Novelist, ad man and civic booster, Toby Barlow finds inspiration in Detroit

August 12, 2013 

DETROIT — Inside his stylish Lafayette Park townhouse, Toby Barlow shares some of the inspiration for "Babayaga," his new novel that hits stores this week.

"I think I just tried to write about the things that interested me," says the noted ad man, active champion of a better Detroit and author.

Fair enough. But Barlow’s understated answers sometimes don’t convey his world of interesting characters, unexpected inspiration, epic multitasking and enviable situations.

Like the time he biked with David Byrne when the Talking Heads visionary was in town for a movie. Or the time he asked John Slattery, who was borrowing a surfboard from a friend of Barlow’s in Los Angeles, if he’d ever done any voice-over work, which led to the suave "Mad Men" actor starring in a Lincoln campaign.

But back to "Babayaga." Why did Barlow spend about four years creating a fictional vision of post-World War II Paris that’s populated with an ad man from Detroit who becomes entangled with spies, witches whose lives span centuries and one very curious police detective who adjusts remarkably well to being magically transformed into a flea?

It certainly sounds as if he was captivated by many different subjects at the time and became immersed in the task of exploring and intertwining them.

Those topic threads include his obsession with George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review. And there’s Barlow’s grandfather, who was one of the founding directors of the CIA and, it seems, once had to brief a government committee that UFOs did not pose a threat to the nation.

And then there was the friend of his mother who has a castle in southern Germany that Barlow visited. "The woman who lives there took out a guitar and said, ‘I’m going to sing a song about how when the White Russian nobility fled St. Petersburg and Moscow, fled the revolution, and the Russian army and Russian Orthodox priests went with them and fled to Paris and the babayagas went with them.’ I was just floored by this concept."

The book’s characters lead intriguing lives while smoking Gitanes cigarettes, hanging out in jazz clubs, and crossing paths with mysterious mystical women — the fabled witches known as babayagas. At nearly 400 pages, "Babayaga" is an elaborate, confidently written and ultimately seductive literary journey that’s all the more impressive for coming from someone with a full-time job as chief creative officer of Team Detroit, which handles Ford’s U.S. ad campaigns, and Global Team Ford.

"Babayaga" is a saga as multifaceted as Barlow, 47, who finds time for a demanding job, civic-minded efforts for his adopted hometown and a part-time role as an op-ed columnist.

"Leading the creative for the Ford brand globally, one of the biggest brands in the world, that could completely encompass somebody. The job is huge and he’s extraordinary at it," says Matt Vandyke, director of Ford Global Lincoln, of his friend.

That’s why Vandyke says he’s blown away by the many hats that Barlow wears. "It’s so much I ask him when he sleeps." Once, when they were in New York for work, Barlow finished a 12-hour day by suggesting they go and take a look at progress on a documentary, "Plimpton!," that Barlow was executive producing.

"He’s so well-read, so connected, and so involved. He’s just this natural connector with people," says Vandyke.

Born in Philadelphia to a mother who was director of an arts colony and a father whose many careers included banker, environmentalist and U.S. congressman, Barlow lived in Washington, D.C., and attended several boarding schools before going to a small college in Santa Fe, N.M.

He started his advertising career in San Francisco, where he devoted his time to the Saturn car and Stroh’s beer accounts, among other clients. Back then, he says, he worked so late at the office so frequently that "it got to the point where the late-night cabbies didn’t even ask me where I lived. ... It was really kind of sweet and depressing."

Next came New York City and big jobs at other prestigious agencies. Then in 2006, the veteran of Hal Riney & Partners, TBWA/Chiat Day and JWT New York moved to Detroit to work with Team Detroit.

Barlow credits the move with inspiring him to get involved in new, fascinating arenas. "The great thing about this city is there are a lot of enthusiastic people who want to do things, more so than anywhere else," he says.


He’s found it easy to connect with other creative people here, where in New York, "every event I went to was (full of) advertising people. If it was an exotic event, there’d be designers there. I didn’t meet journalists. I didn’t meet a lot of writers. Here in Detroit, I find myself with people who are in city hall, people who are starting restaurants, and people who are doing a range of things. It’s pretty easy to put together a team of people who are interested in doing things and have a lot of complementary skills."

Granted, Barlow started writing "Sharp Teeth," which came out in 2006, before his Motor City move. The well-received novel about werewolves in Los Angeles was written in free verse, a format that was "just sort of the way it came out."

"When I was working on it, I didn’t know if it was going to be a novel. I thought it might be an art installation so I would approach these graphic artists and I’d say, ‘Let’s do a room full of wolves and I’ll redo the type, etc., etc.,’ and they’d say, ‘No, that’s crazy.’" When he got to 200 pages, he finally decided it would be best in book form.


Since relocating here, Barlow’s writing for the Huffington Post and the New York Times has been an important part of the large footprint he’s made on the Detroit creative scene. Although he describes himself as one of a large chorus of people with ideas about the city ("I’m not singing arias," he insists), his pieces, like his first op-ed on Detroit for the Times, "For Sale: The $100 House," have generated buzz across the country.


"That blew up huge. It was crazy big," he remembers of the piece on artists moving to Detroit and finding such real estate opportunities. "I learned a lot of lessons about how the press works. ‘Dateline’ came to town and they said ‘We want to do the same story that "20/20" did.’ And we said, ‘We’ll talk the same issues.’ They said, ‘No, we want to go to the same locations. We want the exact same story.’ It’s an interesting culture."


Barlow has continued to write about topics like five steps to lead Detroit back to awesomeness. "Detroit is both tough and sensitive," he says. "Whether you’re a city planner or a novelist, those are great things to work on."


Some consider Barlow an unrealistic booster, or as one essayist put it, a Detroit utopian. He seems unruffled by such critiques. He doesn’t expect everyone to like all his ideas, and he says he’d rather be engaged in a dialogue inside the city than take a nap in an easy chair in the suburbs.

"I’ll never be from here," he admits, acknowledging his permanent status as a transplant. "I could live here the rest of my life and because I wasn’t born here or because I didn’t go to Michigan or Michigan State and I don’t have any skin in the game when football season comes around, I really won’t ever be from here. But one of the theories I have about the city is it needs more immigrants coming and going from it."

When it comes to new ideas and Detroit, Barlow doesn’t stop at brainstorming. Team Detroit does pro bono work in support of Detroit artists, residents and projects. He co-owns Nora, a Midtown retail store with a design focus. He’s helped found a letterpress shop in Detroit. They’re all chances to change Detroit’s narrative, like the Team Detroit video on small businesses here.

"The point is to try to get some nuance into the story about Detroit that’s out there, so it’s not just these yellow press scare tactics," he says.

Those who know Barlow say such efforts are typical of his ability to get involved and help others do their job, too.

"He has a real generosity of spirit," says friend Joe Posch, whose Hugh store is next to Nora. "He’s a leader. He really trusts people he thinks can do the job. He stays involved but he doesn’t micromanage."

Barlow says it isn’t all as hard as it seems. "Ninety-nine percent of what I do, other than writing novels, is collaboration and team building. It’s a good town for that."

And he’s not finished yet. Someday, he might even get around to finishing that screenplay idea. It involves kung fu, magic realism and, yes, Detroit.



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