Author photograph copywrite Paul Heartfield and is used with the permission of Glen Duncan
Writer, Podcast Host & Radio Presenter
Glen Duncan 21.05.2015
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about if I thought it would be worth reading. Fiction’s business is with the whole human animal, at its best and worst and everything in between. ” (Glen Duncan)
Glen Duncan is the author of 11 novels including 'I, Lucifer'
(one of my favourite books) and 'The Last Werewolf' trilogy and it was a genuine pleasure that I got the opportunity to interview him. This interview is full of information from the mind of one of our greatest novelists, so get the kettle on, put your feet up and enjoy!
[CS] Hi Glen, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
[GD] No problem, my pleasure.
[CS] I wanted to start by asking, when did you first start writing seriously, and when did you realise writing was the profession for you?
[GD] Oral storytelling was a family tradition. My father, especially, was an inveterate yarn-spinner. When I was very young, he made up an entire fictional world, at the centre of which was an eccentric old man (an inventor, known as ‘The Grandfather’) who built an aircraft/spacecraft out of spare parts from his labyrinthine junkyard and took a bunch of kids on various adventures. Since I regarded my father as a demigod, the legitimacy of ‘making up stories’ was established very early in my life. A passion for ‘Creative English’ at primary school followed, but the tipping point came when, at around fourteen, I read my first ‘grown-up’ book, John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp. On finishing it, I marched into the living room and announced to my parents that I had found my calling: I was going to be a novelist. To their credit, neither of them fell about laughing nor asked me to seriously consider accountancy. I began writing straight away. Then spent the next seventeen years having work rejected.
[CS] Are there particular authors who have influenced you or your work?
[GD] Well, in the early days, as mentioned, John Irving, but that didn’t last very long. The novelists I’ve been drawn to over the years since then have been, by and large, prose stylists, whose work seduces first and foremost by voice. Anthony Burgess, John Updike, Martin Amis, Norman Mailer. In the less baroque department, Graham Greene is a great hero of mine, as is George Orwell. Greene for structural elegance, Orwell for scrupulous economy. More recently, I’ve become a huge fan of Susanna Moore, who writes dark, beautiful, fearless novels that make mincemeat of much of what passes for quality contemporary fiction. As I get older, I find I’m reading more poetry, too: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Edwin Muir, R. S. Thomas. The metaphorical compressions of poetry are Viagra for the figurative imagination.
[CS] After University you spent some time in India and America. What impact did those experiences have on your writing and do you still feel that impact today?
[GD] The India trip was part of a slow-burning desire to write a novel about Anglo-Indian identity. My family belongs to this liminal, disappearing race, one of the many legacies of colonialism, and over the years I developed a creeping sense of fraudulence (over and above the general fraudulence by which all writers are troubled) for not getting to grips with that heritage. I bit the bullet, eventually, in my novel, The Bloodstone Papers, which was based in part on my parents’ lives in India. (It was also the first book of mine my parents were allowed to read, the others all being far too saucy.) The US sojourn was really just for fun, but having gone out there with the intention of bumming around on Amtrak trains for three months, I ended up staying four years, most of which time I lived in Manhattan. I was lucky: I got to live in New York when you could still feel the lingering ghost of the bohemian Sixties and Seventies. I’ve been back as a visitor many times since I left (in 1998), but the place is not the same. A friend described it recently as a cross between a frat-house and a shopping mall, which, sadly, is just about right. But my time there had a very powerful influence on the novels. Partly because it never shed the quality of dream. America, the idea of America, is imbibed by Brits from infancy via television, music and movies, so that on arrival there you have this curious feeling of deja-vu. There’s a weirdly stimulating friction between your imaginal ‘New York’ and the real place, New York, a bit like those dreams in which an object - your house, for example - is simultaneously recognisable and strange. I return to the landscape repeatedly in my books, and imagine I always will.
[CS] I read once that you flirted with 'Rock God' as a profession, is music still an important part of your life?
[GD] Oh, yes, naturally, for about five minutes back there in rampant adolescence I was going to be the Anglo-Indian Robert Plant. I was, after all, a fucking master of standing in front of the mirror tossing my hair around with testosteronal petulance. Happily for the world, the notion didn’t last. To answer the second question: Yes, I still love music, but as a listener, not a practitioner. I don’t listen as often as I would like, but that’s really because I can’t have music playing while I’m working, and since I work around ten hours a day six days a week, that’s a lot of silence.
[CS] Following on from that, you have released soundtracks to accompany 2 of your novels (I, Lucifer and The Last Werewolf), how did that come about as a project?
[GD] The soundtracks were written, recorded and released by my very old friend, Stephen Coates, founder and frontman of the The Real Tuesday Weld. We were sharing a flat in Clerkenwell when I was working on I, Lucifer. A ‘soundtrack to a book’ was one of those drunken ideas (I think we were in the Jerusalem Tavern at the time) that grew surprising wings. We just did it as a bit of a punt (without, I might add, much help from publisher or label) but it proved surprisingly successful. It was always the intention to have two stand-alone objects - novel and album - each of which could be enjoyed without knowledge of the other, but obviously, if people discovered the connection, that gave them a little something extra. Lots of readers came to the book through the music, and lots of listeners came to the music via the book. Second time around, for The Last Werewolf, we were a tad more organised, and had at least notional support from publisher and label. We even got to do a ‘mini tour’ of the US, with a live show that was a mix of reading and music. Lots of fun - although much of it would have been perfectly at home in Spinal Tap.
[CS] On the surface you could look at your novels and say they are all very different. But for me, despite the setting, your books deal with different aspects of very real human behaviour. Be that; morality, sexuality or love for example. Would you agree with that assessment, and if so, is the exploration of us as a species something that has always interested you?
[GD] If you’re a novelist not interested in exploring your species, you’re in the wrong job. Yes, the books have different armatures or dressings, but thematically they’re consistent: Love and sex, death and loss, time and memory, cruelty and compassion, betrayal and forgiveness. These are my abstract obsessions, and as such find their way into everything I write, whatever the superficial or commercial architecture. I don’t have a choice in the matter.
[CS] A recurring theme in your work is spirituality. It has a strong presence in I, Lucifer, Weathercock and even The Last Werewolf series. Is spirituality an important part of your life?
[GD] If spirituality recurs, it’s because of my own deep ambivalence. According to reason, I don’t believe in the soul, the afterlife, transcendence, a cosmic moral order, reincarnation or a meaningful universe. The fiction comes because for better or worse, reason isn’t the whole story. It comes because of the maddening abrasion between reason and imagination. My rationalist can yammer all it likes about a materially determined universe, but my feeling and imagining self isn’t having any of it. The problem is that we’re blessed or cursed with the capacity to experience life meaningfully, even in an existence which daily pistol-whips us with its absurdity. Life isn’t a story, but we can’t help seeing it that way from time to time. We might be delusional, but if so it’s a delusion that’s given us the Sistine Chapel and Shakespeare - in which case, as far as I’m concerned, it can stay.
[CS] I, Lucifer was the first of your novels I read, and I was astounded by your descriptions of touch, taste and smell (for example the bathroom scene where Lucifer 'awakens'.) I had never read anything like it, nor have I since. For me your descriptive skill is very unique as so many novels rely on sight. Is it something you have actively worked on, or is it something you have always identified with?
[GD] I’m an enthusiast of touch, taste and smell on the page. Done right, they create an immediate effect for a reader, and can bring a person, object or place to life in a way that visual description often can’t. The economy’s part of the appeal: you can do what needs to be done in fewer words. It’s not something I’ve worked on consciously. It’s just that whenever I imagine something its taste or texture or smell is built-in. The other day, for example, I was writing about the interior of a derelict hut in a forest. Practically the first thing I wrote was that ‘there was a smell of raw earth and kerosene’. I knew that before I knew the layout of the place, or its furnishings or whatever. It’s hard-wired.
[CS] Your descriptions of sex and violence are very effective in your work. For me this goes back to the basic human condition, even in fantastic situations. Critics of such descriptions seem oblivious to the fact that these events occur every day. There is much truth in what you write. With that in mind are there any subjects or people that you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about?
[GD] There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about if I thought it would be worth reading. Fiction’s business is with the whole human animal, at its best and worst and everything in between. There’s no place for sissies and prudes. W. H. Auden puts it perfectly in his poem ‘The Novelist’:
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.
[CS] Sticking with I, Lucifer, I heard a rumour that a film adaptation could be in the works. Is that true? If so... when!? It would make an amazing film.
[GD] It’s the usual story, I’m afraid. It’s been optioned. It’s ‘in development’ - and has been for practically a decade. I’m not exactly holding my breath.
[CS] Your latest release was the final part of The Last Werewolf trilogy. Was the series always conceived as a trilogy and how does it feel now that it’s (for now at least) over?
[GD] The truth is I told my agent to pitch The Last Werewolf as book one of a trilogy on a last minute whim. I didn't think anyone would take the idea seriously. But they did, and I found myself with two more novels to write. I'm ashamed to say that none of it was really planned. I just kept going and let the fictional world grow in whatever ways I thought kept it fresh and surprising. I'm not much of an architect when it comes to writing. I do a lot of flying (perhaps catastrophically) by the seat of my pants. That said, it was creatively gratifying to allow characters dismissed by Jake as negligible to step properly into full three-dimensional light. The switch in perspective in the last book also allowed for a sort of deconstructed racism: until we meet Remshi we've only ever encountered vampires as assholes of one sort or another. I like the thought of werewolf-fans being seduced into sympathy for a 20,000-year-old bloodsucker.
[CS] Many of your books deal with wide ranging places and contexts. Could you tell us about your approach to research?
[GD] The only novels that have required any real research are I, Lucifer (spent a lot of time trawling through the bizarre world of Angelic lore and nomenclature, plus revisiting the Old and New Testaments), The Bloodstone Papers (Anglo-Indian history), and A Day and a Night and a Day (for which I sought out the most provocative writing on the rise of Islamism, 911 conspiracy theories and the West’s drift into lawlessness via Extraordinary Rendition). Other than that I’ve tended to follow my nose and hope for the best.
[CS] The dialogue in your novels flows effortlessly and I could quite happily read pages of it even at the expense of so called story. Are you attracted to other books, or even films that have a strong sense of dialogue?
[GD] Dialogue is often the medium through which characters come most fully to life. A good line of dialogue can render a passage of interiority redundant, which is great for the reader, but lousy for the author’s daily word-count target. I try to be mindful of Trollope’s dictum (at least I think it was Trollope) that no character should ever utter more than a dozen words at a time. Not always possible, of course, but as a rule of thumb it’s not bad. Burgess’s dialogue in Earthly Powers takes some beating, and Updike seemed to have the writerly equivalent of perfect pitch when it came to putting words in his characters’ mouths. As an aside, I’m a great admirer of the Louis Malle film, My Dinner with Andre, which consists almost entirely of two guys sitting at a restaurant table, talking. Short of wielding their cutlery and sipping their drinks there’s absolutely no dramatic action, but it’s an extraordinarily compelling experience nonetheless.
[CS] Do you have a structure to your writing day?
[GD] Yes. Get up at 07.30. Make coffee. Smoke a cigarette. Start work around 08.15. Work until around 18.00. (I don’t generally eat breakfast or lunch.) If I’m staying in I open a bottle of Pinot Noir and get sloshed while I cook dinner. Occasionally I’ll have sobered up sufficiently early to do another hour or two’s work before retiring.
[CS] What’s next for you Glen, can you tell us anything about what you are working on, or perhaps what you would like to work on next?
[GD] There’s a new novel out (today!) called The Killing Lessons, a serial killer thriller for which I’ve adopted the pseudonym ‘Saul Black’. It’s a departure for me (hence the alter-ego) - or rather, it was supposed to be, but I daresay the same abstract obsessions will have found their way in. I’m delivering its follow-up next month, and that one will be out next summer. Once that’s off my desk, I’d like to take a vacation and catch up on some reading.
[CS] Glen, thank you very much.
Glen Duncan's latest novel is 'The Killing Lessons' and is published under the pseudonym 'Saul Black.'
Glens most recent Last Werewolf novel and the last in the trilogy is By Blood we Live.