Good Reading : July 2009
up close Pitch-perfect Superstar mystery writer LINWOOD BARCLAY talks to CRAIG SISTERSON about crime, ordinary people, and how a one-sentence plot idea changed his life. consciousness every day; some quickly evaporate, some slowly fade, and some grip tightly. For author Linwood Barclay, it was one of the latter that arose in the wee small hours of a cold Canadian morning around three years ago. A single thought that became life changing. At the time, Barclay already had T eight books under his belt – a series of ‘four light, kind of comic thrillers that got good reviews, but nobody was really paying much attention to’, along with a memoir and three non-fiction titles inspired by his popular humour column for the Toronto Star. But he wanted to do ‘something a little darker, edgier’. With his agent a big believer in ‘books that you can sell the idea of in a sentence’, Barclay began brainstorming, searching for a perfect pitch, a ‘terrific hook’ for his first stand-alone thriller. A disillusioning game of email tennis ensued; Barclay serving what he thought were brilliant ideas, only for his agent to volley back harsh reality (‘commonly pitched’, ‘already published’). Then, early one morning he had a piercing thought of a child waking up to find her entire family gone. Barclay’s agent quickly called, hooked. ‘She said to me, what happened to the family?’ recalls Barclay. ‘I said: I have absolutely no idea.’ So he began writing. A keen reader, Barclay had always loved mysteries. ‘When I was very young I dived into all the “Hardy Boys” books.’ He soon wanted to write his own stories, so his father gave him ‘a kind of ten-minute typing lesson … on this big heavy Royal typewriter’. Later obsessed with TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E, as an adolescent Barclay typed several ‘30- to 50-page manuscripts’ of his own stories based on the show. 24 goodreading ı JULY 2009 housands upon thousands of thoughts flicker through our an and good reviews turned into an avalanche when it was pi picked as a ‘summer read’ by the Richard & Judy Book C Club. It quickly became a number one bestseller, h holding the top spot for He kept writing as a teen, then after college got his first job as a journalist at the Peterborough Examiner. ‘I kind of gravitated towards newspapers because it was a way to get paid to write,’ Barclay recalls. ‘And the other great thing about being a reporter at the age of 22 is that you just get thrown out into the world, and you learn about everything, by accident.’ He penned a couple of novels that were rejected, before becoming so busy with journalism when he shifted to Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, that other writing took a twelve-year hiatus. His passion for reading continued unabated, however, and he devoured novels on his nightshifts: ‘Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Robert Parker … ’ Becoming the Star’s humour columnist in 1993 led to the publication of Barclay’s first book of ‘domestic humour’. Another followed, then a satire poking fun at a local politician. In 2000 Barclay wrote a memoir about helping his mother run a cottage resort and trailer park in Central Ontario as a 16-year-old after his father died, before shifting his attention back to fiction with his comic thrillers. All while working full-time as a columnist. Then came that 5am moment, from which No Time for Goodbye was born. It became a record-breaking success. A German publisher nipped in early, selling 400 000 copies in translation before the book was even released in English. Then steady UK sales months, was voted best summer read by Richard & Judy viewers, and eventually took the title as 2008’s overall number one UK bestseller. A key component of No Time for Goodbye, along with his acclaimed follow-up Too Close to Home and upcoming thriller Fear the Worst, is Barclay’s focus on everyday characters. He eschews the police procedural, forensics investigator, and serial killer standards of the crime genre, instead focusing on writing from the point of view of ordinary people. ‘I’m much more interested in people, and relationships between people … than whether you can shoot some weird spectrum of light and pick up bloodstains,’ he says, chuckling. He takes this even further, however, focusing on unlikely heroes such as ‘a guy who cuts people’s grass’ (Too Close to Home) and a used-car salesman (Fear the Worst). ‘I guess I write about what I know,’ says Barclay. ‘And what I know about is being an ordinary person … having a family, kids, worries about work, and those same anxieties about the world that everyone else has.’ And as he’s shown, those stories can be just as gripping as any serial killer thriller. Linwood Barclay will be touring Australia and New Zealand from 25 to 30 July. Check his itinerary at www.hachette.com.au. Fear the Worst is published this month by Orion, rrp $32.99.