Duncan B. BarlowA Dog Between Us
Stalking Horse press, 2019
Long ago, when I was in college and editing a punk zine, Duncan B. Barlow was one of the first people I ever interviewed. Our paths crossed then given his long history as a musician; years later, our paths crossed again given our shared involvement in all things literary. We spent a week and a half on the road in 2017 promoting our recent books. In his case, that was The City, Awake, about sinister conspiracies and violent doppelgängers in a mid-20th-century city; and Of Flesh and Fur, a chapbook about a father/son relationship that takes a turn for the feral.
Barlow's latest novel, A Dog Between Us, is far more grounded in its setting. At its center is Crag, a man dealing with the aftermath of his father's death, fraught bonds with his siblings, and a long-in-the-works romantic relationship that begins to spiral out of control. A Dog Between Us preserves the hypnotic quality of the prose of his earlier works, but places it in a more realistic setting. And at the core of this book is an impossible question: what happens when our own emotional burdens make it difficult to see the emotional struggles of others? Barlow's novel is a meticulously-structured exploration of deeply resonant themes and complex interpersonal dynamics.
Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the influence of his musical experience on his writing, the autobiographical roots of this novel, and what famous editor his cat most resembles.
Tobias Carroll (Rail): Your first novel came out about a decade ago and since then, in the last two years, you've now had two novels and one chapbook book emerge into the world. Have the last few years been an extraordinarily productive period for you, or is something else responsible?
Barlow: It's a little of both. In that time, I was so busy, so focused on securing and keeping a teaching job, that I wasn't sending work out routinely. I guess I was just too focused on trying to make a living to actually get the work out there. When I took a job up in South Dakota, I made a promise to myself that I was going to dedicate myself more to sending my work around. I also did dedicate more time to writing short works and revising two manuscripts, so I think it's a little of both.
Rail: Everything that I've read from you up until now has also been a little bit more surreal in style or a little more stylized, whereas A Dog Between Us is written in a very realistic mode. It's a very recognizable world–there aren't secret genetic experiments or people with strange abilities who manipulate electricity or cloning or anything like that. What was it like to go from those stranger settings and stranger worlds and write something that was much more grounded?
Barlow: Honestly, I wrote the majority of A Dog Between Us in a very dark year. There were several things that had happened within a very short span of time that were very difficult for me. I was unemployed. My father passed. I was in a very bad relationship. I had some friends die that year, some people that I very much loved, as well. My mind was a bit foggy with loss. I wasn't able to do anything but be in the moment. A friend of mine gave me a book, Michael Kimball's Us. When I read it, I realized I could write about my loss, even if I wasn't necessarily going to publish it—I hadn't intended on publishing the writing at first. It was just to write and capture that sense of when you're in that free fall of great loss. You're really just stepping foot in front of foot and trying to get through each hour, each day until you can finally reclaim your life. So, when I began the project, it was a very different creature altogether. I wasn't thinking about it having an overall shape.
When I was writing at first, I wrote the hospital sections of the novel. All of that is set in this pacing, this kind of repetition of stepping foot by foot until you are clear of it. Then I started working back in Florida again and I focused on the second part of the novel, which is the narrative that takes place after the father has died and the character must deal with the other problems in his life. I really just wrote it as a process of surviving through what I was doing. I wanted to keep writing and find a way to express what it was like being in that hospital room with my father through fiction.
Rail: You said before you had not really expected that this would be something that would ever be published. What sort of prompted you to say, "his is actually going to be something I want to get out into the world and to have readers?"
Barlow: I had a job interview up here in South Dakota and I didn't know what I wanted to read, so I was going through unpublished or unfinished things that I had on my computer. At that point, I still only really had a few short stories that I'd sent out and my first book, which had been out of print for a number of years. That all felt very dated, so I was trying to find things that were new. I was reading them aloud to see how they'd play out. I opened an early draft of A Dog Between Us and it had a kind of rhythm to it that I felt was musical. I decided to read it at the job interview and there seemed to be a good response to it. I printed the whole thing out and laid all the sections on the floor in my living room and walked through them and said, okay now I'm going to stitch this together into an actual book. That's when I started writing the odd sections of the book.
I went through a few drafts over the spring of that year and that summer, right after I moved to South Dakota. I sent it out to a few places. Every place I sent it to had really great comments and said they loved it but it wasn't really quite what they were publishing. It seemed every editor would either pass it onto another editor or agent. I figured maybe the book would find a home eventually. There was a lot of talk with different presses, and in the end I felt most comfortable with James and Stalking Horse Press because I like how James operates.
Rail: I remember when we were on tour two years ago, you read part of the novel when we were reading in Minneapolis. I know you revise a lot. How much has the book changed from that point to what I have in front of me right now, would you say?
Barlow: I found that sometimes the novel was a little too sad, a little one note. I went back and revisited all the characters and tried to figure out how to give them a little more complexity. Then I kind of restructured the novel, wrote some extra chapters and filled it out a little bit more. So when I read it when you and I were on the book tour, at that point there weren't sections. There wasn't one, two, three, four. It was just one manuscript. Then I started thinking about it more in terms of, what were the stages of all of these things that were happening and how would those play out in a fictional world? Sometimes I wonder if James hates me a little. I am always revising, always editing.
Rail: I quite like the fact that one of the section titles is "Resurrection," which felt very surprising, but also completely in keeping with what had come before.
Barlow: Yeah. I feel like it's a very sad book until you hit that last section. That last section to me is kind of like the payment for getting through all those months of pain. For me that resurrection happened in a very weird and different way.
In my life, when I was working on the book, I walked away from a job. I was living in Denver, trying to change my career. I had gone broke. Things were not going well in my personal life. I was just crushed by depression and then it got to the point where I was about to be evicted. My car was about to be repossessed. Everything was looking grim. I realized at that point, nothing else could be taken from me. I hit this rock bottom and that the worst had happened.
There's this kind of amazing lightness that came and as soon as that happened, all these things started to line up. I returned to my job in Florida. I had a week to pack and return, so I sold a lot of things, packed the cat and a few necessities, put most of my belongings in a storage shed, and drove to Florida, where I was sleeping on the floor of an apartment with no furniture for the first couple weeks before I got my paycheck. When I moved back there, I had this whole new view on life. I tried to represent that in fiction through Crag's escape to Mexico. This resurrection to the world of the living after so many months of walking with the dead.
Rail: In The City, Awake, you mentioned that you were very specifically using language that would have been found in a mid-20th century noir work of fiction. Did you put any restrictions on your use of language for this one?
Barlow: I didn't. I wanted to create patterns, sentence patterns, especially in the pieces that are focusing on loss where there's that constant interrupting sadness, where the mind is foggy, where you're operating in small steps, so I wanted the sentences to be short and fragmented. I tried to balance assonance and a kind of sonic play. It just helped to have well-balanced sentences. I wasn't necessarily limiting myself in the same way, or working from a limited palette of words, the way I did in The City, Awake. I was just trying to make it sing a song of loss.
Rail: You talked earlier about taking the manuscript, putting it on the floor, and arranging it, and how that had a musical aspect. At this point, have your decades of making music ended up having an effect on how either you write or, in this case, how you edit or structure fiction?
Barlow: I would say now more than ever. When I first started writing, I think I was just trying to focus on the story. For my first novel, I was kind of using Kafka's The Castle as my touchstone of a character that was stuck in this metaphysical dilemma and the more he struggles to get to the answer, the further away he gets from the answer. I was kind of trying to do that structurally with my book.
I started to notice the things I liked were things that had a kind of song to them. I started doing greater meditations on sentence work. I'll go through drafts and drafts where I speak it out loud. I listen to it. Sometimes I rework a sentence 30 times. I think, to some degree, it drives my students a little nuts because they're trying to crank out pages and I keep stopping them and saying, "No, no, no. The sentence is the DNA of your world. We have to make sure the DNA is solid."
I think some writers lock themselves onto the page too much. They don't test they don't read the work aloud. This is something poets do and it's one of the reasons I love poetry. People and animals are incredibly sensitive to sound. Here's a story I love telling. There was a time when I was getting ready to do a public reading and I was reading a story I had written that was published in a journal called Tinge. In that one, I had very purposefully written formal and digressive sentences, where the main character's name was The Girl Who Called Herself The Girlfriend—every time the narrator refers to her, that is her name. I wanted it to be a little awkward sounding, a little lopsided. As I was reading it to prepare for the event, the cat just jumped up on the desk and started getting feisty. I put that down and I picked up something else. I picked up the pages from Of Flesh and Fur, and I started reading that. She just curled up and went to sleep. I started doing more experiments and when I would read things that I had written that were angular and clunky, she would get anxious and react to it. I thought those works that I intentionally made angular, my cat reacts to in one way and things when I give them balance and softer sounds—making them very lyrical, she is very calm.
Rail: That's amazing.
Barlow: Yeah, I know. She's like a little furry Gordon Lish.
Rail: When you were writing A Dog Between Us, the narrator has a history with all of the characters in it. Was it an intuitive thing or how did you know where to begin the two parallel stories there and what to put in and what to leave out?
Barlow: I think, as you know, when we create characters, they're assemblages of the thousands of people we've met in our lives. To me, it was difficult because it is very much a personal novel for me, but at the same time it's fictional. A good deal of the hospital scenes are very true to what happened in my life—especially the relationship of the father and son. However, the rest of the work, the characters, are fictional. They're assemblages. They're sculpted and positioned. I thought about the main characters quite a bit. Sometimes they feel real, as if they are people that I do know.
Rail: The book is dedicated to your siblings, and obviously family plays a big role in this book. Of Flesh and Fur was about this very strange attempt at a father-son relationship, and many of the characters in The City, Awake are each other's quasi-brothers. Would it be fair to say that family is one of the overarching themes of your work at this point?
Barlow: I don't know if it's family. I think my notion of family is very complicated because I grew up in a family of addicts. When I write, I'm writing about the complicated relationships between people. I am a very empathetic and caring person, but I also think that... I deeply love people in general, but I'm also very... What's the word I'm looking for? I think I can become very easily hurt and upset. Because I spent a good deal of time alone as a child, because I was dyslexic and navigating that alienation at school, I've always struggled with intimacy. When a child is disappointed so frequently by people growing up, they begin to fear them, to fear intimacy. So the idea of relationships fascinates me and I'm always working through these issues by way of fiction. There is something interesting to relationships, to the fact that no matter how good we are as humans, we're all so deeply flawed that we cannot, always be good. We're always going to have to make decisions that are going to have to hurt people.
Rail: I know that you have other projects that you're working on. Would you say that they're continuing in that theme or you think you're going in a different place now that this is out in the world?
Barlow: I'm about 200 pages into a couple novels, actually. One of them is an historical novel and it began like a lot of my life projects, where I say, "I've never done this. I'll try it." I want every writing project to be different. Most of the time, I'll have a story idea, something that maybe comes to me by way of an image or sentence, but I haven't quite decided on its form. In this case, I decided on this multi-generational historic novel in Kentucky and it deals with land rights and coal. This one very much is about family. There's a son who's estranged from his father. His father dies, and the son goes back to his hometown in Hazard. His father is an eclectic historian. He's not a true historian. He's actually a barber, but he's obsessed with the history of hair cuts and the history of the family. As the son goes back to clear and sell the house, he's confronted with the family history that he's been trying to run from his entire life—all of those battles and betrayals and complications that the family had. It was quite fun to write at first, but then I got to the point where it was like I was walking through tar because there's so many story lines and so much research, so I pivoted and started writing short stories for a while.