Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Banking on Barclay

One of the foremost delights in book reviewing is when you discover a gem, a work that pushes the bar just a little higher. Such a book is No Time for Goodbye (due out in September in the States and in December in the UK). The fact that I’d never before read anything by this novel’s Canadian author, Toronto Star columnist Linwood Barclay, made discovering No Time just a little bit sweeter.

Barclay’s fifth thriller has a bang-up premise: Fourteen-year-old Cynthia Bigge is a troublesome young girl living in Milford, Connecticut. One night she stays out late with her boyfriend, Vince Fleming, a bad boy from a family of criminals, whom Cynthia’s own family dislikes. While fooling around in the back of a car with a case of booze, they are spotted by her father, Clayton, who hauls Cynthia back home. After a huge family row, fueled by the drinks she’d shared with Fleming, Cynthia storms off into her bedroom, locks the door, and falls into a deep sleep. In the morning, full of remorse, she struggles downstairs, head throbbing, only to find that her mother, father, and older brother have all vanished. No note has been left behind, and there are no signs of life or clues as to where they’ve gone.

Now, leap ahead 25 years. The disappearance of Cynthia’s family remains a mystery, but at least the girl herself has managed to move on. More or less. She’s now Cynthia Archer, married to high-school English teacher Terry Archer. They share their modest house in Hartford, Connecticut, with their young daughter, Grace. Terry has coped throughout their time together with Cynthia’s longing to find out whatever became of her family. And naturally, rumors of the Bigges’ fate have spread over the intervening quarter-century. Some say a serial killer abducted the family; others hint of their involvement with a criminal gang. But the most pernicious and worrying accusation--and the one that still troubles Cynthia--is that she herself was somehow involved.

After the set-up, things start to go seriously south for the Archer family, and secrets that looked to have been well hidden rise up again to wreak havoc. Which is about all I can reasonably say. Like the best thrillers of our day, No Time for Goodbye is a very difficult book to review, without revealing plot turns and thus spoiling the reader’s own enjoyment of the journey Cynthia Archer must endure. Let me add, though, that in the world of thriller novels, sometimes danger lurks not in a commando unit armed with Uzi machine pistols, but at the business end of a handgun or a knife wielded by somebody you know. Or thought you knew.

So fond am I of No Time, that I tracked down author Barclay to ask him about his evolution as a novelist, his plotting techniques, and the place of humor in dark fiction.

Ali Karim: Prior to reading No Time for Goodbye, I was unaware of your work or history. Can you tell us, first, about your early reading experiences?

Linwood Barclay: As a kid I read the usual: Hardy Boys, Tom Swift. But around Grade 6, when I wasn’t reading TV tie-in novels of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I was reading the Nero Wolfe mysteries and Agatha Christie. Somewhere around Grade 10, I discovered the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald, which blew me away.

AK: So who cultivated your interest in the written word?

LB: Certainly Ross Macdonald, but--and this may not be the answer people want to hear--it was television that sparked my interest in writing. I’d have favorite shows, and an episode a week wasn’t enough for me, so I’d invent new adventures for these established characters.

AK: And a journalism career followed?

LB: I had thought, during my early and mid-teens, that I’d like to be a TV scriptwriter, but as I got older what mattered to me was to get paid to write--anything--and I thought working at a newspaper would be a great way to accomplish that. At 22, I started as a general assignment reporter for The Peterborough Examiner [in Ontario, Canada], covering fast-breaking stories involving calf births.

AK: So tell me how you came to write humor.

LB: After Peterborough, I got a reporting job at the Oakville Journal Record, a small paper outside Toronto, and was asked if I wanted to write a weekly column. I jumped at that, but rather than comment seriously on the news of the day, I wanted to take a more satirical slant. A 600-word political cartoon, basically.

AK: I hear that you’re much in demand as an after-dinner speaker. How did you get into such gigs?

LB: That started around 1996. I’d been doing my Toronto Star column for about three years, taking a lot of shots at the Ontario provincial premier of the day--a hard-right, tax-cutting, boneheaded bully--who was slashing school budgets. I wrote so many columns mocking his policies, that educational groups that were the brunt of his attacks--teachers, principals, school board director associations--started inviting me to do an hour of cheap shots aimed at the premier. Then word got out that I was pretty good at that sort of thing, and plenty of other groups, outside of education, were asking me to speak to them as well. I’ve been all over Canada the last few years.

AK: Tell me about your first professional fiction sale.

LB: Bad Move, the first Zack Walker novel [and one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2004]. I’d done four previous books, one a critically acclaimed memoir called Last Resort, but this was my first novel (at least the first to be published; I’d written three or four before I was 23).

AK: For those people not familiar with the Zack Walker stories, tell us about your newspaper editor protagonist.

LB: Zack is an anxiety-ridden, anal retentive, know-it-all pain in the neck, and I hate to tell you who he’s based on. He’s basically me unchecked. I’ve channeled all my fears and phobias into him. Bad Move grew out of a single incident--seeing my wife leave her purse unguarded in the shopping cart at the grocery store. I thought, once, about taking her purse and hiding it so as to teach her a lesson about making it available to passing thieves, but did not, because I wanted to live. But I thought, what if I were the kind of husband who did take it? Zack was born.

AK: No Time for Goodbye is an excellent novel, built on an extraordinary premise. Where did that premise come from?

LB: The idea for No Time came to me around 5 a.m., which seems to be when all good ideas show up. I had been thinking about a very tragic case about a young girl who’d been abducted from her home in the dead of night. When her parents got up in the morning, she was gone. And it was like a switch got flipped. What if you turned that incident around? What if the girl woke up at home, and the family was gone?

AK: Did you know how this story would end before you began writing, or did you get some welcome surprises en route?

LB: I need to know where I’m going to end up when I start, but there are surprises on the way--a lot of them. In all, it took a little over two months [to write]. (The last day I was working on the first draft, I wrote 9,000 words.) But there was some tinkering after that.

AK: I am assuming you also had to plot of No Time for Goodbye pretty thoroughly mapped out before you began writing, as it’s so intricate.

LB: I’m delighted you find the plot intricate, but in my head it’s very simple and straightforward. I hate overly complicated plots, where you get to the last page and go, “Huh?” I think the plot of No Time is complicated enough to keep you interested, but not so intricate as to leave you confused at the end.

AK: And what about humor? How integral is humor in dark fiction?

LB: I think humor is very important in dark fiction, but I just have to be careful to not go over the top. My Zack books are more deliberately funny, but what humor there is in No Time for Goodbye, and the book I have just finished, comes more naturally out of the characters and the situations.

AK: Tell me about world rights to No Time for Goodbye. Orion Publishing will bring it out in the UK later this year. But what about other countries?

LB: Ullstein in Germany released the book first, about two months ago. They’re calling it Ohne Ein Wort (Without a Word) and it’s been a huge bestseller there. For several weeks, it was the best-selling novel on the German Amazon [site], after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. More than 200,000 copies so far.

The book has also been sold in Italy, France, Holland, Russia, Spain, Poland, Israel, and Korea. And we just sold Slovak rights the other day. I may have forgotten one or two. As far as I know, it has not yet been released in any of these countries.

AK: Like me, you attended ThrillerFest in New York City this summer. What are your memories of that event?

LB: The best thing for me was meeting and renewing acquaintances with others in the thriller writing community. Folks like David Hewson, Alafair Burke (Dead Connection), Tess Gerritsen, Michael Robotham, Brett Battles, and many others.

AK: It was British expatriate and Toronto literary agent Helen Heller who tipped me off about No Time for Goodbye. How long has she represented your work?

LB: I first spoke to Helen in late 2002, I think it was. I sent her the first couple of chapters of Bad Move. She liked it, helped me pull that book together, then sold it to Bantam. The rest, as they say, is history.

AK: Finally, what about your own reading? Are you a crime and thriller type of guy?

LB: I am, but I read other things, too. Right now I’m reading Roddy Doyle’s latest [Paula Spencer], and looking forward to Philip Roth’s last Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost, which comes out in September. The next book I plan to read is James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown.

(Author photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star.)

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