Glen Duncan: Divided nature

Novelist Glen Duncan brings his vampire and werewolf stories to their final resting place.
By Alicia Anstead | Published: May 21, 2014


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Photo by Juan Padron

Glen Duncan caught me by surprise.

I’m not typically drawn to the popular genres of vampire and werewolf fiction. But By Blood We Live sucked me in. Here’s the first line: “It’s better to kill people at the end of their psychology. They have nothing left to offer themselves or the world.” That’s Remshi, the (I imagine) irresistibly handsome 20,000-year-old vampire of this love story that mates him (kind of) with Talulla, his ancient werewolf lover.

The plot gets complicated with all the neck bitings and blood feedings and family life, but the narrative is solid. And yes, you read that right. Family life. Duncan puts these supernatural beings in pedestrian settings of the home with the same kinds of worries about children, dinner and medical problems that the rest of us have. I’m guessing most readers don’t have the animalistic sex lives, immense travel budgets or classy wardrobes of these outsized characters, but Duncan has a knack for crafting characters who are believable and, you know, like you and me.

Duncan is an idea man, and you get the sense he’s constantly working out some philosophical problem or grappling with morality or at least presenting the tentions between good and evil. For instance, central to the story is a group of crazy Catholic conspirators fighting for a vampire-werewolf genocide, which means you have to take seriously the word “blood” in the title. It also means the book has a Hunger Games feel and, I’m guessing, a Hollywood-big-screen likelihood. Somehow, Duncan controls the fantasy with nuanced wit, irreverent winks, literary prowess and rollicking storytelling.

By Blood We Live is the third in Duncan’s series that began with The Last Werewolf and pivoted to Talulla Rising. He’s moving on to other stories now: a “killer thriller.” But this bloody, lusty, wildlife story of love and war among biters and big dogs – and humans – is a tale that taps deeply into fear, passion, hilarity, contemporary issues and anxieties. And it’s fun to read.

Your book is literary fiction with allusions to many other works of literature. How did you balance the highbrow art with the topics of vampires and werewolves, not to mention pop culture and cell phones? What does that require of you as a writer?

The balance, if there is one, comes out of my own frame of reference and the characters I’m dealing with. My frame of reference is a babbling throng of everything I’ve seen and read, which, for better or worse, means Milton rubbing shoulders with Jennifer Aniston; but I can indulge that only insofar as the characters justify it. Obviously, with werewolf Jake and vampire Remshi (201- and 20,000-years-old, respectively) I got to have a blast, because they’re both long-lived culture-vultures but also highly porous to their present. In The Last Werewolf in particular, there was an appealing formal frisson in having an apparently highbrow consciousness  – Jake is an inveterate if self-ridiculing book-snob – stuck in what many would see as a lowbrow predicament, a literary personality shoved out into the lights of a pulp fiction stage. The allusions are fine if you get them, but my goal was to have enough else going on so that it didn’t matter much if they passed you by.

You seem to be turning the cosmology of vampires and werewolves on its head by creating your characters as beings with family ties, complex intimacy and quotidian lives (when they aren’t sucking blood or ripping out hearts). How did you manage that in the writing? Did you imagine your characters as regular people who happen to have these freakish powers and needs?

The short answer is yes. What interests me is the complex of conditions that makes being human fascinating. Most significantly the war between selfishness and compassion, or the all-too-often screaming gap between the way we are and the way we want to be. That’s where horror is, along with comedy, imagination, love. If you have a creature for whom no such gap exists – an amoral or psychologically resolved creature – you’re no longer dealing with that central human problem. So my monsters were always going to be ordinary people with an extraordinary condition, one which took the regular human dilemmas and

inflated or distended them in gothic proportions. If the books didn’t attempt to address the basic human mysteries – love, sex, death, memory, morality – then I doubt I’d bother writing them. Of course, whether one succeeds in addressing these mysteries is another matter.

On the other hand, your work is filled with spectacle, gunfire and outrageous scenes of conquest. How do you know when you’ve gone too far? Where is the line between cinematography and storytelling?

I made a very conscious effort with these books (a) to make them lift off the page visually or cinematically (in the 21st century, it takes a very strong will to write as if film rights didn’t exist) and (b) to have enough of the traditional genre thrills to keep readers turning the pages. This is not something that comes naturally to me. It’s a headache. It’s a migraine. But what I discovered was that the only way to keep action scenes engaging for me was to keep the characters’ inner experiences part of them while they were happening. Which is why Jake, in the midst of being flung across the room by a vampire, notices a copy of American Psycho on the floor and has an absurd, fleeting memory of discussing the novel with his friend. Scenes like this in the book were intended partly as testimony to the idea that consciousness is hilariously, and sometimes catastrophically, lawless.

You’ve spoken and written about the bifurcation of your Indian background and English upbringing. What effect does that split world have on your writing?

My background and familial upbringing are Anglo-Indian, which is neither Indian nor English. Anglo-Indians are a race of people in their own right, one of the many progeny of colonialism, though hardly anyone’s heard of them. In any case, growing up not quite white in the north of England – and being the only not quite white child at both my Roman Catholic primary and secondary schools – certainly engendered an outsider disposition. When you’re not admitted into the game, there’s not much to do but watch from the periphery. So I became an observer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I wouldn’t have become a writer without this sense of anomalousness, but it definitely helped. Bifurcation and hybridity (not to mention the centrality of The Flesh) have found their way into a lot of my fiction, and the childhood feeling of (racial) ambiguity is undoubtedly a root source. It didn’t feel like a blessing at the time, but I consider it one now.

True confession: Except for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I’ve never read vampire fiction. (With apologies to Anne Rice, as well.) But I was drawn to your writing and the ongoing meta-conversation about plot and stories. A couple characters refer to this throughout By Blood. How do you think about plot and story? Are they a game, a puzzle, a craft, a philosophy?

As far as the writing practicalities of plot/story go, I’m afraid I fly rather by the seat of my pants. I’ve tried white-boarding or architecting ahead of time, but I don’t like it. It feels constrictive. It becomes a puzzle, and I get bored and irritable. Thematically, on the other hand, the conflict between our sense that life is meaningful (has a plot/story) and its opposite, that life is random or absurd (does not have a plot/story) has been a part of every novel I’ve written. It’s the great collective ambivalence or koan. We have a craving for meaning in a universe that daily pistol-whips us with its meaninglessness. Which explains the traditions of tragedy and comedy. To me, it’s inescapable.

Why do you think we’re fascinated with tales for the supernatural – vampires, werewolves and hybrid humans?

Because they allow us to explore our divided nature. Because they let us visit our monstrosity without having to get our hands dirty or suffer the major buzz-kill of remorse. Because our lives, if we’re lucky, are stories of transformation. Because all but the terminally glib or narcissistic among us feel like freaks from time to time. Because there’s a little of the beast in all of us. And because our imagination is seduced by the idea of a world behind the world. (In spite of the regular world’s superabundance of frequently lethal weirdness.)

Reviewers and readers often comment on your “advanced,” “evolved,” “extensive” vocabulary. You sent me to the dictionary a few times as well. How does a writer develop approaches to word usage without attaching a neon sign to fresh words or metaphors?

The only excuse for a metaphor is that it presents an image or idea in a way that refreshes it for the reader. My working maxim is: If you find yourself using a metaphor or simile you’ve heard or read before, delete it. It’s better to avoid figurative language altogether than contribute to the gleefully robust disease of cliché. (Not that one always succeeds, obviously.) As far as vocabulary goes, I just use what I believe to be the best words for the job. There are readers for whom having to look up a word is some sort of moral affront. I don’t have a response to that. It’s a reading mentality (and a worldview) I find completely alien.

Despite the violence and gore, By Blood is very funny. How do you craft humor, and when do you know you’ve hit a clever scene or situation? And how do you balance that with the more serious questions you’re exploring?

I don’t think it’s possible to craft humor. One’s sense of humor either works for others or it doesn’t, on or off the page. There are nice moments, of course, when you’re pretty sure something will work broadly (I had this feeling when I wrote the line “Reader, I ate him”), but it’s really just assuming that what you find funny at least some others will, too. It is true that as soon as I came up with the premise for the first book – 201-year-old existentially troubled but stubbornly priapic werewolf – I knew that unless it was funny, it wouldn’t work. But as far as the serious questions go, I not only feel that they don’t preclude humor, but that without it they’re almost unbearable. It’s the Byronic approach: And if I laugh at any mortal thing/’Tis that I may not weep.

Your books are also very sexy. How did you develop the sex scenes for these mythic creatures? And what tips do you have for others who want to include sex scenes that are believable?

I wrote the sex scenes in these books as I write any sex scene: in a way that derives from the personalities and natures of the characters, weighted in favor of what’s going on in their heads. That said, with werewolves (who are, let’s face it, dogs), there was a great opportunity to focus on smell, on being led erotically by the nose, so I tried to keep that in mind, especially since in my view the olfactory is woefully neglected in our sanitized and deodorized world. Also, I’ve long been interested in the uncomfortable relationship between (human) cruelty and arousal, which for these creatures is a central libidinal reality. As far as tips go: It depends on what sort of thing you’re writing, but if fiction is to compete with film, it has to do what film cannot, which is to give you the interiority of a physical experience. I write sex with a concentration on consciousness rather than who does what to whom.

Tell us more about your writing process. Is there a time of day, a type of deadline, an imaginative exercise you need?

When I was younger, I used to work at night, but these geriatric days, I generally work from around 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. – unless I’m under the shadow of an approaching deadline, in which case I just work as many hours as I can without starting to write rubbish. I don’t have any imaginative exercises. (To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means.) But if I find myself staring at the blank screen for too long, there’s always another cup of coffee to make or cigarette to light. If it’s really bad, I’ll clean the flat or go for a walk. For me, writing a novel is going to the coal face. That’s fine on the days you’ve got the requisite pick and shovel. Not fine on days you find yourself equipped instead with a tomato sandwich. But either way, you’ve got to put in the hours.

By Blood is the end of a trilogy. Why did you write a trilogy, and how was the process of relating three large stories to one another? Was it challenging or inspiring? Tedious or expansive? Did you like living with these characters and “world” for three books? 

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. It was challenging, yes, mainly to avoid repeating myself. Killing and eating people on the page will get old very quickly if you’re not careful. The shift between books one and two, from an old, jaded male werewolf to a young female one, helped with that, because they were dealing with very different predicaments, but the real ordeal was book three, which not only required new narrative voices, but a resolution of the plot threads left dangling in the first two novels. I wouldn’t say it was tiring, exactly, but the one-book-every-12-months demand was taking its toll by the end of the trilogy.

How did you know you were a writer? Where did it begin? Whose work inspired you?

Creative English (that is, “make up a story”) was always my favorite part of school, so it began pretty much as soon as I knew how to write. But the career decision – don’t laugh – came when I was about 14. I read John Irving’s The World According to Garp (which is the story of a young man who grows up to be a novelist) and knew two things at the end of it. The first was that I’d been left with a feeling I’d never had before – a mix of bereavement and elation – and the second was that I wanted to be Garp, spending my days making up stories about imaginary characters and getting paid for it. I marched into the living room and announced to my parents that I was going to be a novelist. Then spent 17 years having manuscripts rejected.

In reflecting on your body of work, is there a book you wish you had written in a different way, and is there one that is a favorite?

There’s no book that I’ve published that I wish I’d written in a different way, although, of course, there are individual sentences in some that dizzy me with shame. My own favorite is Weathercock. Not because it’s the best crafted, but because it was a seven-year (and countless drafts) labor of twisted love. Also because no one reads it. It’s the kid in the playground with no friends.

What’s next on your writing schedule?

I’m writing a serial killer thriller called The Killing Lessons. It’ll be out in 2015.

Alicia Anstead is the editor-in-chief of The Writer.

Glen Duncan’s Top 10 Books
(in no particular order)

Earthly Powers
Anthony Burgess

The Rainbow
D.H. Lawrence

L’Étranger
Albert Camus

Money
Martin Amis

1984
George Orwell

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad

The Iliad
Homer

Paradise Lost
John Milton

Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte

The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles

Duncan Facts

Most inspiring place to write: My kitchen.
Most effective escape from work: Getting a haircut.
Most valuable writing tool: Cigarettes.
Reward at the end of the day: Wine. Not restricted to the end of the day.
Advice to new writers: To quote Norman Mailer: Never write less than you know.