Linwood Barclay: Best-selling thriller author

image-linwoodbarclay200Linwood Barclay is the hugely successful author of No Time for Goodbye, which was the bestselling novel in the UK for 2008.

He started his career in journalism in his hometown of Ontario, Canada and went on to become a regular humour columnist in the Toronto Star from 1993 to 2008. Between 1996 and 2000 he published four non-fiction books, including a memoir called Last Resort – a humorous account of growing up in cottage country (Canadian term for areas that are popular for holidays).

In 2004, he launched his humorous mystery series about Zack Walker with Bad Move. Three more Zack Walker thrillers followed – Bad Guys, Lone Wolf and Stone Rain.

No Time for Goodbye was published in 2007 to critical acclaim and he has since written two more standalone thrillers. Too Close to Home was released in 2008 and was also a number 1 seller in the UK (knocking John Grisham off the top spot).

His latest book, Fear the Worst, has just been released.

Click play to listen. Running time: 27.45

Fear the Worst


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

So thanks for joining us today Linwood.

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. This great.

Now tell me what is so appealing about writing thrillers for you?

Oh, well, it’s the kind of thing that I have always really wanted to write from the time that I was probably in my mid-teens or so. I think that I like the format because first of all I think that I would be the first to admit that I am not what you would call a literary author because I like a story that just moves.

I’ve always liked the format of a thriller or mystery because they have such a strong plot. To me it’s like having this sort of spine that runs through the story. Then as long as you have got that you can sort of branch out and do different things while you are going along that trip. But I like the fact that thrillers give you this strong plot on which to hang these characters and these situations and so forth. It’s a genre, a type of writing that really appeals to me.

So because it has to be so plot driven and all of that where do you get your ideas from? Where do you get your inspiration from?

I get them from things that are really quite ordinary. I’m not a writer who is interested in plots about international assignations or introducing some sort of bioterrorist threat into the environment. I just don’t care about those things. They bore me because I can’t identify with them. The stuff that happens in some far off, it just doesn’t hit me where I live.

They only happen to Jack Bauer.

Which I love. I love 24 but I never feel scared watching 24 because it is so out there I think, “Well this is not going to happen to me.”

When I’m doing a thriller I try to look for the sort of menace in the everyday, in the ordinary. What if it is the sort of things that happen every day go slightly off the rails what could happen from that? You say that you could be at the mall and you back up your car and you dent the fender of the wife of a mob guy or something, or the wrong mail gets delivered to the wrong house.

In Fear the Worst your kid doesn’t come home from work. I think about the things that make me anxious in the sort of everyday situations are those things that I look at and I think, “Well how do you ratchet that up?” How do you take a sort of everyday anxiety and push it to the limits?

Because there is so much that needs to go into a thriller apart from the characters, there is a lot of things to do with the plot. How do you actually plot that out in your head? Is there some kind of systematic way or do you just let it flow out of you as some writers do?

I have to have something of a plan. I usually I start with what I call a hook. I need an opening. I need some way that’s into a story that’s really interesting. So when I have my hook, my way in, then I start figuring out everything around it. How do we get to this point? Why did this happen and so forth.

And I will start making notes and filling up a notebook with notes. It’s very kind of random thoughts and a bit of this and a bit of that. I might get 20 pages of notes if that. Once I kind of know the sort of main arc of the story, if I know my end point I know who did what, I find it hard to plot anything else beyond that. Because I find that it’s during the writing of the piece that all these things occur to me.

You write a chapter and you put characters in a particular situation and you think, “Well, gee, what would be the logical thing that would happen out of that confrontation?” Once I’ve written it it becomes obvious to me what that would be so then I may go off on in another direction.

But I still keep coming back to that sort of spine of the story that I know that I need to follow. So it’s like I know where I am going to end up but often I end up surprising myself along the way. Things happen that I did not know were going to happen.

Now you started off as a journalist before moving on to becoming a humour columnist at the Toronto Star. And of course you write thrillers. They are all very, very different forms of writing. How did you transition from journalism to humour columns to thriller writing?

All of these things I had been doing at some point earlier on anyway. Even when I was in university I was interested in writing humour pieces. And when I was in my teens probably before I was even 22 years old I had written two or three mystery novels, which thankfully they were not published, not that there was even a remote chance that anyone would have published them.

But it’s a kind of writing that I had always liked but because no one was interested in sort of hiring a 22-year old as a best-selling novelist I thought perhaps well I should consider going into newspapers because you would get paid money to write every single day. It might not be necessarily things that you were interested in writing about. For a while at this first paper that I was at one of my responsibilities was the agricultural beat. That was not an area with which I had a lot of familiarity in.

But you were writing every day and so you were kind of keeping the machinery oiled. So you are always writing. Then when I got to the Toronto Star in 1981 I was hired as an editor and my first 12 years there I was in all sorts of editing jobs. I was an assistant city editor. I was a news editor. I was the living section editor. I was the chief copy editor. I was in all these different editing jobs. I did all those.

I knew inside out how the paper worked and how it ran it and how stories got from assignment into the paper and all that sort of thing. When an opportunity came up to write a column in 1993 I had actually written a column for a couple of years at a very small paper back in the late 1979 – 1981. I had won an award for that and it was the kind of writing that I really liked. So when this opportunity came up I jumped at it.

I wrote that column for 15 years, three columns a week. But I still had always wanted to do crime fiction and so I wrote four books in Canada that were sort of humour related. Then starting around 2003 I wanted to do crime fiction and  I wrote four sort of comic thrillers which haven’t come out here yet, they have only been out in North America, and started doing that.

Even though I was writing a novel a year I was still doing about 130 columns a year. Some people think that it would be a tricky transition but it’s not. You work on the book and then you have got a column to do. Then you just turn and you bang out a column. I was able just like turning a switch. I could go from doing one thing into doing the other thing.

I really didn’t have the luxury of not being able to do that because you didn’t have time. Because when you have three columns you have to deliver every week you can’t sort of think, “Wow I sort of can’t do today’s column because I’m burned out from writing my book.”

Well, they would say, “That’s great because then we don’t have to pay you.”

Having a column certainly instils a lot of discipline because you have no choice.

That’s right.

When you are writing your books is there some kind of writing routine? Do you get into the zone in some way? Do you have a bit of a ritual? What happens?

When I am doing a book that usually takes me anywhere from two to three months to write a first draft of the novel. I try to find a period of time where we are not travelling or anything because I like to do it all kind of at once. I start work around 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning and of course Jon Stewart, do you guys watch Jon Stewart? The Comedy Channel at home repeats his show from the night before at 9:00 am and so I often find that I drift towards the television and I watch Jon Stewart until 9:30 and then I really get to work.

I’ll just work until about 4:00 or 4:30 or 5:00 most days while I am actually doing a book and take some time for lunch. I just kind of work through and sometime around 2:00 when I think  that I need to move I’ll get up and go play nine holes of Nintendo Wii Golf and then having done that I’ll go back to work. So that kind of keeps me moving.

Like I said when I am in the thick of writing a book I just want to get it done. I don’t want to have this sort of situation where I have a week or two week break in terms of writing on it because I’ll start writing about some character named George and when I get back to work I’m calling him Greg or something. And I think, “This is not good.”

So that’s the way that I kind of like to do it and I generally, perhaps this is all the newspaper training, I usually tend to deliver manuscripts to my publisher months in advance, like literally months early.

Are they shocked?

Well, they are getting used to it. And sometimes they will think maybe we can publish it sooner. But they usually don’t. I think that when you write columns one of the joys of newspaper writing is that you write this thing and within hours you see it in print. So you get this kind of quick hit. It’s like a drug. You write it and there it is. You can bask in the glory or shame whichever it is.

But when you write books you finish them and it’s a year later before it comes out. By the time that it comes out people will say, “Why did you have character such and such do this?”

And you are thinking, “Who are they talking about?” Because you have already probably written three-quarters of another book by then and so maybe I write them really quickly because I am convinced or deluded into thinking that if I write them quickly my publisher will publish it the next day or something. But sadly it doesn’t work that way.

It sounds like you have no trouble letting the words flow and obviously you have got that discipline, the newspaper background that helps you do that. Do you ever suffer from writer’s block or get stuck in any way then?

Yes and no. Sometimes you get stuck on a plot point and I sort of reach a point and I think, “Okay I really have to regroup here. I have to sort of figure out where I’m going.” but I don’t even think that’s writer’s block so much as that’s just part of the writing. So then you go for a walk or you cut the lawn or you go do something to still think about it but you just walk away for a while.

Or another nine holes of Nintendo Wii Golf?

Yeah, absolutely or tennis. Nintendo Tennis is also really good. So I will go do that. But to me that is also part of it. I love it when people ask about writer’s block because nobody ever asks plumbers if they get plumber’s block. It’s like your plumber says to you, “Well I was getting ready to put this ballcock in the toilet and you know I just couldn’t do it. You know I just couldn’t do it.”

Nobody asks them that because it’s their job. And for me writing is a job and it’s a wonderful job and I love the job but it’s a job. So you get up and you do the work and you carry on.

I don’t overly romanticize the writing as if it’s this brilliant flash of genius strikes and then you write. Then suddenly you can’t do it and so then you drink a bottle of wine and go sleep with some woman that you don’t know. Then you come back to it. It’s a job and so I don’t get what you would call writer’s block anymore than you get blocked in doing interviewing or other people get blocked in doing what they do because its work.

With thrillers particularly it’s so important to be credible and believable. When you are writing your thrillers do you need to do a lot of research into the area that you are writing about and how do you go about that?

I don’t do an awful lot of research because I’m generally writing about an environment or world that I know about, that I’ve lived in. because I’m not writing about Soviet spies or CSI criminal forensic investigators.  My books are typically about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them.

In that sense it’s mostly the research comes out of my imagination. But there are moments. In Fear the Worst for whatever it is, whether it’s a great thriller or terrible thriller or whatever it is, I believe it is the first thriller in which the hero is a car salesman. Car salesmen are not generally thought of as heroic figures. You know what I mean?

But I have two very good friends who are both retired car salesmen and I took them to lunch and I said, “Tell me everything. Tell me stories”

And one of them, which is a story which got into the book, one day a guy came and wanted to take a test drive of a pickup truck. They said okay and when he brought it back it was all clear that he had used it to deliver manure. And he’s like, “Who would do that? It’s like you take a test drive of a car to move your friends or something.”

But what was shocking was not the tactics that car salesmen use, what was shocking was things that customers had done. I heard all these stories and I just loved it. So a lot of those stories got woven into Fear the Worst. Perhaps it’s not the most glamorous occupation to have researched but I think that it works for me because it’s an ordinary job.

I wrote a book most recently that came out called Too Close to Home and my hero in that was a guy who cut lawns. He ran a lawn service.

Too Close to Home became a #1 bestseller in the UK knocking John Grisham off the top spot.

Yeah, go figure eh?

Yeah, no mean feat. So how did that feel? Did you ever think that your books were always going to be this successful?

No. I am the kind of person, as my wife will tell you, who always thinks there is still time for things to fail. There is still time for everything to go wrong. Even if they are going well it’s like okay they are going well now but it’s just a matter of time before things turn around and go badly. I had always of course would have loved to have achieved great success but I had not really believed it could happen.

So when No Time for Goodbye became a huge hit in the UK, of course with the help of Richard and Judy, I was thrilled but I was also very nervous about Too Close to Home. I thought okay, that’s not a book club pick. Will readers be loyal to the authors or will they be loyal to the selections of the book clubs. So will they follow an author to his next book.

So when Too Close to Home went to #1 on the hardcover fiction list I was thrilled. I was really thrilled. And that comes out in paperback in the UK in another week and a half or two weeks. I am very anxious to see how that will go.

Well the success of your books now means that you can write full-time. But if it only takes you two or three months to write what are you doing the rest of the time?

Well I will tell you what I thought that I would be doing. I thought that I would be sitting poolside or sitting on the deck with my feet up lounging around. First of all, a rough draft does take me two months but then I usually have to do a rewrite at my editor’s help and then there is proofing.

My anticipation was that writing a book a year would occupy six months. I thought that I would have six months off to do nothing. Then they said, “We would like you to tour Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.”

Then my US publisher said, “we want you to do a seven-city US tour.”

Then my Canadian publisher said, “We want you to do a Canadian tour.”

And then they said, “We want you to go to the big annual mystery writer’s conference in the US, Bouchercon.” And then I realized that this is all great but I thought that I would have a lot of free time. It has not worked out that way and believe me I’m not complaining. But it’s funny.

I have a very good friend named David Hewson who writes thrillers in England. He also had been a columnist for the London Times. He said that when he quit that job he expected to have all of this free time and he found that the business of books expanded to fill all of that other time. That’s what has happened to me.

But I think what that also means is evidence that the books have appealed to a lot of people and that’s what has kind of made this happen, this extra sort of touring about. So I’m not complaining.

I’m hoping to have a solid month where I can do nothing but Nintendo Golf. I’ll just do nothing else and by the time that it’s over my arm will be in traction or something. I’ll have a repetitive strain injury.

Are you going to concentrate on thrillers now or are you interested in exploring other genres apart from humour or thrillers?

No I’m very comfortable. I think that I have found my niche and I think that this thriller thing works very well for me. I still think that the thrillers that I am doing now which are darker than the first four mysteries that I wrote, they still have a bit of I think funny moments in them that kind of grow naturally out of the characters and what’s happening.

But every once in a while I have to rein myself in. I will write a scene that is really almost farcical and my agent or my editor will say, “What are you doing? You are not writing one of your earlier books. You are not doing one of your silly columns for the Toronto Star.”

And I will realize it’s like I have fallen off the wagon kind of thing. And I have to go back and think, “No it’s not that kind of a book.” but I like and feel very comfortable in this genre and I want to get better at it.

So out of No Time for Goodbye and Too Close to Home and now Fear the Worst is there a favourite out of these babies?

Fear the Worst is my favourite. When I did No Time for Goodbye I would have said that was my favourite and I didn’t expect to do one that I would like more. But Fear the Worst I am really happy with this one. I sometimes know that authors are their own worst judges of their stuff so if I think its great it might not be.

But it’s the book that I am the happiest with. To me it’s the one that holds together the best. It also has, for me, the most satisfying sort of last page of any book that I have done. I feel very good about how it ends. It’s a bit of a downer ending I think to some readers but I think it’s the right ending and I am really happy with how it came together.

Now that you have several books under your belt does the process get easier as you do more?

I do find that I am learning all of the time. I’m still learning. I think that the process, I don’t know if it’s easier. I think that the tricky part is coming up with another idea that is as good as the ones that you have already done and to not look as though you’re coasting. I’m far too new at this to start coasting. That’s to me, is the challenge is to find another story that is as good as the ones that you have already done.

But I do find that I am learning. I’m learning more and more what works and what doesn’t and what I shouldn’t do. I’m also learning to sort of listen to the voice inside my head.

Last year I wrote two books. One of which will never see the light of day. It was the seventh novel that I had written. All the ones before had gone very well. while I wrote this book and while I was doing I thought, “Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like the others. It’s not clicking. But this is the book that I said that I would write and I’m going to write this damn book.”

I wrote it and my agent read it and she said, “What a mess this is.”

Knowing how quickly I work she said, “You could write another novel from scratch in less time than it would take to fix what’s wrong with this book.”

If I had listened to that little voice in my head I would have stopped writing that book. Now I know. I don’t even feel badly about the time that I spent on that book because I learned a lot from doing it. I learned what doesn’t work and I learned when you run into certain problems then you should either stop and rethink it or walk away from it.

But I felt that there was some sort of pride or something I thought, “Well I’ve started this book and I will finish it.” But it was a mistake to. That book was really a learning experience for me.

Relegated to the bottom drawer?

Oh, yeah. I wrote that book and then of course I was in a panic because I thought I have another book that I have to produce. I had intended to start writing Fear the Worst about seven or eight months from that point but I took a week off and felt sorry for myself and I started writing Fear the Worst.

I was so worried about the time that I had lost that I wrote the first draft of Fear the Worst in seven weeks. It took a little more polishing to get it into shape where it should be but that first draft just came out in a kind of white heat because I was so concerned about the time that I had lost.

I’m sure that many writers would love to be able to be as quick and prolific. On a final note what would your advice be for would be thriller writers out there who are listening to this?

I think that it would be to just persevere, to keep going. I wanted to be a thriller writer when I was in my twenties. It didn’t happen. This may be incredibly discouraging news for aspiring thriller writers but the thing was it was a dream that I never let go of. I kept at it. It happened a lot later than I might have hoped but it did happen. So I think that take the rejections. Don’t worry about them. It doesn’t matter how many rejections you might get you just have to persevere and keep going.

I guess the other advice would be to read as much as you can because I find that I learn as much from reading a wide variety of authors and not just genre authors, not just thriller writers. I’m reading on my sixth Richard Yates book right now having read Revolutionary Road and loving it. I still haven’t seen the movie. Now I am reading all of his stuff and he’s not a thriller writer at all. But you can learn a lot about character and other things that you can use in your own writing.

Persevere and keep reading.

Wonderful and on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Linwood.

It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.