The actor and erstwhile literary scholar has turned his idea for a kids’ film into one brilliant, irreverent book.
As Dubai hosts its seventh annual Literature Festival (running until Saturday March 7, see www.emirateslitfest.com for any last-minute tickets to events), things are also taking a turn for the literary in other parts of the world. Best-known for playing eccentric characters in The X-Files and Californication, it’s no surprise David Duchovny has a quirky side. But who knew that the star actually studied English literature and began a Ph.D. programme before focusing on acting? Now he’s returned to his literary roots by publishing his first book, Holy Cow, a hilarious allegorical tale about a doomed American dairy cow named Elsie who decides to move to India. As if you needed another reason to swing by the bookstore to pick up a copy, we caught up with Duchovny to talk about his writing inspirations and adding ‘novelist’ to his CV.
What first sparked the concept for the novel?
I had this flash of an idea: If I were a cow, I’d want to go to India. And then I tried to figure out where other animals might go to be safe, and I came up with a turkey going to Turkey, among others. I pitched it as an animated film to a couple places; when they passed, I just put it in a drawer. But I always liked the idea. Then one day last year, I woke up remembering it and thought, Why don’t I write it out?
Now that it’s out on paper, do you think an adaptation might happen?
That would be the height of beautiful irony. But animated films have to reach such a large audience, they generally don’t touch on any issues that might be controversial. But there is some of that in the book, so I’m sceptical.
But even with those facets of the story, you describe it as a children’s book. Do you see parents reading it to their kids?
I didn’t really aim for a particular audience as I was writing. It felt like a kids’ book because it was an animated idea, and it centres on animals. That drove the tone. As I went on, I realised it’s also for adults. I would imagine you could read it to a young child and what they didn’t get, what went over their heads…well, no harm, no foul.
In writing, you, or Elsie, really had no mercy in stating how stupid humanity can be. Did you ever feel like you needed to rein in that criticism, or was it important to you to be as brutal as possible in order to be true to Elsie’s perspective?
I think that’s well put. There’s a part in the book where Elsie’s editor says, ‘No, it’s too polemical. You’re alienating people. People buy books, not cows.’ And Elsie remarks, ‘It’s like banging your head against a wall. Eventually the wall’s going to break.’ I don’t feel like it’s a polemical book. I don’t write fiction in order to make a point, but I am very aware of and concerned of the environment and animal cruelty. But I didn’t write it as a polemical tract.
Could you expand on your relationship to animal rights a bit?
I’ve been a lazy vegetarian since college. I read [John Robbins’ 1987 bestseller] A Diet for a New America, which was kind of that generation’s Fast Food Nation [the 2001 bestseller by Eric Schlosser]. That opened my eyes to the living conditions that livestock were raised in. Like Elsie in my book, I don’t argue with the dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest that I see in nature. I would never, as she says, ask a tiger to eat alfalfa sprouts. But since then, I’ve been interested in it, mostly from the perspective of the cruelty and not so much just that it’s wrong to eat the flesh of another being. Which it may be. As a human being, it may be wrong. I move toward that as I get older. And I’m as concerned as anybody with protecting the environment. As Elsie says, the meat-eating lifestyle, whether or not it’s wrong, the way we keep cattle and pigs and chickens, the sheer numbers, it’s ruining the earth.
Before acting, you studied literature and began a Ph.D. programme. Did you always think you would write a book someday?
When I was in graduate school, I thought that if I were a professor, I could work eight or nine months a year and then have time to write. So for a long time, the plan was, ‘How do I live my life in order to write?’ I started acting because I thought I wanted to write plays. I was looking to write anything. I came to acting from the idea of writing. That precedes anything. If you’d asked me what I was… I wouldn’t have said actor until I was, like, 30. I would’ve said writer.
What are you reading currently, or what have you read recently that you would recommend?
That’s a good one. Let’s see… I’d definitely recommend Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. That was a total surprise because I had never read anything by her. And I thought it was completely original and very sad; very moving. Very smart. Very beautiful.
Holy Cow is available now on Kindle from Dhs24. www.amazon.co.uk.
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