In February 2016, Michael Punke attended the Academy Awards ceremony, where "The Revenant," the movie based on his historical novel, won three Oscars.
While most authors would be eager to do interviews, he couldn't. He was serving as U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization, and by government rules couldn't talk about his book, which had become a bestseller, or the movie, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Now back in the private sector and living in Missoula again, Punke is free to discuss "The Revenant" and his previous inability to discuss it because of ethics rules that forbid self-promotion.
"You don't get drafted for those jobs," he said. "To volunteer, you want to do it, and that goes with the territory, or at least it should, and so I knew going in that that would be one of the limitations."
Besides his professional work, he has a deep interest in the history of the American West, both in fiction and nonfiction.
"The landscape in which we live is just so inherently evocative, and beautiful and harsh and … in any classic Western, the landscape is a character, and when you live here you understand why. But I also think the historical themes that come out of the West are dramatic and exciting," he said.
He thinks American archetypes are "even more vivid" transported here and aren't limited.
"They aren't just regional stories, they're national stories, and they're very much at the core, I think, of our character as Americans," he said.
The path between initial inspiration and screen was a saga unto itself.
Punke grew up in Wyoming, and has been fascinated by history ever since he saw painter Edgar S. Paxson's "Custer's Last Stand," a depiction of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, at a museum over in Cody.
When he was in high school and college, he got "a teenage boy's dream job" as a living history interpreter at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. He was charged with dressing up in an 1876 cavalry uniform. He got to fire a cannon every day. They baked bread with a recipe given to the U.S. Army from Napoleon's troops. In hindsight, it was "a unique research opportunity" that's stuck with him.
He studied international affairs at George Washington University, and then Cornell Law School, followed by 14 years in government and private sector. His family moved to Missoula in the early 2000s, where he focused on writing full time. He wrote "The Revenant," a few screenplays and two books of historical nonfiction: "Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917" and "Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West."
He thinks the right historical stories can yield contemporary lessons. The near-eradication of the buffalo was an environmental crisis with contemporary parallels to global warming.
"If we're open to those lessons from history, then we really can have the potential to avoid the mistakes we've made in the past if we're wise enough. That's my hope for historical fiction and for nonfiction historical books, that they teach us something, that we don't have to learn through personal experience," he said.
His favorite books include Larry McMurtry's epic Western novel "Lonesome Dove" and Norman Maclean's novella, "A River Runs Through It." ("It's one of two books that ever made me cry. The other was 'Old Yeller' when I was about 8 years old," he said.) He looks up to Wallace Stegner's writing about the West and Bernard DeVoto's books on the fur trade.
While reading a nonfiction book on the fur trade era, he came across a few paragraphs that caught his eye, "this quick summary of this guy Hugh Glass who had been mauled by a grizzly bear, robbed and abandoned by his comrades, crawled back to the last vestige of civilization to survive, re-equipped himself, and went out to seek revenge," he said.
He started with the footnotes but couldn't find much more. There's perhaps one letter to give an idea of Glass' voice and plenty of lore about the 1800s fur trapper. That made it perfect for fiction, he said, because it had the main mileposts a story requires and lots of room between for him to fill in with his own imagination.
It was published in 2002. The first reading was at a restaurant in Livingston, where his wife, Traci, is from. He said half the people were eating, the other half were her relatives, and one person was Keith Redmon, a Montanan now working for a Hollywood production company called Anonymous Content.
A later reading was in Los Angeles, and Punke said there wasn't really anyone there besides Redmon, who later won a Golden Globe for his commitment to the story.
The film rights were optioned, and then the script made the rounds — for some 14 years.
"Like many films in Hollywood do, it went through this long saga of film companies, different production companies, different scripts, different screenwriters, different potential directors, different potential lead actors," he said. He'd hear rumors: Michael Mann wanted to direct, with Daniel Day-Lewis as lead. By the time the word was Iñárritu and DiCaprio, he was "jaded."
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He was also no longer in the United States — from April 2010 to December 2016, he was the U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization, and a deputy U.S. trade representative, based in Geneva, Switzerland. He moved his family.
He wasn't much involved in the production himself and couldn't visit the set. He admires the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and the fact that the film, shot mostly in Canada and a little in Montana, relied on natural light.
While his book gave him room to imagine Glass' thoughts during his epic journey, the movie didn't have the benefit of voiceover, and for large stretches DiCaprio is alone in the woods.
"I think he managed to bring a lot of range and intensity even to those long scenes where it was only him, and I imagine it's not an easy thing to do," he said.
He admires, too, the costumes and the efforts to portray Native peoples accurately, including dialogue in Arikara and Pawnee.
The history buff in him has a few quibbles. People on the frontier are using cash money, for one.
"You have a couple instances of single-shot muzzle-loading pistols being fired multiple times without reloading," he said.
The ending (no spoilers here) was changed to include a more dramatic showdown, where his book was tethered to facts and therefore more subtle.
Regardless, Hollywood attention brought his book back into print, in hardcover, softcover and a movie edition.
"It turns out that DiCaprio doing a movie based on your book is super-good publicity," he said.
A shelf in his writing library is occupied mostly by versions of "The Revenant" from around the world, including more than 20 translations: "O Regresso," "O Renascido," "El Renacido," "A Visszatérő," "Zmrtvýchvstání," "Der Totgeglaubte," "Zjawa" and more.
"It was exciting to see it go all around the world and have that second life. You know, the title means, 'back from the dead,' so I guess there's some sort of karma there," he said.
He thinks the story, surviving an attack, getting abandoned, seeking revenge, has a universal appeal that translates well to other cultures.
He and his family are now back in Missoula, and he commutes to Seattle several times a week for his work at Amazon Web Services, where he's vice president for global public policy.
He writes on the plane and at home in the Rattlesnake. Just last week he finished the follow-up to "The Revenant."
The drafts were sitting in his office in stacks of printed pages. Elsewhere around the office were piles of books for research, a part of the work that he loves. Some of the books date back to his living history interpreter days.
He firmly believes that "the best historical writing is screamingly relevant in our contemporary society, and that's certainly what I'm aiming at."
The new book is a historical novel, set in the 19th century American West, that is "very much in the spirit of 'The Revenant,'" he said. A formal announcement will come out through his publisher, likely in the coming weeks.
What's it about?
He's not allowed to discuss it, at least not yet.