life. How things are arranged is a different matter.
Zola: The narrator loves to read on his rooftop and drink Tom Collins. What would be your ideal place to read and the ideal drink to go with it?
AA: I love to read in the subway or on an elliptical machine. For some reason, I concentrate perfectly in places that are alleged to infringe on my capacity to focus. But I love nothing better than a sunlit sofa on a Saturday afternoon and a grande Pike from Starbucks.
Zola: You’ve said the best way to start writing is to write book reviews. Why?
AA: What I said was that the best way to start publishing was by writing book reviews. Magazines, newspapers, and journals need book reviews; besides, book reviews are not too difficult to write. A well-crafted review could take at most a few weeks to write; a well-crafted short story more (sometimes, much, much more) than a month. Publishing a short story in a good place is difficult; not so with a book review. In my case, I started writing book reviews, then got to know the editor, and eventually asked him if he might be interested in my writing a piece about growing up as a Jew in Egypt. He was thrilled by the idea. Eventually, this gave rise to my memoir Out of Egypt. The best way to publish what one really wishes to write is by getting to know editors. And the best—and safest—way to do this is by publishing reviews.
Zola: Kalaj, the book’s protagonist, has a gift for seeing through people—an amazing and terrifying talent. What do you think he’d say if he met you?
AA: I did meet someone very, very similar to him. And he had figured me out in a second: timid, reclusive, feet not on the ground, and yet oblique, sometimes warm, sometimes distant. In the book he is constantly seeing through me.
Zola: The real-life Cafe Algiers is a home away from home for many of the book’s characters. What’s your home away from home?
AA: My home is basically “paper.” Writing has become my home. I’m rudderless—homeless—without writing. Writing is how I think, feel, and experience life, but it’s really where I repair at the end of every day. If I like something and someone, I need to write them. I need to alter what I live, or at least transfer it onto paper for it to matter, for it to “count.”
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.