Of all the unlikely success stories at the Academy Awards this year, perhaps none is as surprising as Michael Punke’s sudden and overdue literary fame.
There are five literary adaptations in the Oscar race for best picture this year, including movies based on Emma Donoghue’s “Room” and Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn.” But among the hopeful novelists who will be closely watching Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, only one has negotiated a $1.3 trillion global trade deal.
That would be Michael Punke, deputy U.S. trade representative and the U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In addition to being an international trade-policy wonk, Punke wrote “The Revenant,” a 2002 novel about a 19th-century American fur trapper’s epic struggle for survival in the wilderness, and the inspiration for Alejandro Iñárritu’s film. The movie is up for 12 Oscars, including best picture, and has catapulted the novel onto the best-seller lists.
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Of all the unlikely success stories at the Academy Awards this year, from Sylvester Stallone’s surprise comeback in “Creed” to the debut science-fiction author Andy Weir’s blockbuster hit with “The Martian,” perhaps none is as surprising as Punke’s sudden and overdue literary fame. “The Revenant” sold about 15,000 copies after it was published nearly 14 years ago, and it had been out of print for several years by the time the movie began shooting.
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When word got out that a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio was in the works, Picador, an imprint of Macmillan, acquired reprint rights, and the novel got a second life. A new hardcover came out in 2015. Since then, “The Revenant” has sold more than 500,000 copies, and Picador has reprinted the book 21 times.
Punke, 51, hasn’t been able to soak up his long-awaited moment in the spotlight. Because of his government position, he can’t give interviews about the book, or even sign copies. Federal ethics rules prohibit him from any activities that would be “self-enriching” or could be seen as an abuse of his post. He was not able to comment for this article.
“It’s been frustrating,” said Stephen Morrison, of Picador. “Any other author would be out on press junkets, but he’s not able to do any promotion at all.”
Punke wasn’t even able to attend the film’s premiere in Hollywood in December because he was in Nairobi, negotiating a $1.3 trillion global trade deal governing rules for medical devices, semiconductors, GPS and other technologies.
“He’s bummed that he can’t participate as much as he wants to,” said Tim Punke, Punke’s brother, who works at a timber company in Seattle. “It’s a dream come true for any writer, so to not be able to fully engage in everything to do with the book is frustrating.”
In international policy and trade circles, Punke’s sudden celebrity has been a source of great amusement. When trade ministers gathered in Davos, Switzerland, this year, Punke was frequently stopped by colleagues who wanted to take their picture with him.
“We all think it’s quite cool,” said Keith Rockwell, a WTO spokesman who added that colleagues occasionally tease Punke by asking him how his buddy Leo is doing. “The WTO isn’t normally known for having a Hollywood connection.”
“Enamored of the West”
Punke’s surprising path started with his fascination with the historical West. Growing up in Torrington, Wyo., he learned to fly-fish when he was 5 and built his own rifle when he was 12. His parents, both teachers, took him and his brother hunting, hiking and fishing. In high school and college, he spent several summers working at a national park site as a historical re-enactor, dressed in an old Army uniform at a 19th-century trading post.
“He’d go out there in this heavy wool Army uniform, baking bread and firing up the cannons, when most kids were delivering pizzas or doing paper routes,” Tim Punke said.
He studied international affairs at George Washington University, and then went to Cornell Law School. A few years later he began working for then-Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., as the senator’s international-trade counsel. From there, he worked in the White House under President Clinton as director for international economic affairs, and served on the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. He later took a job as a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm, Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw.
“He’s one of the most knowledgeable trade negotiators in the world,” said Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. trade representative who worked with Punke at the law firm. “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.”
Punke got the idea for “The Revenant” about 17 years ago, while he was working at the law firm. He was on a plane reading a nonfiction book about the fur trade, his wife, Traci, said. He came across a few lines about Hugh Glass, a trapper who was mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823, and then dragged himself over hundreds of miles of wilderness to confront the men who abandoned him. Punke started researching the story, and decided to write a novel about Glass. He woke up around 4:30 each morning to write for a few hours before work.
“He’s always been enamored of the West,” she said. “I’ve heard him say he feels like he was born in the wrong era.”
The movie rights were optioned by Warner Bros. in 2001, before the book was even sold, but production never started.
Punke threw himself into other projects. The Punkes and their two children moved to Missoula, Mont., where he researched and wrote two nonfiction books, “Fire and Brimstone,” about a 1917 mining disaster, and “Last Stand,” about a 19th-century conservationist’s effort to save the buffalo.
Eventually, he was offered the WTO ambassador position, and the family moved to Geneva in 2010.
He’ll be at Oscars
Living in Switzerland, Punke has been insulated from much of the hype surrounding the movie. He got his first taste of the awards circuit last month, when he and Traci attended the Golden Globes, where the movie picked up three awards, and Punke chatted with DiCaprio about buffalo. The Punkes will attend Sunday’s Academy Award ceremony (though he won’t be giving any red-carpet interviews).
No matter how “The Revenant” fares at the Oscars, Michael and Traci Punke judge it a success. They never expected the movie to come this far.
“There were definitely some frustrations along the way,” Traci Punke said. “We were familiar with the bureaucracy of D.C., not so much Hollywood. We were like, if it ever gets made, it will be a miracle.”