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Beyond Harm’s Reach: Susan Condon Meets Alex Barclay

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews

By Susan Condon

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Alex Barclay is the author of several bestselling thrillers. Her first novel, Darkhouse, was a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller while third novel, Blood Runs Cold (the beginning of the Special Agent Ren Bryce series) won the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award at the Irish Book Awards. Harm’s Reach is her sixth adult novel and the fourth in the FBI Agent Ren Bryce series.

I’ve heard it said that you should never meet your heroes as more often than not you’re likely to be disappointed. Thankfully, with Alex Barclay, that was most definitely not the case. We first met some years back at an event in Easons, O’Connell Street, and our paths have crossed at numerous writing events since. In The Civic Theatre last year, as part of the Red Line Book Festival, I chaired ‘Ladykillers’ which gave me the unique opportunity to delve into the minds of Alex Barclay, Arlene Hunt, Louise Phillips and former Boulder Coroner (and good friend of Barclay’s), Joanne Richardson. What I found most disconcerting was how angelic they all appear on the outside, while managing to conjure up the darkest of villains and crimes within the pages of their novels.

Barclay’s warm charm and soft voice certainly belie the dark subject matter she writes about. I read Darkhouse, soon after its publication and all these years later I can still vividly remember Duke Rawlins. Barclay’s eyes light up at the mention of his name. “Ah, Duke Rawlins – yes! And thank you. His back story was a huge part of my motivation for writing the book. I wanted to contextualise his crimes, and explore the devastating effects of child abuse. I don’t need to say how abhorrent I find it, how frightening the viewpoint of abusers is: how they can diminish their acts; rate them on scales of severity; and believe them to be isolated incidents that have an end point. Whole lives are ruined from the moment a child is abused, and that breaks my heart. Of course, the outcome I feature in Duke Rawlins’ case is not the only one, but it’s certainly a possibility.”

Many crime fiction fans find there are some villians who resonate with them way after the last scene and won’t let go. I’m interested to know, as their creator, if getting inside the head of these characters causes Barclay a sleepless night or two? “They don’t cause me sleepless nights, but Duke Rawlins is a powerful man. Of all my characters, he’s the one I’ve felt most ‘taken over by’ as I write. Not in a weird way, but he says and does things that are so horrific that I feel like I’m having the same reaction to him as a reader will, not that I’m the person who has come up with these things.”

alex-barclay-c-sean-breithaupt-use1 smallWhen questioned, Barclay admits that it’s difficult to choose one favourite character. “In the crime novels, I would say: Duke and Ren. And I have an extra soft spot for Salem Swade from Blood Runs Cold – the Vietnam vet and original owner of Ren’s beloved cadaver dog, Misty. Salem made me cry. I was absolutely there in the room with him. In Curse of Kings, it would be Oland and Delphi. If I mention anyone else, it might be a spoiler.”

After publishing two successful Joe Lucchesi novels, Barclay decided to park him and introduce Ren Bryce. It was a decision that paid off and Blood Runs Cold went on to win the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award at the Irish Book Awards. But I wonder if there any plans for Luchessi to return in the near future? Barclay quickly puts my mind at ease, admitting that she had “intended to write a third Joe Lucchesi novel, but then I got the inspiration for Ren and I was lucky enough to get the go-ahead to write her. And yes, I can say with one hundred per cent conviction: Joe will be back.”

Ren Bryce is hard-working and gutsy, but like every great protagonist she’s also flawed. Although Barclay’s first Bryce novel, Blood Runs Cold, hit the bookshelves way before Homeland ever hit our TV screens I found myself immediately comparing her with Claire Danes character, CIA agent Carrie Mathison. I ask Barclay, as Bryce’s creator, if she would agree with the comparison? “Yes, I do. And I’m a Homeland fan. I guess that’s how creativity works – writers are wired to uncover drama, and the vagaries of a bipolar female in a high-intensity life-and-death job is a wellspring. I’m sure the Homeland writers get as much of a rush as I do with Ren when they put Carrie in situations they know are going to end in tears. Clare Danes is absolutely brilliant at capturing bipolar disorder facially – casting her was inspired.”

Harm’s Reach is a short, snappy and memorable title, but Barclay admits that titles are not always easy. “It can be quite an involved process, because it’s so important to get it right. For most books,” she admits, “I have a working title that changes after I’ve handed in the book. The process is similar every time,” she continues, “from the themes and plotlines in each book, I come up with short and snappy words that come together to create something that is, hopefully, memorable. I came up with Harm’s Reach as part of a long brainstorming session with myself. I left it in on a page of possibilities, revisited that page when the book was finished, saw Harm’s Reach and felt it was the one. The next book – Killing Ways – came from a sentence I used while telling someone what the book was all about.”

With regard to plotting her novels, Barclay tells me that she usually has a beginning and an end point but other than that she prefers the characters and events to transport her along. “Though I think it could be hugely beneficial to the process, I can’t imagine plotting a novel from start to finish. I think that’s because, like a real criminal investigation, surprises arrive along the way, and I want to capture that spontaneity.”

Last year Barclay changed genres and brought us, Curse of Kings, her first young adult fiction, featuring Oland Born. A great name, especially so, depending on how you say it! I’m curious to know if she found it easy or difficult to cross genres? From her enthusiastic reply the answer is obvious. “Thank you so much! I do love Oland Born, Delphi and the world of Curse of Kings. I didn’t find it difficult to cross genres, because, to me, genre is more a business or publishing term than a creative one. What I do is write stories – stories that come my way and bring a world of characters and relationships and emotions. It never feels difficult to follow the inspiration. It’s difficult not to.”

When we last met we had a long conversation about childhood books and, like me, Barclay was an avid reader and also a fan of Mrs Pepperpot. I have to smile as she confides that “Curse of Kings is between Mrs Pepperpot and The Magic Faraway Tree collection on my bookshelf at home! I had to do it. The eight-year-old me would have loved it.” It feels as if with each publication, Barclay has nurtured her characters until they are fully fledged, and then she finally lets them go, “my characters and their lives go from my tiny world out into the real world,” she says, delighted with the fact that at this stage “people get to react and respond to them.”

Barclay’s one piece of advice to new writers is to finish your book. “It will never be perfect to you, but it might be to someone else. Don’t wait to find out. Yes, life is short, but that’s no excuse to stretch a manuscript the full length of it.” I ask if she’d recommend beginning the second novel while waiting for the first to be accepted. “I still maintain that, as in most creative situations, you should go with your gut on this issue. And there are so many things that impact on this – such as how long the waiting process is. But I will throw some of my thoughts at you: if you’re filled with inspiration for the second novel, then absolutely start it. If you’re forcing it in order to have a second novel, then don’t. Wait. Be patient. Allow your ideas to develop. See what the response is to the first one. An editor might like some elements of the first novel, and not others, so you could find yourself with a second novel that doesn’t correspond with their thinking. If you agree with this fresh angle on your work, you may then have to re-evaluate and/or ditch work you’ve put a lot of time into. But that’s not the end of the world.” According to Barclay, “you have to be flexible. Either way, don’t do nothing while you wait … you could research the next one, or you could write a short story, but do stay writing, as long as you’re enjoying it and not doing it for the sake of it.”

As the interview draws to a close, Barclay shares a little about her latest novel. “It’s called Killing Ways and it’s a dark one. It features Ren Bryce and some very special guests. It’s the first time we’ve been with Ren while she’s working a serial killer investigation. Women are being raped, murdered and mutilated in Denver, and though the killer is doing his best to modify his M.O., Ren starts to notice the threads running through the killings. I’ve just finished the book and it’s gotten some of my favourite reactions yet: “OMG”, “OMFG”, “what are you trying to do to me?” and “I couldn’t breathe”. I was so pleased! I had a blast writing it. And it’s hardcore.”

It appears that new and old fans of Barclay have yet another treat in store . . .

(c) Susan Condon

About Harm’s Reach

FBI Agent Ren Bryce finds herself entangled in two seemingly unrelated mysteries. But the past has a way of echoing down the years and finding its way into the present.

When Special Agent Ren Bryce discovers the body of a young woman in an abandoned car, solving the case becomes personal. But the more she uncovers about the victim’s last movements, the more questions are raised.

Why was Laura Flynn driving towards a ranch for troubled teens in the middle of Colorado when her employers thought she was hundreds of miles away? And what did she know about a case from fifty years ago, which her death dramatically reopens?

As Ren and cold case investigator Janine Hooks slowly weave the threads together, a picture emerges of a privileged family determined to hide some very dark secrets – whatever the cost.

Harm’s Reach is out now in paperback, or pick up your copy online here.

Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, has written a crime fiction thriller set in New York City. Her short stories have won the Jonathan Swift Award, the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and the Sport and Cultural Council, City of Dublin VEC and she was thrice long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and My Weekly magazine.

Check out Susan’s blog at  www.susancondon.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @SusanCondon

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