Monday, July 11, 2011: Maximum Shelf: The Last Werewolf

Knopf: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Knopf: The House in France by Gully Wells

Knopf: Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross

Knopf: The Oregon Experiment by Keith Scribner

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: The Last Werewolf

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, which is a July 12, 2011, publication. The review and interviews are by Bethanne Patrick and John McFarland. Knopf has helped support the issue.


Knopf: White Shotgun by April Smith

Books & Authors

Book Review: The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (Knopf, $25.95 hardcover, 978030759508, July 12, 2011)

As this remarkable novel comes out, many will be the reviewers and readers who note that one of its themes is how a person comes to terms with who he or she is. That's because, of course, protagonist Jacob Marlowe is a werewolf.

However, the modifier in the title points us to the most important part of author Glen Duncan's story. Whether or not Jacob (or "Jake," as he calls himself) accepts his werewolf status won't matter much when he's gone, and since for reasons not precisely known, werewolves no longer live forever, his time left to grapple with his beastly nature isn't limitless.

Darn. Damn! Because Jacob's wolfishness has down-and-dirty animal appeal, and I do mean "dirty;" this is a book for grown-ups, preferably those who don't mind thinking about the darker sides of sensuality. Since, in Jacob's world, werewolf libidos go into overdrive during full moons, there are lots of scenes of coupling in lots of different positions and orifices. Why not fiddle as much as you can if Rome's burning and you're the next-to-last of your kind?

At the novel's start, Jake hears that the penultimate werewolf has been killed, and finds himself a creature very much wanted by the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), a sort of checks-and-balances governing body for a world that has werewolves, vampires, ghouls, witches and more cohabiting  with human beings. He goes on the run, and the consequences of his flight will be good and bad, horrific and amazing.... While Jacob is alone for the moment, he tells us about past loves, friends, and enemies, relationships that are filled with beauty, terror, and regret. We know this because Jacob is given to reflecting on his past, present and even future (if he has one).

Along with the naughty bits we also get plenty of literary allusions, including everything from Marlowe's name itself to Shakespeare, Nabokov and Eliot. For a while, it seems as if Jacob Marlowe, tired to death (geddit?) with his moon-go-round immortality, will simply write himself into some sort of somatic torpor, since much of the backstory comes to us through his diary entries.

But let me return, for a moment, to the word "remarkable." From the very first paragraph, you'll be mesmerized by Jake, a combination of erudite academician and big horndog, both suffering from grande malaise. Even late in the novel, when the action is running wild, this vital and original voice carries The Last Werewolf well out of the overcrowded supernatural beasts genre and clearly into the realm of literary fiction. Fortunately, there's still fun to be had, especially when Jake's keen nose sniffs out Talulla Demetriou, a gorgeous creature, we know that there will be a bit of a love story, too (it could never happen with, say, a female vampire; in Duncan's world, vamps smell disgusting to a wulf).

Duncan maintains the immediacy that allows his novel to shine. As Marlowe tries to outwit the WOCOP agent who wants to wreak vengeance on him (Marlowe killed his father), his complicated, self-conscious but also self-aware voice is the thing that makes the story work. Duncan makes it work so well that it is a little too easy to forget how Jacob's musings on appetites versus restraint, creativity versus brutality, and so on are echoes not just of long-running literary arguments, but also of man's struggles with the divine.

One of the biggest advantages to having a 210-year-old main character is showing off that character's absorption of the societies in which he's lived through his narration--and that's why reading Jacob Marlowe never gets old: he literally doesn't, and Duncan has sustained a young man's view of history not only through the years that Marlowe lives, but past them, into his volatile present. It's an authorial feat that works and will give many readers a smart, sexy, satisfying summer read. --Bethanne Patrick, editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: An adrenaline-pumping, intellect-bracing thriller about a werewolf whose status as the last of his kind proves less important than the cast of his mind.




Knopf: Thick as Thieves by Peter Spiegelman

Glen Duncan: Seeing the Monster in Ourselves

Your protagonist, Jacob Marlowe, is a werewolf hunted by agents determined to end his 200-year-old life ("I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God"). What inspired you to combine Marlowe's efforts to foil repeated assaults with your own meditations on the themes of sex, death and transformation?

For me these themes--along with love and loss, compassion and cruelty--are unavoidable perennials. They're necessary, in the philosophical sense. After my previous book, A Day and a Night and a Day, had fared exactly as its six predecessors (that is, it was critically more or less well-received but virtually no one bought it), I had a conversation with my agent in which he assured me that if I wrote another overtly literary novel he wouldn't be able to sell it. So I decided to write a straight commercial genre novel. No philosophy, no existential angst, no abstract ideas, no metafictional conceits. Just a ripping yarn. Just a page turner. How difficult could that be, with a werewolf for a protagonist?

Rewardingly difficult, it turned out. As soon as I began, it was obvious Jake's conflicts and dilemmas were human, all too human. Like it or not, it was thematic business as usual. So it's not inspiration. It's just that whatever I set out to write about, what I end up writing about is love, sex, death, etc.

The name Jacob Marlowe carries multiple resonances. How did you select the name for your main character?

The Marlowe allusions I had consciously in mind were to Chandler, Conrad and Christopher Marlowe, all for obvious reasons. It was "Jake Marlowe" from the book's inception; there were no other contenders. Sometimes it's like that: a character arrives with traits or facts attached that don't admit alteration. (It was only later someone told me there was another werewolf doing the rounds with the same first name...) In any case, fictional nomenclature's never arbitrary, at least not with the major characters. Even names one appears to choose casually, without any ulterior symbolic, allusive or even phonetic motives, subsequently reveal (often via third-party critical analysis) the subconscious quietly following its own agenda. As Mailer said, it's a spooky art.

How did you go about constructing an evolving personality for an almost-200-year-old being who, to the outer world, appears ageless and not out of the ordinary, but is in fact very, very different from you and me?

At the risk of sounding irascible: What do you mean, 'How did you go about constructing an evolving personality...'? That's what novelists do. You sit down with a character and imagine how he or she would respond to a given situation. The given situation here is (a) turning into a homicidal monster once a month and (b) having an expected lifespan of 400 years, but the imaginative process is exactly the same as it would be if the given situation happened to be a 50-year-old midwest housewife discovering her husband's having an affair with his secretary. You use your imagination. And at the further risk of opprobrium (and police investigation), I confess I don't think Marlowe is all that different from 'you and me.' If he was, we wouldn't sympathize with him or get his jokes. Granted, lycanthropy forces him to kill and eat people, but the point is, lycanthropy would force 'you and me' to do exactly the same. The whole novel depends on seeing ourselves in the monster and the monster in ourselves.

Marlowe has traveled widely and seen much over his 200 years. He is also blessed with a remarkable memory, an ironic sense of humor and a vulpine sexuality undiminished by time. You've worked much history and philosophy into the novel, but were there scenes and sidetrips/excursions that you found you had to leave out?

Yes. I gravitate to the ruminative, the abstract, the digressive. I prefer ideas to action and I'm not a natural dramatist. Fortunately, editors murder reflective asides for a living.

Throughout The Last Werewolf you sprinkle allusions to literature and pop culture. Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Bret Easton Ellis, Starsky and Hutch and Apocalypse Now make brief, often very funny cameos. What is the secret for allowing you the opportunity to drop in these lovely bits of homage while never slowing the pace?

The secret is... get it right. The secret is judgment. With the exception of the spooky or subconscious element conceded above, that's always the secret. It's not an exciting secret. It's not even a secret. Writing well means exercising judgment at every level, from theme to phoneme. And unless you're Shakespeare there's no short-cut to that. You just have to spend a lot of time doing it and learning from your mistakes. If The Last Werewolf has the right amount of cultural references--enough to amuse but not to annoy--I'm delighted. But as far as the secret recipe for the right amount goes... it doesn't exist.

After university you were a bookseller. What insights about the reading public or the health of particular literary genres did you gain from that experience?

I don't know if the distinction's valid in the U.S., but in the U.K., you need to differentiate between corporate and independent bookselling. I've done both. British corporate bookselling is (or was, when I was an employee) soul-destroying. The company I was with in the early '90s might as well have been Burger King for all the interest it had in books. I loathed life behind the corporate counter, from the scripted phone responses to the risible uniforms. The only comfort was like-minded colleagues, with whom I spent lunch hours fantasizing about doing violence to rude customers or plotting how to rob the shop safe. On the other hand, my years at Chapter & Verse (independent, now no longer a going concern) were happy ones. Small, labyrinthine shop, eclectic stock, laidback manager, fiercely loyal clientele, wear what you like, food and drink allowed on the shop floor--most astonishingly, feel free to read at the till. Bliss!

The only thing I learned about the reading public was that the majority had lousy taste in books. I didn't actually learn that as a bookseller, I knew it anyway, but it's one thing to know it in the abstract, it's quite another to be seeing it--to be handling it--on a daily basis. On the up side, incessantly ringing up sales for bad writers was the perfect goad. I went home in the evenings and wrote.


You can view a trailer for Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf here.

Marty Asher: Publishing Surprising Literary Novels

Knopf editor-at-large Marty Asher has worked at Random House since 1987, when he was hired by Sonny Mehta, who had just been given jurisdiction over Vintage by Random House's then-CEO, Bob Bernstein. Asher, who had been running the Book-of-the-Month Club, brought his formidable skills to bear on Vintage, publishing now-classic, handsomely designed paperback editions of novels by Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, Nicholson Baker and Philip Roth that many of us have on our bookshelves to this day. In addition to his editing duties, Asher has also published novels of his own, including The Boomer (2000) and Shelter (1986).

How did Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf come to you for consideration as a title for the Knopf list?

It was given to me at lunch by a literary agent. It required much persuasion from her to think that Knopf would ever publish a book about a werewolf, let alone three. What would Franz Kafka think?

What drew you so strongly to the novel? And, considering how the novel features so many varied qualities, could you list them in order of appeal to you as an editor and/or reader?

The first thing that drew me to it was the quality of the writing. We publish a number of important literary writers at Knopf--Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift and many others. Glen Duncan's prose is at that level. Secondarily was the element of surprise: the author convincingly and often sympathetically got inside the head of this creature, and he plays with the readers' emotions--you feel for him because he is the last of his species and is contemplating suicide. One is constantly surprised and startled.

What was it like working with a writer who combines fast-moving plot with lots of sex, humor and literary allusions?

I did not personally edit the book. That was done by Francis Bickmore at Canongate. But we did speak many times and I think Glen knew exactly what he was up to and succeeded brilliantly.

What was the greatest challenge for you with the book, other than controlling your urge to caution the author to keep a fine balance between blood and philosophy?

The first challenge I had was gathering up the courage to walk into Sonny Mehta's office and telling him I wanted to publish a werewolf trilogy. After he read it and loved it much the way I did, I immediately thought of how one publishes a literary book that is an emotional roller-coaster in a genre that has been dominated by silly books like that bestselling vampire series teenage girls seem to like.

Editing humor is a subtle art and would seem to be doubly challenging in a novel centering on a death hunt for a werewolf. Still, many times I found myself laughing out loud at a surprising line in the midst of the chase that depended on timing and context for its effect. Were there discussions about whether some of Duncan's witty asides would work for American readers as well as for British readers?

I think there is enough of a tradition at Knopf for publishing surprising literary novels (we just won a Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad, not exactly your everyday read), going all the way back to Albert Camus, but also great literary entertainment like Raymond Chandler. The sales department literally grabbed the book out of my hands, and comments started pouring in from booksellers around the country who were grateful for the author's facility. And then the English reviews started. I have never seen anything like the full page we got in the Guardian. And now the American reviews are following suit. I think Glen is at that wonderful point where commerce meets entertainment, where suspense meets comedy--after reading a few pages, you know you are in good hands.

After editing The Last Werewolf, did you find yourself looking around you and thinking, "Could that one be a werewolf?"

Living in New York, one assumes that one is constantly surrounded by dangerous, bloodthirsty creatures of all sorts, vampires, werewolves, space aliens and just plain homicidal maniacs--and that's not to even mention the cab drivers.



Music to Bite, Kill, Eat By

How often does a novelist get music created for a novel? Not often, but The Last Werewolf has inspired a soundtrack by The Real Tuesday Weld. The album The Last Werewolf is a diverse playlist echoing the book's themes--"violence, friendship, transformation, love and betrayal are recast as a suite of songs"--along with voices and readings from the text.

The tracks cover a range of styles, from '30s ballads and torch songs to gypsy jazz, electro-swing and minimalist electronica, influenced by such diverse musicians as Gainsbourg, Chopin, Django Reinhard, Cole Porter, Springsteen, Barry Adamson and Tom Waits. Guest vocalists include long-time collaborators The Puppini Sisters, Joe Guillotine, Pinkie Maclure and Piney Gir.

You can download a free song, "Me and Mr. Wolf,"  here. You'll want to buy the soundtrack as well as the book.


Book Brahmin: Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan was born and raised in Bolton, Lancashire, England. After studying philosophy and literature in university, he worked for four years as a bookseller in London before moving from the sales counters of bookstores to the shelves and display windows with his own books. His first novel, Hope, was published to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic in 1997, and he has followed with seven more, including I, Lucifer (2002) and The Bloodstone Papers (2006). In 2005, he was named one of Britain's "20 best young novelists" by the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.


On your nightstand now:

I've just finished Larry McMurtry's Texasville and Duane's Depressed. For the first time in years I was moved to tears--actually lay there blubbing like a child--when one of the characters died. Also on the nightstand (or bedside table as we call it in the Old World) is Faulkner's Light in August, Mary Gaitskill's Bad Behaviour and a collection of poems by Australian poet John Kinsella, Peripheral Light.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. Actually, anything magical by Enid Blyton. I suspect she was a secret and regular user of hallucinogenic drugs.

Your top five authors:

(Excluding the classics, and restricting myself to novelists): Anthony Burgess, John Updike, Martin Amis, Paul Bowles, Deirdre Madden.

Book you've faked reading:

Inexplicably, Crime and Punishment. Every time I've tried I've developed severe headaches and visual disturbances. My most recent attempt took me to within 70 pages of finishing--but the whole time it was like being in a dark tunnel watching the light at the end shrinking. I had to stop. I think a neurophysiologist should get involved.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Not that it needs my proselytizing, but Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. A woman spends a year by a creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, observing the natural world around her. Not a very racy premise. But Dillard's giant intelligence and poetic imagination seduce from the first page, and what follows is a singular, compelling and celebratory meditation on the Heraclitean fire.

Book you've bought for the cover:

The Devil Tree by Jerzy Kosinski. I was 15, newly graduated from pulp horror to proper grown-up books, a graduation based on the discovery that proper grown-up books often had lots of sex and weirdness in them. My edition of The Devil Tree had a naked woman on the cover, but she was made from clay and sufficiently eerily lit so that people would think I was precociously arty rather than a gurning pervert. For the record (and this will come as no surprise to Kosinski aficionados) the novel is full of sex and weirdness.

Book that changed your life:

Without a doubt, John Irving's The World According to Garp. Reading it made me want to become a novelist. Most loftily because I was converted to Garp's religion of fierce memory and muscular imagination, least loftiily because I just wanted to be Garp. I wanted to sit at home all day cooking and making up stories while my hot brainy professor wife went out and did a real job.

Favorite line from a book:

"Take most people, they're crazy about cars... I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake." --The Catcher in the Rye.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Catcher in the Rye. The above line says it all. Read at the right age it gives you the sudden, giant, joyous relief of discovering you're not the only sane person in the asylum.



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