The Chat with Craig Davidson

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Craig Davidson has returned with his latest novel, The Saturday Night Ghost Club. It tells the tale of Jake Baker, a neurosurgeon looking back on a pivotal childhood friendship and the secret ghost-busting club he forms with his mysterious Uncle Calvin. It’s a moving coming-of-age tale of friendship, creepy occult lore, and wicked nighttime adventure.

Quill & Quire says, “For sheer storytelling prowess, and the chops to scare readers screwy with monsters both real and of our own imagining, the label of Canada’s Stephen King—if we insist on handing it out—belongs to Craig Davidson, claws down.”

Craig Davidson was born and grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. He has published four previous books of literary fiction, including Rust and Bone, which was the inspiration for a Golden Globe-nominated feature film of the same name; and the Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated novel Cataract City. His bestselling memoir, Precious Cargo, about his year spent driving a school bus for children with special needs, was a finalist for Canada Reads. Davidson lives in Toronto with his partner and child.

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THE CHAT WITH CRAIG DAVIDSON

Trevor Corkum: The Saturday Night Ghost Club mines the lost world of 1980s' Canadian childhoods. How long had the story been percolating for you, and what was its inspiration?

Craig Davidson: Oh, I suppose it’s been percolating awhile. Somewhere down in the swamp of my ID, where the dark (and occasionally light) things tend to fester. I’m not sure where the inspiration came from, exactly. Probably a lot of places.

I did have this bumblebee, back in my old house in Calgary, who over the course of a few weeks kept coming through a tear in my screen door in the kitchen window; I’d find it fretting uselessly, helplessly, under the blinds. Diligently, I’d trap it in a cup and let it go outside. I looked on the Internet and discovered this phenomenon called the footprint pheromone: when a bee finds a particularly robust source of pollen, it leaves this pheromone so it—or other bees—can find their way to it.

So I think that was what was going on. And I liked that idea, in human terms: someone going back to sites of old familiarity, old acquaintance, without really knowing why, following some old instinct even they didn’t understand. Maybe that was the genesis.

TC: It’s a beautiful tale of childhood friendship against-all-odds, with tinges of The Goonies and Stand By Me (two of my faves from the era). What do you remember of this kind of male pre-adolescent friendship from your own life?

CD: Well, definitely Stand By Me (the movie, and King’s novella The Body) was a touchstone for this one, along with the work of John Bellairs, Judy Blume, Daniel Pinkwater, and some of the other writers I was reading at the time. I mean, yes, other than the fact he’s a neurosurgeon and hence much, much smarter than I am, Jake Baker, the book’s narrator, is to a great degree me.

I mean, yes, other than the fact he’s a neurosurgeon and hence much, much smarter than I am, Jake Baker, the book’s narrator, is to a great degree me.

I was the clumsy, awkward red-haired kid who sometimes had a rough time making friends, was a bit of a pushover, and was equally fascinated and repelled by anything that went bump in the dark. I’d say the friendships I had were probably a bit more complicated than the one between Billy and Jake—in the end, they’re very close friends. It’s almost an idealized scenario of what boyhood friendship could be. My own friendships had their rivalries, their fights, their waxings and wanings. That’s pretty much all friendships, whether kid or adult.

TC: The narrator, in his adult world, is a neurosurgeon, and each new section of the book dips briefly into a certain medical case. Why was it important to include these cases?

Well, I’m just completely fascinated by the processes of memory. What we keep from ourselves, how we re-contextualize events in order to spare ourselves or others from harm or ill feelings, how we shape our own narrative through memory and, in some cases, remember things that never happened.

The book was my PhD thesis, actually, and in order to fulfill the critical portion, my academic thesis, I decided to focus on memory itself, some theories of memory, and selected three Canadian books—Cat’s Eye, by Atwood; Fall on Your Knees, by MacDonald; and The Stone Angel, by Laurence—that I felt did such interesting things with memory.

The book was my PhD thesis, actually, and in order to fulfill the critical portion, my academic thesis, I decided to focus on memory itself, some theories of memory, and selected three Canadian books—Cat’s Eye, by Atwood; Fall on Your Knees, by MacDonald; and The Stone Angel, by Laurence—that I felt did such interesting things with memory.

So I looked really carefully at how those writers handled memory and that informed to some degree how I handled it myself, in the depiction of Calvin Sharpe’s memory. I felt the medical cases—which were inspired by my research—gave an interesting window into what some readers may see as the fundamental mystery of the book, and could be something that, after finishing the book, may cause readers to look at the narrative in a slightly different way.

TC: You also explore the phenomenon of repressed—or lost—memory, dealing with how the human brain can bury information that’s too painful to consciously process. What kind of research was involved in this aspect of the book?

CD: Yes, that was another part of the critical thesis for the PhD. I am mistrustful of literary theory. I’m sure it has its place, but I don’t care about it much and think a lot of it is fairly gassy. So I asked my advisors if I could focus more on the crunchy, scientific, real-world research about the human brain and memory: so surgeons’ memoirs, psychological texts, case studies, that kind of thing.

Not only did I think that would suit me better personally, I thought there might be things to be mined from such texts that would help the book. Turns out there was!

So it was fun to squirrel myself away in the library reading that sort of thing, especially seeing as it ended up having some influence on the book’s edits. I read plenty on memory repression, on memory erasure, fugue states, and the idea of the engram, or memory trace—which, if the path to a given memory is obliterated, our brains will be unable to access it. When I read that, it was like “A-ha!”

TC: Any unsolved mystery or ghost story from your own childhood that continues to haunt your psyche?

You know, Ghostbusters scared the living hell out of me. I saw it at some boy’s birthday when I was in the third grade. It really shouldn’t have been traumatizing. All the other kids exited into the bright sunshine after the matinee laughing and gleeful, but I was a big bag of shredded nerves.

Damn you, Zuul (and those demon-dog gargoyles, and to a far lesser extent, Slimer).

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Excerpt from The Saturday Night Ghost Club

What follows is an account, as I choose to remember it, of my twelfth year on this planet—the summer of the Saturday Night Ghost Club. Uncle C called the inaugural meeting, and in addition to him, our membership roll was tiny: Billy Yellowbird, Lexington Galbraith and me. Later on Dove Yellowbird became the club’s lone female member.

The club convened in Niagara Falls. Cataract City, as we locals call it. A place stuck in time. The shop awnings are ’70s-era candy-stripes, and the row houses have tarpaper roofs. The rooms in every motel down the strip—flops with names like the Lovers’ Nest and the Honeydew Inn—smell of burnt dust and carpet powder, and the duvets look like somebody’s grandma’s sofa covers. Nothing ever gets torn down in Cataract City. Buildings collapse like woolly mammoths sucked lamenting into a tar pit, and afterwards, the spot where that dilapidated house or shop stood remains barren. In most towns, things change. Vacant lots become parking lots, or gentrification hits and they become tapas restaurants and dog grooming salons. But where I come from those weedy lots become part of the scenery. People would miss them if they were gone.

Cataract City is perma-tacky, but you come to love it the way you’d love an ugly dog with a sweet disposition. The population swells when the tourist tide washes in each summer—that spree-spending, sunburnt horde—but they clear out come late August, leaving nothing but their money. Just enough babies are born at the Niagara Gen to compensate for those who are lost in the retirement castles strung down Dunn Street. A lot of the guys I grew up with roam the streets they were born on, living a block from their childhood homes. Cradle to grave could be Cataract City’s unofficial motto. Some days I peer out the window of my glittery Toronto apartment tower— everything glitters in my part of town; at the first sign of tarnish the wrecking ball starts to swing—and spot that distant landfall across Lake Ontario. The city of my birth is only a few hours down the highway if traffic holds steady, and a part of me will always belong there.

My parents still live in their bungalow on Belmont Road. My room is as I left it: the Dead Alive poster on the wall and the stack of Fangorias on the bookshelf, under a shrunken skull that Uncle C told me he’d bartered from a Peruvian headshrinker, but replicas of which I later found filling a wire bin—three dozen miniaturized specimens—in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not gift shop on Clifton Hill. I spent my childhood within the confines of that house, or haunting a few lonely bolt-holes around town where I wouldn’t be harassed by lads whose chief pleasure was torturing introspective bookish sorts like me.

Back then, the world had jaws that could grip at any time. That tree branch scratching my window at night? That was the fingernail of a vampire roused from the catacombs beneath the Lundy’s Lane cemetery. Its face pale as lamplight, its eyes twin craters burrowed into its skull, its ragged nailscriiiiiiiitching the glass. The rustling of dead leaves in the eaves troughs was the scuttling of rats in the walls. Not just any old rats: bloated hulks with tails like cherry licorice whips. They skittered behind the drywall on needle-nail feet, harvesting the insulation to build a nest for their mother, the queen, who was the size of a trash can, squatting behind our water tank. The queen had suckled on nameless goo seeping from a cracked drum at the city dump before squeezing through the dryer vent to give birth to a brood of squealing rat-lings. Before long they’d chew through my bedroom wall and pour out in a chittering tide of rancid fur and teeth the colour of stained ivory, and those pink coiling tails. . . .

Looking back, it’s a wonder I got any sleep at all.

Can’t say I get much these days, either. I work at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto. Neurosurgery unit. I’m a BCB—a “Big City Blade”—a sobriquet coined by one of the more egotistical members of my fraternity. My job obliges me to enter the operating theatre, where I cut into the human brain. Whenever I bisect a patient’s scalp and remove a scalloped window of skull to assay the knotty web of blood vessels braiding across a brain’s surface—a venous geography individual to each patient, like a fingerprint—I am beset by a passing but intense fear that collects in my mouth, bitter as chewed aspirin.

There was a time, years ago, when I’d drive all the way home after a gruelling operation and take my folks out to Lucky’s Steakhouse. If I was feeling nostalgic—or if the procedure had gone badly—I’d sleep in my old bed. My feet would dangle over the edge, but the sheets smelled as they did when I was a boy. Mom hung them on the line to dry, so they held different scents from season to season: budding blossoms in spring, honeysuckle in summer, a hint of wood-smoke come autumn. I’d lie with the moonlight angling through the backyard maple to cast a fretwork of shadows on the wall and remember the ghost of my old fears, although I no longer saw the shadows as the skeletal hands of a beast come to claim my soul.

Excerpted from The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson. Copyright © 2018 Craig Davidson. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2018
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