Linwood Barclay has written 22 crime/thriller novels in 15 years; he’s sold millions of copies worldwide and has been blurbed by his hero, Stephen King. But at the age of 15, “All I wanted to do in life was write screenplays,” Barclay, 63, admitted over coffee in Toronto last week. “I’d like to tell people I was inspired to write by Hemingway and Dickens, but it was TV.”
At 10, he began writing 20- to 40-page novellas based on his favourite television series – The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Mannix. (Today we’d call it fan fiction.) Writing by hand took too long, so his dad taught him to touch type; he spent his afternoons hammering away on an old Royal, “as heavy as a Volkswagen.”
When Barclay was in Grade 6, his parents even sent one of his Man from U.N.C.L.E. scripts to MGM – and MGM wrote back. This was 1966, says Barclay, who has a genial manner and a tumbling shock of white hair that even Hugh Grant would envy. “One day this big envelope comes, with an MGM logo – a personal rejection letter and two 8x10 glossies signed by the stars. That was good enough for me. I had contact! I was the only kid in my class at White Oaks public school who was getting stuff from MGM.”
But there was low demand for screenwriting in Fenelon Falls, Ont., so at 19, Barclay started writing novels and sending them to publishers. “I’d take these thick envelopes and drop them in the corner mailbox and I swear they’d be returned by the time I got home,” he says, grinning. “The rejection was that fast.”
But Barclay was tough; even at 22, he was all about output. He asked himself, “Where can I get paid to write every day?” and then landed a job at the Peterborough Examiner. In 1981, he moved to the Toronto Star, where he wrote a thrice-weekly humour column, while still pounding away at novels. In 2007, one of them, No Time for Goodbye, finally hit – big. Since then all of his books have been optioned for film or television.
He’s written treatments and pilot drafts. One succeeded: The Accident (L’Accident) was made into a six-part television series that ran in France last year. Some have potential: A series based on his Promise Falls trilogy is in the works at eOne. Some fizzle: Barclay spent six months last year working with director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) on a six-part TV adaptation of Trust Your Eyes. He was on his 13th draft of the pilot when the network backed out. “Welcome to TV,” Barclay says, miming shooting himself in the head.
And one, a feature film of Never Saw It Coming, adapted by Barclay himself, opens in select theatres this Friday. It’s directed by Gail Harvey, a former Star colleague, and stars Emily Hampshire (Schitt’s Creek) as Keisha Ceylon, a faux-psychic who accidentally guesses the truth behind a father/daughter murder conspiracy (the father is played by Eric Roberts; the daughter is Katie Boland, who is Harvey’s daughter). Nearly 50 years on, Barclay’s teenage dream of being a screenwriter has come true.
So? Is it everything he’d hoped? “I don’t want to offend screenwriters everywhere, but it’s so much easier than writing a book,” Barclay replies. “’Here’s what they’re doing, here’s what they’re saying.’ I wrote the first draft in nine days. It was fun. The part that’s frustrating is when everyone else weighs in. I quickly understood: Don’t get excited until the thing is actually on a movie or TV screen. In the meantime, it’s just work.”
Barclay knows how to work. Whether he’s at home in Oakville, Ont., or at his waterside place in Prince Edward County, he’s at his desk by 8:30 a.m., and he doesn’t leave until he’s written 2,000 words. “If you do 2,000 a day, you have 10,000 a week, and in three months you have a first draft,” he says, shrugging. That’s typical for thriller writers: “People come to expect the new Michael Connelly [the Bosch series] or Lisa Gardner [The Killing Hour] when they go to the beach every summer.”
All it takes is “one great ‘What if … ’ per year,” Barclay insists. Some of those arrive in his mind fully formed, including his current No. 1 bestseller, A Noise Downstairs. (What if you acquired an old typewriter and it started making noises in the middle of the night? Shades of his childhood Royal.) He has no patience for writer’s block. “Do teachers get teacher’s block? Is there plumber’s block?” he scoffs. “Why are writers so special that they can say, ‘I can’t work today, I have the vapors?’ Screw that.”
Only once has his process failed. “Ten years ago, I gave a book to my agent, Helen Heller,” Barclay says, launching into this story with more relish than he devotes to his successes. “I knew there was a problem here, a problem there, but I thought I could fix it. Helen said, ‘What a holy mess this is.’ ” He laughs. “For two days I thought about stepping in front of a bus.” Instead, he wrote a new book, Fear the Worst, in seven weeks; it’s now one of his favourites. “It was a good lesson,” he says. “When I hear that voice saying, ‘There are problems,’ I stop.”
Barclay knows who he is as a writer: “I’m the first to admit, I’m not a literary author trying to dazzle you with my language. I want to tell a story and I want it to move. I’m not writing Jack Reacher or James Bond. My characters are ordinary people in extraordinary situations that they have no equipment or training for. You read to find out if they have it in them to rise up and get through it.”
Oh, he’s had some glory moments. Finding out Stephen King was a fan – that was big. They’re now frequent e-mail pals. At their first in-person meeting, at a PEN Canada event, King began inscribing a book to Barclay and his wife, Neetha. Barclay started to spell out Neetha; King cut him off. “I know how to spell Neetha, you dedicate every single book to her,” King said. Recounting this, Barclay tears up a little.
Still, he swears he’s a glass-half-empty guy. “My wife is always asking me, ‘Do you think you could ever be happy?’ ” he says. “I find there’s always something else I want. Every book feels like almost the best one.” So he keeps sitting down at his desk and flying off on seven day/seven city tours and reworking TV pilots that may or may not air.
Barclay is “an immense fan” of Bruce McCall, the Canadian illustrator whose work frequently appears in The New Yorker. They’ve become friends and McCall once said something that Barclay instantly recognized as true of his work as well. “Bruce said he’d never made a drawing that was as good on paper as it was in his head,” Barclay says. “I heard that, and I thought, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Special to The Globe and Mail