When Michael Punke learned his 2002 novel “The Revenant,” a grisly tale of revenge set on the Montana frontier in the late summer of 1823, was being adapted into a Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy movie directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, he was thrilled. When he heard Picador was re-releasing the book in hardback in January 2015, he was elated. When he heard he couldn’t talk about either of those facts he was – according to those closest to him anyway – pretty bummed.
“He can’t even sign copies for us,” says James Meader, his frustrated publicist. The reason? The Federal Government won’t let him.
Punke, 49, is the Deputy United States Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He’s about to be a famous author, but he’s already in a such a sensitive position that the State Department can’t let him talk to reporters. He has to leave that his friends and his brother.
“A lot of the things that Michael talks about in his books are hobbies that he had growing up,” says his younger brother Tim, who works at a timber company in Seattle. The Punke boys grew up in Torrington, Wyoming, where their father taught high-school biology and urged them to fish and hike. According to his brother, Michael was an outdoorsy kid – the type who fantasizes about untamed frontiers. “I remember one time, when he was 14 or so, he built a Hawken rifle from a kit.”
Punke excelled academically, graduating after his junior year in high school and going on to pursue a law degree at Cornell, focusing primarily on trade law. “He was a leader,” recalls John Barcelo, his professor at the time, “and also a very good writer—both of those things are called for to head the International Law Journal.” Punke became Editor-In-Chief, but he didn’t linger in upstate New York. In the early nineties, he relocated to Washington, DC where he served as International Trade Counsel to then Montana Senator Max Baucus (he’s now the Ambassador to China). The beloved lawmaker was a fine teacher and it wasn’t long before Punke became a Clinton appointee, filling the role of White House Director for International Economic Affairs.
Punke wanted to write a great political novel, but he could never get traction so he looked back to the West and found inspiration in the form of an obscure frontier hero. “He was reading a non-fiction book,” Tim recalls, “In the middle was a snippet on Hugh Glass. And the more that he read about it, the more he got interested in it.”
Glass, whose story of survival inspired “The Revenant,” was an American fur trapper who was horrifically mauled by a grizzly bear during an expedition in the early 19th century. Two men from Glass’s expedition were left behind with orders to watch over the frontiersman, now wracked with fever, until he either died or regained his strength—whichever came first. Instead, they abandoned him, dooming him further by taking his knife and rifle. Unarmed and severely wounded, Glass dragged himself over 200 miles of uncharted frontier to the nearest fort, where he recovered and decided to take vengeance on the men who betrayed him.
The story had been told before, most famously in Man In The Wilderness, a 1971 film starring Richard Harris as Glass, but it hadn’t been told particularly well or at all thoroughly. Punke, who is exactly as detail oriented as his career indicates, went to work. He hit the archives determined to paint a more vivid picture of Glass’ journey. In 1997, he started writing.
According to Tim, Punke “used to get up at five in the morning, go into work and write for three hours, and then he do his job for eight or ten hours.” The book took four years to complete and the final year was particularly intense. Punke caught pneumonia four times while writing the novel, which Tim attributes to his brother “running himself ragged,” which was sort of in the spirit of the thing.
Despite being a gripping account of survival, “The Revenant” was largely ignored when it hit stores in 2002. “I was surprised it didn’t get the kind of play I thought it deserved,” says Mickey Kantor, a partner in Mayer Brown and close friend of Michael’s. The movie rights were snatched up, but copies were not; all was quiet on the westerns front.
Punke moved on, relocating with his wife Traci and their two children to Missoula, Montana. He finished two screenplays and two non-fiction books, one about the North Butte Mining Disaster and another about the fight to save the Buffalo, while working part-time as a policy consultant. And he probably would have kept typing away, but Obama came calling, nominating him to be Ambassador to the WTO.
“Not a surprise at all,” Kantor says. “He’s doing a terrific job there. He’s a great representative for the United States in a very difficult area - international trade - and he knows it backwards and forwards.”
This is where Punke’s story and the story of his book part ways. Punke went to Europe and “The Revenant” clawed its way through Hollywood, eventually landing in the hands of Alejandro Inarritu, the Mexican director famous for Babel and 21 Grams, in 2011. “It’s the book that wouldn’t die,” says Punke’s agent Tina Bennett. Inarritu wouldn’t let it and plenty of other big-name directors and producers, including Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, were attached to the project at one point or another.
Fresh off the success of Birdman, Inarritu is currently filming his adaptation in Alberta, Canada. Upon release, the movie will make Punke a famous writer. But he won’t walk any red carpets or give any interviews or praise the performances of any movie stars. Punke will probably talk about his success with his friends, but he’ll mostly just keep his mouth shut.
“I think he’s definitely disappointed that he’s not able to do some of that [press] stuff right now,” says his brother. “It’s so fun.”
Still, the movie will help Punke accomplish one of his goals. According to Tim, Michael was trying to write his way out of D.C. and back to the big sky country (“a writer can live wherever he wants”). For Punke, that means his big break is a ticket home. When he leaves Switzerland, he might have a stopover in D.C. , but that’ll be the size of it. Whatever else he is, he’s not a Washington attorney anymore.
Photos by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP / Getty Images