Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Unlikely heroes and 'overnight' success: Linwood Barclay feature

Here is the third of the interview-based crime writing features I wrote in 2009 for the Weekend Herald (New Zealand's biggest newspaper), who have now kindly allowed me to republish any articles I have or will write for them, online.

Unlikely heroes and ‘overnight’ successWriter Linwood Barclay talks to CRAIG SISTERSON about trading in his career as a humourist for crime writing

LINWOOD BARCLAY found it a little strange sitting on a mystery writers’ panel with luminary T. Jefferson Parker in Minneapolis early last year. Despite already having nine books under his own belt at the time, he confesses to having been a little star-struck. Chuckling down the phone line from his Burlington, Ontario home, Barclay describes meeting the bestselling author: “I said ‘I am so excited to meet you – you got me through the night shifts at the Toronto Star fifteen, twenty years ago’.”

Within a few months, the easygoing Canadian had himself earned bestseller status, with the UK release of his 2007 thriller No Time for Goodbye storming the charts following a mention on the Richard & Judy show, the British sales-boosting equivalent of Oprah’s Book Club. “It was like winning the lottery,” says Barclay. “But I became convinced that my book would become the first in the history of their Book Club to absolutely tank.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. No Time for Goodbye became a #1 UK bestseller, holding the top spot for months, was voted Best Summer Read by Richard & Judy viewers, sold 630,000 copies, and was the overall bestselling title of 2008. It also sold half a million copies in Germany, and has been translated into two dozen languages.

It’s been a remarkable 12 months for Barclay. His next thriller, Too Close To Home (2008) became a #1 bestseller in hardcover, and recently won the Arthur Ellis Award, the top prize in Canada for crime fiction. He’s coming to New Zealand later this month as part of “an (almost) world tour” in support of his latest offering, Fear the Worst. Life has certainly changed; and it changed with a single thought in the wee small hours of a cold Canadian morning around three years ago.

At the time Barclay had spent more than a decade contributing “what was allegedly a humour column” to Canada’s biggest newspaper. During those years he’d also written eight books: a series of four comic crime thrillers; a “bittersweet, somewhat funny but also kind of sad” memoir, Last Resort (2000), about helping his mother run a rural cottage resort and trailer park as a teenager after his father died; and three non-fiction humour titles inspired by his popular Toronto Star column.

Wanting to try something “darker, edgier”, Barclay was searching for a “terrific hook” for a standalone thriller. Then at 5am one morning, he was struck by a piercing thought – the fear of a child waking up to find their entire family gone. The seed planted, he began writing – cultivating an idea that would grow into No Time for Goodbye, the gripping story of middle-aged mother’s harrowing search for the truth behind her childhood family’s disappearance 25 years before.

A keen reader since his mother taught him from a phonics book as a preschooler in the late 1950s, Barclay had always loved mystery stories. “When I was very young I dived into all the Hardy Boys books,” he says. The writing bug soon bit, 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 “thirty to fifty page manuscripts” of his own stories based on the show.

After college he got his first job as a journalist at the Peterborough Examiner. “I would have dearly loved at the age of 22 to become a novelist,” admits Barclay. “But the fact is, I would have stunk… because I had no life experience. So I gravitated towards newspapers because it was a way to get paid money to write. And the other great thing about being a reporter is you just get thrown out into the world, and you learn about everything, by accident.”

His own book-writing efforts went into hiatus when he moved to the busier Toronto Star, but Barclay continued to devour crime novels during nightshifts, including T. Jefferson Parker’s acclaimed 1985 debut Laguna Heat. After he became a humour columnist in 1993, he eventually made the time to work on his own books – and eight titles later, along came that life-changing 5am.

One noticeable aspect of Barclay’s thrillers is their focus on everyday characters thrown into emotionally terrifying situations. 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.

I would have dearly loved at the age of 22 to become a novelist. But the fact is I would have stunk...


While Barclay’s plots are page-turning, his writing shines brightest in his authentic, layered characters. His unlikely heroes don’t even come from the long tradition of amateur detectives with naturally investigative or analytical careers, such as lawyers, doctors, or journalists. In No Time for Goodbye, Cynthia is a happily married mother. Jim, the protagonist in Too Close To Home, spends his days weed-whacking. And the latest hero is perhaps even more unlikely – in Fear the Worst, the father frantically searching for his missing daughter is a used car salesman.

“I guess I write about what I know,” says Barclay. “And what I know about is being an ordinary person… having a family, having kids, having worries about work, and having those same anxieties about the world around us that everyone else has.”

Fear the Worst (Orion NZD$37.99)

This feature article was first published in the Canvas magazine of the Weekend Herald on Saturday 18 July 2009, and is reprinted here with permission.


So what do you think of my feature article on Linwood Barclay? Of the Weekend Herald allowing me to share my past and future features for them, with you all her on Crime Watch? Have you read FEAR THE WORST, NO TIME FOR GOODBYE, or any of Barclay's other works? Do you like stories with ordinary heroes? Thoughts and comments welcome.

1 comment:

  1. As always, a great interview. I enjoyed Barclay's Fear The Worst and Too Close To Home. The domestic hero is very refreshing compared to the traditional hero. Looking forward to his next offering.