“My landlord was always the best antidote to preciousness.” In conversation with Craig Davidson
The City holds you.
And not just this one. Every city has that potential. A city holds you inside itself. The feeling is as comfortable as nesting in a warm cupped palm. And if that hand should tighten into a fist—hell, most times you’ll barely feel it.
A city knows the shape of things and it shapes itself around you—or perhaps you shape yourself around it. The result is the same. The city doesn’t really change. It changes you. In my city, you come through hard if you come through at all. But I think people can be more beautiful for being broken.
We all occupy our own square of space and time. We have our memories and no one else’s. We have one life, accumulating it in our minds as we go along. The city is part of that, too. The city is networked into the memories of everyone who walks those same streets, who works at the same factories, who plays baseball on the same diamonds where the dust still hangs along the base-paths minutes after a player’s passage.”
—Excerpt from Cataract City (Graywolf Press)
EMILY CHOATE: Niagara Falls, as presented in Cataract City, is a potent mixture of tensions. City concerns—the human toll of working factory jobs, the lure of quicker but riskier moneymaking jags—roil against the ominous backdrop of the Falls and surrounding wilderness. What intrigues you most about this setting?
CRAIG DAVIDSON: Well, I grew up there. That’s the simplest explanation I guess. And, writing a novel being a daunting task—or at least it can feel that way at the outset—I always like to feel that I have certain areas of confidence before sallying forth. One of those areas would be a sense that I know Niagara Falls, its rhythms, its streets and byways.
EC: There’s a conflict within both narrators, Owen and Duncan, and maybe within all of us as we age: a longing to stay when we know we have to go, or a longing to go when we know we have to stay. Do their desires to break through the limitations of life in Cataract City speak to something larger for you about the contradictory tugs of home?
CD: I think so, absolutely. It’s something that’s been covered in books and films and probably every narrative device we humans have come up with to convey story and emotions since the dawn of our species; I’m sure. Should I leave the cave and hunt the sabre toothed tiger, or should I stay in the cave with my family? Anyway, yes, this is my attempt to look at, if not reconcile, that irreconcilable riddle. The push-pull which most of us have been subject to at some point. Myself, I left my hometown as a teenager and never went back fulltime, but I visit very often as my family is all there; and I feel comfortable within its borders, more so than anywhere else on earth. And all my fiction is set there, which says something. So, having experienced that same push-pull as the characters in this book have, it’s my attempt to grapple with those feelings.
EC: Early in the book, best friends Owen and Duncan discover the troubling reality behind the persona of their hero, wrestler Bruiser Mahoney. His abduction of the boys shoves them into a new phase of their lives. How do you think we are changed when our earliest heroes lose their luster? In some sense, do we need them to fall?
CD: Yes, I think there’s an element to that in growing up. To having the scales lifted from our eyes, I guess. You see all the authority figures in your lives—your sporting heroes, your teachers, your own parents—as fallible, as weak in some ways, as human. And that’s not really such a big deal or a giant leap of understanding, looking back on it from an adult’s perspective where we see that even the best amongst us are prone to failings and weaknesses, but as a kid that initial peek behind the curtain and a glimpse of the giant wheels churning back there…yes, it’s a shock.
EC: Owen and Duncan’s subsequent life-threatening trek through the wilds is written with the kind of resonating weight that makes it feel like a rite of initiation for the boys. How did this pivotal event in their lives evolve?
CD: Well, I guess when anyone is put in a situation like that, it shapes their life going forward. And in my sense it would cement a bond between two people, being that it was a life threatening kind of thing. And that in many ways is what the book is taken up with, or one of the main questions it poses: what do we owe as a debt of friendship to those we grew up with? What are the bonds of that friendship, and what snaps them, and what responsibility if any do we bear for those we’ve known all our lives, and who we experienced such dramatic events with?
EC: Even though they follow different paths through adulthood, they both seem hell-bent on seeking out further life-threatening experiences to survive. Given this book and some of your previous work, what is it about that particular impulse that draws you as a storyteller?
CD: Well, one of the maxims I adhere to is: let plot carry character, or let it inform character. So really, these characters are delineated for the reader based on what they experience—which is generally the case for any characters. But with me, I like writing physical scenes, action scenes, so that’s where I like to take the characters. They are tested in a more physical, visceral crucible than characters in other books, written by writers who prefer to find other vectors to get at the heart of their characters. Certainly that same development could be had in other ways, but my style and interests as a reader dictated that they experience “life in the flesh,” you could say.
EC: How has the hustle of the freelancer’s life informed your voice as a fiction writer?
CD: I’m not sure it has, really. I suppose it’s helped me never suffer from writer’s block—when you’ve got the landlord rapping at your door asking for the rent, and the way you can pay him is to get off your duff and make sure that piece you were assigned is written well enough and hits the deadline, then yes, you get the darn piece done. So it’s helped me be productive as a matter of survival, I guess you could say.
EC: It does seem that we writers are often prone to some degree of preciousness about our process. Are there particular ways that you try to combat that danger?
CD: My landlord was always my best antidote to preciousness. When she showed up with her hand out, asking for the rent, she wasn’t liable to fobbed off with excuses about my writer’s process, my fickle muse, my this that or the other—money crossed her palm or that was me, out on my ass. So I’m not sure how other writers stumble upon that strain of preciousness; maybe they have rich parents? I was never really afforded, as an adult, the leeway to develop any kind of preciousness. So I don’t have it. If you do, if it works for you, hey, great. There are many ways to skin the cat and I’m not saying my outlook is best. It’s just what’s worked for me.
EC: You’ve said in recent interviews that some of your recurring subject manner—boxing, dogfights, violent criminality, and other terrain of the Angry Young Man—has begun to seem less appealing, suggesting that you may feel you’ve mined them deeply enough for a while. If that still holds true, are there new subjects that have begun to call your name instead?
CD: I may have exhausted that well—or it’s maybe just that I’m older, and a man nearing 40 who’s still angry about a whole lot of stuff that bugged him in his 20s is kind of lame and not a man I’d want to spend that much time with, I’d say. So, yes, a step away from that. I’ve got a young child, so certainly he’s a fount of story ideas! And I think it’s more about writing works that have a larger scope in terms of readership: stories that cut across age and gender and class lines, instead of the early work which really was only of interest to a certain type of reader. I loved writing those books and I think when they found their way into that ideal reader’s hands they were very moving and vital to those people—at least that was my hope, at least while they were reading—but now it’s more about telling stories that have a more universal appeal.
Find a copy of Cataract City on IndieBound
Craig Davidson was born and grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. He has published three previous books of literary fiction: Rust and Bone, which was made into an Oscar-nominated feature film of the same name, The Fighter, and Sarah Court. Davidson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his articles and journalism have been published in the National Post, Esquire, GQ, the Walrus, and the Washington Post. He lives in Toronto, Canada, with his partner and child. (Photo credit: Andrew Myatte and Fanshawe College)
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.