Revenant author is US trade envoy

Government rules stop Michael Punke from promoting book and giving interviews

NEW YORK • There were five literary adaptations in the Oscar race for Best Picture this year, including movies based on Emma Donoghue's Room and Colm Toibin's Brooklyn. But among the novelists who could have watched closely the recent Academy Awards ceremony, only one has negotiated a US$1.3-trillion (S$1.79- trillion) global trade deal.

That would be Michael Punke, deputy United States Trade Representative and the US ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In addition to being an international trade policy wonk, Punke, 51, is the author of 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 G. Inarritu's film.

The movie won three Oscars, including Best Director for Inarritu and Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, and that has catapulted the novel onto the bestseller lists.

It sold about 15,000 copies after it was published nearly 14 years ago and had been out of print for several years by the time the movie began shooting.

When word got out that a film starring 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 last year. Since then, it has sold more than 500,000 copies and Picador has reprinted the book 21 times.

Michael Punke got the idea for The Revenant about 17 years ago when he read a book about the fur trade. PHOTO: WWW.AMAZON.COM

But because of his government position, Punke cannot give interviews about the book. 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. He could not even attend the film's premiere in Hollywood in December because he was in Nairobi, negotiating a global trade deal.

His surprising path started with his fascination with the historical West. Growing up in Torrington, Wyoming, he learnt to fly-fish and built his own rifle. His parents, both teachers, took him and his brother hunting and fishing.

He went to Cornell Law School and worked in the White House under then US President Bill Clinton as director for international economic affairs, serving on the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. He later took a job as a partner in the Washington office of the law firm, Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw.

He got the idea for The Revenant about 17 years ago, while working at the law firm. He was on a plane reading a non-fiction 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, 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.

The movie rights were optioned by Warner Bros in 2001, before the book was even sold, but the production never got underway.

Punke then wrote two non- fiction 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 ambassador position at the WTO and the family moved to Geneva in 2010.

The Punkes never expected the movie to come this far. "There were some frustrations along the way," Traci 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."


  • The Revenant is available at Books Kinokuniya at $19.26. The movie is screening at cinemas.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Revenant author is US trade envoy'. Subscribe