A Tap On The Window; The Master of Suspense, Linwood Barclay

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By Niamh O'Connor

Linwood Barclay is tired. The Canadian thriller writer has crossed the globe to promote his new book A Tap On The Window in the UK, and is now in Dublin – all in just a few short days. I’m a massive fan of the master of suspense, and king of the reveal, but I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea of authors going on world tours, even though it means I get to meet him on his latest whistle stop.

It’s just that writing is solitary, and stationary, and anti-social. It’s the only line of work I can think of with Occupational Compulsive Disorder in the job description. Mick Jagger may be 70, but Jumping Jack Flash is in his DNA and that’s rock and roll and it’s different.

A writer stares at a screen on a desk for hours on end with their fingers pitter pattering on a keyboard for entertainment. Exercise involves stretching an arm out for the lucky mug they’ve used for decades. The thrill is in the pages, it’s not in their wiring to come over all John Gielgud when a performance is required. Nothing ever gets smashed up when a writer goes on the road, nobody’s slipped in the stage door, and the autographs will neither wear nor wash off the title page.

OK hands up, I said I was a fan, but actually I’m more of a Linwood groupee, and in the spirit of honesty and getting everything out there, stalking and harassment is probably closer to the truth. I’ve Google mapped the Toronto Star where he worked as a journalist for 30 years so I could picture him in the newsroom where he worked (it faces a harbour is surrounded by high rise buildings, the roads all around are wide and criss crossed with tram lines). I’ve also emailed him for advice over the years on how he plots and hyperventilated when he emailed back. And I find, always find, ways around territory restrictions to buy his books before they’re released here.

Linwood Barclay_0So maybe it’s more that I’m nervous about an idol falling off a perch than the idea of an author on the road per say. But no, because straight away as soon as we meet I’m trying to put him back where he belongs, inviting the Canadian to take a seat in front of the roaring log fire, even though it’s a good twenty degrees outside. I’m also organising him some lunch which will most definitely restrict his ability to talk, because the 58-year-old has just come from a radio station interview and nobody has factored the word lunch into his schedule. If I was his agent, this would be my Mariah/J-Lo moment. Doesn’t anyone realise what this guy comes up with when he’s given a little bit of solitude, and that special mug?

To give a quick summary: What if a teenager wakes up one morning with a bad hangover only to find the rest of her family has disappeared and not because they’re ticked off with her? (No Time For Goodbye)

Or what if a teenager hides in his neighbour’s house because they’re going on holiday and he wants to sneak his girlfriend in later and as a result witnesses his neighbours being murdered, but can’t tell anyone because he’s too ashamed of his original sin. (Too Close To Home)

How about a mobbed fairground a stressed couple get separated from the buggy, but while searching for the child the mother vanishes. (Never Look Away)

Then there’s a schizophrenic obsessed with Google maps who spots someone being murdered in the window of an apartment and begins a lone investigation? (Trust Your Eyes)

Linwood came up with the idea of a rip-off merchant, preying upon the families of missing people thanks to newspaper reports, calling to a man whose wife has disappeared unaware he’s the murderer. (Clouded Vision)

While in his latest, A Tap On The Window, middle aged Cal Weaver picks up a teenage hitchhiker against his better judgement – only he’s the one in trouble as a result.

I want to know where these ideas come from.

“If I knew where to go I could go there all the time,” he explains. “A lot of times when I get started on my book, I’m trying to think of a really great hook to get people in, and when I have one that’s kind of solid then I am good to go. And I’d been thinking about the notion of the hitch hiker. Lots of stories had used the premise and I thought what if there’s a way of doing something that’s not been done before, a little twist on it. When I was doing a book a few years ago, Never Look Away which opens in an amusement park, you think it’s another one of these stories about a child who’s abducted. The kid goes missing at the amusement park, well by page seven we’ve found him and I was like, well what can I do with this. I want people to think it’s one of those kind of stories. But no it’s not, it’s another kind of story.”

It’s Linwood’s 13th novel. His first four were a humorous mystery series about anally retentive Zack Walker, a science fiction author. The series had modest sales and his agent suggested he write standalone thrillers.

His first, No Time for Goodbye made Richard and Judy’s summer reading list, and became the breakout novel of 2008, selling over a million copies.

That switch he’d made to ordinary people – not police officers or government agents or science fiction authors – caught up in desperate situations was about to become his trademark.

Stephen King said about Fear The Worst that any author who could make a car salesman the hero of a suspense novel got his vote.

In writing about middle-class anxieties, Linwood had tapped a nerve and the father of two says the reason is because it’s not global warming or North Korea that’s keeping people awake at night.

“My kids aren’t teenagers anymore, but I still remember the horror. What keeps people up at night is – why isn’t your kid home? Your son is out with the car, he’s supposed to be back at midnight, and it’s 4 a.m. Those kinds of things.”

His latest book is the hardest he’s done in terms of rewriting, he says, admitting he threw out half of it after the first draft because there was a whole different story going on that didn’t work. I want to know how meticulously he plots at the outset.

“The plot is where most of the work is for me, coming up with a plot. I really work and as I go through the book finding out the opportunities for twists and I can’t work them all out before I start writing. So when I start I know who did what and have an idea for end point, and all the stuff in the middle I kind of know, but I don’t really have a check list. Other aspects like characterisation come naturally once I get into the book. Dialogue for me is the easiest thing in the book, I can just hear them talking; I wish it could all be dialogue, I wish there didn’t have to be any description just great dialogue. So those parts I don’t have to think about, but the plot you really have to give deep thought to so it works, and also you don’t want to be jamming the proverbial round peg into a square hole, you want it to be like a jigsaw, you don’t want to start jamming it in. You don’t want that. Sometimes you have to go back and revisit and massage to make it work, because you finish and you get why, but it doesn’t make sense.”

His books also manage to be bang on the zeitgeist. There was a particularly dodgy mayor in Too Close To Home. Since then Toronto’s binge drinking crack smoking mayor, Rob Ford has made international headlines.

His latest, A Tap On the Window is all about corruption in the cops. Hmmm.

I want to know what he wanted to do first – report fact, or write fiction?

“When I was in my teens and early twenties I decided, I’m going to be a novelist, I’ll write crime fiction. I had written a couple of novels by the time I was 21. And I thought that’s what I’ll do, I’ll be a novelist. The only problem was the novels were terrible. They weren’t worthy of being published, so that was a bit of a rude awakening that I wasn’t the genius that I thought I was. And so I thought, where can I get paid money to write everyday? So I applied for a job in a small daily in Peterborough, Ontario and I had no journalism experience, degree but that was OK with them because they weren’t planning to pay me much anyway. So I spent a couple of years with them and then another, and then I went to the Toronto Star. By the time I got hired there they needed editors so I was in different positions there, management, city editor and all that kind of stuff and I did that for 12 years before I started writing a humour column. And I’d been doing it about eight years when I thought I’d like to take another shot at what I always wanted to do which was to write crime novels and so I got back to do. So I wrote a novel and I found an agency that wanted it and sold it. Now it wasn’t big, a comic thriller and I did four of them before I did No Time For Goodbye so I still had to earn my chops doing the novels.”

A job, two kids, and books, where did he find the time to fit it all in?

“My time was my own because I was doing the column,” he says. “The paper expected me to do three columns a week and they had to be on time and they had to be decent and so one day you might do two and spend the next two days working on the novel. I would use vacation time on my books. So I would manage my time. I would have days where I would have three great ideas for a column and I would do all three of them in one day and spend the next three four days working on my book.”

Journalism also equipped him with the skills he needed to become a novelist, he says.

“Writing for me, I guess this comes from newspapers, has always been a job. I’ve always been very disciplined. You can’t say to you editor in the newspaper, ‘The muse hasn’t struck me today, I don’t think I’ll do that column, maybe I’ll do one next week. They’d say, well why don’t you let your muse strike you in a different newspaper. Get out of here. I never missed a deadline for a newspaper and I treat books the same way. I’m very disciplined about it. So it’s been a job, but it was a great job. I never missed a deadline for the newspaper in 14 years unless I was sick and couldn’t. I treat books the same way. I’m very disciplined. When I start a book, I generally have them in well ahead of deadline, I can’t relax until it’s done.”

There’s another knock-on benefit of his former trade.

“Everything that’s in the story – there has to be a reason why it’s there. You have to justify why every paragraph is there. And I hate writing description. I just hate it.”

His favourite sentence is from Elmore Leonard’s Riding the Rap. It is: “Raylan got ready.”

But he also admits to being “amazed” by what Philip Roth can accomplish in a paragraph. “It’s like packing a hundred pounds of explosive into a lunch bucket. Same for crime writer James Lee Burke, whose words can’t be skimmed.”

The former journalist now lives on millionaire row with porches parked in the drive. He’s sold more than five million copies in 40 countries. And if that’s not enough, there’s always the Hollywood bidding war that erupted over his 2012 novel, Trust Your Eyes.

No wonder his readers flock to meet him as he globe trots. I get him to sign books for my mother, my brother, me, before we part company and the fan in me realises at this moment that the real reason I want Linwood to stay home in uninterrupted peace and quiet is so he can write more.

The only thing that would have come close to the thrill of actually meeting him would have been curling up in front of that fire with one of his books.

(c) Niamh O’Connor

A Tap on the Window is in all good bookshops, and available online here.

Niamh O’Connor is one of Ireland’s best known crime authors. She is the True Crime editor with the Sunday World, Ireland’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper, for whom she has written five true crime books. Her job, in which she interviews both high profile criminals and their victims means she knows the world she is writing about. Niamh’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards (twice) and continues to hit the bestseller lists. Her latest novel BLINK is available here.

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