David Cole continues his Cool Canadian Crime interviews. Today: Linwood Barclay.
Mystery Readers was lucky to host Linwood Barclay at a real-time At Home Literary Salon in Berkeley. Incredibly great time was had by all.
Previously, David interviewed Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Thomas Rendell Curran, Gail Bowen, Garry Ryan, RJ Harlick, Anthony Bidulka, Rick Mofina, Lou Allin, Anne Emery and Vicki Delany and Cheryl Freedman. This group of authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel. More to come.
Linwood Barclay was born in the United States but moved to Canada just before turning four years old when his father, a commercial artist whose illustrations of cars appeared in Life, Look and Saturday Evening Post (before photography took over), accepted a position with an advertising agency north of the border. After spending his formative years helping run a cottage resort and trailer park after his father died when he was 16, Linwood got his first newspaper job at the Peterborough Examiner, a small Ontario daily. In 1981, he joined the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper.
He held such positions as assistant city editor, chief copy editor, news editor, and Life section editor, before becoming the paper’s humour columnist in 1993. He was one of the paper’s most popular columnists before retiring from the position in 2008 to work exclusively on books.
Between 1996 and 2000 be published four non-fiction books, including a memoir about growing up in cottage country, Last Resort, which was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.
In 2004, he launched his mystery series about an anxiety-ridden, know-it-all, pain-in-the-butt father by the name of Zack Walker. His first standalone thriller, No Time for Goodbye, was published in 2007 to critical acclaim and great international success. It has been sold around the world and is being translated into nearly two dozen languages. Too Close to Home came out in 2008 and won the Arthur Ellis Award for best novel. Fear the Worst is his latest thriller.
David Cole: In what ways do you think your upbringing has influenced the kind of writer you've become? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer, and how did you break this distressing news to your family?
Linwood Barclay: Sometime around Grade 3 I started writing stories, filling entire notebooks with single stories, although when you consider the huge chunky handwriting and the double spacing, they couldn’t have been all that long. It was television – and I watched a lot of it – that really got me interested in writing. A single episode a week of my favourite show was not enough, so I wrote more stories featuring these characters created by other people. My family was supportive. Around Grade 5, I found it was taking me too long to write my stories out in longhand, so my father gave me a five-minute typing lesson. We had an old Royal about the size of a Volkswagen, and Dad said, “This finger goes here, this one here, this one hits these keys, and so on.” That was it.
DC: Which do you prefer to write: stand-alones or series books? Can you say something about the strengths and weaknesses of both, from the writer's perspective?
LB: I liked writing my series of books about Zack Walker, but they were not big sellers, so I switched to standalones. The four I did were great fun; I knew the characters so it was easy to get into the story right away. But then again, standalones give you a lot more freedom to do whatever you want.
DC: Who do you write for? Do you have any notion of an audience "out there" while you are constructing a book?
I really don’t. I just write the books I want to write and hope someone out there will enjoy them.
DC: How healthy is the crime novel right now, and can you offer a prognosis for its future?
LB: My sense is that it’s very healthy, despite all the economic problems we’ve been having. I think, in tough times, people want something fun and exciting to read. Crime writers know how to deliver just that.
DC: Your house is on fire, and you can save only two books: one by yourself, one by another author. Which do you choose?
LB: I’d save a copy of Last Resort, my memoir that was published in 2000. And my copy of Sleeping Beauty, the Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar), which Millar signed for me the night I had dinner with him in 1976.
DC: You wash up on a desert island. Which three items would you wish to find awaiting you? (No boats and outboard motors allowed.)
LB: I can’t tell you three things I DON’T want to find: a polar bear, a smoke monster, and a huge statue of a four-toed foot.
DC: Do your background and upbringing play any part in the development of your themes and characters? If so, what part?
LB: Thirty years in newspapers has had an effect. I certainly hand my manuscripts in on time. And the experience of my teen years – which were the subject of the aforementioned Last Resort – shaped me more than anything else. My father died when I was sixteen, I effectively took over running the family business – a cottage resort – and had to deal with a mentally ill older brother and a mother who was, to say the least, difficult. I left home at 22 for my first newspaper job at the Peterborough Examiner, about 70 miles northeast of Toronto.
DC: A book a year can mean tremendous pressure, along with all the promotion and touring. How do you organize your writing schedule to deal with this? Do you plot out your stories carefully first or just jump in there and start writing?
LB: Once I have an idea I like, I start making notes, maybe for a week or two until I have the overall picture of the book. But I can’t work out the whole plot. Plenty of opportunities present themselves once I start writing. And when I’m writing a first draft – a two to three month process – I like to be able to do it without interruption. No trips, no tours.
DC: You can have lunch with anyone, living or dead (but they won't be decomposing when you meet them!) Who would you choose and why?
LB: My father.
DC: You're on a desert island with a Walkman and a lifetime supply of batteries, but only three CDs. What would you like them to be?
LB: I’m on that damn island again? Okay, the best of Oscar Peterson, George Gershwin, and Diana Krall.
DC: And one book?
LB: The Nothing Book. Remember that one, with nothing but blank pages? I just hope I can find a pen somewhere.
DC: How do you construct a novel? Plot first? Character journey first?
LB: The hook comes first. I need an interesting way into a story. Once I have a hook I like, I start shaping the plot. Characters come into focus more for me as I am writing.
DC: Before this showed up in your e-mail, what were you working on? I don't want a general description of the book you're on. Tell us about the very page you were writing. What was happening? What does it mean?
LB: I’m not writing at the moment, although within the next day or so I have to start thinking about the next book. I’ve been doing a lot of touring this year.
DC: I read an interview with Jakob Dylan once, where he said that originality is overrated. What he meant was that he was happy to create within the tradition of music he sees himself a part of. Do you see yourself working within a tradition or genre, or combining elements from more than one? How important is it to you to break new ground?
I think it’s true, to a degree, that there are no new stories, that everything has been done. But, it hasn’t been done by me. My hope is that I can bring some new wrinkle, a new voice, to whatever I decide to write, and that it will be just different enough to get readers’ attention.
DC: Don't think about this too long. Name five of your favorite novels, and give us a sentence or two why.
LB: American Pastoral, by Philip Roth: I went most of my life not reading Roth, then, after reading The Plot Against America, went looking for everything. This is a masterpiece.
Praise the Human Season, by Don Robertson: A long out-of-print novel about an elderly man looking back at his life.
The Chill, by Ross Macdonald: Perhaps the finest, and most chilling, of the Lew Archer novels.
The First Deadly Sin, by Lawrence Sanders: The first BIG thriller I ever read.
By the Time You Read This, by Giles Blunt: The fourth, and best, John Cardinal book. Haunting and heartbreaking.
DC: Can you give us a little biography? Favorite Beatle? High school mascot? Did you have any nicknames? What kind of 18-year old were you? I'm particularly interested in work you had before becoming a professional writer.
LB: I already mentioned my memoir. I had a mountain of responsibility at age 16 and grew up overnight. But I always had interests that were outside the mainstream. When everyone was going nuts over the Beatles, I was buying movie scores. (Not that I didn’t like the Beatles, but if I had money to buy an album, it was going to be Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible soundtrack.) I was never much for sports, and growing up in Canada not caring about hockey, well, that’s a ticket to isolation. And yet, I had a pretty good social life.
DC: Have you ever fantasized about being a reclusive, respected writer who never does promotion, is impossible to locate, and maybe is even reputed to have a bad temper?
LB: That’s not me.
DC: Okay, you wake up regular time, you have a full work day in front of you. Just you and the pages. On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you about this? Would you rather be doing something else?
LB: If it’s writing, probably an 8. If it’s proofing pages, it’s a 1. I hate proofing. Rereading my own work is very hard. I think, “Boy, I can really see where this is going.”
DC: When you decided to write fiction, why did you choose crime fiction?
LB: The first books I ever read were the adventures of the Hardy Boys. From there I went on to Agatha Christie and Nero Wolfe, then graduated to the harder stuff, like Chandler and Hammett and Macdonald. I thought, why would you want to write any other kind of book? What appeals to me about crime fiction is it demands a strong plot. Plots move stories. Simple as that.
DC: Read any good books lately?
LB: Right now I’m reading Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. I’m glad you don’t have to write that well to make a living in this business.
Photo by Michael Rafelson
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