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Craig Davidson: ‘Stripped down. Nothing extra’

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Craig Davidson, known for his hard-edged tales of violence and tough luck, returns this month with Cataract City, which was this week longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Here, he reflects on the influences that shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

I started writing horror fiction – short stories, novellas and a novel under a pen name. So my early influences were the writers I'd grown up reading: Stephen King, Clive Barker, Robert R. McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury, Jack Ketchum and some of the lesser-known lights like Wayne Allen Sallee, David J Schow and the splatterpunk twins, Skipp and Spector.

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Did you imitate any of them?

Yeah, totally. I was the same in sports: Basketball-wise, I liked the way Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics played the game. He was a flatfooted, gangly white dude – there didn't seem to be much separating us (except, as I later realized, a vast gulf of athletic talent and natural ability). So I emulated his moves. Same thing prevailed on the page. I probably imitated the wrong things at first – their gore, their extreme-ness. Later, I came to see that King is a very nuanced writer, one of the best writers on childhood that I've ever read. At first, though, I liked how, in Cujo, he had the rabid Saint Bernard bite off Buddy Torgeson's private parts. Folly of youth!

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

I'm not sure I did escape their influence, or if I've ever felt a need to. There's nothing the matter with being influenced by other writers, as I see it, the same way a person is influenced by teachers and mentors and their parents, whoever. My voice, whatever that is, is likely a synthesis of my own ideas and passions and life experiences and the subsurface (or bald, for all I know) influence of the writers I've mentioned and ones I came to love later on. It's a distinct enough voice, I guess, but it shares certain resonances with the writers I grew up enjoying.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

I think it's probably less dangerous, as a young published writer, to be influenced versus getting labelled – although you could say one begets the other. For example, I was and still am seen as a "tough-guy" writer. Furthest thing from who I am personally, but I'm not saying it's unfair. But if you don't feel it fits any more, or never really did, it can become a pretty ill-fitting coat to wear. You can venture far afield of that initial outlook – and I have, personally, now being in a long-term relationship, being a father, a more settled and happy person – but that perception's going to dog you.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

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Clive Barker can turn a hell of a phrase. He can veer into purple from time to time, but when he's got the gears ticking along nicely, he's very, very good. Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) is admirable for his purity. Stripped down. Nothing extra. No fluffery. (For example, he wouldn't have written "nothing extra. No fluffery." He'd've considered it needless excess).

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

Nope. Right now, I'm writing horror again, the second book of a contract, and I'm reading nothing but horror. Watching horror flicks, too; my partner and son are upstairs trying to sleep and they're hearing these blood-curdling screams from movies like The Beyond and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre floating up the stairwell. Sweet dreams, my loves! Anyway, I find it helps to keep me rooted in the story I'm writing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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