— Inside his stylish Lafayette Park townhouse, Toby
Barlow shares some of the inspiration for "Babayaga,"
his new novel that hits stores this week.
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.
enough. But Barlow’s understated answers sometimes don’t
convey his world of interesting characters, unexpected
inspiration, epic multitasking and enviable situations.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
so well-read, so connected, and so involved. He’s just
this natural connector with people," says Vandyke.
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.
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."
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.
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
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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."
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."
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.
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.
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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."
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
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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.
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 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
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.
who know Barlow say such efforts are typical of his
ability to get involved and help others do their job,
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
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."
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.