P O W E L L, W y o. - Novelist Toby Barlow will detour his cross-country book tour for a stop at Northwest College Thursday, March 13, to talk about "Sharp Teeth," his newly released novel. Barlow's presentation, sponsored by the Northwest College Writers Series, begins at 7:30 p.m. in Room 70 of the Fagerberg Building.
"Sharp Teeth" was released last year in Great Britain to critical acclaim. Since becoming available in the United States in January, it's garnered more positive reviews from the Library Journal, New York Magazine, Kirkus Reviews and many more.
Set in Los Angeles, the story follows packs of lycanthropes (werewolf-type creatures) that can shape shift at will from refined Rolex-wearing executives to primal vestiges of themselves, blessed with the speed of four legs and the acuteness of a canine nose. Barlow packs into his verse plenty of dark humor and epic themes.
The entire book is written in free verse, not an obvious choice for a first-time novelist and hardly a formula for sales appeal. But then Barlow himself doesn't fit the image of the sweater-wearing author sitting serenely at his computer methodically composing pages of prose. In his day life, he's executive creative director at the JWT advertising agency in Detroit and a contributor to the literary magazine n+1 and the Huffington Post.
"When I started writing my book," Barlow says in his Huffington Post blog, "it was more for escape than anything else. I just had to get away. I certainly didn't write my book to get published. In fact, I seriously handicapped my chances by writing my novel in free verse. Not really a 'marketable proposition.' Yes, it was a love story, and yes it involved dogs (and who doesn't love dogs?). But they were blood-thirsty werewolf-ish dogs who played cards, busted up crystal meth labs, and every so often ate people alive. Not exactly "Benji." Not exactly "My Dog Skip."
Barlow discovered, however, that the "werewolf-ish" part of the book didn't "freak people out" as much as the poetry. "When friends heard that (the book was written entirely in free verse), they started giving me a wide berth at parties. 'Oh, free verse, yeah, um, I think the hostess needs help there with the dishes.' But that didn't matter because I honestly didn't write it because I wanted people to buy it. I wrote it because I liked the characters and I wanted to see what they did. I could control them in a way I couldn't control the world around me."
For Barlow, the important thing was that it gave him an opportunity to get away, to get lost wandering in a strange and distant world, one filled with mad dogs, odd bridge games, and twisted verse.
"Then an odd thing started happening," he said. "The real world started overshadowing my story, biting into my fantasy with its own out-of-control weirdness. First the Michael Vick scandal hit, with a $130 million NFL superstar being thrown into prison because of a mad dog fighting ring. Then four women at the world bridge championship sparked an international controversy when they held up a sign reading "We didn't vote for Bush." The scandal they provoked filled up the pages of the New York Times for a week. A bridge scandal? In this day and age? Finally, Beowulf, the eighth century epic poem of Nordic violence, was turned into a major motion picture featuring a naked Angelina Jolie, somehow grossing nearly $100 million worldwide. A blockbuster poem? Come on."
So where does an escaping author find inspiration to write a book about werewolves that somehow doesn't seem so far-fetched when standing in a line-up of world news stories? Barlow just happened to be in his day job when the notion struck.
"A few years ago," he said, "while I was on a long tour of duty in Chicago for an important cheese account, I came across a portrait of a local dogcatcher in the Chicago Reader. It was a great piece, really vivid and rich. In it, the dogcatcher mentioned that packs usually revolve around one female dog. I was struck by that particular detail: if werewolf packs were organized by the same principle, and if the dogcatcher fell in love with the female wolf, I thought, that would make for an interesting premise for a novel."
And for readers who might balk at reading a book written entirely in verse, Barlow says, "Instead of thinking of it as poetry or verse, try thinking of it as a story stripped down to its very essence - a ripping yarn with all the unnecessary words ripped out. One reader described it as a graphic novel without the pictures, and I think that pretty well captures what I was after. My initial intention was to try to write something that felt more open, that invited people into the story - a form in which the words worked more like crumbs of bread drawing you through the tale. And once I got going, the style really seemed to fit the nature of the novel. The mystery at the book's core was sort of hard-boiled, so a terse rhythm felt appropriate."
As an aside, Barlow adds, "In a way, I suppose I just wanted to write an adventure for the A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder) generation, a novel propelled by energy and momentum. And the fact that I was writing about altered beasts seemed to marry well to an altered style of language."
Barlow never uses the word "werewolf" to describe the creatures in "Sharp Teeth." And on occasion his lycanthropes masquerade as dogs, eliciting the predictable reactions from humans. He admits he loves dogs and has owned several of them over the years, but he's also been intrigued by "how people and dogs work together, how tight that bond can be." In his book, he said he "tried to look at the qualities we share - hunger, lust, a quest for dominance - as well as others - like loyalty - that we humans could always use more of. We assume mankind's superiority as a species and yet I think that on some level we feel incomplete. The dogs somehow fill out those holes in our lives. It's all too complex for me to fully grasp, but ultimately it's a pretty odd symbiotic bond we've formed with these sweet beasts with very sharp teeth."
In between writing a novel and working in advertising, Barlow is also the founder of The Plimpton Project, which is devoted to erecting a statue of George Plimpton in New York City, and the creator of the Billy Collins Action Poetry series. He splits his time between Detroit, Mich., and New York City.
Copies of Barlow's "Sharp Teeth" will be available for purchase and signing Thursday night.
Admission is free to his presentation in Powell. It concludes the 2007-08 NWC Writers Series, which will resume in October.