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All stories by Scott MacDonald

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How the film adaptation of Craig Davidson’s Rust and Bone helped his literary career

In the September issue of Q&Q, Scott MacDonald spoke to Toronto author Craig Davidson about how the film adaptation of his short-story collection Rust and Bone helped revive his flagging literary career.

Craig Davidson

In the fall of 2006, Toronto author Craig Davidson seemed on the verge of becoming the next big CanLit star. His debut story collection, Rust and Bone, had been a critical and word-of-mouth hit a year earlier, and his new novel, The Fighter, was at the centre of the most talked-about book launch of the decade. Spurred on by his publisher, Penguin Canada, Davidson put on a pair of boxing gloves and went three rounds against bouncer-turned-poet Michael Knox at Florida Jack’s Boxing Club in Toronto. Though Davidson lost the match (and suffered a bloody nose in the process), he won the day, generating reams of free publicity.

But then Davidson discovered what so many authors before him have learned: that reams of free publicity don’t mean much if people aren’t interested in reading your book. All told, The Fighter sold just over a thousand copies. For Davidson, this was a worse body blow than any he had suffered in the ring, and it left his confidence in tatters. For a long time, he ­wallowed in what he describes as “self-­recrimination” and “derailed ambition,” and wondered if he’d ever be published by a major house again. “It took awhile to just pull myself up,” he says.
In the wake of the book’s commercial failure, Davidson moved on to other things: writing for newspapers and magazines, teaching, working at a library, even driving a bus. It wasn’t until 2010 that things began to go his way again. That year, he made a quiet yet well-received return to publishing with the novel Sarah Court (Chi­Zine Publications). More significantly, he received an amazing piece of news: Rust and Bone was set to become a major motion picture directed by Jacques Audiard, one of France’s most respected auteurs.

Davidson had met Audiard once, four years earlier, during the Festival America in the south of France. The meeting was arranged by Davidson’s publisher there, Francis Geffard of Les éditions Albin Michel, who explained that Audiard had been given a copy of Rust and Bone and was thinking about adapting it. Davidson hadn’t even heard of Audiard, so he prepared by watching his acclaimed 2005 film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, about a man torn between classical piano and a life of crime. According to Davidson, he was “blown away” by the film.

Not only was it a very good movie, it dovetailed with his own thematic obsessions: notions of manliness, the lure of criminality, sensitivity versus brute strength. The meeting took place in a café, with Davidson and Audiard on opposite sides of a table and Geffard in between, translating. Though Davidson didn’t expect anything to come of the meeting, he was nervous anyway, partly due to the 54-year-old Audiard’s casual suavity. “He gave off that sort of European cool,” says Davidson.

While he drank mineral water and ate olives, Audiard explained that he was interested in combining two of Davidson’s tales: the title story, about a pugilist trying to balance boxing with family life, and “Rocket Ride,” about a Sea World trainer maimed by a killer whale. That’s about as much as Davidson remembers, because shortly thereafter, while “fulminating on some point,” he knocked over his glass of beer – which he says was “more alcoholic” than he expected – spilling it onto Audiard’s brushed-felt hat, and casting an awkward pall on an already stilted conversation. Audiard was gracious, but afterward Davidson was sure he’d alienated the man. “I leaned over to Francis and said, ‘I’m sorry, I screwed that one up for you.’” Audiard optioned the book soon after, but Davidson didn’t hear from him again.

Cut to: 2010, the year Audiard broke out internationally with the Cannes Grand Prize–­winning (and later Academy Award–nominated) A Prophet. In the wake of that success, Audiard announced his next film would be Rust and Bone and star Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose actress Marion Cotillard. Davidson could barely believe it. It wasn’t until the film was completed and he received a low-six-figure commission that Davidson truly accepted his good fortune. He used the windfall as a down payment on a new house in Toronto.

Besides the money, Davidson has had almost nothing to do with the film. As a courtesy, he was sent the script (by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain), which diverged quite a bit from the source material. “Jacques and Thomas let it blossom into something much different – and likely more profound – than the book was,” he says. “They found narrative and thematic through-lines I never saw.”

One of the biggest alterations was to the trainer character, who was changed from a man to a woman for the sake of Cotillard. According to Davidson, he should’ve written the character as female in the first place, only he didn’t know anything about women at the time. “I barely know women now,” he laughs.

Last May, the film premiered at Cannes, and though it didn’t win any prizes it was widely considered one of the festival’s best. Davidson was invited to attend the screening, but his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child, preventing him from travelling. To date, he still hasn’t seen the film, but he expects to at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. (He also expects to meet with Audiard and the cast then.)

In the wake of all this excitement, Davidson’s literary career has rebounded. He has a steady gig as an editor at MuscleMag, and he’s finally completed a new novel, Cataract Days, about two boys growing up in Niagara Falls. Furthermore, he can stop worrying about being published by a major house again: the novel is due out from Doubleday Canada in 2013.

Davidson isn’t sure how much Rust and Bone helped with that deal, but he knows the film had a major impact on his own self-confidence. “I’ve always carried a lot of concern that [people see me] as this guy who just writes really gross, awful stories,” he says. “So the fact that someone as renowned as Jacques or Marion Cotillard would want to work on my stuff makes me feel good. Like maybe my stuff is passably artistic.”


Editing Alice Munro

photo: Derek Shapton

In the December issue of Q&Q, Scott MacDonald asks: how do you edit one of the most precise writers working in the English language? According to Alice Munro’s long-time U.S. and Canadian editors, even a master can sometimes use a helpful nudge (but not too often)

It’s hard to imagine anyone editing Alice Munro, possibly the most precise writer in the English language. Munro doesn’t build sentences by accretion in the manner of verbose writers like Norman Mailer or Salman Rushdie – she works by paring away, by deciding what words not to use.

And yet Munro has not one, not even two, but three editors, all of whom have a hand in guiding her work: Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker, where many of Munro’s stories first see the light of day; Douglas Gibson at McClelland & Stewart, who has been Munro’s Canadian editor since her 1978 collection, Who Do You Think You Are?; and Anne Close at Knopf, her long-time U.S. publisher.

Speaking to Close and Gibson prior to the publication of Munro’s 14th collection, Dear Life, I asked them a sincere but potentially rude question: exactly what is it the three of them do?

“We don’t have to do much,” laughs Close, the hint of a southern drawl in her voice. “With many of Alice’s stories, they come in and none of us touches a word. But every now and then there are stories she’s a little stuck on and one of us will give a suggestion that proves helpful.”

According to Close, every story follows one of two editorial paths. If it’s destined for The New Yorker, it goes to Treisman first. Close and Gibson may not even see it until it’s printed in the magazine. If it’s not a New Yorker piece (or slated for publication elsewhere), it goes directly to Close and Gibson, and Treisman doesn’t read it at all. In every case, the buck stops with the two book editors. “Doug and I kinda get the final say,” says Close.

Generally, Munro needs no assistance with character, word choice, or mechanics, but she does look to her editors for advice on structure and clarity. She mails a copy of the story to each of them, and they jot down their thoughts in the margins. Annotated copies are then sent to Munro and the other editors. Munro discusses the changes via phone, often a number of times, then hammers out the final version.

As Munro’s most dedicated fans know, The New Yorker stories can be noticeably different from the versions that appear in the collections. Many of them are shorter, due to the magazine’s space restrictions. Gibson sometimes makes “Canadian corrections” to The New Yorker pieces, such as restoring Munro’s original references to “university” rather than “college.”

Some stories, like “The Progress of Love,” which appeared in a 1986 volume of the same name, get drastically rethought. Originally written in the first person, the point-of-view changed to the third person for The New Yorker. Having read both versions, Close told Munro she thought the original was better, and that was what ultimately appeared in the book.

But that’s one of the more extreme examples. More commonly, only the story endings are significantly revised. As Close explains, Munro has an enormous appetite for revision, and she’s especially prone to rethinking her final passages.

“She’ll work on those endings for a long time,” says Close, adding that this is where she and Gibson tend to be most useful. “Most writers write very ambiguous endings because they don’t want to be too obvious. So I’ll say, ‘What’s this mean?’ or ‘What’s that mean?’ I’ll keep after her until she gets it a little clearer.”

When enough stories have been amassed for a collection – generally once every three years – the next step is to decide how to order them. In some cases, Munro determines this herself in advance. Other times, such as with Dear Life, she is open to suggestions.

According to Close, Munro knew she wanted the book to begin with the story “To Reach Japan,” and wanted it to end with four largely autobiographical “not-quite-stories,” but she was unsure of the rest. After “trying things around,” as Close puts it, Gibson came up with an order that worked for everyone.

Often, there’s at least one story they aren’t able to place, and it’ll be set aside for a future collection. The story “Wood,” for instance, was held back from three different collections before finally making it into 2009’s Too Much Happiness.

“It was in good enough shape to publish, but it just never seemed to fit,” says Close, adding that Munro reworked the story a little more each time. “It kept getting better, of course, so by the time it got published it was quite a wonderful, exceptional story.”

From there, all that’s left are the basics: typesetting the book, copy editing, and writing the flap copy. Thinking back on the process, both Gibson and Close agree their most valuable contribution is reassuring Munro that a story is done.

Close recalls how, a few years ago, when the 1990s story “The Love of a Good Woman” was being reprinted in a best-of collection, Munro mused aloud about shifting some of its elements again.

“I had to keep telling her, ‘No, it’s fine the way it is.’”

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Canadian Heritage approves iBookstore Canada

It’s official: Canadian Heritage has announced that Apple Canada has been granted approval under the Investment Canada Act to establish iBookstore Canada. From the news release:

“Our Government is committed to strengthening Canada’s economy through all its sectors, especially arts and culture,” said Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore. “Apple has demonstrated how iBookstore Canada represents new opportunities for Canadian authors and publishers, and I have determined that this investment will be of net benefit to Canada.”

The release goes on to say that the decision was based on several commitments made by Apple Canada: to promote Canadian-authored titles in both English and French; to increase access to titles by Aboriginal publishers and authors; to assist Canadian publishers in streamlining the process of e-book creation; and to create an iBookstore tailored to Canadian consumers.

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Biblioasis announces Metcalf-Rooke Award shortlist

Biblioasis has announced the shortlist for the 2010–2011 Metcalf-Rooke Award for fiction. Seven unpublished manuscripts were selected from more than 60 entries. The winner, announced on Dec. 15, will receive $1,500 and a publishing contract with the Windsor, Ontario, press. The nominees are:

  • Laura Boudreau, Cat in Winter
  • Nancy Cullen, The Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time
  • Colette Maitland, Keeping the Peace
  • Anakana Schofield, Malarky: A Novel in Episodes
  • Claire Tacon, In the Field
  • Sonia Tilson, The Monkey-Puzzle Tree
  • Alice Peterson, All the Voices Cry

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