Wednesday 19 September 2012

The GBR Interview: Glen Duncan – the danger of headshots

That’s right. GBR does interviews now. Edinburgh got the appetite whet. You seemed to like it (I have the graphs to prove it). So let’s do this a little more often.
The first non-festival interview is with Glen Duncan. GBR regulars (I know how you are) know exactly how I feel about Glen Duncan. Man-crush. He’s up there as one of my favourite living authors.
But I had to keep this pro. Keep my head. Be a book blogger, not a fan. So (of course) I opened the interview by telling him how much I love his work. “That’s very kind of you to say.” A gracious response, and when we both got over the awkwardness of the early gushing confession, we settled into a revealing chat.
I’d caught him off guard. “Actually, I’d forgotten you were going to call. Don’t worry though, that’s not unusual for me.” It turned out I had no reason to worry. He needed little prompting to speak intelligently. Entertainingly. Honestly.
In fact, it seemed almost like I was listening to a Glen Duncan spoken word book, all entirely off the cuff. I know this because of my notes. You know when you sit through a lecture or an interview or a meeting or whatever, you paraphrase what’s being said into your notes? You’ll translate the general point being made into your own language, using your vocabulary rather than the speaker’s.
Looking at my notes, I know I didn’t do this when speaking with Glen Duncan. I know I didn’t do this because there are some phrases in my notebook that clearly came from him, not me.
“I’m fascinated by the human capacity to bear suffering and still honour the bond of life.”
“All big cities give you the opportunity to self destruct.”
“Short stories are bursting off the pavements – there’s a human stink to London that’s appealing.”
 “Life is amazing; we need to be reminded.”
That’s Duncan. Even when caught unawares by a surprise telephone interview with a blogger he’d almost certainly entirely forgotten about, he still spoke how he writes. Thoughts came out fully formed and deeply considered. He has a natural turn of phrase which makes you think he doesn’t need to try too hard to achieve the prose I’ve grown such a fan of.
Despite the talent though, Duncan doesn’t live full time on the sunny side of Easy Street. He’s had (and continues to have) his challenges.
He picked up the pen (or opened the laptop, or whatever) to start I, Lucifer when down to his last £50 in the world. And flirting so closely with the breadline informs his approach to rights as well. He drops all artistic pretension when negotiating film options for his books, going unashamedly for big studios over art house treatments. “I need to pay the bills. Give me some money; Barbara Windsor can write the screenplay for all I care.”
He’s also faced the challenge of almost any writer inclined towards the literary – the difficulty of building an audience. It’s a challenge that has seen him work to change his MO in recent books. “I’m not a natural plotter. My books usually have more talkers than doers.” But in attempt to reach more people, Duncan is working hard to insert more plot to his books. It’s an approach which gave rise to The Last Werewolf, a book Duncan sent his agent off to pitch to the publishers with the last minute whim to “tell them it’s a trilogy.” They bought it, and the deal was done. Duncan was on the road to becoming a different kind of writer – a genre writer who did books in threes.
He only partly succeeds in this mission. He still turns out unmistakeably Glen Duncan books. No doubt, he’s drifted slightly away from the pure literary fiction of Hope and Death of an Ordinary Man. But he’s still in sight of the literary shore. He may write about werewolf adventures now, but he does so with a wit, intelligence and complexity of character that bear the hallmarks of a cross-over writer. Someone capable of bringing good writing to a mass audience.
We spoke about other stuff as well. About how film is dying. “People aren’t looking to movies for depth of experience anymore – they’re looking to shows from places like HBO as the dominant narrative.”
About his Roman Catholic upbringing. “My grammar was formed by the trappings and architecture of Roman Catholicism. It’s why I drift towards the magic in my imagination.”
About what books can do. “All literature worth its salt is concerned with how we manage to get through our lives. About people who survive and people who don’t.”
We ranged and we detoured and we chatted. For 30 minutes, we covered quite a bit.
That damn headshot
It’s a conversation which has (finally) cured me of the last obstacle in my Glen Duncan worshipping. His head shot. The one that made me bill him as unbearably smug early on. It’s an awful headshot. He has silly hair in it and a silly faraway artistic expression on his face. But that isn’t Duncan.
He was honest with me, a trait he admires. He talked of the moment he realised he needed to work harder at reaching a bigger audience. “It’s so important that I have an honest agent. I’d written seven literary novels. My agent told me straight that if I did another one, it would be difficult to publish. So I went for a page turner instead.” He didn’t throw an artistic strop. He didn’t go shopping for another agent. He went away, knuckled down, honed his plotting skills, and wrote The Last Werewolf.
He’s so far away from smug. I’m not saying he’s on-his-knees humble. But he is open. He’s keen to continue growing. He’s interested in and open to the world. He’s not afraid to work hard at what he does.
None of which comes across in that headshot, but all of which is true.
And if that’s not enough to get you on the Glen Duncan band wagon, maybe this is. I tried to draw him out on common themes amongst his books. After skirting around it for a minute or two, Duncan became blunt.
“Listen,” he said. “I always write about the same things.” He then reeled them off without pause for breath. “Love, sex, memory, betrayal, forgiveness, cruelty, compassion, death and survival. With jokes and friendship thrown in so readers don't feel like killing themselves at the end of the ride.”
If you don’t want to read about that stuff, go find another blog to read. We’re done.
THE COMMON QUESTION: I’m going to ask all authors in the GBR Interview series the same question; what was the last book you read. For Duncan, it was Fahrenheit 451. “One that had been on my reading list for years but that I only got around to recently.” I’ve read it too. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Glen Duncan and me, we both liked it. Which I’m hoping means we’re now best buds.
Tallulah Rising, the sequel to The Last Werewolf, is available in hardback and coming out in paperback on 4 October 2012 (and will be reviewed on GBR imminently...)

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