Toby Barlowʼs Sharp Teeth, published in paperback in January 2009, is a werewolf-noir novel in verse. It was reviewed positively by Nick Hornby and Gregory Maguire, among many. Even David Mamet made a recommendation: “I like this book—lycanthropy indeed begins at home.”
I met Barlow at a small reading in Hollywood, CA, in late February 2008. His work was accompanied by a Sharp Teeth–inspired collection of photographs of Los Angeles, by photographer David Newsom. Despite being among many longtime friends, Barlow took the time to talk to me about his work. We later continued our conversation via email, focusing primarily on the verse medium of his novel. This conversation took place during March 2008.
You’ve said elsewhere that you used verse to speed the pace of the novel, to cut out its fat. How were you able to manipulate pacing within Sharp Teeth? Did you consciously use line breaks and line length to vary pacing?
Yep. Pretty much the whole way through I tried to keep language at a maximum efficiency. When the violence arrived, I kept it as taut as possible. When the love came, I tried to string it out a little. It was like handing like reins on a galloping horse, you let it carry you, but you pull it in when you need to.
How did you edit Sharp Teeth? How concerned were you with specific phrasings, specific sequences of words, specific line breaks? Did you pay more attention to sounds and sound patterning than when writing prose?
Since it is my first novel, I don’t know how laborious this editing process was compared to other books. My editor Jennifer Barth and I went through it a few times. We both paid attention to where the lines broke and what rhythm we were creating for different sections. Most of the time I wanted it to have the feeling of a butchers knife hitting the cutting block, but some times we slowed down and got a little more languorous and contemplative.
I think editing something like this is a little easier, because the whole thing is so stark and naked that the fatty parts and the pieces that don’t fit were easily exposed.
I think you did a good job of characterizing Anthony, Lark, Peabody, and the rest of the dogs and humans in Sharp Teeth. How did using verse affect their characterization?
It let me cut into them quicker, I could talk about their thoughts and feelings in more interesting ways. The third-person voice I was using was allowed to make sort of strange but true observations.
Were there any particular challenges that the verse medium presented? How did you confront them? Did you find that the verse medium made anything easier?
Writing in verse for this story was easy, once I had an ear for the rhythm of the lines. It provided me with a much greater flexibility, a much greater dexterity, I could move from scene to scene and completely change the point of view with quick transitions. If you’re reading a novel and it suddenly starts talking about metaphysics, you think, whoa, what the hell? but if it’s in verse when that happens you let it happen because it’s a different country where different laws apply.
Did writing in verse complicate the narrative authority of the third-person voice?
I actually think it helped. I couldn’t have done this in first person, it would have been tiresome to sit with someone who only thinks in verse form, I’d find that character a pretentious freak. But the third-person in fiction is really the voice of the universe, and who knows how the universe thinks? Could be in verse. So no, there weren’t really any complications there.
How much contemporary poetry do you read? Who? Who do you specifically not read? What about fiction writers?
My day job cuts into my reading something awful. I wish I had more time for it. But I read everything I can. When it comes to poets, I like the usual suspects, Williams, Sexton, Cummings, etc. I like Billy Collins an awful lot and I am a huge fan of what Bukowski did with words, though I don’t know if I’d call it poetry (just like I’m not sure I’d call what I wrote poetry.) As for contemporaries, I’ve been reading a lot of Lawrence Joseph these days, he’s great.
I have to admit, though, that I’m highly suspicious of most poetry. For me, it has to have some earthy connection to the real world, some spark so real it hurts.
When it comes to fiction, I enjoy T.C. Boyle and Chabon. I was a huge fan of Jennifer Egan’s The Keep and Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland. I read graphic novels and rock lyrics and ad copy. I’m reading a spiritual memoir right now entitled A Long Retreat, by Andrew Krivak which I think deserves a lot of attention.