I am really thrilled to partner with Penguin Random House today to present a interview with Craig Davidson. I love a good coming of age story, don’t forget I grew up with Wonder Years and watching Stand by Me. Now, that I am 42 when I think back to those times I can see why coming of age stories can be so powerful.
A Conversation with Craig Davidson
Author of THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB (July 9; Penguin Books)
You’ve previously published four literary fiction books, including the short story collection Rust and Bone, which was adapted into a Golden Globe-nominated feature film, and penned bestselling horror novels under your pseudonym Nick Cutter. Already a prominent writer in Canadian fiction, THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB seems poised to be your big, breakout book in the U.S. Why do you think this novel will resonate with so many people? How did your previous books and your horror novels as Nick Cutter influence THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB?
Well, it would be nice to break out, sure! I think this is probably the most, I guess you’d say, the most accessible book I’ve ever written? With my earlier work, well, those are the books of a young man, full of the things that some young men worry about, obsess over, aspire to—as a result, they were kinda violent, myopic in the way that twentysomethings can occasionally be, navel-gazing, all that. They were a true expression of how I felt at the time, for sure—all the things that vexed and bothered and energized me, they’re all on display. But they may’ve been narrowly focused for all that. The Cutter books … I’m really proud of those, but again, perhaps narrowly focused. They’re likely seen (fairly) as pretty extreme in some ways. They’re a product of the horror books I grew up reading; in addition to King and McCammon and Barker—who is himself a rough pill to swallow sometimes—I enjoyed David Schow, Joe Lansdale, Poppy Z Brite, Skipp and Spector; writers who had a real dangerous edge. So again, if your influences are those, and you set out to have your writing have those kinds of sharp teeth … well, likely it won’t be for everyone. But that’s not to say The Saturday Night Ghost Clubis some sort of toothless pap. It’s just that it’s concerned, I suppose, with the things that now matter to me: being a parent, nostalgia and what it felt like to be a child, the mysteries innate to that time of one’s life. Maybe I’ve become an old softie, I don’t know.
THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB beautifully addresses sophisticated concepts of memory, trauma, family dynamics, and mental health, but it is also very accessible and includes fantastical elements that appeal to wide range of readers. How were you able to create a story that transcends both genre and generation and why was that important?
I suppose to be honest it was a lot of luck! Most writers will likely tell you that they aren’t 100% sure where their ideas come from—although there’s often a hint of their own selves and history in their stories, as there is for me in this one—but ultimately I just find some characters who I want to follow, to invest myself in their fictional existences, and I guess to work through some element of life (my own, or just some ambient question that I’ve wanted to try to answer, in this case about the power and frailty of human memory) that I find fascinating. Where it goes from there, how successful it eventually is in capturing those characters or addressing that question … well, that’s one of the challenges and fears of writing a book. How close did I come to accomplishing my ambition, lofty though it may have been?
The mutability and fallibility of memory is a clear theme of THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB, which makes the protagonist Jake an unreliable narrator as he looks back on his summer as a twelve year old. Memory continues to be a thread throughout the narrative with adult Jake’s profession as a neurosurgeon and his eccentric Uncle Calvin’s severe brain trauma. How do you think readers will look back on Jake’s story after revealing himself to be an unreliable narrator? Why does the function of brains in relation to memories interest you?
I think we’re all fairly unreliable narrators when it comes to chronicling our own lives, or even the lives of others. Some of that is pretty harmless—say, a person’s Instagram page presenting a narrative of that person that is more glamorous or wise or instructive than their lives most likely are; so, basically a curated presentation of one’s life—and some are probably more problematic. But I mean, I’ve curated my own memories over time. I remember things differently than they happened, I’m sure. I could talk to old friends about a given event from our childhood or even our twenties, and we all may remember it slightly (or vastly) differently. Why is that? Well, we evolve as people. The things we felt and believed at one point in our lives—and acted on those beliefs—may not prevail when we look back at those events years later. So we kind of … sanitize our past selves, I guess. Make our past selves measure up in some way to the people we believe ourselves to be now. Unless there’s definitive proof to dispute our memory, then I suppose it can hold up in the only place it really matters—our own minds. So however readers react to Jake, I suppose it may inform the way they think about their own memories, and how reliable they really are.
THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB introduces its central characters to the supernatural world. However, they come to learn that the real monsters, and ghosts that haunt us, are human. Through the scenes depicting human violence, you weave in stories of how far one will go to protect those they love. What were you trying to convey about the challenges of protecting someone from the world and themselves and, as a father yourself, particularly the desire for parents to protect their children?
I think a lot of that comes from being a parent now. Someone wrote that being a parent opens up this new intensity of love—like, something that registers on a different tenor or timbre than romantic love, or love for a friend. I’m not sure that’s the case. It could be for some, that’s not for me to say. But I do feel that it unlocked a new level of fear. I feel fear that I never really dreamt was possible when I think of all the terrible things that could happen to my kid. A lot of it is stupid, daydream-y ridiculous things, shark attacks and bizarre unfeasible threats, but they feel real to me! But in the end, I won’t always be there to protect my son. I won’t be there when he needs me, not always, and anyway, he may not take any advice I have to offer. So a great deal of that kind of love—of all love, really—is helplessness. You’re helpless to make someone love you, and you’re helpless sometimes to help those you love so much.
In THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB, you alternate between scenes of twelve-year-old Jake and adult Jake’s perspective, which creates a fascinating juxtaposition between the experiences that shape us as children and who we become as adults. How do you write such complex children?
I just came back from picking up our six-year-old from daycare, and it always amazes me the innocence of emotion and, I guess, need, on display. As adults, we withhold things, don’t say what we mean (or not quite), and sometimes fail to let other people know how we feel about them, good or bad. And that’s likely the way it needs to be to have a functioning adult society. But the kids in this novel (and in a way, Uncle Calvin, who exists in somewhat of a permanent, willfully childlike state) are in that middle zone: old enough to know you can’t just blurt out your feelings like you did when you were five, but not yet cynical or wounded that they might chastise themselves for feeling things as deeply as they do. So, to be honest, I think any ability I may have on the front is really a “feel” kind of thing; you try different ideas and different thoughts out, as presented through your younger characters—and if they feel accurate, representative of how you yourself may have felt at that age, then you go with them.
Niagara Falls is not only the perfect setting for a ghost story given its surrounding lore, such as the “Maid of the Mist,” but it is also your hometown. As someone who grew up in Cataract City, how much of the book is inspired by your own childhood? Why was it an important setting for the narrative?
A great deal, yes. A huge amount. The Niagara Falls of the book is more the Niagara Falls of my childhood and teenagehood: the taffy stands, the cheap tourist junk shops, the cheesy haunted houses and wax museums. Clifton Hill’s really corporate now! They’ve got Starbucks and IHOPs on the strip now. All the mom and pop places are kinda gone. So again, it’s that feeling of going back, for me. The more I write, the older I get, the more I inevitably seem to retreat to those times and places and people in my past. It’s not that I don’t love my life now. I do. I’m so lucky, so grateful for it. But the world now has a complexity and threat that unnerves me sometimes. You’ve got people in positions of great power who don’t seem like they belong there, aren’t doing the right things, and vast swathes of people who support them anyway. So maybe I just skedaddle back into the past as a mental health measure!
From Stranger Things to GLOW to The Americans, eighties nostalgia has become increasingly prevalent in media and pop culture over the last five years. Why do you think that decade is captivating viewers and readers right now? Why did you choose it as the time period for THE SATURDAY NIGHT GHOST CLUB?
Yes, well, the simplest answer is: I grew up and came of age in the 80s. I basically thought, what year was it when I was Jake’s age? 1988. So I tried to put myself there, at the tail end of the 80s, and write from that perspective. I would guess the popularity may be due to simple nostalgia value, plus the fact that a lot of creative people from that generation are now in their thirties and forties, and are writing books and TV shows and films, and that’s the time-frame they gravitate to for the same reasons I do. The 80s feel like such a lightweight, untroubled decade now. The Amblin decade, right? The nineties, everyone became Wall Streeters. So it feels like the right decade to tell stories for some of us who grew up at the time, and it’s perhaps an embraceable decade for those who didn’t.
About Craig Davidson
Born in Toronto, Ontario, he was raised in Calgary and St. Catharines.
His first short story collection, Rust and Bone, was published in September 2005 by Penguin Books Canada, and was a finalist for the 2006 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Stories in Rust and Bone have also been adapted into a play by Australian playwright Caleb Lewis and a film by French director Jacques Audiard.
Davidson also released a novel in 2007 named The Fighter. During the course of his research of the novel, Davidson went on a 16-week steroid cycle. To promote the release of the novel, Davidson participated in a fully sanctioned boxing match against Toronto poet Michael Knox at Florida Jack’s Boxing Gym; for the novel’s subsequent release in the United States, he organized a similar promotional boxing match against Jonathan Ames. Davidson lost both matches.
His 2013 novel Cataract City was named as a longlisted nominee for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize.