Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar win for his lead role in The Revenant – as well as the film’s other Oscars for best directing and cinematography – has turned an even brighter spotlight on the book behind the film – and its author, Michael Punke. But the writer won’t be giving many interviews. He’s constrained from this by the terms of his day job – as Deputy United States Trade Representative and U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland.
This ferocious frontier tale, in the best tradition of Cormac McCarthy, was penned by a graduate of George Washington University and Cornell Law School and adjunct professor at the University of Montana, who “has worked in the field of international trade law and policy for two decades.” According to his Wikipedia biography and various press reports, Punke based The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge partly on his own boyhood experiences growing up in Wyoming, and wrote it for three hours each morning prior to the start of his working day at the Washington, D.C., office of law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe, & Maw. The Wikipedia article states that, “as a high-ranking federal employee, Punke is prohibited by ethics rules from talking publicly or to the media about his work, attending events, signing book copies or conducting any other activities that could be seen as promoting his work for his personal enrichment.”
Punke isn’t by any means the only writer who also made a career as a man of affairs. Benjamin Disraeli managed to be both a serious Victorian novelist and two times Prime Minister of Great Britain. Thomas Babington Macaulay was both poet and literary historian, and colonial administrator and government minister. Italian poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio later became a nationalist politician and Duce of the short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro. None of these apparently felt their style cramped or their Muse fettered by the demands of the world outside their study walls.
What’s more, even though Punke may have written The Revenant partly as an escape to a childhood world far outside the Beltway, he apparently began the book intending to write a political novel. It’s no mental stretch to envisage that any writer’s engagement with big themes and serious issues in fiction may be deepened and empowered by equal engagement with themes and issues in the world outside the imagination, and that may be worth giving up any number of marketing-driven interviews. Which isn’t to mock other Very Important Writers like Jonathan Franzen, who take their writing, and themselves, so seriously that they shut themselves away from the world with earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold. Well, okay, maybe just a little …
[Picture courtesy of the Academy Awards and Getty Images]