ARUN RATH, HOST:
Before he attained widespread respectability with films like "A History Of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," director David Cronenberg was best known for helping create a genre known as body horror. Think of the exploding head in "Scanners" -
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCANNERS")
RATH: - Or body parts dropping off in "The Fly."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLY")
RATH: Just be glad this is radio. But body horror was always about more than the gross-out. "The Fly," "Scanners," "Videodrome," "Dead Ringers" - all powerful explorations of how disease, mortality and technology transform people in ways both wonderful and deeply disturbing. Cronenberg's horror has always been philosophical - even literary. In fact, he's long dreamed of being a novelist.
On Tuesday, that dream comes true when "Consumed," Cronenberg's first novel, hits the shelves. And yes, it's gory.
The protagonists are two freelance journalists, Naomi Seburg and Nathan Math, romantically coupled, yet constantly separated from each other as they travel around the globe chasing down stories.
And since journalists have to pitch their stories to editors, I asked Cronenberg to pitch his characters' stories to you. First, Naomi...
DAVID CRONENBERG: It's got a pretty good hook. It's a sort of a philosophy professor, sex-cannibal murder.
CRONENBERG: The philosophy professor, Aristide Arosteguy, is accused of having murdered his wife and then eating part of her body.
RATH: And Nathan - what about his story?
CRONENBERG: He is researching kind of clandestine, illegal surgical procedures that desperate people are having, including organ transplants. And that leads him into some strange territory that ultimately interfaces with Naomi's story. Almost - well, you have to ask. Is it random? Is it by chance or is there some subterranean connection?
RATH: You know, these characters, these journalists - a lot of the time they're actually not in the same place. But they're constantly interacting through their devices.
CRONENBERG: Yeah. These people are very comfortable with their virtualness. They are virtual, you know. Virtual reality is actually where they live. And it seems to be a more compelling reality than any sort of traditional idea of what is real.
RATH: And even when they're actually in the same place, the laptops, the iPhones, the iPads, they're all out there mitigating the experience.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, I mean, I think it wouldn't be coy of me to say that many couple these days, living in the same house, send each other text messages, you know, and emails. I do it myself with my wife. I'm sure we're not alone in this.
So how real and how virtual is reality? And really, that is one of the themes of the book is the construction of reality - the sense that reality is neurology. If we incorporate the Internet into our nervous system, which I think we obviously have done, the understanding of what reality is shifts hugely. I wouldn't want somebody to think that the book is, you know, it's all about the Internet. It isn't really. But...
RATH: It's about a lot of flesh and blood, too.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, there's a lot of corporeality, you know. And I certainly wanted my characters to be alive and to walk around and feel very physical.
RATH: I'm speaking with director David Cronenberg about his first novel - "Consumed." I could imagine this as a movie. Did this start out as a screenplay?
CRONENBERG: It started out as a bit of a screenplay that I put aside very quickly because I felt I didn't know how to really advance it or develop it. And when I received a phone call from Nicole Winstanley, who's the publisher of Penguin Canada saying I've seen your movies. And I really think you could write a novel. And have you ever considered it? At which point I said yeah, only for about 50 years. Because I always thought I'd be a novelist. I never thought I'd be a filmmaker. I kind of got kidnapped by cinema.
And she was very enthusiastic and encouraged me to develop it as a novel. And I think in retrospect - and I might be romanticizing it - but I think it was waiting to be a novel. That's why I couldn't develop it as a screenplay. And at first, you know - at first I thought well, of course I'm going to want to make a movie out of my own novel because what an opportunity, you know. How many directors get the chance to do that? But then I suddenly thought, but you know, I'd be bored. I mean, I've done it.
RATH: It's funny to hear you say though that this, you know, it's easier to imagine this as a novel because you've directed films where you've made films out of books that people said couldn't be made, you know, like William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and J.G. Ballard's "Crash." That seems to be what you almost specialize in.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, it's true. I've often said you have to betray the novel in order to be faithful to the novel, because there is no direct translation. People talk about translating it. Well, there's no dictionary for that translation, you know. You really have to reinvent it for the cinema and, in so doing, you are - you're torturing it and you're brutalizing it. So I felt that that was not a process I wanted to subject my novel to, actually.
RATH: You have a reputation for being able to get great performances out of actors - really collaborating. Was it strange to be just on your own with a novel without - just in your own head, no one to bounce ideas off of?
CRONENBERG: You know, writing a screenplay - a screenplay is a very strange hybrid form of writing. You don't really have to be a very good prose writer. In fact, a lot of really highly-paid screenwriters are functionally illiterate. But what they can write is great dialogue. And they can structure a narrative. Because the only thing in a screenplay that gets on the screen directly is the dialogue. There's a whole huge other system that's going to come into play that's creative that will displace what you've written as a screenwriter. So you write relatively simply. And, you know, there's no point in describing a character in detail because they're going to cast someone who doesn't look like that. So why describe them, you know? Whereas in writing a novel, I've felt more like I was directing, because I was creating the characters. But I was also having to direct them, you know, move them around the room, give them the rhythm of their dialogue. And I was having to costume them. I was having to do the locations. You know, it was - as I said, it felt more like directing than screenwriting. And that was a surprise to me.
RATH: That's director David Cronenberg. His first novel comes out on Tuesday. It's called "Consumed." David Cronenberg, thank you very much. Real pleasure speaking with you.
CRONENBERG: Well, it was terrific. Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.