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Got free time? Write a book: It worked for Toby Barlow

File this under “book ideas that will never fly”: A female werewolf runs at the center of a pack of male werewolves that is brutally terrorizing the seedy side of Los Angeles. And then she falls in love with a dogcatcher and leaves her pack. Oh yes — and the novel-length tale is told entirely in verse.

The concept doesn’t just sound like a flop, it sounds like a manuscript that wouldn’t even make it past the interns at the publishing house.

But Toby Barlow never even intended on sending his story, “Sharp Teeth,” to any publishers in the first place. He just had a story idea stuck in his head, and lot of time on his hands, so he decided to follow it to see how it all turned out.  

A literary-minded advertising executive for the agency JWT in Detroit (he is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and the founder of the Billy Collins Action Poetry series, Barlow spent a year living in a Chicago while working on “an important cheese account.”

Take note of this, business travelers and channel-surfers: There is a better way to kill time. At the end of every work day, Barlow went back to his hotel room. He didn’t have a lot of friends or family in Chicago (his mother lives in Minneapolis), he was eating takeout and hotel staff took care of the cleaning. The hotel room was a super-sterile, distraction-free vacuum — an unexpected writer’s retreat.

“I got really tired of watching ‘Law & Order,’ ” he said in an interview before his scheduled appearance Saturday (April 5) at BirchBark Books.

“I’d just read a little portrait in the Chicago Reader about a dogcatcher — it was a really beautiful piece, like an old Joseph Mitchell or John McPhee type of portrait. It mentioned that dog packs are usually made up of a single female dog surrounded by a pack of male dogs. I suddenly had the thought that if the pack were werewolves, and she were a werewolf and she fell in love with the dogcatcher, that could be interesting.”

Poetry or prose?
The idea stuck with him, so he sat down and started writing. It came out in verse.

“About 10 pages in, I started wondering if I should start stitching it together in more proper prose. But because I was writing about altered beasts, it seemed to work. There’s a book by James Elroy, “White Jazz,” that was a big influence on this book, actually, and I remember thinking that he really got away with a lot of efficiency in the language. I always had faith that this was the way to tell this particular tale.”

Indeed, the format suits the story perfectly. Instead of getting drawn down into the depths of a novel, the reader races across the top of this fast-paced, free-form, highly visual — and highly violent — tale. Barlow says it’s a story for the Attention Deficit Disorder generation, although at first it was just a story for himself.

“I knew that no one would publish this, so I wrote something that interested me and captivated my attention. Every joke or wry commentary was for my own satisfaction. There was no one looking over my shoulder or second-guessing, and that was incredibly freeing. I think so many sophomore efforts by rock bands are so terrible, because they go crazy and have fun with the first album, and then they get caught up in the machine of it all the next time. It was great having absolute freedom to create something that would enthrall me, and that’s why it worked.”

And despite what the interns might have presumed, the tale has enthralled others, as well. Barlow did sell the book after all, plus the film rights, and “Sharp Teeth” has been printed in four countries so far.

And that cheese account? Saved. In fact, Barlow plans to stick with the advertising business for now. “I love the creativity. I enjoy being in an industry that dares to be different,” he says. Plus, those werewolves still keep running through his mind. Another assignment in another city; another year in an empty hotel room? Who knows what could happen.


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