Writing fiction can cause hallucinations. In one that appeared before me last winter, I was 17 years old again, a nervous high school student with an overbite, wearing a paper bib around my neck and lying back in a large chair. After gargling with minty liquid, I opened my mouth wide and looked up, and looming above me, holding a gleaming metallic instrument, was Keanu Reeves. That was disconcerting enough, but even odder was the realization that we were not alone but were being watched by hundreds of moviegoers at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
That hallucination will be playing on a dozen American movie screens this weekend as Thumbsucker, the independent movie based on my novel. Like most writers, I had always dreamed of having one of my books made into a film, but I had never expected that it would be the one about my most tender adolescent secret: the oral fixation that I tried to hide from others until I was old enough to go to college and that, when I briefly managed to break it, was replaced by a host of more troubling obsessions (some of them involving illegal substances). Writing this often mortifying story had made me feel vulnerable enough, but when Hollywood called to show interest in filming it, I wondered whether my psyche would survive.
When a book becomes a movie, the novelist goes from author to spectator--always a bewildering transition, even more so when the book in question is based on his life. For me the process began about four years ago, three years after the novel's publication, when writer-director Mike Mills invited me to his house in California to discuss his adaptation of the book. He had shortened the time span of the narrative, combined several young female characters into one and focused on the protagonist's complex relationship with his unhappy mother. He had improved my work, in other words, and I knew from the moment I read his script that his movie might be better than my book.
The artistic and psychological shocks continued when Mills brought me out to the set in Portland, Ore., where he was re-creating my upbringing (or my fictional version of it), using people who were much better looking than I remembered. Lou Taylor Pucci, who plays Justin (the character I had modeled on myself), is shorter and darker-haired than I am, but his aura and manner were so weirdly familiar that I shivered when I shook his hand. I shivered again when Pucci winked at me and popped his right thumb into his mouth, performing the act without any of the embarrassment that still haunted me as a fortyish adult.
Meeting Audrey, my quasi mother, was even stranger. Tilda Swinton had a Scottish accent in her trailer but spoke like a born American when the cameras were turned on. Her performance was so convincing that when the actors took time out for lunch, I found myself confiding in her about a romantic breakup I was suffering through. Writing autobiographical fiction, it's often said, is therapeutic for a novelist, but it's nothing compared with spilling one's guts to a live human being who is posing as one's parent.