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Interview: August 14, 2009

August 14, 2009

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read TOO CLOSE TO HOME yet, you may want to proceed with caution as some plot details are revealed in this interview.

Linwood Barclay is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including TOO CLOSE TO HOME and NO TIME FOR GOODBYE, a #1 bestseller in Britain. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Barclay explains what sets his latest effort, FEAR THE WORST, apart from his earlier works of fiction and shares the surprising discovery he made while researching the topic of human trafficking, which plays an important role in the book's plot. He also compares and contrasts being an author with his previous jobs as a newspaper columnist and editor, names the biggest influence on his career, and muses on what he might be doing if he weren't writing. FEAR THE WORST explores the world of human trafficking. What got you interested in this as a plotline?

Linwood Barclay: I needed something going on in the background that was nasty enough to give the story some resonance, and it’s pretty hard to find anything more despicable than human trafficking. What surprised me as I looked into this issue was that people who are born and raised here --- not only people from beyond our shores --- are open to exploitation.

BRC: I enjoyed the dialogue in the opening pages of FEAR THE WORST. Timothy Blake is a car salesman and single parent trying to raise Syd, his teenage daughter, while doing a delicate emotional balancing act with Susanne, his ex-wife. The reader meets Tim and Syd through a dialogue wherein Tim is doing the dance many parents do, attempting to walk the line between not butting into their child’s not-quite-adult line and yet still fulfilling their duties as a parent. Tim’s questions to Syd, and her answers, were pitch-perfect. How did you get this dialogue so dead-on right?

LB: Well, my children are now 25 and 22, but I haven’t forgotten the teenage years. You’re always walking on eggshells. Sometimes, when you know there’s something you need to put on the table and talk about, there’s a kind of delicate dance getting there.

BRC: By the time the prologue of FEAR THE WORST is concluded, Syd is missing and Tim has gone to her place of employment to look for her, only to be told that no one there has ever heard of her. Tim then reports her missing to the police, but the case, at least initially, is treated as that of simply another runaway. How do you think cases like this should be handled by law enforcement? Understanding that there are a number of complicated issues involved, should more be done to investigate such incidents? Or do you think that, for better or worse, law enforcement is doing all that it can?

LB: Law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the resources to launch an investigation every time some kid doesn’t come home when he’s supposed to, certainly when you are talking about kids who are 16 and 17 years old. Suppose the police had been called every time we failed to meet curfew? And when there’s no evidence of foul play, I think it’s a tough call for the police as to how much manpower to devote to a missing kid. In most cases, I think they’re doing the best they can.

BRC: On a related note, one of the most interesting segments of FEAR THE WORST concerns the Second Chance Shelter in Seattle where Syd was apparently staying. Is there such a place? Did you visit runaway shelters either in Seattle, Toronto, or elsewhere as part of your research?

LB: I made it all up.

BRC: There is a prickly, uneasy relationship between Tim and Bob, who is living with Tim’s ex-wife Susanne. At times they tiptoe around each other; at others they are at loggerheads. Ultimately, they find themselves teaming up to work toward a common, if dangerous, goal. These encounters were for me some of the best written parts of the book. Were these difficult scenes for you to write? And what point in your development of FEAR THE WORST did they begin to take shape for you?

LB: I knew from the beginning I was going to be working in these conflict-ridden relationships. Far from being difficult to write, these parts were among the most fun to write --- not because I take pleasure in family dysfunction --- but because there was so much going on. There are all these different dynamics going on, the sparks seemed to be flying off in all directions. What could be more fun to write about than that?

BRC: Kate Wood, who might best be described as Blake’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, was one of the more interesting characters in FEAR THE WORST. I've dated that woman myself, and more than once, unfortunately. Understanding that you’ve been out of the game for quite a while, is Kate based on someone you used to know?

LB: I am pleased to report that Kate is not someone I have gone out with, but she is something of a composite of people I have known and observed. I think we all know people who believe they are the center of the universe.

BRC: One of the issues that the book deals with is human trafficking. This is an issue not only in the United States but around the world. Based on what you've learned, if you had unlimited power for a month or two, how would you attempt to deal with the problem?

LB: Help raise the standard of living around the world so that people would find opportunities at home and wouldn’t be prey to those promising them a so-called better life elsewhere. Now, how one goes about that, I wish I knew.

BRC: I have noticed that your novels are getting progressively darker, and that while your work continues to contain some humorous elements, the overall tone, particularly in FEAR THE WORST, is grim. Has this been intentional or just something that has evolved?

LB: It’s evolved. With each book I’ve tried to raise the stakes a bit, and they’re very high in FEAR THE WORST. I was also looking for more of an emotional wallop, and I’m hoping I got it this time.

BRC: Those who have read FEAR THE WORST ahead of its publication seem to believe that it is your best novel to date. What, if anything, did you do differently while writing this book?

LB: I wrote the first draft of FEAR THE WORST in only seven weeks --- the fastest I’ve ever done a book. I think it’s because this story moved more quickly, and more urgently, than anything I have done before. I couldn’t seem to write it quickly enough.

BRC: Your career trajectory has moved from newspaper editor and columnist to novelist. What did, and do, you like best about each of these occupations? And what elements of each were less than ideal?

LB: I loved all my jobs for various reasons. As an editor, it was great fun to be part of a team that put together a big city daily. It’s so immediate. Being a columnist was a very privileged position --- my editors left me alone and I did what I wanted to do. And if it didn’t work, you had no one to blame but yourself. It’s a bit like a drug. You write something, and a few hours later, it’s in print. You get that hit right away. Writing books is tremendously satisfying work, but you hand in a manuscript and it can be 12 months before you hold that book in your hands. You think, if you write the book really fast, they’ll bring it out sooner, but it doesn’t work that way. But I’m now doing what I wanted to do when I was in my teens.

BRC: You only recently retired from the newspaper business to write novels on a full-time basis. What would you be doing if you weren’t writing for a living, either as an author of novels or for a newspaper?

LB: I can’t imagine. Sometimes I think I’d like to do what Jim Cutter, my hero in TOO CLOSE TO HOME, does. He cuts lawns. It’s one of those great jobs where you constantly see what you’re accomplishing. But seriously, I don’t know. I enjoyed being a newspaper editor, shaping material and getting it ready for presentation. Maybe I’d go back to that.

BRC: The best authors are usually also the most vociferous readers. What books have you read in the last six months in any genre that you would recommend to our readers?

LB: SHATTER by Michael Robotham, THE WAY HOME by George Pelecanos, several books by Richard Yates, whom I had never heard of before REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, BRIDGE OF SIGHS by Richard Russo, ROAD DOGS by Elmore Leonard, DRIVING LIKE CRAZY by P. J. O’Rourke.

BRC: How has your work schedule changed since you’ve begun to write novels on a full-time basis? Was it a major adjustment for you to suddenly have more time for your own writing? And are you spending more time on writing, more time on researching, or both?

LB: I thought, when I left my newspaper job, I’d have six months to a year off, but it’s not working out that way at all. First, I’m spending more time on the books themselves, particularly the time spent on revisions. As my readership grows, there’s a greater sense of ‘I really better get this right.’ And the time spent on promotion has grown exponentially. I’m doing three book tours this year --- one of which is taking me to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. But I’m also having the time of my life.

BRC: Which authors, of any genre, have most influenced your careers as a journalist and as an author?

LB: No writer has had a more profound effect on me that Ross Macdonald, who wrote the Lew Archer novels. I discovered his work in my teens, and was impressed with how someone could take the conventions of the mystery novel and use it to explore social issues, like teenage alienation and divorce and general family dysfunction. I was fortunate enough to get to know him --- his real name was Kenneth Millar --- and he was very supportive and encouraging.

BRC: What will we see next from you? Do you have any long-range projects planned, or do you take things book by book?

At the moment, it’s book by book. I’m signed up for a novel a year until at least 2013, and I just want to get better with each one.

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