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the influence interview

Portrait of Linwood BarclayAnthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Linwood Barclay has had a few literary incarnations (newspaper columnist, humourist), but it's in his latest, as author of thrillers, that he is – arguably – had the most fulsome praise. And really, who can argue with Stephen King, who doesn't miss a chance to publicly love up his Canadian counterpart? Barclay's most recent, A Tap on the Window, is now in bookstores. We asked him about the influences that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

When I was a kid – I started writing around Grade 3, but couldn't find an agent – I worshipped the largely anonymous writers of my favourite television shows. I wanted to work in Hollywood and write Mannix or Mission: Impossible or Columbo episodes. But in my later teens, after having read everything by Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, I became obsessed with the Lew Archer series of detective novels by Ross Macdonald. Here was someone using the conventions of the mystery novel to explore family dysfunction and other social issues.

Did you imitate any of them?

Did I ever, at least where Macdonald was concerned. I wrote a couple of novels while I was in university that were heavily influenced by the themes in his work. The big difference was, his were good.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

I've probably never totally escaped the influences of the writers I've most admired, in the same way we always benefit from the wisdom imparted to us from our best teachers. But a distinct voice comes over time, and I'm talking years here. Your unique life experience shapes who you are, and that naturally comes through in the writing.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

Thinking some highly regarded writer is God. No writer is God. Writers are just people. Also, don't work at being clever. If you're working at it, it's not clever.

Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality with your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

Maybe Macdonald's Find a Victim (1954). Just as A Tap on the Window opens with someone giving a ride to a hitchhiker, Archer gives a lift to someone he shouldn't.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

I'm amazed by what someone like 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. But my all-time favourite sentence is from Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap. It is, in its entirety: "Raylan got ready." In the context of what comes before it, it says everything.

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

I read whatever the hell I want, whenever I want. If your writing is this easily swayed, maybe you need to do something else.

This interview has been condensed and edited.