Linwood Barclay on Reading Voraciously and Making a Career in Writing

From an interview on headlined “Linwood Barclay on reading voraciously and making a career in writing”:

Otto Penzler: This is your twentieth adult novel. However, your first fiction—the four books featuring amateur sleuth Zack Walker, starting in 2004—were quickly overshadowed in 2007 by the immense success of the thriller No Time for Goodbye….Was becoming a writer always a goal?

Linwood Barclay: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11 or 12 years old, and by my mid-teens I was sure I wanted to write TV scripts. I was obsessed with shows like Mannix, Mission: Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Columbo, and wrote what today we would call fan fiction….I asked my dad to give me a lesson on our Royal typewriter that was about as heavy as a Volkswagen. I have very little memory of anyone actually reading my TV-inspired works, but that was okay. I wrote them for me….

OP: Of course, always before writing, there’s reading….Who are a few of the authors you feel were most influential to your work? And who have you most enjoyed reading?

LB: As a young kid, I devoured the Hardy Boys, then moved on to Agatha Christie and Rex Stout, with plenty of Ray Bradbury along the way. But it was Ross Macdonald, more than anyone, who left his stamp on me, creatively and personally.

When I was 15 I picked his Bantam paperback edition of The Goodbye Look off the paperback rack in my local grocery store. And then I had to read everything by him. He was the writer who showed you could use the conventions of the detective novel to tackle big issues. Family dysfunction, environmentalism, disaffected youth….

OP: Despite my many decades in the book business, I remain curious about each writer’s path to publication. It can occur in so many ways. I know you began by working on newspapers, and I’d like to hear your version of how it unfolded from that point on.

LB: By my late teens and early twenties, I was writing novels based on my own characters, instead of the fan fiction I mentioned earlier. I mailed them off to all the major publishers in New York and Toronto. Many of them were able to reject my offerings before I even got home from the post office….

So, at the age of 22, I thought, if I can’t be published as a novelist, where can I get paid money to write every day? The answer was: newspapers. I got a reporting job at a small Ontario daily, The Peterborough Examiner, where I covered such fast-breaking stories like the guy who made interesting crafts out of walnuts….

A few years later I landed at Canada’s largest circulation paper, The Toronto Star, but was taken on as a copy editor. They had all the reporters they needed. I turned out to be good at editing, and held many senior editing jobs until, 11 years after joining The Star, I got a gig as a humour columnist. Now I was writing again, all the time, and this led me back to my original dream of writing books. I did four humour books (one a memoir) for the Canadian market, but in 2004 I managed to get back to the original dream, of writing crime novels. My agent sold my comic thriller, Bad Move, to Bantam. It featured a character named Zack Walker, and three more novels starring him would follow.

But these thrillers were not big sellers. My agent suggested a change of course. I came up with an idea about a young girl who wakes up one morning to an empty house, and 25 years go by without ever knowing what happened to her family. The idea came to me at 5 a.m., and it changed my life. In addition to the U.S., we sold it in Germany, where it was an instant bestseller, and to the U.K. where it finished out 2008 as the top-selling novel of the year.

I was set. That book’s global success allowed me to leave the newspaper (all the previous novels had been written while still cranking out about 120 columns a year) and devote myself to writing a book a year….

OP: When you launch yourself on a new book, is the idea for it always fully worked out? Or are you ever surprised to find that the story has started taking on a life of its own?

LB: Before I start writing I want to know where I’m going to end up. It’s like you leave New York, knowing you’re going to drive to Chicago, but there are any number of routes you can take to get there. I know the big picture, who did what and to whom and why, but I don’t know the opportunities that exist in the novel until I get into it. There are detours, side-trips. But I always get back onto the interstate at some point….

OP: Find You First offers a growing array of characters as it progresses. Is part of the enjoyment you derive from your immersion in each book the creation of these figures as you work to bring each to life to play their role?

LB: William Goldman’s Marathon Man was a massive influence on me when I read it in my late teens. Those early chapters appeared to have nothing to do with one another. But when these various strands started to come together, what fun.

OP: Aside from the authors who most influenced you, and those you’ve most enjoyed, which writers today do you find yourself most eager to read?

LB: Who do I buy in hardcover as soon as they come out? James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Robert Crais. Steph Cha is someone to watch. Mary Roach, the only science writer I read because she’s so hilarious. Richard Russo….And I want to mention that I was late to discovering the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, and during the pandemic read them all. What a body of work.

OP: What advice would you offer those writers who are just starting out, right now?

LB: Read. This simple bit of advice is as solid now as it was ten or twenty or thirty years ago. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be a reader. There is no better way to learn. You wouldn’t aspire to be a director without watching movies, or a chef without loving to eat. And if you believe you would like to be a writer, you are already writing, even if it’s only for your own enjoyment….

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