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Photos: Linwood Barclay by Ellis Parinder; Eyes and Blood Splatter, GettyImages

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Master of Suspense

Best-selling thriller writer Linwood Barclay talks about his 20th book, "Find You First", his literary idols and why his characters swear so much / BY Kim Honey / May 11th, 2021


Linwood Barclay is hiding. “I have now stepped into a closet and closed the door because of the jackhammers,” he says. “It’s a really large closet that’s for files,” he explains, dispelling a vision of a dank hidey-hole where a murderer lies in wait.

The best-selling author of 20 thrillers has an office that takes up most of the second floor of the three-story house he shares with his wife, Neetha, a retired teacher. From his perch above the street he can see the FedEx truck pull up and a construction crew below, which entertained him earlier when the Bobcat driver did a wheelie. It’s not so great on a day he has three Zoom interviews for his latest book, Find You First.

Barclay, 66, a former Toronto Star columnist, is a news junkie, and current events fuel his imagination. Find You First features a creepy Jeffrey Epstein-like character with a Ghislaine Maxwell-type assistant. Another dabbles in “incel” culture. There’s a phone scammer conning old people out of their money, a hit woman who worries about her carbon footprint as she flies around the U.S. to dispatch her marks, a DNA-testing company not unlike 23andMe and last, but far from least, a shady sperm bank director.

It stars an arrogant tech millionaire, Miles Cookson, who finds out he has Huntington’s disease, which has a 50-50 chance of being inherited. Miles has no children, but when he was starting out in his twenties, he needed a new computer and sold his sperm to a fertility clinic. Before Huntington’s robs him of his mobility and his mental faculties, Miles decides to track down all nine of his offspring.

 

He wants to redeem himself by sharing his wealth, but also has to figure out how to disclose his paternity to these strangers, not to mention deliver the devastating news that they may, like him, carry the gene for Huntington’s. In the meantime, the donor babies – now in their twenties – have started connecting through the DNA testing company. Then, one by one, his progeny start disappearing without a trace.

The idea came from a New York Times photo essay, where a 20-year-old found all 32 of his half-siblings, and included a friend from a summer camp for children with LGBTQ parents.

“Everybody else might look at that and think, ‘what a heart-warming human-interest story,’” Barclay says. “I look at it and think, ‘How could that go horribly wrong?’”

Barclay, for the record, has not sent his spit in to 23andMe. “I’m not remotely curious,” he says. “I’m more, in a literary way, mercenary. I just look upon things (and think) how can I use this? Can I use this for a story?”

The controversy around Google Maps informed Trust Your Eyes, where a recluse obsessed with a street-view app witnesses a murder, and Elevator Pitch came from a news story Barclay read about how Toronto didn’t have enough elevator inspectors to keep up with the rapid pace of condo development. “As soon as I heard that, I thought, “what if you have a guy? … That’s sort of how these things go.”

He and Neetha read the news on their iPads in the morning and tune in to CNN or CBC News several times a day. “When you spent years working at a newspaper, it’s just in your blood, you just can’t turn it off.”

Ink-stained Epithets

There’s one habit Barclay picked up in newsrooms that has never left him, and that’s the liberal use of expletives, specifically the F-bomb. Hardly a page goes by without one of his characters swearing a blue streak. He used to get pushback from some readers about the foul language, which amused him. “It’s like, ‘we’re in no way offended by the depiction of cruelty and people being dismembered for the purposes of entertainment, but could we just have it in nice words.’”

Barclay just read three Ace Atkins books from the Quinn Colson series, and “he outdid me on that score considerably,” adding that the hardest part of writing two thrillers for kids was leaving out the foul language.

“I just try to write the way that I think people would speak in very tense situations,” he explains, adding that he toned down the profanities uttered by Chloe, a donor baby who becomes Miles’ sidekick.

Barclay used to write a humour column for The Star, and his 2000 memoir Last Resort – about his parents’ decision to buy a cottage and camping resort in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region called Green Acres – was nominated for  the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. He has a comic’s timing, and he happily seizes on the joke and riffs off it.

“I have to control it in certain environments. Certainly, at home, it’s just F this, F that. For F’s sake,” he says, warming up. “Like it’s just the best. And it’s so versatile a word, like it can be, ‘that’s F-ing great,’ or it’s like, ‘you F-ing moron.’ You can use it for everything. And I quite like to use it when it seems appropriate.”

True Detective

Barclay has been reading and writing mysteries since he was a kid. His hero was Ross Macdonald, the pen name of crime writer Kenneth Millar, who was famous for hardboiled detective novels set in southern California featuring Lew Archer. When Barclay was a student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., he was writing an essay on detective fiction and reached out to his idol, who lived in Kitchener, Ont. Millar sent him a reply, “and then I did a horrible thing,” Barclay says. “I said, ‘Can I send you my novel?” Millar not only read it, but invited Barclay to dinner when he was in Peterborough in 1976. Barclay brought Millar a book to sign, and that inscription is not only incredibly generous, but also prescient. “To Linwood, who will, I hope, one day out write me.” Since he found international acclaim with No Time for Goodbye in 2007, the author has sold seven million books in more than 39 countries, and France is one of his biggest markets.

 

His other mentor was Canadian literary icon Margaret Laurence, who was writer-in-residence when Barclay was at Trent. He also gave her his novels to read, but felt bad that he hadn’t read any of her books – this was before The Diviners, he clarifies – so he spent one summer reading all her work. Back at school that fall, he summed them up, saying, “They’re pretty good.” You can hear the cringe in his voice to this day, but Laurence believed in his talent, even writing letters on his behalf to publishers. He would visit Laurence at her home in Lakefield, Ont., and bring armloads of detective fiction by McDonald and Rex Stout, which she devoured. And when Barclay landed a job at the Peterborough Examiner newspaper, she would call him up when she saw his byline on the front page. “Hey kiddo,” she would say.  “Wow. What a story!”

Friends Like These

Barclay plots out his stories, but only so far. He knows the beginning and the end point, but that’s it. “I figure I wouldn’t start building a house without some blueprints. If you get in a car in New York and you’re driving to L.A., you know where you’re going to end up, but there’s a hundred ways to get there. I know where I’m starting and I know where I’m going to end up, but I can’t plan out what I call the big, mushy middle.”

His pal, Ian Rankin, the British author of the Inspector Rebus series,  “starts writing to find out who did it,” while he’s heard Michael Crichton say he plots out every chapter.

Then there’s Stephen King. “It’s the best book of his career,” he wrote in a blurb for Find You First. “I couldn’t put it down and you won’t be able to, either. If you enjoy thrillers, this is the real deal. It never lets up.”

The authors send each other advance copies of their books, and emails as they are reading them. King sent Barclay two notes while he was reading Find You First, saying how much he loved it. “If you had told me when I was sitting in a movie theatre in the mid-seventies watching Carrie that this guy would one day be a fan, I would have said that’s unlikely.”

Barclay is just as effusive in his praise of King, who has “reached a stage in his career where he could coast,” but keeps on writing ambitious novels like 11/22/63, his 60th book about a man who travels back in time to thwart Kennedy’s assassination, and 2019’s The Institute, a sci-fi horror story about a secret organization that kidnaps children with extraordinary powers. “It’s the stuff from his early books that have become so engrained in our culture, like the rabid dog, the evil clown, but a lot of the stuff he’s doing now is still amazing.”

The Next Chapter

Like King, Barclay has no plans to retire. He’s editing his next thriller, which will come out next year, tentatively titled She’s Back. But there’s another book coming in 2022, too – what he calls “an extra” – that is intriguing, since it’s a deviation from the norm. He describes Look Both Ways as a techno thriller, and the five-second pitch is “Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, there are self-driving cars.” Set in a Martha’s Vineyard-type idyll, residents agree to test autonomous vehicles, which, after being infected with a virus, turn homicidal. “It’s basically a thousand Christines on an island,” he says, referencing another King classic.

 

Then there’s the screenplay for Fear the Worst, which Canadian actor Jason Priestly has optioned and wants to star in and produce.

“All I wanted to do when I was in my teens was write for television or something. And now I have the opportunity to do it,” he says. “I love it, but there are so many people who weigh in on it, so the process is kind of glacial and a little frustrating at times.” Besides, if he didn’t write, he doesn’t know what he would do with himself.
“I think as long as I’ve got enough marbles that I can keep the plot straight, I will probably just keep doing this,” noting that John Le Carré was writing up until his death at 89 – “not that I’m comparing.”  He’s worried that, if he retires, he would get some brilliant idea for a book three months later, “and it would just kill me not to do anything with it.”

There is always the model railway in the basement, the ninth or 10th he’s built on his own, a hobby he inherited from his father. Although it’s easy to imagine Barclay at the controls, pulling levers and pushing buttons to make an imaginary world come to life, it’s hard to envision the author inhabiting a place where there are no killers on board and the wheels never leave the track.

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