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David CronenbergChristopher Wahl/The Globe and Mail

Let it be said that persistence pays off. When Nicole Winstanley joined Penguin Canada in 2005, she was tasked with reviving the publisher's fiction program. Thinking "he would have an interesting story to tell," she sent a letter to David Cronenberg, who she'd once read held literary aspirations. "Of course, I heard nothing back," recalls Winstanley, now Penguin's president and publisher. A year later, when some titles she had acquired reached the market, she sent the film director a box of books, along with a letter asking him to reconsider her proposal. Although she again received no reply, she was not deterred: "It just became a thing that I did every once in a while – send a few books with a note."

One evening in 2007, having powered down her computer and preparing to leave for a vacation, Winstanley received a call from an unknown number. It was David Cronenberg, and he wanted to talk about writing a novel.

"It was an ambition that I had, I suppose, never really let go of, and it was an experience that I knew would be different," he says. Yet if it hadn't been for Winstanley's pestering, he's not sure if he would ever have done it.

"I was flattered that she would bother. It meant to me that she was sincere about it, and – it's kind of pathetic to say, but very human – I needed to feel that someone who really knew what she was doing, and who was part of the publishing industry, felt that I was a viable prospect as a novelist. I needed to feel that because I'd kind of given up on it so long ago. And then she allowed me to realize that I actually hadn't given up on it at all."

Consumed, his debut novel, arrives in stores on Tuesday; part psychological thriller, part black comedy, and part philosophical meditation on consumer culture, it is among the most anticipated books of the fall.

The question is, can one of Canada's most celebrated directors become one of its most celebrated writers, too?

Probably not – or at least not yet. Consumed is as infuriating as it is captivating, the kind of novel you throw across the room in frustration only to scamper over and pick up just to see what happens next. It might not necessarily be good, but at least it's entertaining, and unlike anything else published in Canada – maybe the world – this year.

Filled with themes familiar to fans of Cronenberg's films – infection, body modification, insects and the collision between technology and flesh – Consumed tells the parallel and intertwining stories of Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math, freelance journalists and on-and-off lovers, who are each investigating stories that would find homes in the pages of the National Enquirer (although Nathan is gunning for The New Yorker). Naomi is looking into the death of Célestine Arosteguy, a 62-year-old intellectual and philosopher, whose partially eaten remains are found scattered throughout the Paris apartment she shares with her husband, fellow philosopher Aristide, who has fled to Japan.

Nathan, meanwhile, becomes infected with a sexually transmitted disease long considered eradicated, and heads to Toronto where the (often unethical) medical journalist becomes involved with the doctor after whom the illness is named, along with his daughter, Chase, whose idea of a midnight snack is not a bag of potato chips. Toss in a possible conspiracy involving North Korea, a brawl between jurors at the Cannes Film Festival, a bug-infected breast and a 3-D printer used to produce things that cannot be described in this newspaper and you're only halfway to understanding the oddity that is Consumed.

If it sounds like one of his movies, that's because it almost was one of his movies; Consumed began as a screenplay (working title: Erotic Thriller) that, says Cronenberg, "just died in my hands. And yet, when I needed to give Nicole something, I went right to it. My feeling, in retrospect, was that it was maybe destined not to be a screenplay. That I somehow knew that it was good stuff, but it wasn't good stuff for a screenplay."

The leap from screenplay to novel was not a particularly difficult one for the 71-year-old Cronenberg to make.

When Winstanley first had the chance to ask him if he'd ever considered writing a novel, "my answer to her was, 'Well, only for 50 years!' I always thought I would be a novelist. I never at all, remotely, thought about film, because when I was a kid, growing up in Toronto, there was no film business. You didn't have access to movies – they always came from somewhere else. Whereas writing was a different thing. My father was a journalist – he wrote for the Toronto Telegram – and I would fall asleep to the sound of his typewriter."

His father had also owned a bookstore during the Great Depression. The business didn't thrive, so much of its stock wound up in their home. "So I lived amongst books, literally."

After high school he enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he won the 1963 Norma Epstein Award for fiction. (According to Cronenberg, journalist Barbara Amiel was also a finalist that year: "She told me, and I've reconfirmed this, that it was at that moment she gave up her dreams of being a fiction writer," he says. "She thought my writing was a lot better than hers.")

There was also a sojourn in France for a year in the early 1970s, during which Cronenberg, who calls himself a "Ducatiste," worked on a novel that played to his love of motorcycles. "Recently I read The Flamethrowers [by Rachel Kushner] and I thought I might have ended up writing something like this," he says. "I'll never know."

And then film got in the way.

"I say I was either derailed or kidnapped by cinema, and only recently released," he says, laughing softly. But "I never abandoned the novel, in the sense that I've always been reading them, and had always been inspired by them, and I've always thought that my inspiration was much more literary than cinematic when it came to creating my own movies."

Many of his films began as novels; he has worked with some of the towering figures of 20th-century literature, from William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and J.G. Ballard (Crash) to Don DeLillo (Cosmopolis) and Stephen King (The Dead Zone). But as far as the adaptation of Consumed is concerned, it's not as inevitable as one might think.

"I thought, 'Well of course I'm going to want to make a movie out of my book. How many directors get a chance to do that? How many novelists get a chance to do that?' It's pretty rare. But I realized I didn't want to do it. I have five producers who want to do it with me. And I thought, 'No, I've done it already.' I would actually be bored. Plus I'd be appalled at what I'd have to do to make it into a movie."

That said, he found himself on a panel with several other directors, including fellow Torontonians Atom Egoyan and Clement Virgo, during the recent Toronto International Film Festival, and "encouraged them all to preorder [the novel] from Amazon, with a view to adaptation. So we'll see if any of those seeds take root."

In any case, Cronenberg vows that Consumed will not be not be a "one-off." Now that his schedule is clear of directing duties – his latest, Maps to the Stars, will arrive in Canadian theatres in October – he says he'd "really like to write another novel, not to make another movie." Even if that never happens, he seems positively giddy that he's about to realize a lifelong dream.

"It's very exciting for me to hear you talk about my characters as though they're alive," he says as our interview comes to a close. "I'm still a neophyte at this."

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