“Collecting Words Brings Me Joy”: An Interview With duncan b. barlow

Barlow - credit Alisa Kuzmina

Earlier this year, I spent a week and a half traversing the Southwest and Midwest in book-tour mode with duncan b. barlow. This also meant that I got to hear him read nightly from his head-twisting novel The City, Awake, a surreal noir-tinged book abounding with doppelgangers, secret societies, and questions of memory and identity. (Also some of the most unsettling visions I’ve encountered in fiction in a while.) A couple of months later, we did a short interview about the tour’s aftermath, the making of The City, Awake, and more.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t start out with a question about touring. As someone with experience in both, how does book touring compare with being in a van on tour with a band?

That’s an interesting question. It differs quite a bit. For one, booking a reading tour came much easier. However, the results were similar. As you know, one reading might be well attended, and the next might have three people. What I find inspiring about doing reading tours is that the community is much warmer. Not to mention I’m not sitting in a dark basement that smells vaguely like urine. I highly suggest doing a two author tour because it definitely provides companionship on the longer drives.

You’ve mentioned that your choice of language for The City, Awake involved consciously using mid-century word choices. When in the process of writing the novel did you decide on that? And were there any challenges to finding the right phrasing for certain scenes?

It’s my intention to write every project in a different way. In the case of my first book, I wanted to use long digressive sentences (I had been reading quite a bit on Kafka and Schultz during my time at DU and I wanted to create a book that caught the dark wonder and claustrophobia that those authors accomplish in their work). With City, I did want it to kind of subvert the classic detective novel. I used a limited pallet of words that felt to me jagged or angular in some sense. From there, I tried to work on shorter sentences that stabbed in a kind of staccato rhythm. When I originally envisioned the book, all of the main characters were going to have the same name, David. It was my intention to develop the personalities of each character so the reader had to intuit which David was which. As a reader, I thought this would be great fun. However, editors who had read early versions of the manuscript all said that it was a good book but was far too confusing for the average reader. Mostly I would have been fine with that, but I did want the book to find a home, so I did some tweaking to help the readers along a bit. But to return to your question a little more, I attempt to filter the language through each character’s perspective. So, one David chapter might have mostly utilitarian language and another might have a more dreamlike sense to it. For me, one of the greatest joys of writing is in researching. The book I’ve been pecking away at for the last couple years covers several generations, so that’s provided me even more opportunities to learn words and phrases that have nearly gone extinct. Collecting words brings me joy.

Both this novel and your chapbook Of Flesh and Fur deal with questions of genetic engineering and the flaws that can arise from it. What draws you to this subject?

That was actually somewhat coincidental. I began writing City in 2008 and finished the first draft in 2012. I wrote Of Flesh and Fur in two sittings during the autumn of 2014. I don’t think it’s necessarily genetic engineering that I’m attracted to, but errors in the human condition and chaos. In each book, there are characters who want to correct something or replace something, and when they attempt it, they meet undesirable complications. I’ve always been attracted to that space between chaos and control. It’s why I’ve always enjoyed reading Deleuze because his notions regarding the multiple, towards existing on the fringe of the pack so that we are at once in and out of it, to paraphrase poorly, appeals to me. I imagine, Tobias, you feel this as well. As a writer who came from music journalism, you must occupy two spaces simultaneously but no one can necessarily recognize you as being a whole of one or the other space. Some people can find a great loneliness in this, but I find great possibility. My characters often work against this space of uncertainty and they, like Kafka’s K. push forward and it seems things just get more complicated the harder they push against the unknowable.

The plot of The City, Awake has numerous factions, secret conspiracies, and other ominous figures lurking behind the scenes. How did you determine what to show and what to leave off of the page?

I auditioned ideas as I went. Sometimes I would show too much and sometimes too little. I tried to strike the right balance. There is a good deal of information that a reader won’t pick up on in the reading, but this information isn’t necessary for them. It was my attempt to offer multiple lines of entry (or escape) for a reader. In the end, I think the book ended up being a little more straight-forward than I originally wanted because there are some scenes I fleshed out to help clear things up a little for the reader. Since City is meant to be a metaphysical detective novel, mystery had to be at its core, so I wanted to give the reader all of the pieces to put things together, but I didn’t want it to be like a Sherlock Holmes book where all the subtleties are explained at the end because only Sherlock has the perspective to solve the mystery. I like to build my characters where they never fully understand where they are—where one hand never knows what the other is doing.

What was the process of revising this novel as you prepared for publication like?

Torturing James Reich at Stalking Horse. I hadn’t looked over the manuscript in some years. Mostly, I had only sent it out to a few presses and then dropped it because my father died and I sort of lost a couple of years to dealing with that and some employment changes. I sent it to Stalking Horse when they opened for reading on a whim because I thought James would get the book and it turns out he did. By this time, I had found myself in a very different place as an author so each proof of the book James would send, I’d spend some time tearing it apart and sending back. I wanted to keep the tone of the original manuscript, but there were quite a few things that just didn’t line up or sentences that just didn’t roll off the tongue well. James was very kind about my tinkering but at one point he did have to kindly suggest I not be so invasive on my last proof. He’s a fantastic publisher and an even more impressive writer. I feel very fortunate to get to work with him.

The City, Awake abounds with a sense of place — both the hotel in which its characters awaken and the larger city through which they move. Was there a city that served as inspiration for the novel’s location?

A little while after I started City Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star came out. It’s one of my favorite books. I liked the way in which the city is European but it is not really a city we know. It’s a non-city and I very much liked that about it. Certainly, others have done a similar thing, but Ray of the Star did it in a way that really resonated with me. It seemed to me that City would be a city that felt like a nightmare. That the citizens couldn’t even think of a world outside of the city, and to some degree, not even know if there anything exists beyond it, for the city is so large and claustrophobic, that it doesn’t seem to end. And in a way the nightmare of the city doesn’t end. Even the characters that seem to escape are doomed in some sense.

David and Saul awaken with a message that reads in part, “You are the author of all language.” Did you find any parallels between their experience and your own as the author of the language of their story?

Outside of the fact that I try to keep walking in a world of chaos and shadow, not really. I’ve always had a preoccupation regarding the problems of language and ownership. The idea of Adam walking around naming things and in a sense owning them because he gave them names. There’s a kind of arrogance that we posses as people. All our words and properties and in the end none of it seems to amount to much. A virus can strike it from us in a moment either individually or a whole. So, in City, David believes that language is given to man and man must use language as a testament to god, but Saul, he has different ideas. He questions the reign of man, god, and science.


Photo: Alisa Kuzmina

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1 comment

  1. Great interview! Thanks for sharing this. It seems to me, though, that “noir-tinged” books tend to gather dust on the shelf for quite a while and I wonder why. Is it because we are too afraid to discover our dark selves? Or is it because we aren’t interested to read a book as a challenge anymore?