The King of Spooky: Linwood Barclay’s rise from suburban dad to Canada’s biggest fiction export
Linwood Barclay’s thrillers have been translated into 40 languages and published in 30 countries, making him a multimillionaire. How an ordinary family man became one of Canada’s most successful living writers
Linwood Barclay was 51 years old, and his career had stalled: his books, a series of four comedic thrillers about a science-fiction writer and bumbling father named Zack Walker, had only sold 7,700 copies. For a living, he worked as a humour columnist at the Toronto Star. His agent, Helen Heller, who wanted him to branch out in a new direction, rejected all his proposals for a fifth novel. And then, in his Burlington home at five in the morning, lying in bed with his wife asleep beside him, Barclay had an idea that would change his life.
He got out of bed, went to his computer, and composed a quick email to Heller: “What if a 14-year-old girl wakes up one morning to find her entire family has disappeared? There are no bodies, no suspects and no clues.” Heller phoned him 10 minutes later. “That’s your next book,” she said.
Over the next two months, Barclay wrote No Time for Goodbye. Heller shopped the manuscript around and sold it to Bantam in the U.S. for a six-figure advance. The book went on to sell 500,000 copies in Germany and another half million in the U.S. Then No Time was released in the U.K. and picked for the summer book club of the popular talk show Richard and Judy. It spent seven consecutive weeks as the country’s number-one novel, and Barclay embarked on an international book tour during which he was hounded by autograph-seeking fans. The hype prompted the Will and Grace actor Eric McCormack to buy the film rights.
Barclay is now one of Canada’s most successful living writers. His 12 novels have been translated into almost 40 languages, and he has sold in excess of five million copies in 30 countries. Warner Bros. optioned his most recent novel, Trust Your Eyes, for seven figures almost as soon as it was published; Todd Phillips, who directed Old School and the Hangover franchise, is set to direct the adaptation.
His fans include Charlaine Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series upon which True Blood is based, and Stephen King, who has said his “idea of a sweet ride is three days of rain, a fridge filled with snacks and a new Linwood Barclay.” In his Entertainment Weekly column, King once wrote: “Where has Linwood Barclay been all my life?”
Barclay has become accustomed to seeing his name on the bestseller lists, on airport racks, in the hands of strangers on the beach. The one territory he hasn’t completely conquered is the U.S., where the genre market is dominated by writers like Lee Child and Karin Slaughter. He wants to be a household name there too, and ratchets up the thrills with every release. A Tap on the Window, his new novel, comes out this month, and it’s his spookiest yet.
For many years, Linwood Barclay regaled the Star’s readers with tales of his life as a middle-class family man. He wrote about using the self-serve checkout at the local big-box hardware store, the problems that come along with owning a backyard pool, a trip with his two kids to the carpet store. He still looks the part: average height, a soft, fleshy face, grey hair parted to the side. He wears nondescript button-up shirts with jeans and has a deep, even voice; in another life he might have had a career in radio instead of print. His eyes are constantly searching, taking in details. His author photos try hard to make him seem mysterious; he’s often shot in black and white, hidden in the shadows.
But there are few outward signs of the darkness and menace that lurk in the small towns of his books. He was born in Darien, on the southwest shore of Connecticut, in 1955. His father, Everett, was a commercial illustrator who once shared the same agent as Salvador Dalí and whose illustrations, mostly of cars, appeared in the New York Times, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1959, Everett was offered a job with William R. Templeton Studios, a prominent Toronto advertising agency. The family, which included Barclay’s older brother, Rett, crossed the border. But the rise of photography, which agencies preferred to illustration, cut into the Barclays’ livelihood. Inspired by the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz movie The Long, Long Trailer, Linwood’s mother, Muriel, dreamed of running her own trailer park. So in 1966, when Barclay was 11 years old, the family uprooted once more for Bobcaygeon, where they bought a campground called Green Acres. (Linwood’s parents kept the name when they took over, partly because the popular sitcom Green Acres had premiered the previous year, and it seemed like good marketing.) The 10-acre property was on the shores of Pigeon Lake and came with a collection of quaint cottages, room for people to park their trailers or pitch tents, and a forest of towering pine trees. Muriel was happy. Everett was not. “Running a fishing camp was not where he had expected to end up,” says Barclay.
He became addicted to thrillers when, at 15, he bought a copy of The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald, the pseudonym of the prolific mystery writer Kenneth Millar, creator of the fictional detective Lew Archer. Millar would prove to be a formative influence. At Green Acres, Barclay wrote detective stories inspired by TV shows like Columbo and Mission: Impossible, filling up spiral notebooks with the continuing adventures of his on-screen heroes.
When Barclay was 16, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease quickly spread through his body and to his brain. One night, during a regular father-son chess match, Everett froze, unable to remember how to move the pieces. He passed away soon after.
Muriel, an eccentric woman who had stopped driving completely after receiving what she felt was an unwarranted traffic ticket, was unable to manage the day-to-day operations of Green Acres. Barclay’s brother could only help so much: Rett had earlier enrolled in the U.S. military, but was discharged after a mental breakdown and later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Barclay was expected to take charge of the family business.
After high school, he enrolled at nearby Trent University, where he studied English and took classes with writer-in-residence Margaret Laurence, while continuing to help his mother run Green Acres. At Trent he met Neetha Sands, a petite anthropology major. They wound up sitting next to each other in class and passed notes back and forth. She graduated a year before he did and enrolled in the faculty of education at the University of Toronto. They dated long-distance while he remained in Peterborough, and were married after she finished teacher’s college.
During his third year, while researching an essay on the evolution of the private eye in literature, Barclay wrote a letter to Kenneth Millar, asking questions about how he conceived of his protagonist. He was surprised and delighted to receive a reply. Barclay then sent Millar a detective novel he’d written; Millar said the manuscript showed “great promise and something more than promise.” The pair struck up a regular correspondence. One day, Millar wrote to say he’d soon be visiting Peterborough. Barclay led his hero on a tour of the university, and Millar invited the young writer to dinner. “It was akin to a baseball fanatic spending the day with DiMaggio,” Barclay says. At the end of the night, Millar signed Barclay’s copy of his novel Sleeping Beauty. The inscription read, in part: “For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me.”
Barclay wrote several novels while still in university, yet couldn’t find a publisher despite help from Laurence, who wrote a letter to Alfred A. Knopf on his behalf. Even his future agent, Helen Heller, who was then working as an editor, rejected him. Like many aspiring novelists, Barclay went into the news business. He worked for a couple of small-town papers before landing a job at the Star in 1981. He was 26 years old, and he spent the next several years bouncing around the office, eventually rising to head of the Life section.
Barclay and Neetha had their son, Spencer, in 1984 and their daughter, Paige, two years later. A young family, not to mention the irregular hours of a newspaper editor, put a stop to his own writing. “We were both too tired to read a book, let alone write one,” says Neetha. “But writing novels was what he had always wanted to do.” When the Star’s beloved columnist Gary Lautens died in 1992, Barclay angled to become his replacement. He sent a series of sample columns to the publisher, John Honderich, before getting the job in 1993.
Barclay found his groove as a humour columnist. He’d comment on slice-of-life subjects or the latest political goings-on. The Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris was a regular target. The column led to three books: Father Knows Zilch: A Guide for Dumbfounded Dads, This House Is Nuts: Surviving the Absurdities of Everyday Life and Mike Harris Made Me Eat My Dog. He loved the job. If this was all he did for the rest of his career, he recalls thinking, he’d be happy.
In 2000, he published Last Resort, his memoir of growing up at Green Acres and losing his dad so young. Its chapter headings are adorned with tiny illustrations of pine cones drawn by his father. The book—folksy comedy inflected with melancholy—was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Not long after Last Resort was released, Barclay started thinking about a return to crime fiction. He had the idea for a series starring Zack Walker, a fictionalized version of himself. They would blend mysteries, his first love, with comedy, which he was known for. Although he was producing three Star columns a week, he often wrote them all in a day and banked them for later, giving himself ample time to work on other projects. He sent a sample chapter to Helen Heller, who was now an agent, and though she didn’t remember his earlier overtures, she read it and took him on as a client.
Even though Barclay was a popular columnist with four books to his name, he couldn’t find a Canadian publisher. Bill Massey, a British transplant working at Bantam in New York, was willing to take a chance, and published Bad Move, Barclay’s first Zack Walker novel, in 2004. Massey returned to the U.K. and continued to publish Barclay, acquiring No Time for Goodbye. When the book became a runaway success, Massey flew the Barclays to London for a celebratory lunch.
Barclay’s books immerse readers in dizzyingly complicated, macabre plots. His characters are not the lawyers or FBI agents that populate the worlds of John Grisham and James Patterson, but car salesmen, landscapers and contractors. They live quiet lives, yet in Barclay’s brand of domestic horror, no one is ever safe. He’s an economical writer, propelling the reader along with short, declarative sentences and monosyllabic dialogue (characters express their surprise—and there’s a new surprise on every page—with a “Huh?”). “I can’t be Michael Chabon,” he says. “I can’t be Philip Roth. I can’t do that kind of thing. But what I can do—write a page-turner—I do very well.”
Although his fiction is far from autobiographical, parts of his personal life inform his themes: his brother’s struggles with mental illness inspired 2012’s Trust Your Eyes, in which the narrator’s brother, who, like Rett, is schizophrenic, stumbles across a murder on a Google Street View–like computer program; this was the first novel in a three-book, seven-figure deal he signed with Penguin U.S.
“I can’t be Michael Chabon or Philip Roth. I can’t do that kind of thing,” Barclay says. “But what I can do—write a page-turner—I do very well”
A Tap on the Window, his new novel, is the first of a planned series about Cal Weaver, a private investigator. Set in an idyllic town in upstate New York, the book was originally going to be about cross-border smuggling, until Barclay came up with a killer hook. In the opening chapter, Cal, while attempting to solve the mystery of his son’s recent death, picks up a hitchhiker. She’s a classmate of his son and, at one point, Cal pulls over at a roadside fast food stop so she can use the washroom. A different girl returns to the car, wearing the exact same outfit, pretending to be the hitchhiker. When he confronts the imposter, she runs from his car into a forest and is later found dead—the first of the book’s many layers of intrigue.
If there’s a theme that links Barclay’s books, it’s missing people: a child, a spouse, an entire family. Good thriller writers tap into their readers’ fears. Barclay also mines his own. He says his greatest source of anxiety is the thought that someone he loves might disappear. In real life, he couldn’t bring back his father; in his books, he gives his characters a chance to find their missing loved ones.
Barclay has an idea for a horror novel, and has been thinking about a young- adult series based on his years at Green Acres. He recently finalized a new three-book deal with his U.K. publisher; he signed it without having to offer any ideas or plot outlines. He jokes that he often asks Bill Massey how many books he has to publish before he can “just write shit and mail it in.” Massey’s facetious answer is always 15.
The Barclays now live on a leafy Oakville street of multimillion-dollar homes. Barclay’s success allowed Neetha to retire from teaching. She fills her days with tai chi, working with a community theatre company and, she says, “tending to Linwood’s endless daily demands—‘Is there coffee? Where’s lunch? Where are my pants?’ ” She also travels with him when he goes on book tours; last year they visited Paris, Lyons, Amsterdam and Padua.
Framed bestseller lists cover one wall in Barclay’s study. On another, near the doorway, hangs a copy of the front page of Variety, which announced the Trust Your Eyes movie deal, the result of a bidding war between Universal and Warner Bros. (The screenwriter delivered a script in March.) Barclay plucks from a bookshelf the copy of Sleeping Beauty that Kenneth Millar signed all those years ago, saying he wishes Millar, who died in 1983, had lived to see his success.
In Barclay’s debut novel, Bad Move, the narrator, Zack Walker, describes himself as “a 13-year-old boy trapped in the body of a 41-year-old man.” Spending time with Barclay, you come to realize there’s a part of him that never grew up. With his first royalties he bought a Mazda Miata, but now drives what he calls his “kiddie toy,” a Porsche Cayman (Neetha has a Porsche Cayenne). One wall of his study is filled with background art from one of his favourite shows, Batman: The Animated Series, which he purchased while in San Diego on a book tour a few years ago. (Batman is “a great detective,” he says.)
In the basement, he gleefully shows me his latest purchase, a huge slot-car track, which snakes around his rec room in a figure-eight. Down the hall is a larger room devoted to Barclay’s model trains. He has boxes of engines, passenger cars, freight cars and cabooses. When he’s running them, you can hear the engine’s whistle, or the bells of the railway crossing, all the way upstairs. He has pursued the hobby since his dad bought him his first layout at the age of five. “It can be a real illness,” he says. “I try to take comfort in the fact that there are some famous people who do this who aren’t really weird.” Rod Stewart’s model railway, Barclay tells me, was on the cover of Model Railroader magazine. “There’s so much detail you can add, potentially, that you’re never really done.”
He flicks on the power and the room comes to life—working lights, the squeal of brakes. An entire town has sprung up alongside the rails: factories and warehouses, stately office buildings rising 10 or more storeys off the ground, red-brick houses, a drinking hole called the Bottoms Up Bar, even a tiny tattoo studio. He removes a searchlight from the roof of one of the buildings, which Spencer bought for him while on honeymoon in San Francisco; it’s engraved with the Bat-Signal. “When you’re writing, you have to invent this whole world in your brain,” he says. “Down here I can do it with my hands.”
A whistle pierces the air, and the train slowly circles the track past mountains and little brick houses. Past Barclay himself, who stands in the centre of the room, following the engine’s progression, transfixed by this secret world he’s created.