Toby Barlow is the author of Sharp Teeth, a novel in verse that has to rank among the more notable epic poems of the year. But even calling it an epic poem is misrepresenting it; in terms of tone, the book cooks and jives through a stylish story about werewolves in Los Angeles, with lots of emotional resonance and a degree of accessibility that would be hard to overstate. The story and setting were drawn from the worlds of film noir and hard-boiled books by the likes of Raymond Chandler, and just a few pages in, the seeming inscrutability of the poetry form turns into something geared for real snap and speed. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Barlow—a first-time author who also works as an advertising director, with homes in Brooklyn and Detroit—about crime writers, poetry, and wild dogs.
The A.V. Club: How did you get started on Sharp Teeth?
Toby Barlow: I was on a business trip, working on a very important cheese account in the Midwest. I was in a hotel room for about a year, and I read a really nice portrait of a dogcatcher in the Chicago Reader that pointed out how most dog packs are collections of male dogs surrounding a single female dog. That seemed like an interesting social arrangement, and for some reason—maybe because I had been in a hotel room for too long—I was like, well, if the dogs were all werewolves, and if the female werewolf fell in love with a dogcatcher, that would be… interesting. When I started to write it out, it came out in this very terse format. I like James Ellroy's White Jazz; of all his books, that one is written in the most hard-boiled fashion, and the pace—the language just grabs and drags you through the whole story. I also really like Autobiography Of Red by Anne Carson, which is more poetic. Somewhere between those two, it seemed like there was room to play. About 30 pages into [Sharp Teeth], I started to wonder if I should go back and start stitching it together to make it look more like prose. But I was like, "Fuck it—it's working."
AVC: So did the form originate just as a way to get ideas down?
TB: It was mainly a way to get down a rhythm that felt exciting. I didn't even know I was writing a novel. I was just thinking of it as character studies, and then at a certain point, I was looking for an artist to illustrate it as a graphic novel. Then I was wondering if it was an art installation or something else. But when I followed the story to the end, it became clear that it was a novel—at least some kind of novel.
AVC: What kind of reaction did you get from early readers?
TB: About halfway through, I gave it to a friend—everyone has one, the kind of friend who can say, "Look, you're boring me. Don't tell me about your dreams." I gave it to her expecting her to say it was bullshit or nonsense or whatever, and she just said, "I want to know what happens next." A lot of people, when you ask if they want to read your epic poem, start bolting for the door. But I was definitely aiming for a high-low mix, where it's interesting but also just really fun. Most people have gotten that so far. Some people have called it a gimmick, but it doesn't strike me as particularly savvy to write in a style that terrifies most people.
AVC: How much do you read poetry?
TB: I love great poetry. But I also really like great song lyrics, and the way language works in graphic novels, where you're going from chunks of phrase to chunks of phrase. So this was as much influenced by glam-rock David Bowie lyrics as it was by any real poetry I knew.
AVC: What did writing the story as poetry allow that prose wouldn't have?
TB: I found it a very liberating way to write. There's something about an enormously full page of text that begins to feel oppressive, like it's literally a lead weight. Because this form was more open, it felt looser and gave me a feeling that I could move around more in it. In prose, if you want to change from a person's perspective on the street to a person's perspective in a restaurant, you have to really spell it out. Whereas in verse, you can just jump and people will jump with you, because they'll think, "Oh, that's that weird poetry thing that happens." The other thing that was nice was when I was editing it, the problems were much more visible. The form makes the fat and the meat more easily separated. My bullshit meter was incredibly highly tuned.
AVC: How did shopping it around work?
TB: Fairly providentially. I like to say my angels are really tired after this whole exercise. I gave it to a bunch of people, editors and agents, who worked for other people, and many of them said "Oh, I like this. But if I show it to my boss, I'll be fired for being crazy." I happened to find a woman who was a senior agent and was really fearless with it. She just shopped it around and said, "You're either going to really love this, or really hate it."
AVC: How long did you work on it?
TB: About three years, on weekends and after-hours. My girlfriend would ask, "What are we doing this weekend?" and I'd have to be like "Well, I'm working on the epic poem." But then the ridiculousness of it became its own thing, too—when you're at a barbecue and somebody asks what you're working on, and it's like, "Well, it's an epic poem about werewolves in Los Angeles." It turns into a point of pride, and you have to see it through.
AVC: What did you like about Los Angeles as a setting?
TB: Years ago, during the first O.J. Simpson trial, I was driving to East L.A. and drove past the courthouse downtown. There was giant scaffolding about three or four stories tall for all the media lights, and then in the opposite direction, there were about 40 wild dogs walking under an overpass. My friend who lived there said they come down from the hills at night, and a couple house dogs always go back with them. It was a pack of wild dogs about a quarter-mile from what at that point was the center of civilization, the O.J. trial. And then [the story] is an homage to film noir and Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy. L.A. is a strange town at night. Everyone in L.A. goes to sleep really early, because they have to get up to exercise or call the East Coast in the morning or whatever, so what happens there at night is really mysterious.
AVC: What has surprised you about the reaction the book has gotten?
TB: I've been surprised how many people really get it. When you're writing, you have to come up with all these justifications for yourself, so I had a feeling that people would like it. But then when the word of mouth was working on it and people started coming up at readings… The coolest part is when kids 15 or 16 years old walk up to you at readings. I'm a huge fan of George Plimpton, and one thing I love about him is the number of journalists and writers my age who say "Oh yeah, I read Paper Lion, and that's what made me want to be a writer." It's kind of hilarious, because Paper Lion is a piece of journalism about what it's like to be a football player. Plimpton did some weird jujitsu in writing about what boys like, football, and getting them to like the idea of writing. So it's been cool when kids have said, "I don't usually like books, but I like this." That's when I feel like I'm not competing against other books. I'm not fighting against Beautiful Children or The Monsters Of Templeton, I'm fighting against Halo 3 and Battlestar Galactica. What literature should be battling for is people's overall attention.