You may know David Duchovny from his roles as Agent Fox Mulder in "The X-Files" or Special Agent Denise Bryson in "Twin Peaks," or myriad roles in television and film — yet Duchovny’s acting experience came to him as a result of his true passion: writing. The actor, singer and bestselling author joined Boston Public Radio to discuss his third and latest novel, "Miss Subways," a re-imagining of an Irish myth set in modern-day New York City.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. To hear the full conversation, click on the audio player above.
Jim Braude: Some critics are characterizing it as a “post-modern fairytale” but mystical might be a more apt adjective, because how can anything be “postmodern” now that the former host of "Celebrity Apprentice" is the president of the U.S.?
David Duchovny: I guess the dumbest period-naming would be “modern,” because then you go post, and then what, do you go post-post-modern after that? The only worse name of a period was “contemporary,” because how can you be “post-contemporary?” You’d have to go to the future. There was contemporary fiction about 20 years ago — now that’s post-postmodern.
JB: I got it. Could you repeat any of that? Or…
Margery Eagan: He went to Princeton and Yale, we didn’t, you see.
DD: I like to think I’m starting the pre-post-contemporary…
JB: I think you’re the man for it.
ME: Tell people — what’s the basic premise of "Miss Subways"?
DD: I guess the idea that stayed with me was, when I was a graduate student I saw a W.B Yates verse play called, "The Only Jealousy of Emer," which stars Cú Chulainn, the mythical Irish king and his wife, the Queen Emer. An Irish demon, a sidhe, comes to Emer and offers her this wager and says, 'Your husband, the king Cú Chulainn, is about to die in battle, but you can save him.' She says, 'How?' And he says, 'You have to renounce your love for him.' When he wakes up from this dream of almost dying, he will not know you, he will not know that you have children together, he will never know you and you will never know him. And that always struck me as a very romantic notion — [laughs] — like darkly romantic, and I modernize it into an contemporary time, present day, and just try to tell that fairytale, that myth, within the context of New York and the subway system.
JB: I lived in New York for 15 years, a long time ago, you captured the subway experience as precisely as anybody I’ve ever read — how big a part of your life, as a kid, was the subway?
DD: Oh, it was. I grew up on 11th street and 2nd Avenue and I went to high school on 77th and Broadway, so I took the subway at least twice a day. It’s just in my mind, I haven’t taken it a lot recently, it’s a lot nicer now. When I was a kid it wasn’t so nice.
ME: Do you mind if I read a sentence from your subway description?
“Here in the simulated captivity of a subway car, it seemed that the male imperative to gaze unapologetically at the female was a creepy game of chicken. The manspreading, lip licking, eye f--king—exhausting. These were men who would never act this way up in the disinfecting light of the street, but down in the subway, these same males reverted to this primal kind of thing.”
You captured it. I’ll flatter you now, it reminds me of the opening of "Rabbit, Run," when John Updike talks about playing basketball, the same kind of thing, of capturing a certain kind of thing. Tell us more about the book.
DD: I kind of used this wager that I spoke of, the one from the Yates play, to kind of set up an idea of parallel lives, depending on the woman’s response to the wager. She says yes, she says no, whatever. What happens after you wake up a different person from who you were before the wager? So there’s three different iterations of her life in the book. I also kind of wanted to emphasize the female point of view from the original mythological point of view which is heavily on Cú Chulainn, on the male. This is really a story about a woman.
In the beginning she’s kind of her boyfriend’s assistant, she’s his research assistant, but she has many ideas of her own. He’s trying to write a book that’s going to make him famous. And when she wakes up alone, in this middle part of the book, which is the longest part, is really [about] a woman seizing control of her own narrative and not being an assistant, and not being second to the man. That’s kind of the retelling in favor of the queen, as opposed to the king.
JB: Did I read that "Bucky F--king Dent," your second novel, is about to be made into a movie?
DD: I hope so, I’m trying to cast it right now, I want to shoot in August in New York, and we’ll have to shoot a couple of days up here as well.
JB: You have a Boston connection, what is that?
DD: My father moved to Boston when I was in high school and he worked at Brandeis. He lived up here for over a decade, I think.
JB: Do you feel a connection to the city? You a Red Sox guy?
DD: No, Yankees. But "Bucky F--king Dent" gives me some cred with the Sox fans, I think.
ME: We’re speaking with David Duchovny, everybody knows him from "The X-Files," from "Californication" and "Sex and the City" —
DD: We all know that 2014 juicing… anyway, go on.
ME: I didn’t know you went to Princeton, you got a master’s degree at Yale in English. … Were you going to be a John Updike yourself, is that how you saw yourself?
DD: I was in a PhD program, I was going to get the PhD and then I imagine I was going to try to get tenure somewhere and then use the generous summer vacation time to write. I thought I’d be some kind of novel writing or poetry writing professor of English literature somewhere.
ME: So the fact that you write novels is not that surprising.
DD: I would have identified myself as a writer…
ME: So what happened? How did you make the segue into acting?
DD: Really through writing. I was at graduate school, I was at Yale, and I just thought writing was so lonely and I thought, well, I guess playwrights are a little less lonely, at least they get to go to the play and they get to watch people, they get to hang out with people. I thought, okay, maybe I’ll write a play, and there’s all these great classes in the Yale drama school, they allowed me to kind of audit them. There are so many productions going on around there, and they always need bodies to fill in the small roles, so they said, 'Hey, why don’t you play this dude in this little play?' and that’s how I kind of started. I thought as a playwright I should probably learn something about acting, I should probably learn to speak somebody else’s dialogue. I approached it as an actor from the very beginning.
JB: Was "Twin Peaks" your first deal? Special Agent Denise Bryson?
DD: That was early! In fact, I have a story about that involving my father — he underwent heart surgery right around that time, and he was up here, and it was airing right when my dad was recovering. He had the tubes down his throat, he was unconscious, and I went to see him and there was a yellow pad, a legal pad by his bed, where he was writing his wishes, or whatever, because he couldn’t speak. I saw that he had written, 'I’m thirsty,' 'My feet are cold,' 'My son plays a transvestite on television.' I’m sure they were like, 'Oh, who has been giving him the morphine?'
JB: I love that line in "Twin Peaks" where Agent Denise Bryson says to Dale Cooper, 'Coop, I still put my panties on one leg at a time, if you know what I mean.' and Coop says, 'Not really.'
DD: [Laughs] Not really. In the last run of "Twin Peaks" there was a great line where David Lynch says to me, in his character, that he told the other guys at the bureau to accept me, and said, 'Those clown something-or-others better fix their hearts or die.' It was a great line.
JB: In this line from "Miss Subways," you talk about how things have changed in the “age of Trump” — Margery suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome —
ME: I do, guilty as charged.
JB: Do you suffer from it?
DD: No, because there is no derangement, I see it very clearly.
JB: What do you see?
DD: Oh, it’s the worst thing that could happen. I don’t know if we need to explain it, we just need to get rid of it. I think we can talk about… whatever, he’s there. He’s a cancer on the country, he has to be removed.
ME: You write that so much of New York is involved in “looking away.” Tell people what you meant by that.
DD: There’s so much stimulus… there’s so much sadness, there’s so much poverty, there’s so much pain. To walk down the street, if you were to open yourself to it — in any city, but New York, especially, you have to look away or else you would explode, in either empathy or lack of empathy and blame yourself.
JB: Can we talk "X-Files" for a second? I worried for you, even though you may not have worried for yourself, that you were Mulder forever and could transcend. Did that not worry you?
DD: It did for awhile, I think it did towards the end of the first run. I was just itching to go out and prove myself in other things. It was something that was brought up to me from time to time, but on the inside I never really had that thought because I just didn’t think it was true. I thought well, maybe it will happen, but that doesn’t mean it was true. I knew that I could do other things, I knew that I wanted to do other things, so I would just think, let’s just wait and then we’ll have that discussion.
ME: When you were in "X-Files" or "Sex and the City," television was on when it was on, people had to tune in… now we’ve got Netflix and Amazon and HBO, is this a good thing for the people who work in the industry?
DD: Oh yeah, it’s the heyday of content. There’s so many vendors, there are so many ways to consume content that there’s not enough content. It’s going to be hard to get a consensus, it’s going to be hard to have a hit the way you used to have a hit because it’s too scattered, it’s too attenuated. So sure, it’ll be hard… it won’t be hard to make money, it’ll be hard to make a lot of money. In the end I think it’s good that a lot of people will be making decent money.