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Interview: November 1, 2017

Linwood Barclay is the internationally bestselling author of 16 novels, which include his recent Promise Falls trilogy and a four-book mystery series featuring paranoid science fiction writer Zack Walker. His latest work, PARTING SHOT, is a stand-alone thriller set in Promise Falls in which private investigator Cal Weaver finds himself caught up in a cold-blooded revenge plot. In this interview conducted by Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, Barclay talks about his inspiration for one of the storylines in his new book, explains the impact that new technology has had on his storytelling, discusses his love of cars and how that factors into the plot of PARTING SHOT, and teases his next novel, A NOISE DOWNSTAIRS, which he proclaims to be one of the best books he has ever written. You were a columnist for many years, so news and newsprint ran through your blood as an insider. In PARTING SHOT, you reference a number of incidents in Promise Falls that echo news stories from the last few years. Were you, for example, seeing in your Big Baby plotline a way to look at these incidents under the guise of a novel?

Linwood Barclay: I don’t draw from real events for every book --- not even every other book --- but sometimes I do find inspiration in something I’ve seen on TV or read about in the paper. But that “affluenza” story from a couple of years back, in which a young man’s defense against a fatal drunk driving charge was that his family’s affluence shielded him from understanding right from wrong, had potential as one of the stories for PARTING SHOT. But what if the circumstances were not exactly as they appeared? The trick with a book is not to retell the actual event with different names, but to try to find a way to use that idea and give it a twist, make it something new.

BRC: Technology, including the pervasiveness of social media in people’s lives today, crops up a lot in PARTING SHOT. People are so trackable, and the things one needs to look at in a story change as a result. How has the advent of new technology impacted your storytelling?

LB: New technology has definitely impacted my storytelling. Poor old Philip Marlowe would have to spend half a day trying to find out something we can learn today in two minutes with a few keystrokes. But those shortcuts mean you have to fill your story with something other than basic detective legwork, so there are still challenges. Maybe that’s an opportunity to spend more time on character. But new technology also impacts what the stories are about. In PARTING SHOT, a social media campaign is designed to exact revenge on someone the justice system failed to punish. That’s just not a story you could have told even 10 years ago.

BRC: You have a number of well-drawn characters in this story. As you are writing them, do you draw up their characteristics in advance, or do they flow as you write?

LB: My characters tend to grow as I write them. I make plenty of notes about plot before I begin, but I have an innate sense about the characters. But I will say that I’m revisiting this process to some degree. I’ve been dabbling in some TV writing this past year (fingers crossed these projects actually make it to the screen), and a very talented director suggested I put together detailed histories of all my characters, including stuff that was unlikely to make it to the screen, because when you know everything there is to know about your characters, certain details bubble to the surface when you least expect it.

BRC: At the same time, this is a multi-layered plot. How much do you work out in advance, or do you write free form?

LB: I need to know the big picture before I begin. I need to know who did what and where I'm going to end up. But I don’t work out the entire route before I start writing. I don’t see the opportunities that exist in a story until I get well into it. A lot of the twists I seem to be known for occur to me during the writing; I haven’t worked them out in advance. There’s a huge plot development in PARTING SHOT that’s really the heart of the story that didn’t occur to me until I was 50 or 60 pages in.

BRC: Just Deserts is a website where people extract retribution against the accused. We live in a time when no one can hide and actions can quickly cause reactions, even when people do not know all the facts. You say, “It was like a cancer, all this social-media shaming.” Talk to us about this line, as in our world everyone now is a reporter.

LB: Oh, what a mess we are in. It’s not just the social media shaming, but the posting of material that is blatantly false, but presented as though it were true. Our most credible news sources, like CNN and The New York Times, are being denigrated while unsubstantiated rumors gain currency. And there’s very little nuance on social media. People are good or they are bad. There’s no middle ground. A comedian can make one tasteless joke, and within hours she’s being condemned on a global stage. (Comedians, by the way, are really high-wire performers. Sometimes they fall. Their job is to push the envelope. Cut them some slack.)

BRC: You love pop culture, and the book is sprinkled with references to it, like “Game of Thrones” and authors like Stephen King. Do these come up organically, or do you know what you want to layer in as you start writing?

LB: They come up organically, in the same way that they would if you were having a conversation with a friend. Someone emailed recently to ask if I was getting paid for these product placements. I wish.

BRC: I have joked that in future years the business to be in will be tattoo removal. One of your characters is branded with a tattoo, against his will. If you ever got a tattoo, what would it read?

LB: How do you know I don’t have one? Okay, I don’t, and have no plans to get one. But if I did, I think I’d get the U.N.C.L.E. logo from the ’60s TV show on my upper arm.

BRC: I know you love cars, and many pretty sweet rides show up in this book, including a Porsche that is pivotal to the story, but there also is a Honda that holds a clue. If money was no object, what would you drive?

LB: I do indeed love cars. My father worked in advertising, and back in the 1950s and early 1960s, if you were leafing through Life or Look or Saturday Evening Post and came upon an illustrated car ad, there’s a good chance my dad drew that car, especially if it was a Ford. (By the mid-’60s, photography had killed automotive illustration.) So I was surrounded by car imagery as a kid. I don’t actually long for one of those so-called supercars, like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. I have a four-year-old Porsche Cayman and couldn’t be happier, although if I knew anything about how to service an old car, I’d love a 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix, or an American Motors AMX of the same vintage.

BRC: Other books of yours have been set in Promise Falls, including a trilogy that ended last year. Is this your parting shot at Promise Falls?

LB: I’m pretty sure this is my last novel set in Promise Falls. I never say never, but I think I’m ready to move on. I’ve spent a lot of time here. In addition to the trilogy and PARTING SHOT, Promise Falls is the setting for TOO CLOSE TO HOME, NEVER LOOK AWAY and TRUST YOUR EYES. I even set my novella FINAL ASSIGNMENT there. It’s time to pack and move on.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

LB: My 2018 novel, A NOISE DOWNSTAIRS, is all finished and should be released in July. It’s a complete stand-alone, without any ties to previous books, and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever done. You think the other books scared you, or had a lot of twists? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. And I’ve started writing the book that will come out in 2019, but not a word about that. Not yet.