To finish his first novel, David Cronenberg had to work around a few other projects.
Like the four movies he completed over the past eight years.
“I would actually have to leave what I was writing for a year and a half and literally not think about it,” said the Canadian filmmaker known for “Dead Ringers,” ”Naked Lunch” and his latest, “Map of the Stars.”
“So I had concerns about continuity, that it was this sort of start-and-stop thing,” he adds. “Somehow, it seemed to work.”
Cronenberg begins his fiction career at age 71 with “Consumed,” an intellectual, macabre thriller of sex, violence and bodily transformation — themes not unfamiliar to fans of Cronenberg’s movies. The protagonists are freelance journalists caught up in a mysterious case of murder and cannibalism, a story inspired in part by the life of Louis Pierre Althusser, a French Marxist who strangled his wife.
Interviewed recently at the offices of his U.S. publisher, Scribner, Cronenberg said that publisher Nicole Winstanley of Penguin Canada had suggested he try a novel. He set himself a goal of two pages a day and found the experience close to directing, a narrative for which he had a final say on casting, lighting, editing, sound effects and special effects.
“The only thing you can do as a screenwriter is the narrative and the dialogue,” he says.
Directors have long felt an affinity with literary writers, although few have triumphed in both fields.
Elia Kazan wrote several novels after his movie career faded, and Jean Renoir wrote a handful of short fiction works in the last years of his life. More recently, Ethan Coen has published stories and poems, and Neil Jordan of “The Crying Game” has completed several novels and story collections. For years, Woody Allen has contributed stories to The New Yorker.
John Sayles has managed parallel careers, directing “Eight Men Out” and “Passion Fish,” among others, while writing well-regarded short stories and novels. He prefers completing a book without interruption, noting that he worked on his nearly 1,000-page historical tale, “A Moment in the Sun,” during a Writers Guild of America strike. Film projects took up so much time while he was writing “Los Gusanos,” published in 1991, that when Sayles returned to the novel, he realized he had scene with a dead man in the trunk of a car and he had forgotten why he was there.
“So I had one of the cops just say, ‘That’s going to be one of life’s unexplained mysteries,'” Sayles said. “It’s a good idea when you have to leave a book for a while to make some good notes.”
Gus Van Sant, whose experimental novel “Pink” came out in 1997, said he doesn’t consider himself “the most natural writer,” but still enjoyed the work and only wished he had worked harder. He also believes directors and authors often romanticize each other’s craft.
“The novelist, in some cases, would desire to be less stuck in a room with a typewriter, and I have heard novelists say that it would be great to write in images like the film director, out in the field with legions of extras, and explosions and stuntmen and real sex scenes,” Van Sant, whose films include “Good Will Hunting” and “Drugstore Cowboy,” wrote in a recent email.
“The filmmakers respect the writing as a more pure art form and feel a little self-conscious about the Barnum and Bailey aspect of their craft.”
Cronenberg is a journalist’s son who remembers falling asleep to the sound of his father’s typing. He’s always been a reader, a fan of the avant-garde Evergreen Review magazine and an admirer of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and other writers of Grove Press, known for its experimental and explicit literature.
His writing dates back to his teens, when he submitted a story to a science fiction-fantasy magazine and got a “rejection slip that was really quite nice,” encouraging him to keep trying. But he “edged sideways” into filmmaking, using screenplays as a way to get directing jobs, among them the horror movie “They Came From Within” (also known as “Shivers”).
“In self-defense I had to write my own screenplays,” he recalled. “But it was natural for me because I was an aspiring novelist.”
Cronenberg’s book has so far been received with the kind of respect he had hoped for. Rights to “Consumed” have already been sold in more than 20 countries and the novel was praised by author Jonathan Lethem in The New York Times for its “sturdy and direct” story line and “the fierce sculptural intensity” of its details. If his movie career ever permits, Cronenberg likes the idea of doing nothing but writing for a year or two. He already has a “tickle of another book, just a sentence or two.”
“That’s all it takes,” he said.