Flashback: ALEX BARCLAY INTERVIEWED BY MICHAEL MARSHALL

From Crimespree 21 (Nov/Dec 2007)

Alex Barclay & Michael Marshall INTERVIEW

Michael Marshall: Let’s kick off with place. Location is often cited as being crucial to crime fiction, and many of the genre’s novels and series derive a lot of their appeal from the veracity and depth of their local colour – from James Lee Burke’s lyrical Louisiana to Stuart MacBride’s hard-as-rock Aberdeen. You’re Irish, and have lived your life mainly in that country – yet your novels are situated either partly or wholly in the United States, as are mine. Everyone generally assumes this is a commercial decision – but is it?

Alex Barclay: I haven’t a commercial bone in my body. It was all down to choosing locations I was passionate about. I grew up reading American crime novels because, like a lot of disenchanted youth, where I was from just didn’t interest me. I wanted to escape, somewhere vast, with towns and cities that went from zero to hero. The U.S. was fascinating, the crimes were bigger and bolder, law enforcement was armed, killers were nuts. From the first time I went to New York, I was inspired. And when it came to writing crime fiction, my feelings hadn’t changed. My books were always going to be set in the U.S. Darkhouse opens with a police chase through New York, but also moves between Ireland and Texas. What I wasn’t prepared for was how characters can come to you with an accent and a background you may not have expected. I just go wherever these strange people take me.

MM: Absolutely. I spent seven years of my childhood in the US and it still feels a very comfortable environment to me, but it’s also gained a flavor of being the place I go to be myself, and to live in my imagination. I don’t believe one chooses locations so much as they (and the characters that live in them) choose you. If someone arrives in your head with a background in new York or Los Angeles, you’d be insane to try to change it. I also believe books should depend on their locale functioning as another character, informing the story: novels are also about places, after all, not just people. If a story would work just as well *anywhere*, then there’s something missing. But setting books in distant places creates challenges, too. Do you enjoy the research part? How do you go about it?

AB: Researching is one of my favourite parts of the job. I start every book with a synopsis and from there, I see who I need to talk to to make sure the details are authentic. I get to speak with experts in so many different fields (law enforcement, forensic entomology, pathology, neurology, etc.) all of whom are hugely generous in sharing what they know. I ask every question I can think of to cover all the bases. Obviously, what I do is fiction, but with any crime novel you have to suspend your disbelief, so I want to keep the rest of it as rooted in reality as I can. With locations, I draw on what I already know about them or if they’re new to me, I spend time there and just listen to what the locals have to say. I also research on line and stock up on any relevant books and reports on the subjects I’m dealing with.

MM: I’m kind of the opposite. I tend to get accidentallyinterested in stuff (usually when I’m supposed to be doing something else) – and find, sometimes years later, a book emerging out of it like a creature out of some black lagoon. If necessary I’ll go back and do some checking, but I have a lamentably blithe attitude to actual ‘facts’. I go through a fly-paper phase just before a book starts, however, where random bits of information from the outside world lodge themselves in my head without rhyme or reason – and start covertly structuring what I’m about to write. With locations I’m the same as you. You have to be there, get what they’re about, meet them. There’s nothing worse than reading about a place when it’s written by someone who’s never felt a part of it, regardless of how long a tax-deductible vacation they spent there. I’d actually like to try writing a novel some day that only had locations, and no characters: but I’ll save it for when it’s time to completely implode my so-called career… Ultimately even if someone excels at research, what marks out good writers is their ability to transcend facts through intuition. DARKHOUSE has possibly the best evocation of a damaged childhood I’ve ever read: convincing, harrowing – and yet utterly credible and very understated. I suspect you don’t follow the Creative Writing-sanctioned model of laboriously building characters from the outside, but instead meet them in your head and write down what they tell you about their lives. True?

AB: Thank you so much. It was really important for me to create a killer that stirred readers’ emotions; someone who was hated, yet pitied. And only capable of being understood through his background. To answer your question, yes, characters explode from inside, good, bad and ugly. That came as the biggest surprise to me when I started writing. I had heard writers saying something similar in interviews, but I thought they just wanted to sound mysterious. But along came my characters, like the premature and forgotten dead with stories they desperately wanted me to tell; a strange parade who, maybe in one opening line, gave me their accent, a hint of who they were and, crucially, the desire to draw the rest out.

MM: Wanting to know more about a character is critical, I think, not only for the reader – but for the author too. When I first started dealing with Ward Hopkins in the STRAW MEN novels, I deliberately left his past pretty open. Not to make it easier to fill in the past in later books, but because it seemed more realistic that way, more like meeting individuals in real life. You don’t get the soup-to-nuts of people the first night you meet (or if you do, you’ll probably realise you neither need or want to see them ever again). Why should it be different with characters? To pretend you know everything about them right at the start is to ignore the reality they have in your head. So, from that – how do you actually start a book, when you’ve got a character who wants to play? I have a love/hate relationship with the phase at the beginning, which always feels like joining a new school. You wander the halls alone, trying to pick up the rules and work out the geography without drawing too much attention to yourself. Trying not to alienate anyone, too, because novels can be scared off. They can take against you, and choose to make your life a living hell. Ever been bullied by a book?

AB: Love and hate and fine lines and storylines… I knew not being bullied in school would come back to haunt me. Instead, I got to be bullied aged thirty-one. By my second book. In that ‘oh, you’ve done one book, you think you’re great, but now look at you!’ kind of way. I took on the bully and I whupped it, which was gratifying, but possibly a wrangle I could have done without. But, hey, you can only write one second book. I’m in the early stages of book three and can now see that each of them started differently. There was no fear with book one – I just ploughed on in there. With two, fear kicked in. And with three, it reverted to ploughing (Irish heritage colouring my metaphors…). But as someone once said to me, ‘Think of it like this: you’re not writing a book, you’re telling a story’ which makes more sense. And sounds more approachable. Like the bully with a weak spot.

MM: Yeah – my second novel wiped the floor with me initially, too. Part of the problem was for scheduling reasons my first novel was a while coming out – and so I thought “Hey, I’ve got ages, why worry”. And then I had an absolute nightmare writing it. The first novel is a private experience. By the second, it’s become what you do – which is a whole different existential bag of worms. I generally start with a few characters I’m beginning to know, a sense of the underlying concept, and some notion of the broad strokes of the story – and not a lot else. But I kind of think that every novel is a different experience, or should be. A reflection of who you are at the time, what’s going on in your life, what you’re feeling, who you’re reading. Who *are* you reading right now, by the way? And are there authors you come back to time and again, knowing their world is one you’ll always enjoy visiting?

AB: I’ve just started AN ARSONIST’S GUIDE TO WRITERS’ HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND by Brock Clarke. I picked it up in a bookstore in New York last week because the cover looked cool and the blurb made me laugh out loud. The premise is superb: guy burns down Emily Dickinson’s house, accidentally kills two people in the process, spends 10 years in prison for it, is released and soon finds that writers’ homes everywhere are being torched. I can not stop laughing reading it. As to authors I always come back to – am I allowed to say Michael Marshall?! It’s true; I have the bookshelf to prove it. Also, Dennis Lehane, Philip Roth, Nick Stone, Jim Thompson, Greg Sedaris, Alexander McCall Smith, Jay McInerney, Harlan Coben, Linda Fairstein.

MM: Jim Thompson’s a huge favourite of mine, too: I probably wouldn’t have wandered into crime without him, along with the other two James – Lee Burke and Ellroy. Probably wouldn’t be a writer at all without Stephen King, and Kingsley and Martin Amis, and I always find myself going back to Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, Tobias Wolff, Philip K. Dick and Brett Easton Ellis too. I’ve just finished THE LAY OF THE LAND by Richard Ford, which I thought was stunning – for insight and prose style, he’s hard to beat. My definition of happiness is probably sitting outside a café somewhere new, with a coffee or a beer, a fresh pack of cigarettes, and a book by one of these people… Speaking of which, *where* are you right now? One of the things I expected/hoped from the writers’ life was being able to work anywhere. Research and note-making are one thing: but when it comes to actually getting chunks of prose down on paper… are you someone who can write on napkins standing up at a bar in Hanoi, or do you need a writing nest around you?

AB: Yup, the writer’s life is never what people think it’s going to be, either the writer themselves or all the people who say, ‘It must be amaaazing.’ Right now, I am on an Aer Arann flight from Cork to Dublin. I can answer interview questions on flights, I can edit and I can have plot epiphanies, but I can never ‘write’. I have to be in frighteningly specific environments. I can’t do it in certain houses, which I feel really guilty about if someone has said, ‘hey, come over and write in my place’. I know as soon as I walk in if I can write somewhere. The general rule is that new or minimalist houses don’t work. I have spent two weeks in places I couldn’t write a word in. I’ve also just hammered and screwed a flat-pack desk together and decided that the colour is too distracting, so I’m going to revert to the fourteen-inch square child-size picnic table I was originally using. See what I mean…

MM: That’s very funny – and I’m the same. I love the idea of being able to write anywhere, but it doesn’t work for me in practice. I can have ideas on the subway, sudden plot revelations while gazing at a harbour in Cornwall, and write long and increasingly meaningless sets of notes and observations when slumped in bars in random cities or countries across the world, but when it comes to sitting down and getting word after word after word to come out in more-or-less the right order, then I need things to be a certain way. I need quiet. I need as few distractions as possible. Even my Mac’s desktop is a flat, plain grey. I guess I need as many variables as possible filtered out, for the real world to be held at a distance by a set of conditions that focus me on the job I’m supposed to be doing. Are you happy with the way your job and career is progressing? What are your hopes? Fears? Where are you driving toward? Do you know? Do you care?

AB: I’m great. I’ve just moved outside a tiny village where I’ve dreamed of living for the last few years. I’m happy with my career – I signed a new contract last month for three more novels. I’ve just been researching my latest one in Colorado – where the people were some of the friendliest and most generous I’ve ever met. My hopes are to keep doing the job I love. My fear is one big sweeping ‘it will all go horribly wrong’, where ‘it’ could be pretty much anything. I don’t know what I’m driving toward, but the music will be loud and my directions off.

MM: Yes, and in my case, I’ll probably be running slightly late. I guess we’re in a pretty lucky position. I’ve got a contract for two more books too, so we both know there’s enough work to keep us off the streets and out of trouble. I’ve never tried to plan anything, from overall career path to the plot of individual books: sometimes that means you come slamming up against brick walls, but so long as one never comes against something you can’t drive around, that just makes the journey more interesting. See what I did there? I went with your driving metaphor. We’re professionals. We know what we’re doing. Kinda. If it weren’t for the occasional cold howling wind of doubt and insecurity blowing across the internal steppes, and those days when the fingers simply won’t work, everything would be just fine… But then maybe that’s just part of the process, as Thomas Mann (I think) said: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”… And so finally: if you could stand alone on a mountain and whisper just one thing into the wind, what would it be?

AB: Whispering gives me the creeps. I couldn’t put the wind through that.

MM: I’m sure the wind will be much happier that way too.