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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.”

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