Craig Davidson is a young Canadian author currently studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut short-story collection, Rust and Bone, was released last year, and he has just completed work on his first novel, The Fighter.
Davidson’s writing takes on violent and greusome themes, which dates back to his days writing horror under a pseudonym. While his work frequently draws comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk, his prose is more lyrical than that of the Fight Club author.
You’re pretty much universally compared to Chuck Palahniuk (a comparison I agree with) and you’ve stated that you’re a big fan of his. As such, I’m going to start us off with a question from Fight Club: If you could fight any celebrity, who would it be?
I think I’d take a crack at Dr. Phil, if I ever got the chance. I don’t really see that guy helping anyone; he’s a human placebo. So, if I could run the gambit of security at the studio where he tapes, I’d love to get on stage and bust him one in the chops (I guess I’d have to give him a chance to defend himself; sucker punches just aren’t honorable), and then I’d stare out at the stunned studio audience and cry, "What say you of your Messiah NOW?" I don’t even know what effect a punch would have; Dr. Phil seems so insubstantial I picture him deflating like a parade float until nothing was left but this wrinkled old balloon skin in a suit and tie. But who knows—maybe Dr. Phil’s got skills. Maybe he’s studied Jeet kun Do and when we get down to it he kicks me though an Oriental paper screen or something. It’s a chance I’d be willing to take.
You’ve trained as a boxer, and much of your writing has to do with fighting. Is fighting a means of self-discovery for your characters (and, by extension, a method of discovery for you and your readers)? What is it that draws you to writing about this subject in such depth?
I think that’s exactly it. My novel, which I’ve just finished (appropriately titled THE FIGHTER) gets more in depth into this idea. I have a line in the novel somewhere along the lines of, "Some people will go their whole lives and die not knowing their limits." And so I feel like, in this day and age, there really aren’t the traditional—or what were once the traditional—signposts, I guess, to signify certain rites of male passage. No depressions, no wars, for a lot of people no poverty or real strife. Nothing to weather or endure; and what we think of as trials are really, in my view, and in the grander historical view, really sort of pathetic (and I say that as someone who has felt those things myself). But it’s all we have, so we trick ourselves into thinking we’re suffering. On top of this, too much education, too much cynicism, too much leisure…which in the end, I see leads to weakness.
I was just in Target the other day, the "household appliances" aisle, and I saw so many signs of what I see as a basic craving to avoid doing things the hard way. The Fuzz Buster, this little machine that sucks the fuzzballs off your clothes; autodialers with 200-number memories; this thing called the Racquet Zapper, which is an electric bug paddle that explodes a fly when you hit it. I’m sitting there going, what percentage of inventions over the past 50 years were brought about to make our life easier? 98% of them? It’s become so frivolous! I mean, roll up a goddamn newspaper to swat your flies, people! Force yourself to remember phone numbers! Pick your own fuzz off your sweaters!
This is perhaps a silly example, but the idea is that a lot of people (I write mostly about men, and understand more intimately what men lack in their lives because I know what lacks in my own), so a lot of men have no idea what they’re capable of, good or bad, because today’s world is almost designed not to test us. I think fighting, in my work, acts as a test; and the way my characters react to that test informs who they are.
You started out as a horror writer. What’s the worst idea you ever had for a horror story?
Worst, as in most graphic? Because if we’re talking dopiest/most idiotic, we’re going to be here awhile.
Let me think…okay, well, I worked at this place called Marineland, sort of like Sea World (actually, exactly like Sea World, except crappier and Canadian) and I was a garbage picker; in my second summer, when I was 17, I earned a "promotion" to dumpster crew (this meant I was no longer a sweeper, which meant, in the tiny universe of the Marineland garbage brigade, I was the cat’s ass). Anyway, we took all the garbage bags to this smelly old compactor way at the back of the park, far from prying eyes. So I wrote this story where these two garbage pickers were fighting over a girl and one guy biffed the other and stuffed him in the compactor and then collected all the garbage in the park and loaded it into the compactor but he hadn’t biffed his buddy good enough, and his buddy woke up in the compactor and banged on the walls and tried to escape so the other guy, the would-be murderer, had to really burn the midnight oil to fill that compactor and eventually crush his buddy. I think I called that one, "Garbage Guts." I wrote it when I was in my early twenties, probably. It’s a sad admission, no doubt.
To answer your question: no, me and my dumpster brigade partner never fought over a girl. And if we had, he was much bigger than me, so I would’ve definitely ended up in the compactor in that scenario.
You’re quite open about the fact that you read most of the reviews for Rust and Bone. Have you learned anything about yourself from reading the reviews? Do you feel that being aware of the various praises and criticisms will have a measured impact on your development as a writer?
It’s strange, because before the collection was published my publicist asked did I want to be sent copies of the reviews. I said, sure, good or bad it’s water off a duck’s ass so far as I was concerned at the time. But, yeah, you get sensitized to them—at least I did. I’ve always said, and I still say now, that if my books were to sell well and had a group of people who liked them and could be counted on to buy them and could make a career out of it, I could give a rip about reviews. I’ve always felt that, if I am to have any success as a writer, it won’t be as one who wins awards or is a critical darling; certainly, when I’m writing stories that feature protracted 5-page dog fights or scenes where an aging porn star’s penis pump explodes, I don’t expect to be getting a call from the Booker prize committee, which is perfectly alright. The problem is, I don’t think the collection is selling particularly well, which makes the reviews harder to take.
I thought that the reviews would have an impact, I really did. But then, when I sat down to revise the novel I just finished, instead of cutting back on the things that critics have lambasted me for—the violence, the "macho"-ness, etc—I ended up adding more. I’ve come to the realization that I am who I am as a writer and I need to keep going down that path. I think of it as dating a woman—you might be able to act like someone other than who you are for a few dates, maybe even fool her, but if you’re serious about her and about having a relationship, you’ve got to be yourself. So if I can’t make it as a writer doing what I do, then the good thing is it’s a big world out there, I’m only 30, and maybe I go on to another line of work that benefits my skills better. That’s not to say I don’t intend to diversify and change if I’m lucky enough to continue writing; but it’s also to say that external things like critics’ reactions don’t make an impact, other than pissing me off sometimes (even good reviews sometimes piss me off; I’m impossible to please!)
In an interview with MPR you discussed the differences between modern fiction in Canada and America. Have you noticed a divide between Canadian and American reactions to your book?
Not as much as I would have thought. The tepidness of the reaction to it seems to exist free of international boundaries. I shouldn’t say that; Penguin was great at getting the book attention in Canada, and Norton did as best they could in a much larger publishing arena here in the States. I’d thought that Canadians would be adverse to it because it’s not what we would consider "typical" Canadian fiction, which centers mainly on historical and rural scenarios. But I think it did okay there—not as good as expected, but again publishers always hope for the moon. I don’t really know how it is doing here in the US; certainly it’s not burning up the charts. But overall, I would think Americans would be more amenable to some of the rougher aspects of the book; but again, perhaps this is the Canadian in me speaking, thinking Americans are more "free spirited" than us stodgy canucks. From what I’ve now seen, living in America, there’s little difference on that front. Granted, I am living in Iowa.
Do you think your writing has significantly more appeal to men than to women? (I ask this because some of the less favorable reviews seem to have come from the fairer sex.)
Oh, I think so, absolutely. I guess my feeling was that books like THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and SEX AND THE CITY and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY were all pitched to women and did very well, so I figured why can’t mine do okay pitched to men? What I failed to note was that women buy far more books than men, at least more fiction—why aren’t men reading fiction? What’s their problem? I got to eat, you know! Even a "manly" writer like Chuck Palahniuk has a huge woman readership. If there’s anything I need to remedy with my writing, it is trying to find some appeal for the fairer sex.
As for the reviews: yes, it’s almost pure math. If I see a woman’s name starting off a review, I can almost guarantee it’ll be a stinker. Someone at Norton remarked that my infamous NY Times review was, "poisonous" and that the reviewer must think, "flies exist to be squashed, lightbulbs to be broken, and Craig Davidson wrote a whole book just to be ripped apart." I don’t know. I’ll never be a critic, is all I have to say. I’d rather starve. That said, there need to be critics. I’d just never want to be one. I couldn’t stand the bad karma inherent to the job.
Your brief writing career to date has gone from writing horror to writing short fiction and now a novel. What specific aspects of your writing do you hope to improve from being in a writing program? How do you anticipate/hope your writing will change over the next few years?
I hope, like any writer, that things will get better, that I will improve. In a lot of ways it’s great that my first book wasn’t an out of the box hit (in a lot more ways it’s NOT good, but why hope for castles in the sky?), because it makes me want to improve and there’s plenty of room there for it. I’ve never been the most talented at anything; the reason I excel over some others is becuase I dedicate myself to working harder than everyone else. I would like to think I’ve done more with far less talent and more hard work than lots of more innately talented writers have done simply because they weren’t willing to suck up rejection and work their asses off every day and refuse to quit. And, as I’ve said, there’s a ceiling where pure talent takes over and all the hard working shmoes like me get left in the dust; but I don’t think I’ve reached that ceiling yet, and, as they say, the sun’ll even shine on a dog’s ass somedays, so even schmoes have got an outside chance at pulling a rabbit out of their hat.
I would say that, in terms of improving one thing: I would like my next book to take a grander look at things. Often my stories and even my novel deals with a small scope: one family, one individual, and it flows around that small world. I would next like to expand that too look at some of the grander social issues of today, and incorporate those somehow.