By A.J. Colucci
It’s Day Two of ThrillerFest and the Grand Hyatt in New York City is swarming with thriller fans, aspiring writers, and superstar authors. They’re scattered around the majestic lobby, which is buzzing with talk of the latest breakout novels. I’m sitting atop The Lounge Café with one of my favorite writers, Linwood Barclay, trying to sound casual as if I have lunch with famous authors every day. We both order a cup of chicken soup and half sandwich and I’m taken by his quiet, genial demeanor. Who would guess that behind those affable blue eyes lurks a mind capable of taking you into dark, deadly, believable situations that can turn your blood ice cold and strip your emotions raw?
NO SAFE HOUSE is Barclay’s latest book in a succession of contemporary thrillers that will leave your thumb calloused from flipping pages. It is a sequel to the breakout novel he wrote in 2007, NO TIME FOR GOODBYE, a monstrous bestseller in the UK that also sold a million books in the U.S. Since then, he’s had a string of hits that have made him an Arthur Ellis Award winner and finalist for a Shamus, Barry, and Thriller Award. His tenth novel, TRUST YOUR EYES, has been optioned by Warner Brothers following a bidding war that landed Barclay on the cover of Variety magazine. It’s a book Stephen King called, “a tale Hitchcock would have loved.”
All that success doesn’t seem to faze Barclay. He’s just a regular guy having lunch, which gave me a chance to ask him about his new book, his writing career, and life as a Canadian author. But considering the venue, I start by asking him how he got involved in ThrillerFest.
“I thought it would be good to meet people,” Barclay said, noting that he’s attended ThrillerFest every year but one since 2007. “I had four books out, but they weren’t hugely successful. Back then I felt kind of lost, sort of like a nobody—which I still do at times—but it was really cool to be here.” He became more involved at every conference and eventually did a panel at CraftFest. “That’s when I really felt more comfortable, more part of it.”
This year Barclay took part in ITW’s latest anthology, FACEOFF. The book features bestselling authors and their iconic protagonists “facing off” in original short stories. Barclay’s character Glen Garber was paired with Raymond Khoury’s Sean Reilly. “FACEOFF was genius,” Barclay said. “I was honored when Steve Berry asked me to be part of it. Honestly I thought, with all those big names, why me? The whole concept was very clever and it got a lot of attention. I don’t know what they have planned for next year but FACEOFF is going to be hard to top.” There’s just one flaw to ThrillerFest, Barclay said, pointing to the window overlooking 42nd Street. “It’s always on the hottest week of July. Would it kill them to have it on a cool month like April? This isn’t the beach,” he smiles.
Barclay talked about NO SAFE HOUSE, which brought back the Archer family from his previous novel. Cynthia Archer and her husband Terry are still struggling with a trauma that once shattered their world, while their rebellious daughter Grace is pushing them to their limits. When Grace follows her delinquent boyfriend into a strange house, the Archers are drawn into the shadowy depths of their small town, as they reconnect with a man who saved their lives seven years ago, but remains a ruthless criminal.
I asked Barclay why he chose to go back to the story after all these years. “It was my U.S. publisher, Penguin, that really wanted me to do a sequel, and seven years seemed like the right amount of time. The daughter in the book, Grace, is the same age as her mother Cynthia when the first event happened, and that had some symmetry to it.” That event in the first book was young Cynthia Archer waking up to find her entire family gone, and the startling answers she found to the puzzle twenty-five years later. In NO SAFE HOUSE, Cynthia is a grown woman and an overprotective mother who still seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Barclay enjoyed going back to the original characters and imagining how they developed. “When something traumatic happens in the context of a thriller, even when you find out all the answers, you have to wonder—what’s it like for those people afterwards? How does their life change? What does it do to them personally? I knew how it would affect Cynthia and her relationship with her daughter. That’s the stuff I wanted to get into, how she would be so obsessively overprotective. It’s the law of unintended consequences—the more you try to achieve one thing, the more you achieve the opposite. The more Cynthia tries to rein Grace in, the more she fights back. We’ve all been there.”
And Barclay certainly has been there. The terror his novels evoke come from years of working in the most frightening job a person can have. No, not a Navy seal, police detective. or fighter pilot—but a parent. He’s a regular dad writing about scary things that happen to normal families. A toddler goes missing from a carnival. A teenage daughter doesn’t come home from a date. You wake up one morning and your entire family is gone.
So how much of his stories reflect his own worst nightmares? “A lot,” he said. “My kids are now twenty-seven and thirty, so they’re way past the teen years, but you never stop worrying. All those anxieties you have when they’re young, it never ends. You still worry about them.”
Even famed author Stephen King called Barclay a “suspense master” and said of his book, “I could believe this might happen to people living two streets over from me.” It turns out King is a fan. Barclay recalls meeting the iconic writer at the Ontario International Festival of Authors. “He turned around and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s you’ and gave me a big hug.’” Barclay said that getting hugged by Stephen King was one of the best things that ever happened to him. “I was insufferable for a long time.”
So where do his everyday characters come from? “The teacher, the car salesman, these are people I know. In some ways, the stories are a kind of outgrowth of the columns I wrote for The Toronto Star.” Barclay began his writing career as a journalist, working many years at The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, where eventually he became a humor columnist. Thousands of columns later, he retired to write novels full time. “About a third of my columns were about domestic life, just funny things that happen in families. So I went to that same well; let’s look at what happens when things go wrong in families, but from the dark side instead of funny.”
Barclay keeps a very full writing schedule, starting at around 8:30 a.m. and going until 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, with a daily goal of two thousand words. But writing is only about thirty percent of his time. The rest is spent on emails, going to events and festivals, meetings, and he likes to tweet. He’ll be gone half of August on a U.S. Tour.
Despite all that writing, Barclay makes sure to keep it separate from his personal life. “I was on a panel once and someone asked ‘how do you write a grizzly scene and then go down and have lunch?’ Well, the answer to that is—you write the grizzly scene and then go down and have lunch.” For relaxation, he has an unusual hobby. I’d call it train collecting, but that would be an understatement. The pictures on his phone show a fifteen square foot room in his basement filled with an entire town, or more like a city, done in great detail: Kids lined up at an ice cream truck and picnickers sitting around a park bench, and in the foreground are houses, skyscrapers, bridges, shops and streets filled with cars and busses. “Sometimes if I’m stuck, I just go down to the room and work on it. It’s very Zen-like. A friend of mine, a retired car salesman who is seventy-three, comes down one night a week and we build trees or hills. You know, you spend all day creating a world in your head and then you go downstairs in the evening and build one with your hands. It sort of empties your mind.” He admits that the hobby attracts some unique people. “My son and I will go to the shows. And all these people are kind of odd and then we think, well how do we look? Maybe we’re no different. We’re just not self-aware.”
His son Spenser does his book trailers through his company, Loading Doc Productions. Barclay said he enjoys working with his son, and they rarely have creative differences. “We have a lot of fun with it. Spenser is more ambitious than me, pushing the envelope.” Sometimes they shoot scenes in his basement, where Barclay recalls they recently set up a fog machine and unwittingly set off the smoke alarms. “The security people called us and we told them everything was fine, the windows are open, but we can’t get the detectors to go off. So then we phoned the fire department and said, we don’t know what to do, and they said we’re not busy, we’ll come by. So then a big fire truck came down the street and they came in, and I had taken a big plastic salad bowl and taped it to the ceiling to muffle the sound, which it did slightly, and the fireman came into the house and looked up and said oh, we’ve got to take a picture of that.”
Barclay has a charming smile and a slight Canadian accent. I asked him about some of the differences between the two countries he has called home. “At a glance, not a lot. We’ve got McDonalds and some of the same stores, lots of the same shows and movies. But on another level, we’re very different. Canada on the whole is a country that has moved past a lot of the social issues. Same sex marriage has been legal in Canada for years and the country hasn’t fallen apart, and nobody cares. Nobody cares about it at all. We’re not a country that’s consumed with social issues like abortion and we don’t have an issue about guns in our country. We have a much lower murder rate. We have a conservative government, but our conservatives aren’t nearly as right-wing as the Republicans in the U.S. or the Tea Party. A handful of them are, but in general it’s not anywhere close. So when we look south of the border we think, why are you so worried about this? Why are you still arguing about this, because we don’t care about these things anymore.”
At the same time, he admits life in Canada isn’t perfect. “We’ve got our own set of problems. The native population has gotten a raw deal and Canada hasn’t come to grips with how to help them as a people. But we have a kind of different sensibility. We say ‘sorry’ a lot.” To this, Barclay told me a joke: “How do you get twenty Canadians out of your pool?” I didn’t know. “You say, please get out of my pool.” I laughed, partly because it’s funny, but also it partly explains his politeness.
“But we do have our shames,” he quickly added. “Justin Bieber is ours and we feel terrible about that. And of course we have our crack smoking mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. And we’re sorry about that too. But we also have the Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro and we hope that somehow tips the scale in our favor.” Barclay pulls another card from the Canadian deck. “Poutine. French fries with cheese curds on top, with hot gravy poured over that melts the cheese into the fries. It’s a delicacy in Canada. There are poutinerie shops in Toronto, where you can go and enjoy a truly Canadian dish. Even McDonalds in Canada now offers Poutine.” I almost didn’t believe him.
“And then there’s hockey,” he said. I gave him that one.
When we talk about the future, Barclay tells me he’s writing a trilogy. “The first book will come out a year from now. Normally, I write a book a year but because they’re linked, I’m worried that I’ll get to book three and realize I want to put that piece in book one so I’m trying to write them together. So, I’ve written almost two novels since January, which is why I’m wearing this.” He held up a bandage on his wrist, which I hadn’t noticed. “I’ve got a tendonitis thing happening so I decided not to write last week and I won’t be writing this week.”
Before lunch was over, I asked him about the movie option for his novel TRUST YOUR EYES, which happens to be on my top ten thriller list. “When the book came out we had a bidding war between Universal and Warner Brothers,” he said, noting that Warner Brothers bought it and just renewed the option. “They’re on the third draft and if they green light it they’ll put it out there for a director. Then we’ll see if there’s a movie. It’s exciting.”
Yes it is. And I will definitely be first in line.