Wednesday 6 April 2011

Glen Duncan Interview

There are a few authors who I happen to have caught at the right time in their career and in my reading patterns to have been able to read their entire oeuvre. Glen Duncan is one of those. I am always interested to know what he will write next and never really surprised when it turns out to be something completely different from the last book. That said, I was a little surprised to see the title and premise of his latest which I reviewed on Monday. I was therefore very grateful to Glen for giving me some of his time to answer a few questions about that novel and the rest of his work.

As someone who has read all of your previous novels I must admit that part of me was a little surprised by the appearance of a werewolf book. Can you explain a little about what lead you to write this particular novel?

Here is the honest answer. After A Day and a Night and a Day had been published and had performed exactly as its six predecessors - which is to say not enough people bought it and it didn't win anything - I had a very frank and curiously refreshing conversation with my agent, which went like this:

Me: If I write another literary novel, do you think you'll be able to sell it?
Agent: No.

So I decided to write a straight, commercial genre novel, and began work on a Victorian serial killer story. The pitch was Oliver Twist meets The Silence of the Lambs. I didn't enjoy it much. I hated all the research, for a start. Plus it turned out I wasn't very good at plot. By New Year's Eve 2009 I knew it was going nowhere.

Traditionally my partner and I celebrate New Year at the house of the musician, The Real Tuesday Weld (aka The Clerkenwell Kid, aka Stephen Coates) my oldest and dearest friend. 2009 was no different. After the freezing roof terrace, abused fireworks, forced down champagne and collective psychic wobble at The Actual Stroke of Midnight, we all come back inside and try not to slash our wrists. Invariably talk turns to what we've done over the last year and, more worryingly, what we plan to do in the new one. When it was my turn, having drunk my annual cocktail of self-pity and boredom and fraud and rage to the dregs, I found myself saying that I was going to write a novel about the last werewolf on earth, titled - and here's where creative genius really sidestepped the obvious - The Last Werewolf. The idea met with unanimous feeble approval. And so a work of art was born. In line with the original plan, it was supposed to be a straight commercial genre novel. It didn't turn out quite that way.

My first encounter with your writing came after I picked up a hardback of Love Remains on Charing Cross Road, intrigued by the blurb and sold by the cover. I was genuinely shocked by the darkness and bravery of what you were willing to confront in your writing, something repeated in your subsequent work. Is it fair to say that you write about dark topics and if so why do you think you are attracted to writing about them?

It's not that I set out to write about dark things, it's that other writers set out to ignore them. The novelist's business is with the whole human animal, a business still best expressed in the Auden's poem:

'For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.'

Anything less is shirking. So yes, there are dark ('filthy') things in my books, but there's a good deal of the vulgar complaint, too. Plus compassion, friendship, comedy, tenderness.

You've collaborated with your friend Stephen Coates (aka The Real Tuesday Weld, aka The Clerkenwell Kid) in creating soundtracks for your novels I, Lucifer and The Last Werewolf. Is music important to you whilst writing and in what way?

I never listen to music while writing, and am amazed that anyone who wanted to write well would try. There might be an argument for instrumental music, I suppose, but it's not for me. If I've had a particularly productive day or nailed something tricky there's a good chance I'll put on some Led Zeppelin and swagger around the kitchen with testosterone renewed, but that's about it.

Stephen's soundtracks are a whole different phenomenon. We did the I, Lucifer double-act just for our own amusement, but people liked it, so we're doing it again for The Last Werewolf. It's not really even a collaboration: I have zero musical input (commensurate with zero musical talent) and there's no imaginable universe in which I'd invite literary input from Stephen. That said, once both the book and the music are done there is a peculiar, satisfying symbiosis. It only works for some novels (rule of thumb is the fiction needs to have an element of self-consciousness or play) but we share a pretty solid intuition for which those will be. He has an occult and depressing knack for getting what I've just spent ninety-thousand words on into three verses and a chorus.

I described you as something of a mercurial writer in my review, there's no telling quite where you might head next, but in thinking about your work as a whole I wondered if a unifying theme might be how your characters come to terms with monstrosity (often their own). Would you say that that is something you have been writing about?

Coming to terms with ourselves and each other is what art and imagination are for. The novelist is always trying to outgrow himself, to accommodate, to become something bigger than his vices - but bigger than his virtues too.

It's nauseous to say that writing the books I've written has made me a less frantic and tormented being (the aforementioned annual cocktail notwithstanding) but unfortunately it happens to be true. The real trick of course is to make your readers less frantic and tormented beings. If art's doing its job that's what should be happening to the species. And by and large, however strange this might sound, I think that is what's happening.

Is there an under-appreciated  book that you'd like to recommend to readers of this blog?

Birds of the Innocent Wood, by Deirdre Madden. Understated, unsentimental, lapidary, heartbreaking. One of the saddest novels I've ever read.

I like to invite authors to do a Hemingway and write a story in 6 words. Would you have a go?

Hail horrors! Hail—fuck that's hot.


Anonymous,  6 April 2011 at 20:01  

great interview ,will glen is a writer I ve yet to read ,like his 6 word story an inspired question ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 7 April 2011 at 00:07  

Thanks for commenting Stu. If you were ever tempted to read one of his books I think I would still recommend starting where I did, with Love Remains. It's a very powerful book. All the best, Will.

Anonymous,  27 July 2011 at 16:31  

A great interview, I’ve only read I Lucifer and Day & Night & A Day but think he’s a fantastic author that is sorely underappreciated. Hopefully this book will change that.

William Rycroft 28 July 2011 at 10:15  

Thank you and I agree that he is sorely underappreciated.I believe the book is doing really well in the US where a film version can only be a matter of time away. It would be great to see him get more readers, it's just a shame that it had to be such a nakedly commercial choice to get there.

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