The TV and movie star's debut novel is a loopy story about animals that's very much not for kids.
For his first book, TV star David Duchovny is not telling behind-the-scenes stories of The X-Files or opening up about the sex scenes in Californication: He’s written a caper about a cow that goes on the lam.
Holy Cow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a fable for adults, full of puns and silly jokes. A turkey is jive. A pig peppers his speech with Yiddish like a grandpa in the Catskills. In fact, the story is set in upstate New York, where the three animal heroes, led by Elsie Bovary, decide to escape their farm to fly to countries where they’ll be safe from being eaten.
Duchovny spoke by phone from New York.
You interviewed writer/stand-up comedian Craig Ferguson on stage about his novel in 2006. Was writing a novel yourself on your mind back then?
It’s been on my mind forever. If you’d asked me when I was 20, “What are you?” I would say, “I’m a writer”, even though I had nothing to show for it. It’s always been my self-identification. My father was a writer; he published his first novel when he was 73, so I guess I’ve beaten him by a little bit.
You’ve written a loopy fairy tale. I wonder what inspired you to make that choice.
I wish I could tell you that I make choices in life, but I kind of fly by the seat of my pants. I had this idea a long time ago as an animated feature. That’s the business I find myself in, Hollywood, and I pitched it to a couple of places – they didn’t bite. And I didn’t think they would, because there’s some religion in it, some politics, there’s some discussion about whether or not keeping animals to eat them is a good thing or bad thing.
I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t want to make it, but I always had this idea – I thought, “If I was a cow, I’d try to get to India”. Last year, I woke up and I thought ... “You’ve been saying you’re a writer your whole life, why don’t you ... write something?” That’s how that all started.
In the book, Elsie engages with her editor, who’s giving her a hard time for being too political. Did you get that kind of feedback about the book?
Not at all. My editor was Jonathan Galassi at FSG, and he was nothing like that. The editor, in my mind, was the person I would have pitched the movie to, the powers that be that would tell me: “You can’t make an animated film about Muslims and Jews and not eating meat.”
It’s possible that they were right. [Laughing.] I’m saying they’re right. I’ve been saying they’re right from the beginning.
Philosopher Peter Singer basically has the same ideas as Elsie, that you shouldn’t eat animals, but he can be divisive. How do you approach that idea, of being vegetarian or vegan, without alienating readers?
Well, I didn’t conceive of it as a polemic, I conceived of it as an entertaining tale. I didn’t worry so much about alienating anybody, because things happen in books that people like or they don’t like, and it’s part of the fiction.
Singer I find very interesting; he tries to talk about animals as if they have rights, which is fascinating, beings with actual civil rights. But I think actually, if you were to boil down Elsie’s philosophy, I don’t think Peter’s going to be on my side either, because I’ve got Elsie saying, “Nature is obviously a very competitive, survival-of-the-fittest place, and a lion is not going to eat tofu, ever, he’s not supposed to, that’s the way of the world”.
But there are other questions to ask, especially for humans, who have a choice of what they eat. And I’m also interested in the taxing of the environment in terms of our meat-eating lifestyle. The sheer number of cattle, pigs and chickens that – through no fault of their own, they’re kept by us humans – are polluting the environment in ways that are shocking.
Elsie’s discovery of the meat industry is really kind of scary. Does that parallel your experience?
For me, it was fun to play with the cow’s consciousness: She knows about Homer but doesn’t know she’s going to be eaten. That’s kind of fun, huge ignorance on the one hand and a liberal arts education on the other.
Which does maybe characterise liberal arts education. Tell me about your education: Princeton and Yale? Did you really write a thesis on Samuel Beckett?
I wrote my Princeton senior thesis ... on Beckett’s novels. That knowledge has stood me well in Hollywood. Then I went to Yale. I was in the PhD English literature programme, but I didn’t write my dissertation, so I don’t have a PhD.
That means you’re ABD!
Thank you for knowing that terminology! I hate “ABD” because everybody else has a Latin kind of abbreviation. PhD, doctor of letters, you know? Doctor of philosophy. ABD is “all but dissertation”, it’s like slang. It’s not cool enough....
It’s possible there are some professors at Yale walking around thinking, “I wonder when Duchovny’s going to hand in that paper? Haven’t seen him around.”
Are you also releasing a record this year?
I am, soon.
Are you going for the EGOT? You know: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony?
Maybe I’m just going for an EGO, I don’t know.... As I said to you, I have always defied myself as a writer, even before I would say actor. In fact, whenever I see my name and it says “actor” after it, I always think: “That’s not true, I’m a writer.” And I never played music and never wrote music until four years ago. It’s one of the most amazing, serendipitous turns of events in my life.
Is it scary to do two different things in one year that are so totally different from what you’re known for, Duchovny-comma-actor?
It’s scary in the sense of, you know, people are going to think I’m just dabbling or not serious or whatever. That doesn’t bother me. It’s not scary in the sense of if the book bombs and the album bombs, my kids are still going to be able to eat, because I still get to act. It’s not my day job, so there’s a certain kind of freedom and fearlessness that I get from that.
Do you pay attention to social media?
I am on the Twitter and the Instagram. I am told that I’m supposed to be on it and that I should be on it. It’s not my world. I have a 15-year-old daughter – I watch her, it’s completely natural. It’s exactly what she does, understands, speaks it fluently. I don’t. It’s foreign to me. I don’t get it, I don’t feel it. But I recognise that it’s there and I’m happy to try, and hope that I don’t ruin my life doing it. There’s so many people, and I like to be funny. I tend to approach things in that way. And it’s hard to be funny in the written form without half the people getting it wrong. Then you’re on the apology tour. I don’t want to go on that.
Holy Cow is funny in the written form. Did you share what you were writing with anyone when it was in process?
There’s a certain kind of laughing that goes on inside your head, I guess, when you read a book. Sometimes you laugh out loud when you read a book, very occasionally, but there’s certainly that sensation of humour when you’re reading. I think that’s where my particular sensibility heads towards is off into funny stuff.
I told Tea [Leoni, his ex-wife] that I’m actually trying to write that story up – ’cause I had this idea long, long ago – as a novel. I find the more I talk about something, the less I do it.
Are there any creative written projects that you left by the side of the road that that happened with?
That I talked out of existence? I’m sure there has been. Let’s say my best stuff I talked out of existence.
What I might end up doing, because I’ve written a number of screenplays over the years for what always turns into kind of an independent film, which is a very difficult world to make movies in. I got to make one, and I hope to make more. I have these screenplays, but they’re also – they could be novels.... If I’m not so lazy, I may try and sit down and turn one of those screenplays into a novel.
I have to ask: Are they really bringing back X-Files and Twin Peaks? Can it possibly be true?
Seems like it. I would bet on it if I were you. I think Twin Peaks is happening for sure. I hope my character comes back, I think she does. And then X-Files – Fox made some kind of shadowy announcement [recently]. Certainly, something’s happening. Something’s brewing. It’s like the Eagles’ greatest hits tour ... by me. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune Information Service