The Oscars are over — at least until next year — and despite many expectations, The Revenant did not take home the award for best picture. Curiously, though, even in the midst of all the Oscar buzz, we didn't hear much about the man who wrote the book on which the critically acclaimed film was based. So who is Michael Punke, the author of The Revenant ? Turns out, he has a very impressive (and very non-book-related) day job. Which makes sense, given that the book, which was published 14 years ago, wasn't immediately the success that its film adaptation would suggest. And it seems this day job is also the reason Punke hasn't been doing media appearances, either.
Michael Punke, you see, is the deputy United States Trade Representative and the United States ambassador to the World Trade Organization — a job that seems a world away from both the typical literary scene and the gritty Wild West setting of The Revenant. It's also a job that forbids Punke from anything that could be seen as “self-enriching” or an abuse of his post due to federal ethics rules. Hence, no interviews, no press events, even no book signings.
“It’s been frustrating,” Stephen Morrison, a publisher at Punke's publishing house, Picador, told The New York Times. “Any other author would be out on press junkets, but he’s not able to do any promotion at all.”
So what do we know about Punke and the novel even without interviews? Well, it seems Punke has long been interested in the history of the Wild West, and that he got the idea for The Revenant 17 years ago while reading a nonfiction book about the fur trade, which mentioned a trapper, Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a grizzly bear and who became the inspiration for Punke's novel. Punke published The Revenant in 2002, but the book wasn't the kind of runaway success that you'd expect to become a DiCaprio film, selling a modest 15,000 copies and going out of print several years later.
Following the news that Leonardo DiCaprio would be starring in the film adaptation, however, publishers released a new hardback copy of the book, which has now sold over half a million copies.
But even though Punke's job seems to be frustrating for those of us who'd like to know more about this seemingly very interesting author, it's also pretty cool — as is that fact that Punke seems to be very, very good at what he does.
“He’s one of the most knowledgeable trade negotiators in the world,” Mickey Kantor, a former United States Trade Representative who worked with Punke, told The New York Times. “In trade law, you’ve got to be detailed, you’ve got to be prepared, and you’ve got to know more than the person across the table from you.”
Christopher Wenk, the executive director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also told the paper, “The guy is so talented, you read his bio, and it’s like he has two lives."
Indeed, in the financial world, colleagues seem to find Punke's literary life as curious as readers might find his financial career. The New York Times reports that people often ask to take pictures — and ask him how Leo is doing (probably pretty good since last night's long overdue Oscar win, I'd imagine). After all, you don't normally think of authors missing movie premieres because they're in Nairobi negotiating a $1.3 trillion global trade deal, and you don't typically imagine that a global trade expert would head to Hollywood to walk the Oscars red carpet. And yet here we are.
Maybe someday Micahel Punke will retire and we can find out just what it's like to be both the United States ambassador to the World Trade Organization and a bestselling author who hobnobs with Hollywood, but until then we will just have to find him fascinating from afar.