Linwood Barclay had a decades-long career as a newspaper editor and humour columnist before he transitioned to writing thrillers in the early aughts. To call that move a success would be an understatement. Barclay’s 20 novels, which includes the Promise Falls trilogy – along with a memoir about running his family’s trailer park north of Peterborough in his youth, and two novels for children – have sold millions and been translated into more than 25 languages. Stephen King counts himself a fan.
His latest, Find You First, features cars, genetic testing and not one but two unrelated yet intertwined multimillionaires at opposite ends of the empathy spectrum. One, Jeremy Pritkin, is an uber-creepy Jeffrey Epstein-type “philanthropist” who regularly invites young girls to his massive Manhattan digs. The other, Miles Cookson, has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease that has a 50-per-cent rate of genetic transmission and is racing to track down the nine adults he fathered decades ago through a sperm bank – his plan being to warn them, and to make them his direct heirs. But the plan quickly hits a snag: His unwitting offspring are getting serially knocked off before he’s even able to reach them.
The Jeffrey Epstein affair was clearly – it sounds wrong to say “inspiration,” so let’s go with spark for this book. How did you think to intertwine it with genetics?
What sparked the novel was a New York Times piece where someone took photos of all these half siblings who were the product of the same sperm donation, and I thought, “that’s a heartwarming personal-interest story.” But as a thriller writer you think: How could that go horribly wrong? So I was working on that storyline, and when I was starting to plot the book out, the most obvious answer to the mystery was that one of the potential heirs was wiping out the others. And that seemed so obvious that I thought I needed another parallel story that would address the mystery, which is when I started thinking about the Epstein thing.
Have you had your DNA tested?
No. And I don’t think I could have written this thriller 15 years ago because you didn’t have ads on TV every night saying, “Hey, send us a saliva sample! It’ll tell you everything about you, and who you could be related to.” I looked at this trend more as an opportunity for a story than something I was really curious about doing myself. But my brother had his done, and it didn’t reveal anything particularly startling.
Tech is an unavoidable element in modern-day thrillers, just as it is in our lives. Is it something you embrace or just accommodate in your books?
Accommodate. I did an earlier book, Trust Your Eyes, that’s a little more involved with tech. It was rooted around Google Street View. There are elements of tech that are very worrisome. If there’s any kind of trend that concerns me it’s been the death, or the decline, of newspapers. Also this kind of embracing of ignorance, and real fake news. The stuff people will believe is so blatantly, obviously not true. Those issues scare me even more than the tech stuff, although the tech stuff plays a role in it because it’s what’s spreading all this disinformation.
From the vantage point of the 20-novel milestone, what do you feel you’re better at? What’s still hard?
It’s a little less daunting every time I start, but I’ll write a book and make a mistake, or see something I should have done differently, and I think, “Okay I’ll learn from that for the next book.” And I don’t make that mistake, but I make a new one, so I find that I’m always learning. The trick is to give readers what they’re hoping to get but not give them the same thing you gave them last time. And I don’t kill myself doing it the way I used to. I used to try to write 3,000 words a day, and now I do 1,800 to 2,100.
Have you stayed in touch with your readers during this pandemic year?
I have a couple Facebook pages, and Twitter, so I get a lot of feedback, which is nice. Especially in a year when you couldn’t go out and see anybody. I always do a U.K. tour and hit Ireland and Scotland, so there was none of that. Writing is a pretty isolating occupation to begin with, so tours and festivals are your one chance to get out and discover that the world is populated.
What parts of the writing process do you like or dislike the most?
I still think finishing is the most fun. There are two parts I really hate. When you send your first draft to your editors it’s like waiting for tests to come back from the doctor. Is it good news or bad news? And then there’s the final reading of page proofs. By that point I’m so sick of it. I can’t see any mistakes because I’m reading what I expect to read, so I never enjoy that.
This book and many of your others have riffed on current events. Do you see any possibilities in a pandemic-lockdown theme?
I’ve set next year’s book in 2022 with the hope that we’ll have moved past this. All I’ve done is reference it. My character finds an old mask between his car seats, or some rubber gloves or sanitizer in the glove box. It’s such a global event that I think it’ll end up being incorporated in just about anything that we do, but to actually write a pandemic novel? There’s a guy named Stephen King who wrote a fairly good one back around 1978 or ’79, so it’s kind of been done. The thing is, will we want to read a pandemic novel when we’re done with this? I’ll be happy to forget about it.
Speaking of Stephen King, he’s blurbed this book as your best. Do you agree?
It would be rude to argue! Maybe it is. I think it’s got more momentum than maybe anything else I’ve done. It really flies. Trust Your Eyes might still be my favourite, but you know, [King] may be right: This might be it. Maybe I should just quit. But every book you do you hope it’ll be the best and there are some years where you think, “Yeah I pulled it off” and others where you think, “I can get away with this.” That’s the challenge for those of us who write this kind of fiction: There’s an expectation of a book a year.
So what’s next? You mentioned a couple of books coming out …
I’ve done the second draft of next year’s book, and I wrote a screenplay adaptation for my book Fear the Worst that Jason Priestley wants to star in and produce, and we think we have a director now. But mostly I think I can coast through the summer and then I’ll have to get back seriously to writing whatever the next book will be in the fall.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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