Before he became an internationally bestselling thriller writer, Linwood Barclay spent many years in the journalistic trenches, first at the Peterborough Examiner and then at the Toronto Star, where he held such positions as assistant city editor, chief copy editor, news editor, Life section editor, and humour columnist. He figures that experience helped shape his future as an author in a couple of ways, the first being that when you work at a daily newspaper it's like having a crash course in life.
"One day you're covering a court case," says Barclay from his home near downtown Toronto, "the next day you're covering a schoolboard meeting, the next day you're covering a helicopter crash or something. So kind of by osmosis you start learning about how everything works; how the world works.
"And the second thing is, it teaches you that writing is a job, and not to be all precious about it, you know. This whole business of 'Oh gee, I've got writers' block'—well writers' block doesn't work at a newspaper. Deadlines are drilled into you—you have to get it done. Those presses are gonna roll at eleven o'clock tonight whether you've got this thing done or not."
Of course, to make it in the world of suspense fiction it also helps if you're good at coming up with story ideas. Or having them come to you.
"I've had one book that came to me in a dream," he says. "I had another one that I woke up with at five in the morning. But I basically need one really good, great idea a year, 'cause I'm on a book-a-year schedule. Some years I do two, but you just need one really great hook where you think, 'Okay, that's cool enough, that's good enough and has enough potential that I can turn that into a 400-page book.' So once I have some kind of an idea for a hook, or some turning point, I work out in my head the big picture of everything that's happened, and then I start writing."
The big picture for Barclay's latest novel, Find You First, revolves around the idea that an extremely wealthy tech-company magnate learns he's dying, and decides he wants to leave his immense fortune to the nine offspring he spawned decades earlier when, down on his luck and desperately in need of money for a computer, he donated to a sperm bank. That plotline did not arrive with the dawn.
"There was an article in a U.S. magazine," he recalls, "it might have been New York Times Magazine, there was a photo essay of someone who went looking for half-siblings that were all the product of the same sperm donor, and found people across the country. It was kind of a heartwarming, human-interest story, and then of course as a thriller writer you look at that and go, 'How could that go horribly wrong?'
"So that situation started sparking an idea where I went 'Well, what if you had to find all of these potential heirs and then they all just started vanishing one by one?' Once I worked out in my head how it was gonna come together it was a fun one to write."
While Barclay's success—he's written 20 novels and sold millions of copies—has come from his own talent and discipline, it doesn't hurt that he has literary friends in very high places. None other than Stephen King wrote the 23-word cover blurb for the North American trade edition of Find You First, in which he calls it the best book of Barclay's career. King also contributed the cover recommendation for the book's U.K. edition, a plug which is shorter but no less impressive: "A suspense master".
"I found out about 10 years ago that Stephen King was a fan of my stuff," says Barclay, "which is very cool. So we actually got to do an event together two weeks ago, digitally. I got to interview him for the Bloody Scotland Crime Fiction Festival, so we had about an hour or more chatting on a screen. I met him a coupla times, and he said he's a fan, which just blows my mind. I remember years ago when my wife and I went to go see the movie Carrie, and if you had told me then that the guy whose book that was based on would be someone I'd even know, I'd have thought that seems highly unlikely."
The fanboy feeling is mutual, according to Barclay, who reckons he's read just about everything the 74-year-old horror master has cranked out.
"Every once in a while I realize there's some stuff I have missed," he says. "I haven't read all of his Dark Tower stuff; I've still got gaps in that to fill. But he's so well known of course for the iconic sort of things that are part of our popular culture that came out in the first 10 books or so that he did. I mean you've got Pennywise, you've got Cujo, you've got Christine. But I think some of his greatest stuff he's done in the last 10 years. Like his novel The Institute I just think is fantastic. And 11/22/63, his book about the guy who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination—I just love that book. And his new one Billy Summers is great. I've never read a book quite so quickly."
Barclay says that it's hard to pick his favourite Stephen King book, but he feels that, as a parent, Pet Sematary is the scariest. Other famous authors he's loved over the years include Richard Matheson—"Duel was one of my favourite movies ever," he says of the Spielberg-directed TV-movie adaptation of Matheson's 1971 short story—and fantasy legend Ray Bradbury. But his all-time favorite is Ross Macdonald, who became a friend and mentor to him.
"I was always reading mysteries as a kid," recalls the 66-year-old tale spinner, "starting with the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. At the age of 15 I discovered Ross Macdonald, and it was just kind of a revelation to me. I loved his stuff, and he's still my favourite writer. He brought—at least for me—he brought something new to crime fiction, which was issues like family dysfunction, environmentalism, and alienated youth, all that kinda stuff.
"So I was a huge fan, and was also fortunate enough to have a long correspondence with him. When I was 21 I spent an entire evening with him; had dinner with him and everything, which is a long story. But he was very influential to me, in two ways. One was that I just was so taken with his work, and the other was that he ended up taking an interest in me, and that I wanted to be a writer."
Back in 1976, seven years before he died of Alzheimer's disease, Macdonald signed a copy of his 1973 novel Sleeping Beauty for Barclay, with an inscription that read: For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me.
"My biggest regret in life is that we don't have a picture together," says Barclay, who in more recent years has been blown away by crime writers like James Lee Burke and Lawrence Block. When he's not putting pen to paper himself he enjoys hanging out with other authors, as he'll be doing at the Whistler Writers Festival on October 16. That's when he takes part in a virtual reading event titled Thrill, Chillls and Authors Who Kill: a Murder Mystery Discussion with Five Thriller Writers. He'll be joined by fellow Canadian novelists Joy Fielding, Linden MacIntyre, Bill Deverell, and Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
"Joy's a good friend of mine," Barclay relates. "Linden MacIntyre I've met a few times. I don't know if I've ever met Bill Deverell or not, but I read his new book, Stung, which I thought was terrific. I don't think I've met Gail before, but that should be a fun panel.
"And the one I'm particularly looking forward to is the Vancouver Fest chat with [former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada] Beverley McLachlin. I've read her memoir, as well as her two novels, and one of the things that struck me when I was reading her memoir is how, in the early '80s, she was thinking about becoming a full-time writer. Now she's writing crime novels—legal thrillers—but this sounds like something she has just always wanted to do."
Barclay's next novel is scheduled for release in the U.K. in February of 2022, and in Canada in May. It's titled Take Your Breath Away, and from his plot description should be another page-turner.
"A woman pulls into a driveway of a house one day," he reveals, "unloading a car with groceries, and she happens to look at where she is, and she says, 'Where's my house? What's happened to my house?' There's a house there, but that house was built about three years ago. There used to be another house on that lot that was torn down, and the woman who had lived in that house went missing six years ago. So that's kind of our jumping-off point."
Like all of Barclay's previous bestsellers, Take Your Breath Away will be set in the good ol' US of A. One could be excused for wondering why the longtime Ontario resident—who moved there from the States when he was four—never sets his stories in the Great White North.
"Well I'll tell you," he explains, "when I was starting out, I couldn't get a Canadian publisher. But Bantam Books in New York wanted to publish me, and so to some degree it was a case of 'ya dance with the one that brung ya'. And although my books were distributed up here, I didn't have a Canadian publisher till book seven. So that was part of it. And also, if you had people doing these horrible things to each other in Canada nobody'd believe it, because we're just too polite."