Craig Davidson: ‘I’m like a Swiss Army knife’

The Cataract City author on writing ad copy to pay the bills. Plus, an excerpt from his Giller-nominated novel.

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

THE 2013 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the work and artistic process of the five shortlisted nominees. In this edition, Cataract City author Craig Davidson discusses what’s grist for the writer’s mill. Watch for upcoming interviews and book excerpts from Dennis Bock, Lynn Coady, Lisa Moore and Dan Vyleta.

It’s difficult to say, really, what effect failing as a worm harvester might have on an aspiring author. Some might take it as a very strong indicator to abandon any and all previous ambitions and enrol in, say, a technical college. Craig Davidson, however, just shrugged it off, along with stints as a bus driver and dating-site profiler. “I don’t think there’s anything that can, or should, keep young writers out of the field. It’s been a bit of a slog for me, true—a lot of different hats to pay the bills. I’ve been fired as a bartender, too.” There were a couple of times when Davidson could see the appeal of what he calls “an Eminem mic-drop moment: All right, that’s it, I’m done.” But nothing else ever made him feel as good as writing did and, now, after the “big shock” of seeing his novel Cataract City be nominated for the Giller prize, it’s likely nothing will have to.

The Giller process has been like a hurdles race, Davidson laughs. “Make the long list, then, as those three weeks to the short-list pass, a little tension in your chest; jump that hurdle and you’re in the final heat.” Sports metaphors are a natural for an author known for the violent physicality of his stories, full of boxing and dogfights, and for the somewhat personal research of his youth. Davidson took steroids for his boxing novel, and they had the expected effect on him. “But I’m not an angry young man any more; you leave that stuff behind when you have a child,” he says in reference to his 16-month-old son. Davidson, Calgary-born and a resident of Toronto, is just a writer now—an established writer, in fact, one whose wannabe worm-picking days are long behind him.

Craig Davidson on writing

My writing life is pretty mundane. It’s not a carnival ride of fun and hijinks. It’s boring, to be honest. My writing space itself has shifted over the past few years: first, at an Ikea desk set up in the kitchen of a teeny-tiny apartment in Fredericton, where I worked as a deputy editor at a newspaper; then, that same Ikea desk in a cluttered second bedroom/storage space/litter-box area on the 23rd floor of an apartment building overlooking High Park in Toronto; and now, that same trusty Ikea desk in the equally cramped spare bedroom of a house I share with my fiancée and our 16-month-old son in the westernmost reaches of the city.

What goes down at that desk? Well, it’s where the magic happens—if by “magic,” you mean “hours of sitting, writing stuff of occasionally dubious merit, until I hit at least 1,000 words, at which point I can attend to the other important matters in my life.” Magic! I love writing, but I’ve never really bought into the mystery and airy allure of it—and you wouldn’t, either, if you could see me at 11 a.m., barefoot in a ratty pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt with a hot-sauce stain on it, drinking diet root beer from a two-litre bottle while I try to hammer out a 2,000-word freelance piece on, say, urinal cakes for some magazine who will be responsible for paying my mortgage that month—if they don’t kill the piece in the meantime.

That’s been my writing life. Unglamorous in the extreme. So it’s unaccountably strange to find myself on a literary prize list. To pay the rent, I’ve written everything you can think of: stories, novels, long-form non-fiction pieces, memoirish stuff, 300-word front-of-book material about wristwatches and water bottles and juicers for a variety of publications, classified ads, ad copy, fake profiles for a dating site—it’s been varied. And, in the course of trying to make my living that way, I’ve often run short on rent money, and thus set up shop as a librarian, an ESL teacher, special-needs bus driver, newspaper and magazine editor, pharmaceutical test subject, worm harvester (I didn’t get that gig, actually), and whatever else I could do to make ends meet.

As I said: magic! But the diversity of work has given me a diversity of skills. I think of myself as a Swiss Army knife. You want a novel? Okay, let me fold out my novel attachment. A story? A profile? A 200-word product pop on energy bars? Gimme a sec, I’ve got that attachment, too. That said, I will admit that I did set out to stretch myself as a writer, pure and simple, with Cataract City. I wish I could paint a more romantic picture, but that’s the path I’ve walked. And, for the most part, I’ve been happy and very fortunate to walk it. This nomination is a startling occurrence along that path, unlike anything preceding it, so forgive me if I linger awhile and drink it in.

An interview with Craig Davidson, conducted by Brian Benthune

Q: The first thing I noticed, reading your piece about your writing life, is that you call it “mundane”: a more sensitive soul might call it depressing.

A: I’m not, like, a masochist, so I don’t think I’d subject myself to it if it were. You have enough to be depressed about, sometimes, in the writing life, without the actual day-to-day being that. Although, day-to-day, it can, if the day’s not going well [and] you’re tasked with an assignment that you’re not really all that keen on, or you know you’re just doing it for the money—I suppose that can leach in there, but yeah.

Q: I was wondering if you were trying to keep competition out of the field.

A: No! I don’t think anything I say or do could stop—nor should stop—young writers from entering the field. I think for me, it was more of a learning curve. When I got out of school, I thought, “Well, being a writer means X,” and for some writers, it does mean X, whatever that happens to be. Maybe they sign the giant book contract and they’re set, or they have an out-of-the-box sensation with their first book and it’s just one success to the next to the next, but for me, I wouldn’t say it was a slog; it was more like learning that you have to do a whole bunch of different things, wear a whole bunch of different hats.

Q: Some people are Fortune’s child and others need to keep working at it.

A: That’s right, they take a longer, more circuitous path, and I think I probably recognized, after my first book came out that, “Okay, time to re-evaluate my sense of what this is all about,” and I did, with more mental gymnastics than anything and, once that was done, I was a lot more at peace, I think, with how I was going to progress with this whole thing.

Q: You’re right, though: Nothing ever does stop young writers from going for it.

A: No, nor should it. Maybe a year ago, when Philip Roth retired and a young writer had approached him at a deli and Roth basically said, “Don’t start writing,” I thought, “Well, I get it, maybe, from his perspective,” although, when you’ve had the type of successes he’s had, it is tough to figure it out. But also, the point is, it didn’t deter that young writer from continuing doing what he’s doing.

Q: Well, I’ve not myself failed at worm-picking, as you say happened to you, but I suspect that’s only because I never gave it a try. I was once sent home from a factory with kind advice to look for something less demanding for a livelihood.

A: Yeah. I’ve got fired as a bartender, too, for just not having the requisite skills that were required to sling drinks, so it’s been a humbling career even off the page, sometimes. But, you know, you learn something along the way every time.

Q: Okay. Well, you must have had a lot of temptation at some points to say, “Well, this isn’t for me. I need to find a way to make a living.”

A: Definitely. But the stumbling block there was?.?.?.?when it’s going well, when things are cooking along really well, nothing made me feel as good as writing. I tell my friends or my fiancée, I’m 38, I’m coming up on 40, and maybe it’s an arbitrary age, but it makes you think, “Well, that’s about halfway through my life, and do I want to try something completely different?” There’d always be that nice sentiment of doing, like, the Eminem mic drop, just like, “That’s it, I’m over, I’m done,” you know? But at the same point, you want to call the terms of it and you don’t people to be like, “Oh, you’re done? Well, okay. Fine, I don’t really care anyway,” you know?

Q: “I didn’t really know you’d started.”

A:    Right! When you retire from writing and you’re Alice Munro or Philip Roth, that’s cause for concern and certainly newsworthy. When I drop the mic, it’s like, “All right, see you,” you know? “Enjoy being whatever else you’re going to be,” sort of a thing.

Q: But now you are in a position, in a prize-concentrated literary culture, that gives you a step forward, no matter what happens from here.

A: That’s what I thought, too. It’s sort of like hurdles, I guess. When I found myself on the long list, I was sort of shocked. So that’s like getting over one hurdle that you didn’t even really know was there. I mean, I guess lately, you did. But then comes the shortlist.  There’s, like, three weeks to that, and at first, you’re just coasting, then you get closer to the shortlist and you get a little tension in your chest going, “Well, there’s a possibility,” and then you jump over that one—which again was a shock—and so now you find yourself in this pool of five—dashing, hurtling headlong for that last piece of tape. I’m just happy to be in it over the last 10 yards, you know. I didn’t expect to be here, so just being in that last heat is lovely.

Q: Sports metaphors here?.?.?.

A: Yeah, that’s right!

Q: You write a lot about physicality. Do you ever think of yourself as an outlier, or get pigeonholed as being outside the CanLit mainstream?

A: I would suppose so. I think that’s changing maybe a little bit—not just that I’m doing anything about that, really, but there was a point when I was going through school that you felt, “This is CanLit and these are the trappings of CanLit.” The stuff that I was writing would not fall favourably within that square. But I’ve always probably self-identified as sort of a dark horse or an outsider, though it’s nothing I’ve necessarily fostered. I don’t wear a trenchcoat around, projecting, “Yeah, I’m a moody outsider guy.” It’s just that the stuff I’m fascinated with in fiction is outside not just CanLit, but maybe even the popular reading taste a lot of the time, so I’ve just sort of settled with that.

Q: On the outside of respectable life, then?

A: That’s right, yeah.

Q: But despite calling some of your subjects “disaster tourism,” you don’t go there personally.

A:    No, no, I don’t have the stomach for it. I’ve certainly done a few crazy things in my life, but a lot of the stuff that the characters do in Cataract City and other books are not just crazy, they’re, you know, disreputable, and they’re gross—for lack of a better word. They would be soul-crippling. I avoid dogfights and bare-knuckle boxing matches.

Q: Where do you learn about them, then?

A: That’s the thing. The truth is, you only have to know a little bit more than your reader. I suppose if somebody had actually been to a dogfight, he might think, “Oh, that’s ridiculous, that’s not how it happens,” you know? But considering that’s .001 per cent of my—of anyone’s—potential readership, I’m probably going to get away with it. I’ve certainly been in fights and gotten my face plastered in a few times, so that writing can come from a sense of experiential remembrance, but most of those gritty passages are just research and being one step ahead of the reader in what I know.

Q: You did go on steroids for your boxing novel, though.

A: Yes. I was living down in Iowa at the time, and ordered them through the mail from somewhere in Greece or something, and they worked in all the ways that they should have worked, and they did the sort of things to my body that were expected, but obviously, were alarming when they actually started happening to my body. That sort of experiential kind of research is probably something that I’ve left behind.

Q: You’ve got to stop that sort of thing when you get a bit older.

A: Yeah, older, and when you have people who count on you and you’ve got a child, so I think even Random House wasn’t asking any sort of crazy sort of publicity stunt-y type stuff.

Q: Is Random House the cruel bunch who put you in the doomed boxing match for a previous launch?

A: That was Penguin, actually, but anyway, no grudges. It was actually later, after my synapses returned to clicking in the normal fashion, I thought, “Ah, it wasn’t so bad.” There were some really good outcomes of that in the long run.

Q: What did you make of the Rust and Bone film?

A: I thought it was brilliant—in a lot of ways, better than the book. I wrote the book mainly when I was in my mid- to late 20s, and it was  an angry-young-man type of book, and that core was taken by a 60-year-old director who took this raw book—powerful for that rawness—and turned it into a much more nuanced portrayal of the two characters that I thought was breathtaking.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: What’s next? After this, I’ve got a short-story collection with Doubleday, so we’re not sure when that’s coming out, but it’s the same location, all set in Cataract City; not really a cycle, but the same location.

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