BARE KNUCKLE boxing and dog fighting in small Canadian cities; the activities are cruel, often barbaric, but the people taking part in them have their reasons, however misguided, however tragic. It’s just not black and white.
This is the world of Canadian author Craig Davidson, whose stories and novels balance darkness, poignancy, humanity, and humour, and leave readers with passages, images, and characters that stay with them long after the last page has been read.
Craig Davidson was born in Toronto in the state of Ontario, Canada, and it is where he lives, but as he tells me during our interview, the “interceding 30-odd years were spent in other parts of Canada and the world”.
That restless early existence saw Craig grow up in mostly small cities and towns and is the reason much of his fiction tends to be set in such locations. “I love Toronto, but I feel I understand the rhythms better in smaller towns.”
Two such places are Calgary, in Alberta, eastern Canada, and St Catharines, in southern Ontario, near the border with the US. The latter makes a number of appearances in Craig’s marvellous short story collection Rust And Bone (2005), which he will read excerpts from during the Cúirt International Festival of Literature.
“My folks and my brother still live there,” he says. “It’s an hour drive from Toronto. I’ve lived in St Catharines the longest, so it feels most natural and resonant to set my work there.”
St Catharines also has an area known as St Patrick’s Ward - surely a place where the Irish would have settled? “It may’ve been, but to be honest, you’ve stumped me!” Craig replies. “It’s named for the electorate designation, Ward 4, but St Catharines has a strong Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian roots; there’s a bigger Irish stronghold in Niagara Falls, actually.”
As he grew up in these various towns, Craig, encouraged by his parents, developed a passion for reading. “I was the family’s lone bookworm,” he says. “They certainly encouraged me to read as much as I liked. If I was in my room reading, it meant I wasn’t up to trouble.”
By his teens, Craig was immersing himself in Stephen King, Clive Barker, Robert R McCammon. “They were horror writers when I was a lad,” he says, “but I’d say those three have slipped the bounds of that genre at this point. I loved reading about things that go bump in the night.” He also started to nurture ambitions to be a writer. “I had an inkling I’d like to do it as a teen,” he adds.
In 2005, Rust And Bone appeared and its eight stories were described by Bret Easton Ellis as “the best I’ve read in a long time from a young writer”, while Chuck Palahniuk called the book “remarkable”. In 2007, came Craig’s debut novel The Fighter, followed by Sarah Court and last year’s Cataract City set in the Niagara Falls city in Ontario.
“Like a lot of writers, my path was circuitous, flagged by a lot of stop-and-start, failure - continual and persistent and dogged failure for a while there - small successes, failures again, and then, somewhat miraculously, a bit of a career. It’s certainly not one of those ‘out of the box’ successful careers you hear about. It’s still pretty tenuous, but that’s OK. Keeps me on my toes.”
Rust And Bone, The Fighter, and Cataract City explore the dark and brutal worlds of bare-knuckle boxing and dog fighting. Why do these worlds fascinate Craig?
“It’s partially the fact I’m pretty good at writing action-y/physical scenes, and these are the best ways of telling my stories and reflecting on the characters who populate them,” he says.
Has he ever been a spectator of these events? “I’ve been to plenty of sanctioned boxing matches, but no bare-knucklers. And a dog fight would crush my soul, so no.”
That element of fascination and unease allows a deep sympathy, empathy, and pathos to pervade Craig’s explorations of the people who inhabit illegal fighting events. In the story ‘Rust and Bone’, the main character Eddie Brown points out how no one fights just for the hell of it, they have real reasons, while Jim Paris’s relationship with his dogs is very tenderly portrayed in ‘A Mean Utility’. In short, Craig manages to find some kind of humanity within these otherwise ugly and horrific activities.
“I’d like to hope I do. That’s certainly my attempt,” he says. “The Paris character in ‘A Mean Utility’ is sublimating the fact he and his wife can’t have kids by raising these dogs, but that he’s fighting them indicates maybe the fact he can’t have kids is a good thing. If I don’t have some level of concern for my characters, if I don’t want to see them happy in some essential way - even though they might fight against that very happiness from page one - then I can’t really write a word.”
Another factor in Craig’s writing is a keen interest in medical/physiological features and descriptions of parts of the body. Where does that interest come from?
“I think our bodies are wonderful in their strengths and frailties,” he says. “We only get one and we have to hope it carries us through this world, but it’s breaking and failing on us all the time. It’s like a battery - its juice gets drained and drained. And obviously, it’s a universal touchstone: we all walk around in a body, we understand its functioning.”
Rust And Bone has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent times following the 2012 Franco-Belgian film adaptation starring Marion Cotillard (The Dark Night Rises, Midnight In Paris, Inception, La Vie En Rose) and directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet). The film won four César Awards and was nominated for two BAFTAs.
“I was mesmerised,” Craig says of both the adaptation and reaction. “I was extremely grateful that Jacques Audiard and his screenwriting partner Thomas Bidegain optioned it and made such a fantastic, compassionate, sensitive film. My hat’s off to them, and to the incredible performances in the film.”
Cataract City may be about to go the same way. In February, producer/director Gavin O’Connor, and his production partner, optioned the novel for possible adaptation into a film.
“It’s possible, for sure. It’s also a longshot - which I’m sure Gavin would tell you himself,” says Craig. “Every movie that clears all the hurdles from concept to screen is in itself a small miracle. Gavin’s indicated he’d like to meet in Los Angeles at some point, maybe flesh out how it might be approached from a filmic perspective. One thing I know for sure is that it couldn’t be in any better hands.”
Craig’s teenage passion for horror and sci-fi has never dimmed and he writes in both genres under the pen names Patrick Lestewka and Nick Cutter (the latest Nick Cutter novel, The Troop, came out last year). Two novels in a year? Would Craig be comfortable with the term prolific?
“I would be, but there have been gaps between my books,” he says. “My last one before this deluge was 2010, and 2007 before that. It’s more like the dam was plugged and now we get a brief gusher, and then things may go silent. I’m feeling a little burnt out, to be frank!”
That said, Craig has a new short story collection, plus another horror book, coming out next year. “The collection’s done, seven to eight stories, all set in Cataract City again. I don’t think there’s one fistfight or dog fight in the entire collection, so that’s a first!”
Craig Davidson will read, along with Irish writer Colin Barrett, at the Periphery, Karma & Violence event in An Taibhdhearc on Friday April 11 at 1pm. It will be chaired by Galway based writer Elaine Cosgrove. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie See also www.craigdavidson.net