British author Glen Duncan has made a career of avoiding easy capture. He makes unexpected feints from one book to the next—from political thrillers (A Day and a Night and a Day) to supernatural morality tales (I, Lucifer) to autobiographical accounts of his Anglo-Indian upbringing (The Bloodstone Papers)—but in his latest novel The Last Werewolf, Duncan transforms into something else entirely. In becoming Jake Marlowe, a killer with a philosopher’s soul and a libertine’s passion for life, Duncan takes yet another literary detour…and in the process, he tells one hell of a sexy and thrilling monster story. Here, he tells us how he did it.
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After A Day and a Night and a Day had been published and had performed exactly as its six predecessors—which is to say not enough people bought it and it didn't win anything—I had a very frank and curiously refreshing conversation with my agent, which went like this:
Me: If I write another literary novel, do you think you'll be able to sell it?
So I decided to write a straight, commercial genre novel and began work on a Victorian serial killer story. The pitch was Oliver Twist meets The Silence of the Lambs. I didn't enjoy it much. I hated all the research for a start. Plus it turned out I wasn't very good at plot. By New Year's Eve 2009 I knew it was going nowhere.
Traditionally my partner and I celebrate New Year at the house of the musician, The Real Tuesday Weld, aka Stephen Coates, my oldest and dearest friend. 2009 was no different. After the freezing roof terrace, abused fireworks, forced-down champagne and collective psychic wobble at The Actual Stroke of Midnight, we all come back inside and try not to slash our wrists. Invariably talk turns to what we've done over the last year and, more worryingly, what we plan to do in the new one.
When it was my turn, having drunk my annual cocktail of self-pity and boredom and fraud and rage to the dregs, I found myself saying that I was going to write a novel about the last werewolf on earth, titled—and here's where creative genius really sidestepped the obvious—The Last Werewolf. The idea met with unanimous feeble approval. And so a work of art was born. In line with the original plan, it was supposed to be a straight commercial genre novel. It didn't turn out quite that way.
Jake Marlowe is immediately likable. How did you make this insatiable killer into someone you'd like to have a drink with?
Jake is me. Or rather, Jake is how I imagine I'd be if I was a billionaire werewolf. His likes and dislikes are mine. The only significant difference between us, apart, obviously, from lycanthropy, monthly homicide and a big hit rate with women, is that he sounds cool and intelligent when he speaks. This is a difference anyone would discover within seconds if they sat down to have a drink with me.
Virtually everything in The Last Werewolf happens at a sprint. How important was it to keep that momentum going?
Amongst other things The Last Werewolf is about what differentiates commercial genre fiction from literary fiction. The idea was to dramatize that by having a literary or “high art” consciousness, Jake, stuck in a genre or “low art” predicament. So you get all the traditional elements of an action thriller—the page-turning elements—but at the same time you get a perspective that repeatedly calls their legitimacy into question. For that to work, the reader has to be invested in both aspects of the narrative, the thrills and their subversion.
The tone of the novel changes often—one minute it's a cloak-and-dagger, the next window-fogging erotica. Was it difficult to shift gears?
Not very difficult once Jake's personality was up and running. What makes the shifts of narrative mode painless is that they're all filtered through the same ironic and mordantly humorous consciousness. Jake's disposition is the constant common denominator. The idea is that once you've bought into him as your guide, you'll go wherever he takes you.
If someone should option The Last Werewolf as a film, as seems likely, what advice would you give the filmmakers to keep them from screwing it up?
Ridley Scott's UK company, Scott Free, has the book under option at the moment. Filmmakers avoid screwing up the adaptation of a novel by keeping in mind what they loved about the book in the first place. It's really as simple as that. And common in inverse proportion to its simplicity.
Do you see yourself visiting the world of The Last Werewolf ever again?
I've already written the sequel. Assuming my publishers don't ditch me, a third and final installment will follow.