David Duchovny on the Climate Crisis, the Drawbacks of Technology, and the Craft of Writing
David Duchovny may be swooned over as the hunky special agent Fox William Mulder in The X-Files and Hank Moody in Californication, but it should be noted—and, in our opinion, more widely known—that he is also an accomplished novelist. Yes, novelist. In fact, he has published three novels with the highly esteemed publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux since 2015. A fourth novel, called Truly Like Lightning and publicly revealed for the first time on this episode, is in the works.
Primarily known for his acting—which also includes a well-known, ahead-of-its-time role, in the early ’90s, as the trans FBI agent Denise Bryson on Twin Peaks—Duchovny has carved out a name for himself as a screenwriter, director, producer, and musician, too. With an extensive literary pedigree—his father, Amram, was a “closet” writer until late in his life, when he published the novel Coney—Duchovny graduated with a B.A. in English from Princeton in 1982 and began (though never finished) a comparative literature Ph.D. at Yale.
His mastery across both dramatic and comedic acting, as well as his prolificity in writing and music, is impressive in its breadth and wide-ranging in its subject matter. Less than a decade ago, Duchovny began singing and playing guitar, and in 2015, nearly 30 years into his film and television career, he released his first album, Hell or Highwater. That same year, he also published his first novel, Holy Cow. Since then, he has released a second album, Every Third Thought (2018), and published two more books, Bucky F*cking Dent (2016) and Miss Subways (2018). Now, at age 59, Duchovny’s creative energy continues apace across all these mediums—acting, writing, music—with his next novel soon to come out and plans to turn Bucky F*cking Dent into a film.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Duchovny speaks with Spencer Bailey about novel writing, the need to better understand proposed solutions for the climate crisis, his role as Denise in Twin Peaks, and the various twists and turns of his multifaceted life and career.
Duchovny looks back his Princeton and Yale theses, the latter of which was about the link between magic and technology in contemporary fiction. The conversation turns to personal technology, specifically the Sony Walkman, as well as electric vehicles and the climate crisis.
Duchovny recalls his upbringing in New York City as the son of a writer and activist father and schoolteacher mother, sharing he early interests in books, storytelling, and literature.
Duchovny discusses his craft as a novelist, the making of his three books—Holy Cow (2015), Bucky F*cking Dent (2016), and Miss Subways (2018)—and a bit about his forthcoming novel, Truly Like Lightning.
Duchovny and Bailey get into his acting career, which frequently has included roles as a writer, from his first acting job ever, in 1989’s New Year’s Day, to the more recent Hank Moody character in the Showtime series Californication.
Duchovny speaks about his role as special agent Fox William Mulder in the 1990s sci-fi hit The X-Files—a pivotal part of his acting career that changed the course of his life forever.
Duchovny opens up about how he dealt with his daughter West’s childhood illness, from which she recovered, as well as the deaths of two close acting friends, Robin Williams and Anton Yelchin, both of whom were in his 2004 film House of D.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today on Time Sensitive, we’ve got actor, screenwriter, director, producer, novelist, musician, David Duchovny. Insanely prolific.
DAVID DUCHOVNY: Thank you.
SB: I wanted to start this conversation on the subject of technology.
DD: Something I know nothing about, perfect.
SB: Well, it’s interesting, because I think it’s worth mentioning that you have a very literary background, in a way. A literary, academic background.
SB: You graduated from Princeton in 1982, with a degree in English literature.
SB: In ’82, your poetry received an honorable mention from the Academy of American Poets.
DD: Yeah, honorable mention.
SB: The title of your thesis actually, at Princeton—
DD: That’s the technology.
SB: I had to bring it up—and then the one at Yale of course, too.
SB: At Princeton, your thesis was “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels.”
DD: Yeah, it’s a bit specialized, I understand. I wonder why that wasn’t a bestseller.
SB: [Laughs] You then broadened your scope a little bit with the later one that you didn’t end up finishing, but you earned your M.A. in English literature from Yale, and subsequently began a Ph.D. that remains unfinished. The title of your doctoral thesis is “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry.” So that’s the technology connection.
DD: Yes, that’s what I figured.
SB: What were you trying to say in that particular thesis? What was your sort of—
DD: Well, again, I didn’t finish. And, as you might know, in any kind of literary or really any kind of artistic project, there’s the beginning inspiration, which is the thought, or the idea, or the something you want to express. Then in the course of making, it becomes completely different. That’s kind of the fun and magic of making things. It’s never what you thought.
So, I don’t have the luxury of telling you exactly what it would have been, because I didn’t do it. But I can tell you what I thought it was going to be. The overriding thesis or the inspiration for what was going to be a book-length book of criticism on James Merrill, the poet; Ishmael Reed, the novelist; Norman Mailer; Thomas Pynchon; and a Canadian author named Robertson Davies. So those were the five authors I was going to be addressing.
The idea was to use the language of technology to discuss magic, and the language of magic to discuss technology. In magic, historically there seems to be fields of white and black magic, good and bad magic. But in technology, it’s always been, “If we can do it, let’s do it. If we can go to the moon, let’s go to the moon. If we can make a nuclear weapon, let’s make a nuclear weapon.” Unfortunately, whenever a weapon is made, it gets used. There’s never been a weapon yet in the history of mankind that hasn’t been used.
My question was, why not pursue this line of inquiry through these authors, who seem to be discussing technology in a magical way. Maybe we should start to look at technology as magic, and therefore as white and black magic. If there’s good and bad magic, then we should address technology in that way, and not just as a neutral field of like, “Oh, we can do it—let’s do it.”
SB: Thirty years ahead of your time, it seems—or forty.
DD: I wish I would have… Again, I wish I would have written it, but I didn’t.
SB: I think it’s worth bringing up the Arthur Clarke quote, where he says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
DD: Yeah, sure. For me, I’m such a Luddite. I’m so bad with technology, a toaster blows me away still. I’m still at that level.
SB: In Miss Subways, which is your latest novel, the protagonist, Emer, actually has sort of a technology perspective when riding the subway. From her point of view it’s, “Every day down here was like a new Stanford experiment. Thanks be to Jobs for the iPhone, which seduced a good number of the underworld travelers into a zombified and harmless solipsistic reverie, though it also seemed to embolden others by adding a propulsive soundtrack to their passive ogling. It was as if they thought, like children, if they couldn’t hear you, then you couldn’t see them.
Is that based on personal experience? Have you felt that way on the subway or with technology?
DD: I remember, I think it’s if they couldn’t hear you, they couldn’t see you.
SB: Right, exactly.
DD: I remember having that thought—and this will date me—having that thought with the Walkman. I actually knew the son—he was at Princeton—the son of the chairman of RCA. He had this prototypical Walkman in 1982, and he said to me, “Hey, check this out. You can have your music with you. You can walk around with this little cassette recorder and a plastic case.” Then, of course, in the next couple of years, it became as ubiquitous as phones are now. But they’re gone, they’re a part of some fossil record. Nobody has a Walkman anymore.
I noticed that people seemed to feel like they were invisible when they had this thing on. That they had disappeared in some way, and that they were in a movie. They had a soundtrack just walking down the street. We see it now—it’s the same now with people with their headphones in. I don’t want to be moralistic about it, but it does separate people, and it also insulates people, I think, in a way…
We used to have to listen to the radio, and then you’d be at the mercy of the DJ, and you’d have to hear songs that you didn’t know. But now I think people—and I’m totally guilty of this—I listen to music I know and I like all the time. I’m not forced out of my comfort zone, out of my own soundtrack, to listen.
SB: Right, the algorithm tells you what to like, or what you really like, and knows what you like.
DD: Yeah, that’s the worst part. It’ll even send you music that’s similar to the music that you like. You’re never going to venture out of what you have decided is your jam.
SB: [Laughs] Exactly. We’ll get to Miss Subways in a little bit.
Appropriately, this morning, I’m riding the subway and I’m reading a recent issue of The New Yorker. There’s an article in there about technology and cars. Toward the end of it, there’s a paragraph that I wanted to read, because I think it’s very relevant in the context of this conversation.
SB: The author, Nathan Heller, writes, “It is natural to think of innovation as a march of technical advances, each one finally paying the balance on a dream sold long before: the wheel, the cart, the carriage, the car. But the truth is that our technical capacities arrive too soon; from the imperial galleon to the atom bomb, it is hard to argue that the tools have struggled to keep up with us. A smarter futurism would focus less on pushing through advances and more on being sure we will use them wisely when they come.”
DD: That sounds like my thesis.
SB: [Laughs] I was reading it and I was like, “This actually does sound like your thesis.”
DD: Yeah. Good luck—it’s just not going to happen. People like shiny new things, that’s the nature of it. We like to advance or to think that we’re advancing, and there’s no way you’re going to stop that kind of innovation, even if it just means repackaging stuff.
SB: Right. I understand you’re an enthusiast of electric vehicle technology, which that article actually talks about, it’s interesting.
SB: Why electric vehicles? And what do you think that they can do to help make the world a better, healthier, cleaner place?
DD: I started driving an electric car in, probably, I think like 2004, 2005. Maybe earlier, 2003, maybe a little later. It was a Toyota, a Rav4, and I believe they made four of them. For some reason, my ex-wife [Téa Leoni] had an in over at Toyota—a friend of her father’s—and I got to buy this electric vehicle.
SB: One of four in the world.
DD: Yeah, which only got, like, 80 miles to the charge. It wasn’t at all practical, really. You couldn’t escape the apocalypse in that one. You could only get 80, and then you’d be done.
But I loved it. I lived in L.A. at the time. I rarely was called upon to drive more than 80 miles in a day, so I could just use it. I had solar panels on the house, so in my estimation, I was just recycling energy without any kind of carbon footprint or any kind of waste. That was early on, I was thinking about… I don’t think I thought about climate change, because that wasn’t really in the daily discourse, as it is now, but I was thinking about pollution. I was thinking about smog, in terms of L.A. back then. I wasn’t emitting any carbons into the atmosphere.
SB: How has your sort of electric-vehicle driving evolved since the Rav4?
DD: I have a Tesla on order. I live in New York; I don’t own a car here. In L.A., I don’t have a Tesla yet, because I don’t have a house where I can charge it. I’m building a house there, and when that’s done—in April, I think—I’ll get my Tesla, which I’m looking forward to. It’s a beautiful piece of machinery, I think.
SB: You mentioned climate change. I know renewable energy has been big—you’ve been an advocate/activist in that arena.
SB: I know you’ve also posted or shared things from Bill McKibben, who is one of the original writers on climate change.
SB: Why or how did you start coming into thinking about renewable energy? Was it just the sort of mass conversation happening around it?
DD: I don’t remember how, exactly. It was really through that archaic term “pollution” that we used to talk about, and the idea… Just realizing at some point, and having children, that this was going to be the earth that they inherited. It was more of a clean-up prospect when I started it. Like, “Let’s keep it clean. Let’s leave it the way we found it.”
It wasn’t what we know to be now, which is literally a matter of life and death for the planet. The stakes have changed, and the discussion has changed, and the intensity around the discussion has changed. The lines drawn on either side of it have changed, because it’s hard to ask people to sacrifice. People, they don’t want to do less than the generation before. If you just talk about technology as well, they don’t want to use less than the generation before.
It’s always been expensive to be a conservationist. Therefore, you’re open to charges of elitism: “You’re wealthy enough to be a conservationist.“ Those are all legitimate, but still we’re stuck with this problem that we’ve got to solve.
SB: Yeah, it’s a global trauma, really.
SB: How do you personally navigate this? Just sort of in terms of how you cope with it internally, whether it is climate change or some of these [other] issues.
DD: The thing that makes climate change so difficult to address is the same reason why I can let it go for days and weeks at a time. It’s not a pressing issue, psychologically, on a person in their day-to-day life. I could have gone last week without thinking about it, and here I am talking about it and getting, you know, depressed and anxious about it again.
SB: Sorry to do that to you. [Laughs]
DD: It’s just that conundrum. It’s so difficult to address, because first of all, yes, the science is in, but it’s not perfect science. Nobody can actually predict what’s going to happen. We can have scenarios…
Also, there are natural ice ages and natural hotter ages for this planet that humans have nothing to do with. I’m a hundred-percent believer that we are responsible and we’re screwing it up, but also, I can’t say a hundred percent that the earth doesn’t have its own nature, and is going through its own hot flashes and cold flashes.
There’s always going to be wiggle room on the other side for people to say, “Hell, there was an ice age; it’s going to come back. There’s nothing we can do about that. Let’s use this earth that God has supposedly given us. He’s given it to us to use.” I’m not a subscriber to that. I would say more [that] we have been given it to take care of or to be stewards of.
SB: We’ll get off climate change in a second. I have one last question connected to this idea of magic and technology. Obviously, most people know you—at least those of us who watched television in the nineties—as Agent [Fox] Mulder on The X-Files. The show is, of course, about extraterrestrials, and, to a certain extent, about magic and technology.
You’re living in that headspace of this character for so long. Did that get you thinking about magic and technology in these new ways?
DD: No, no. Again, it’s almost like those two parts of my brain didn’t really talk to one another. I had the job, as an actor, to do, and it was a great job. It was a lot of work just to stay on top of what you [had] to do, in terms of being a series lead on a show, as physically and verbally demanding as that [was]. Sometimes I’d just be memorizing signs, words—they didn’t even go deeply enough for me to even think about what I was saying, if you can imagine that.
I mean, obviously I’d been thinking about it before that, and I don’t think that I ever even made that connection. I had never been a fan of science fiction. I remember liking the movie Alien, that’s about it. I wasn’t a big Star Wars fan, I wasn’t a comic book guy. I had never made the connection between my thesis that never happened and the show.
I see it now, and it’s possible that there are no mistakes and you’re led places where you’re supposed to go, or where you lead yourself unconsciously, but I had never thought of it that way. As an actor, you’re working beneath the lines. You’re not working on what’s actually being said. You’re working on making it believable in a human way, not in an intellectual way. I didn’t address—I wouldn’t address—a specific script intellectually. I’d address it emotionally, or as an actor would. Therefore, those issues wouldn’t really arise to me.
SB: Right. Did that experience change how you think about science fiction? Comic books? Are you more into that world now?
DD: No, it didn’t. I’m amazed that Hollywood and much of filmed pop culture has been taken over by the kind of stuff that we did. I didn’t see that coming. I wasn’t an advocate for that. I just thought we were a good show, and that’s why we were doing well. It didn’t have to do with a change in what was going to be accepted in Hollywood.
Now I look at the movies that Hollywood produces, not the independents, and they’re solidly, it seems to me, ninety percent science-fiction, comic-book type films. It completely caught me off-guard. I didn’t see it coming. I thought we [The X-Files] were an aberration.
SB: [Laughs] I want to go back to the sixties, in New York—you’re growing up here. Your mother’s a school administrator and teacher. Your father’s a writer and a publicist. He worked, I understand, for the American Jewish Community, which was a Jewish advocacy group.
SB: Committee, yeah.
What was your relationship like with your parents growing up here? What sort of impact did they have on you as a kid and then [as a] writer?
DD: My mother is an immigrant from Scotland, and as a Jew, my father also felt like an immigrant, or feels like an outsider, to me. I think in many ways I felt like an immigrant myself in a way. I wasn’t an immigrant, but—
SB: It was your paternal grandparents that came here.
DD: My father was born in the States, but not my mother.
SB: They came from Ukraine and Poland, correct?
DD: Yeah, yeah. There was a sense always to me that America was not something I was born into, so much as something that I was living in, and that we would look at from the outside. But I was a New Yorker before I was an American. I felt solidly at home in this city, as did my father. My mother not so much, even though, oddly, she’s 89 and still lives here. [Laughs] She’s still here, in the city that she never really wanted to come to in the first place, I don’t think.
I had kind of an outsider view, even though I was born on the inside, and born maybe in the most American city there is. I had that legacy, I guess.
As a writer, my mother, she grew up in a very small fishing village in the north of Scotland. I believe she’s the first person—definitely the first woman—to get a college education in her family. Of that generation in that country at that time, getting a college education, [and] becoming literate, was the way out. That was your—not just upward mobility—but it was the bettering of the person. It was a way out. She instilled that in me, even though it wasn’t necessarily the case for me, a kid growing up in New York City, it wasn’t like that.
Still to this day, I mean, I’m going to go visit her after I do this, and she’s going to ask me about my next book. That’s all she cares about. As soon as that one’s done, she’s going to ask me about the next one. It just never ends, her hunger for literary output, or just reading, was, always, I had to be reading.
My dad [Amram Duchovny] was a closet writer until he was 72—he published his first novel at the age of 72.
SB: Which, I think it’s worth saying, was well-reviewed in The New York Times.
DD: It was, yeah.
SB: It’s called Coney. I actually have a note here—The Times described it as “able to transport readers swiftly into the garish and steamy heart of Coney Island on the eve of World War II,” adding that it’s “as satisfying and exhilarating as a ride on the Cyclone.”
DD: They said that? [Laughs]
DD: That was nice. I wonder who wrote that one. [Editor’s note: The piece, which was published on Oct. 22, 2000, was written by Dana Kennedy.] My dad was born in ’27, so for him to write… The protagonist of his book is a child, who’s a little younger than my dad would have been, I think. My dad was 18 when the war ended.
SB: His father [Moshe Duchovny] was a newspaperman and reporter, correct?
DD: Yeah, for a Yiddish newspaper here in the city called The Forward. It was the last daily Yiddish paper.
SB: You’re sort of the third-generation writer.
DD: I guess, yeah. You know, it’s funny, because growing up I knew my dad said he was a writer, but he didn’t really write. He did publish a number of books that were kind of pastiches. For extra money, he would put together these political-satire books. He wrote The Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew, which was ridiculous quotes of Agnew. Agnew was like Trump before Trump. He was just a dolt who said ridiculous stupid things—and a criminal. My dad put his quotes kind of facing one another that were completely opposite, and made him out to be the fool that he was. That was one little book.
SB: If [your dad] were still with us, we would have a Trump book.
DD: Yeah, but Trump, it just doesn’t matter. Back then it was like, “Oh, my God, this idiot is in a position of power?” Now we all know that, but there seems to be very little to do.
He wrote The Establishment Dictionary, which used [names] from the establishment, like say Nixon or Agnew, as if they were nouns and verbs, and then he would do false Latinate or different language derivations of them, that would make fun of the people.
DD: Yeah, like to Agnew, I think was like from the Persian agnewi, “to bleed like a sheep,” or something like that. He would do these things, and he’d make some cash.
He wrote a play that was on Broadway in 1967 called The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, which was not funny. Although, Mel Brooks could have definitely done a Producers with that play—it was that bleak. If they would have made it a musical comedy, it would have done better. It closed in a week, and it was only four years after the assassination. My dad always thought it was too soon; people weren’t ready.
The conceit was if Oswald hadn’t been assassinated and had sat trial, what would that trial have been? That was the play.
SB: Your dad also, it seems, had a sense of humor, which corresponds to what you do.
DD: He did. Yeah, he did. He said to me once, “I’m giving you the best thing a father could ever give a son. I’m not very successful.” [Laughs]
SB: In your second book [Bucky F*cking Dent: A Novel], of course, there’s a very close father/son relationship, but difficult dynamics.
DD: Yeah, that is nothing like my father at all. That is just a creation out of necessity to drive the story. I just kind of made up that character. My father was not a hardass, he wasn’t abusive.
SB: I heard you describe him on NPR as “gentle” or “permissive.”
DD: Yes. He was very gentle and ironic, playful. He’s nothing like the character in the book.
SB: Before you even thought of becoming an actor, you had literary aspirations. When did those start? Where did those come from?
DD: Probably through my father. I just wanted to be like him, or to kind of figure out what it was that interested him, and did it interest me.
You hear my stomach there, Pat? [Looks at Pat McCusker, Time Sensitive’s sound engineer, beyond the glass in the adjacent room.] Did you hear that? It was good. Let’s save that one, we’ll put it on the record.
I just wanted him to like my writing, I guess. I remember giving him papers that I had to write in sixth grade, and if he didn’t love them, I would just get so angry at him. He’d suggest changes, and I’d just yell at him and tell him he was wrong. I just wanted him to love what I did.
From both my parents, [I got] a real respect for writing. To be able to express yourself, to be able to think. To this day, I think better as a writer than I do as somebody who just kind of stews and thinks of things. I think better with a pen in my hand.
SB: I noticed on Twitter, for example, you’re definitely not a reactive Twitterer.
DD: No, Twitter just … I kind of stay off of it.
SB: There is this idea, and especially in Bucky F*cking Dent, of the child self versus the adult self. I’m curious, do you think back about your child writing versus your adult writing? Is there a sort of throughline or a parallel there?
DD: It’s funny, it’s a good question. I’ve never said this, there’s a couple of… The character in Bucky Dent finds some old notebooks, and there’s like a journaling or some notes that he wrote as a young boy, that he remembers. It’s quoted in the book—he’s kind of looking at it in wonderment, thinking, Who’s this kid that is so concerned about his bowling average and stuff like that? I don’t even remember liking bowling. It’s like it’s a totally different person.
Those were lifted, literally. My mother just happened to hand me these notebooks of mine, most of which were filled with me playing this dice baseball game that I used to play. Just pages and pages of games, nine-inning games that I played, of teams against each other, with just these two dice. There was also pages of my bowling statistics, and basketball statistics, and some diary-like entries.
I used them verbatim. I changed the name of my buddy in one, so I wouldn’t piss him off, because I called him lame or something in it. Other than that, those were taken right out of these notebooks. I just remember thinking, God, it’s so interesting.
When you have kids of your own, you think you can talk to them like adults. Mine are older now, but when they were young, you think, They must be reasonable people. They probably want and think about the same things I do. But then I look back at myself when I was 10 and see what I was concerned with and the way that I thought, and it’s just a different person.
SB: Do you remember the first thing you wrote that you felt had true literary value, or was something you were proud of?
DD: No, not really. I think there were a couple of papers in college that I thought were pretty good, criticism. But fiction-wise, I think I wrote a short story in college that I thought was pretty good.
But really, like my dad, I really didn’t start until I decided to write Holy Cow, five or six years ago. I think that my style changed without me knowing it. I think I became a better writer by not writing for a while, somehow. I think I just became a better thinker.
SB: There must have been quite an evolution to go from this more theory-based work to writing a story, your first book, Holy Cow, [in which] the protagonist is a cow.
DD: Yeah, I was pressuring myself. I had some time off. Much like my dad must have pressured himself at some point, when he got a little older: “I’ve said I’m a writer, let’s write.“ I’d written screenplays, I’d written teleplays. I’d gotten stuff that I’d written produced as drama, comedy, whatever, but not as fiction, not as prose.
Then I thought, of the ideas that I have that I think might sustain a novel-length treatment, the one about the animals seemed the least pressure. I could kind of write an abandon in a way, because I would be addressing… I didn’t know the audience quite so well. I didn’t know if it was adult. I thought it was kind of a hybrid, where I would address kind of a kids’ story, [and] skew it toward adults. I felt like that would be liberating for me, not to write the great American novel, not try to die on that hill my first time out. It just felt very unpretentious, and I could just kind of free-associate my way through it.
Also, I didn’t think I’d be held up to any kind of standards of realism. This is a talking cow, pig, and a turkey. It’s obviously in another realm.
SB: Right. Miss Subways, your latest book, also has that fantastical hyperrealism.
DD: Yeah. The one that I just finished, my mother will be happy to know, is just in the real world and just in the present day. This would be my epic kind of American-scope novel.
SB: Do you think [that], after leaving Yale, becoming an actor, and then later, two-plus decades later, returning to writing, was liberating for you, in a way? That it took some of the heat or the pressure off that you might have felt trying to do that?
DD: Oh, if I’d done that out of the gate? Yeah, for sure, for sure. There’s something to be said for having to write for your dinner. You’re certainly going to get some words out. I think the fact that I was well-fed probably inhibited me from writing before. I didn’t need to—nobody was asking me to. My kids were going to be okay if I didn’t.
But on the other hand, the fact that… Of course, I’d love everything that I write to be a bestseller, but I don’t need it financially. I’m free artistically that way, to pursue what I want, what interests me. That’s a great benefit, too.
SB: There’s also this idea of urgency. That writing, oftentimes when you have a sense of urgency—
DD: I would have had the urgency if I had started when I was 22, the urgency of making a career. The urgency of, “This is what I want to say.” But in a way, being quiet for so long, not writing for so long, gave me a different kind of urgency when I did start. Which is interesting to me, and was really a wonderful thing for me as an artist. I’ve been acting for thirty years, directing, just living in that world, and happy with it. Happy to do those jobs and to solve those problems.
But to start something new—and we did it with the music as well—to start something new has a real kind of urgency to it that is different from the urgencies of mid-career or late career, whatever, of something that you’ve been doing for a while. I love that kind of unknown and that energy to it.
SB: I think time, too, has an important role here. Your perspective shifts with this time, and of course, the older you get, the less time you have on earth. There’s probably a certain element there as well.
DD: Yeah, I think so. I don’t want to be maudlin about it, but really I feel… I think about when I’m gone and I think about my kids, and I always think, “If they want to know what I was like as an adult,” because they’re close to being adults, and hopefully I’ll live long enough for them to get to know me. They could read the books, and they could really get in my head and in my heart.
Seeing me perform is one thing. You can get a sense of me, whatever. You can be in my presence probably more immediately by watching something. I’m thinking of my kids again. But if you really wanted to know who I was, just pulp these books, and make a shake out of them, and swallow it down. They’d know me. I think that’s a gift from me to them in a way.
SB: Right. We’ve talked a little bit about each of your books. Can you reveal anything about the next one?
DD: Well, it has to do with America, and capitalism, and religion, and yet it’s a rollicking, action-filled story of the West. It takes place in California, which is different. All these books take place—I think they’re all in New York state. I don’t know where I said Holy Cow was, but I think it’s somewhere up here in the Northeast. [My next novel is] my California book, and it’s my attempt at kind of an epic sweep. It’s about a former stuntman, which is weird, because this Tarantino film [Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood] just came out.
SB: You’re like, “Oh.“ [Laughs]
DD: [Laughs] Shit. No, but I saw it too, and I liked it. The protagonist is a stuntman who undergoes a religious conversion. It’s very different from that. That doesn’t tell you much, but that just tells you a little bit.
SB: I want to talk a little bit more about writing, craft and writing, and then get into your acting work. What is your process when you sit down to write? What’s going through your head?
DD: That’s a good question. For instance, [for] this last book, I probably had the germ of the idea ten years ago. I’ve had it in my head for ten years.
SB: Miss Subways?
DD: No, no.
SB: Oh, the new one.
DD: Yeah, it’s called Truly Like Lightning.
SB: I did notice though that Miss Subways, the title, was mentioned in Bucky Dent.
DD: [Laughs] Yeah, I’d had that idea, sure.
That wasn’t a new idea, either. That’s another benefit of starting late—you get to use all the ideas you had when you were younger.
The process of writing on a particular day or of starting a novel?
SB: Just typing.
DD: I’m a bad typer. I’m a one-finger, two-finger typer. I don’t write longhand; I do type it out at the computer. Normally what I do is I try to wake up really early, like at 4:30, 5:00, and I have my espresso, and I use that euphoria. I’m a lightweight with drugs—drugs affect me immediately and completely. One espresso makes me very happy, and feel like I confidently can go out and write wonderfully. I use that, and I just start writing.
Usually I like to stop before I finish what I’m doing that day, so that I can pick up with something. At least I know what I’m doing the next day. I don’t like to finish whatever it is I was working on that day. Because, to sit down and not know the first couple beats of what you’re going after is really horrible.
That’s what I do. I write fast, and I probably write usually four or five hours. Maybe another coffee in there. Then around noon, if what I’m doing is writing, I’ll eat, and then the rest of the day is pretty much done. I’m just mentally kind of spent at that point, but I feel good. It’s a good feeling to have.
First of all, I like getting up that early. I like the idea that I’m getting a jump on everybody else. Like everybody’s asleep, and I’m here and I’m writing. Already I feel like I’m ahead, just by sitting down.
SB: You mentioned beats. Rhythm of course is a big part of—I’m sure—your day-to-day, in both your acting work [and your music]. How do you think about rhythm in your life?
DD: It’s just very personal. It’s like when you edit a piece, speaking of music as well, I’m always amazed. Not everybody’s on the same page. It’s very clear when you edit film or television with somebody, and you can just differ by a millisecond of when you want to get out of a shot, or get into a shot, or comic timing or dramatic timing, and all that stuff. It’s all rhythmical, and it’s all very personal. You’re just looking for people who have the same type of rhythm that you do in that way.
SB: It’s very much heart, not so much science.
DD: It is.
DD: It is, although people, there’s a science to it, I guess. I guess if we broke it down, there’s a science to it, but I don’t know what that science is. It’s informed by experience, though. It’s informed by having been in the editing room. It’s informed by having been an actor, and feeling, like, What’s the right timing of that? When does that happen?
With comedy especially—everybody talks about comic timing, and that’s something that you feel or you don’t feel. That’s something that, later on, when you edit comedy, you can either enhance, or destroy, or create, when the actor didn’t get that timing.
SB: All your books are with the same publisher, FSG.
SB: The same editor, Jonathan Galassi. What’s your relationship with him like? How do you bounce ideas back and forth?
DD: It’s funny, I came to Jonathan through a friend of mine named Eleanor Chai, who’s a poet. He’s a wonderful editor. FSG is a great literary publishing house. I thought, Holy Cow, I don’t know if that’s in your wheelhouse. Jonathan said, “No, I think you’re a writer, and I want to publish your books. I think this is a good first one.“
SB: When I saw the title of the book, I was almost thinking maybe that was going through your head, “Holy cow, I’m publishing at FSG.” [Laughs]
DD: Proposing this book with FSG that has drawings in it for fuck’s sake.
He was very kind with that. It wasn’t heavily edited; it’s a short book.
SB: It’s always interesting, because—talking about [the] personal and the connection of rhythm—the relationship with the editor is so deep.
DD: Here’s the deal: with Jonathan, he’s always like… I’ve got to pitch him first, which is funny. “What’s the next one?“ It’s like my mother. The funny thing is, is he lives in my mother’s building. My mother thinks that Jonathan Galassi is God. She’s always like, “I saw your editor. What does he think about your book?“ Nobody else matters but Jonathan, to my mom. “I saw Jonathan in the building. What does he think of the book?” I said, “Well, he’s publishing it, Mom. He must think it’s okay.” I don’t know what to say—he’s publishing it.
I pitched him Bucky, [and] he said, “Okay.” I don’t think he’s a big baseball fan or anything, but we went with that. We worked through that, and Miss Subways as well. Miss Subways he was probably most lukewarm [to] of the first three, but I think he liked the way I executed it.
Then this one, this last one, I went and I had this idea for a science-fiction show, and I wrote it out as a pilot. I said to him, “What about we do it as a graphic novel?” and I pitched him the idea. He said, “I like the idea, but we don’t really do… I don’t know anything about graphic novels, we don’t do them. Do you have anything else?” I said, “I have this other idea, too, and I pitched him that idea.” He said, “I think I like that. I like that a lot. I like that idea.”
I told my agent, and my agent, Andrew Blauner, he called like two weeks later, and he said, “Why don’t you write that up as a proposal, and we’ll get a contract from FSG.” I said, “Because then I’ll have to write it. If I accept any money from them, then I’ll actually have to write that book.”
SB: You wrote the first three more on spec?
DD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah.
SB: I think it’s an interesting connection to your acting work, that a lot of the roles you’ve played have been writers. Could you talk about that? The fictional writer versus the real-life David Duchovny writer.
DD: I don’t know. I don’t know why that is. I’ve thought about that—or, been asked about that—too. All I can say is there’s nothing more boring than portraying a writer on-screen, not to the actor, but to the viewer. To watch a writer write.
SB: But usually they have very colorful lives.
DD: That’s the lie. Tom Kapinos, who was the creator of Californication [the Showtime series], said, “This is a total fantasy of mine, that a writer would be considered attractive to women, first of all, and that people would be interested in what he does and how he thinks.” In a way it’s like writers, I think often, that’s their revenge, is to write stories in which writers matter in the real world. [Laughs]
SB: I think your first writer character, at least the one that I could find—
DD: Who’s that?
SB: From New Year’s Day in 1989.
DD: Yeah, that would be the first, since that’s the first job I did. Was he a writer?
SB: There’s this line: “I’ve written poetry, and I write fiction.”
DD: I don’t think he had a job. I think he was unemployed.
SB: I loved how [in] another role of yours around this time, you were on some daily show or late-night show, joking that you were “Club-Goer No. 3” in Bad Influence from 1990.
DD: I was saying I named my kids after roles, roles that meant something to me. I said one of my first jobs was very important to me when I first came out to Hollywood, so I’m naming my first son Club-Goer No. 2.
SB: I think the first role of yours that really stood out as not only exemplary of your talent as an actor, but really one that I think, nationally, people noticed was in Twin Peaks, [as] Denise.
SB: I’m curious about how you think about that now in this current moment.
DD: It’s so strange.
SB: I think we should say here that Denise is a transgender woman.
DD: Is she, though? She’s a transvestite. I don’t know—it was never made clear.
SB: That’s interesting, because the writing about that role now is all over the internet.
SB: Samantha Allen, who is transgender, wrote an essay in The Daily Beast a couple years ago saying that, “To this day, it may be the most tender portrayal of friendship between a transgender person and someone who knew them before transition, and it was first aired in 1990.”
DD: Yeah, it was interesting to do it again a couple years ago. I did read some stuff about how I was given slack as a cisgender male, to be allowed to play it, because I kind of played it so long ago, and it was the same role. There’s no way that a cisgender actor would play that role now, which I find interesting, and [feel] lucky that I was able to do it.
I felt just as an actor back then—it was my third or fourth job or whatever—I remember my thought process going into it. The only backstory that I had for the character was in the scripts, which was that he was working [as a] drug enforcement agent. This is so ridiculous. He was trying to bust this dealer who would only sell to transvestites. Exactly. This is the world of Twin Peaks.
This is like the monologue that I have of why I show up and see Kyle MacLachlan. This guy that he used to know, why I show up in a dress, so I’m telling him my story, “What happened since you last saw me?” “Well, I was working with the DEA, and we were trying to bust this dealer who would only deal to transvestites.” [Laughs] You’re supposed to let that slide. “I put on the clothes, and I found that I felt freer, liberated. It suited me.”
That was really all I had to go on. Then I just approached it that way. It wasn’t about sex, and it really wasn’t about gender, to me. It was about the feeling that the clothes had given this guy, and then this identity that he had felt was his once he put… That’s really the only way I approached it. I didn’t approach it as A, B, C, or D, or whatever. I approached it as a human being finding something out about themselves, and sharing it with an old friend.
SB: It must have felt so freeing to just not pay attention to any external factors or what society or politics, or anything at the time, would have told you to do.
DD: Yeah. Honestly, as an actor, you can’t have any kind of a judgment. As a person, I don’t have a judgment on it, but I recognize that many people do. That’s what the struggle is about. As an actor, famously, you can’t judge. You just have to try to inhabit.
Getting back to my father, it was funny. It was probably the first—like, you mentioned New Year’s Day—that was an independent movie that nobody would have seen really, a hundred, three hundred people might have seen it. Twin Peaks, the first time I’d be on television, and millions of people would see me. I had no concern what I was wearing, I was an actor, this was the job, “I’m doing the best that I can here.”
My father had had heart surgery in Boston right when it was airing. My father didn’t really know anything about my life as an actor. He didn’t really understand what I was trying to do or where I was going. He knew that I wasn’t an academic. He was like, “The kid I knew…” (He left when I was 11.) He was like, “The kid I knew, I didn’t see him being in a university his whole life.”
He’d undergone the surgery, and I went to visit him up in Boston. He had a legal pad by his bedside. He had tubes or he was very sore from the surgery in his throat, so he couldn’t speak. He had a pad, where he would write down his thoughts or his requests to the nurses. I got there—he was sleeping—and I saw this pad by his bed. It said, “My feet are cold. I’m thirsty. My son plays a transvestite on television.” He was saying, “Please turn on the TV.” They were like, “Why?” [Laughs]
SB: “This sounds very random.”
DD: I’m sure they thought he’s taken too many Percocet here or something.
SB: Yeah, yeah. Then, of course, your role [as Agent Fox Mulder] on The X-Files, which you played consistently from ’93 to 2001.
SB: Now looking back almost thirty years—and of course you kind of return to the character twenty-five years on—what does that role, the Agent Mulder role, mean to you in your own personal life, but also sort of looking at where we are in society? I know you touched on it briefly, talking about what’s happening in Hollywood and what people are really paying attention to, and how The X-Files was sort of ahead of its time in that way.
DD: Personally, it meant everything to me as an actor and as a professional person, in that it gave me success. It gave me financial stability. It gave me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had, had I not been on a show that was, seriously, a global phenomenon. There are good aspects and bad aspects of that obviously, but the good greatly outweigh the bad.
The second part of your question was?
SB: How you view The X-Files in contemporary culture today.
DD: Well, I think we touched on that. Even if you look at horror movies, too, you look at the resurgence of horror and sci-fi thrillers—that’s what The X-Files was. We were a different show every week. We were a horror show, we were a sci-fi show, we were a government procedural, depending on when you tuned in. I think we kind of, in a way, not staked out that territory, but we were playing in those territories that are now very popular. That doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a fact. I’m not taking credit. I’m just looking at it objectively, and it’s interesting just to look at that.
I find it also interesting to think about what Chris Carter did, making an FBI agent a hero in a time… Me, I’m not really a child of the sixties—I’m a little too young for that—but I definitely inherited that “Don’t trust the man” [idea]. For me to play a heroic FBI agent, to me that was like, “That’s not really my bag, you know? I don’t see myself as a cop.”
It’s just interesting to look at where we are now, where we’ve been waiting for Robert Mueller to save us. Even before that, we’ve been relying on these military chiefs of staff to be the adults in the room. We’ve kind of come full circle, where, when I grew up it was like you don’t trust the military. Now, in the age of Trump, those are the only guys that seem to be adults in that place. It’s a very queasy position for, I guess, people like me to be in. Where it’s like, “Oh, my God, thank God for Robert Mueller. Robert Mueller? Lifelong Republican? Was the head of the FBI?“ This is not what you thought of as the social savior. There’s that.
Then again, I got to play Mulder as kind of a rebel against the bureaucracy of the FBI, even if it was a silly rebellion, which was like, “Hey, aliens exist,” or whatever he’s saying. He’s saying there is a deep state. There’s a deep state that’s prohibiting you from knowing the truth, and he’s the rebel who’s going to expose it.
SB: There’s something about that character—there’s a tension, especially between Mulder and Scully, that’s kind of amazing. I feel like there’s this healthy tension that was created in the show that is, in part, why it lasted so long.
SB: Can you talk a little bit about that? Like, how you viewed that tension between the characters?
DD: Yeah. I think the creation of the tension was a result of having to spin out so many stories. If it was a movie, maybe they would have jumped into bed by the middle of the second act, and broken up by the end, and come to some kind of agreement by the end of the movie.
Since it was a series, there was this kind of dance of intimacy that had to go on for years and years, that nobody knew when we started. We knew we were going to have to stay apart, yet be together. In fact, there was a character in the pilot who was cut out of the pilot, who is Scully’s boyfriend. There’s a phone call in the pilot where I think I call her in the middle of the night, and I say, “The bad guys have destroyed all the evidence,” or whatever. The scene was shot, there’s two shots of her and this guy in bed with her, and there’s a shot after they hang up, where he says, “Who was that?” She says, “Oh, it was that new guy, Mulder, that I’m working with.” He’s just totally cut out; they just used a single of her on the phone.
I think they realized early on that it was going to be some kind of primary relationship, but it wasn’t going to be sexual.
SB: Did you ever imagine that this character would, on some level—I see you shake your head—it’s almost like you know the question I’m about to ask. Did you imagine this character would turn you, in a way, into a sex symbol? Like have Maureen Dowd in 1995 describe you as the “first internet sex symbol with hair”?
DD: Thank you, Maureen.
SB: I heard you described as a “Hollywood hunk” on a radio interview.
DD: Yeah, I can’t say that I’m surprised, because it’s not something I ever thought about. To say that I was surprised would mean that I would be sitting around thinking, Gee, I wonder what role is going to turn me into a sex symbol? It wasn’t Denise—maybe it was [Mulder]. I think it was like his lack of interest in sex, in a way, that made him a sex symbol.
SB: In a way, Hank Moody [from Californication] was the opposite of that.
DD: Yeah, and that was conscious—not necessarily in terms of the sexuality of it, but I was conscious of playing not just a character, but of inhabiting a world that was at the opposite side of the spectrum of The X-Files. Although, I had often tried to infuse humor in The X-Files. I guess I probably went the other way, and would try to infuse drama in Californication. That’s just my nature as an artist or as a performer, to bring the opposite in.
SB: Right. I think this throughline of humor, sex, sexuality—it’s really interesting. I read that you taught Prince Charles what a booty call is.
DD: I didn’t want to. Just, the occasion arose.
SB: [Laughs] These funny circumstances. Of course, in Bucky Dent, there’s this whole father exchange around the idea of “cock talk,” and the trauma therein. In Miss Subways, the book opens up literally with the male gaze and manspreading. There’s this line you describe as “the hedge fund simulacrum of masculinity,” which I thought was particularly [apt] for this moment. Miss Subways was also the first place I ever read the phrase, “après sex.“
DD: Is that because I made it up?
SB: I’m sure it exists—it must exist.
DD: I don’t know whether I’ve ever read it, either. I kind of hope I made it up.
SB: In terms of how you think about those things, like humor and sex, is that something that’s been intentionally in your work, or is that just part of your day-to-day?
DD: Not intentionally. I mean, to talk about humor is very risky, right? There’s nothing less funny than to try to explain why something’s funny. I think what is funny is what is human, what joins us all. When we are exposed for the animals that we are, that could be the saddest, [as] in King Lear, or the funniest. To me, I guess that’s what it comes down to.
Also, in terms of Californication, I didn’t write any of that, but clearly sex makes people uncomfortable in some way, in the civilized world. There’s a lot of energy to be mined from those kinds of scenes—not a sex scene, but just in the area. I don’t know. Again, I just feel like it’s just not funny.
SB: It’s interesting you mention what it means to be human or getting in touch with that. There were two things in doing research for this interview—and this is sort of where I want to close—that related to trauma, at least in my mind, that I could see you going through in life. One very obvious, one was your daughter when she was quite young, she had an illness that completely transformed how you think about life, period.
The other being—and I might be going a little too far here, but I know in the  film you [wrote, starred, and directed in], House of D, Robin Williams was in it. Robin Williams is one of these larger-than-life characters, and the role he played in that film, it’s him at his best, I think. This really incredible character.
I guess trauma is the question. I’m sure when Robin passed and left us, that was a very traumatic moment for you, just understanding him in that role, and probably in connection to your personal life.
SB: How have you handled both of those two polar things, the young child very sick, and a good friend, somebody who’s a legend, who you admire, who was this larger-than-life figure, passing on?
DD: I think generally, I guess, as an artist, or as somebody who wants to live, you take whatever wounds you get from life—and we’re all going to get them—and you try and find the strength in those things, in overcoming them, or in processing them, or in turning them into something else.
In the case of my daughter, West, getting ill when she was nine months old, I guess I turned it into Bucky F*cking Dent, which is really the heart of that book. Which is why I say to my kids, “When I’m gone, read the books.” In there, she’ll see what she meant to me.
In terms of Robin, it’s not just Robin. Robin certainly was, as you describe him, Robin was a wildly energetic person. Had so much imagination, and speed, and energy, and pain, which, I don’t know that I knew where it came from, but it came from somewhere.
I don’t know if you know, the other actor in the film was named Anton Yelchin, and he died about two years ago, at the age of 24 or 25. [Editor’s note: He was 27.] He was run over by his own car. He had parked it on a hill and he was checking something, and it went into reverse and pinned him and killed him. He was just a beautiful person and a wonderful actor, and an artist, an artist across the board. He was a musician; he was directing his first film when he was killed. He was a great actor, had a really great career. I think there’s actually a documentary that his parents have done about him that is going to come out.
It just doesn’t make sense, right? That’s just the way life is: it just doesn’t make sense. There’s never going to be a story that I can tell that makes it okay for Anton to have died that young, but maybe we try. What we do is, as human beings, I think we tell stories to one another. There’s no sense to be had out there, really. It’s just the world, and we just happen to be animals on it. We’re trying to tell each other that there’s a God up there who’s taking care of us or not, or there’s climate change that’s coming or not.
All these stories that we’re telling ourselves are important. It’s kind of what Bucky Dent is about: it’s about, Look, there’s no truth; there’s no answer. There’s only stories that we tell each other, that either make us better people or worse people. There are stories that we tell each other that make us kinder and more loving, or more animalistic and more violent.
SB: A lot of this, I think, too, is this notion of transference of energy. Taking energy from someone—say, Robin or Anton, or your young child, who thankfully survived and is alive. How do you think about energy in that context. and now as a musician, and an actor, and a writer? How are you transferring that energy into your own work?
DD: I don’t know. I think that’s the only thing that kind of survives. Energy gets dissipated, obviously. Again, I hate to come back to that same example, but I guess it’s in my head. I put a lot of energy—you’ve got three books, my three books right in front of you. I put a lot of energy into making those things, so that energy’s gone, but these things, somehow they retain a certain kind of energy. They’re like magic crystals or something.
SB: Are you back to magic now? [Laughs]
DD: Yeah. You can access that energy again so it’s not lost in some way. You can look at a movie again, and you can feel that creative energy again. You can watch a series and feel energized by the energy that was put into that—now you’re getting it. I think that’s all we have. That’s the game that we’re all playing. We’re just these energetic beings that are running around expending the energy that we’ve been given on this planet.
Again, it goes back to what an idiot Trump is. He won’t work out, because he says you only have so much energy. Stuff like that. I can’t get that guy out of my head. It’s like that. It’s like, that’s what we’re here to do, is to expend the energy. I don’t want to say “God-given,” but just what we’ve been given.
SB: David, this was great. Thanks so much for coming in.
DD: That made no sense, I know.
SB: [Laughs] Thanks for coming.
DD: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 30, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.