For writer Linwood Barclay, penning about his family life was part of his job. Even when the kids hit their teen years,
everything was on the record for this syndicated columnist. INBETWEEN sat down with Barclay to discuss being a dad, his career as a columnist and thriller novelist and what his family thinks of his ability to create murder in his mind.
By Peter Carter
Photos By Bill Taylor
ANYTHING CANADIAN thriller author Linwood Barclay writes, I read. So when the opportunity arose to spend time with Barclay, I leapt at it and made my way to the Oakville, Ont. home he shares with his wife, Neetha, who is also the mother of their two children, Paige, 29, and Spencer, 32. In addition to meeting this international bestselling writer, I wondered what was it like for his kids to be raised by a father who spends most days dreaming of ways to kill, maim, investigate and chase bad guys?
Many people knew of you first as a Toronto Star columnist where you wrote about your teenagers. Were the kids ever, like, ‘Dad, that’s off the record?’”
I asked if they ever read my column. When Spencer was 17, he managed to lock the keys in the car with the engine running at high school. He phoned for help; the other kids were laughing. I said, “Can I write a column about this?” He said “OK’ and then the day the column came out, I asked if he read it and he said “Why would I? I was there.”
Did your unusual job affect the way you raised your kids?
When I started the column in 1993, Spencer would have been nine, Paige would have been six or seven. It was very unconventional. Everybody else’s dad went somewhere, but I was home and that probably really curbed their social life; they couldn’t be like, “Let’s go to my house and party” because Dad was always around. Also, I think, in a lot of homes, if you decide you want to be a writer or a musician or a hockey player or a ballet dancer, the parents would say, “That’s great on the side, but you need a real job.” I got paid but it didn’t look like a real job. So it would be very hard to say to our son, “Don’t pursue your artistic interests. You need a real job.” (Spencer is, in fact, a video artist. Paige is studying at the University of Toronto.)
Tell us about having to grow up fast, a-la Linwood Barclay.
My father died when I was 16. We had a family business and I had to take over. We had eight cabins that we rented and spaces for maybe 30 to 40 trailers; we rented boats and motors and although my mom ran it, I did all the grunt work. I did the grocery shopping, I was dealing with problems that came up at the camp, and if an outboard motor blew up and had to be fixed, I was the guy who decided to take it downtown. All this responsibility was thrust on me, so I didn’t have those teenager years of drinking and carousing because I was looking after my mom and my brother and running things. It never occurred to me, at the age of 16, that this was a great imposition or responsibility. You do what you have to do. When my father died, my mother asked me to go to the funeral home to pick out a casket because she wasn’t up to it. I said, “Fine, it’s just a box of wood, anyway.”
So do you think most parents underestimate their teens’ abilities?
Absolutely. I think a lot of kids could do what I did. It’s just that circumstances haven’t demanded it. I think sometimes we want to shelter our kids from too much responsibility.
When Paige and Spencer were young, did you expect them to channel you and become adults at 16?
No. Actually, one of my flaws is that because I was forced to assume so much responsibility at an early age, I just assume nobody knows how to do anything. Even as something as simple as driving. My mom didn’t drive and my brother was a
terrible driver; and so any time there was any reason to go anywhere I just assumed that nobody else knew how to drive as brilliantly as I did. So when it came to my own kids, it was like, “I’ll run you there,” “You don’t have to do it.” Whatever
it was, the kids would tell me, “Dad, we can do that,” and “Dad, you don’t have to do that.”
So what was your approach?
I had a very rough relationship with my mother, and she was always trying to control my decisions. I swore from the time I was 20 I would never do that to my kids. I would let them follow their course and do what they want to do. I’m not one of these guys who said, “You gotta come into the family business;” or “I’m a lawyer so you better become a lawyer.” I just wanted them to find what they wanted to do.”
A lot of what you write is downright weird. You’ve got killers and maniacs and otherwise normal-looking people committing all kinds of horrible acts. What are you like to live with?
All the writers I know who write weird stuff, and that includes Stephen King, present as perfectly normal people. And that’s because most of us are. We just have very active imaginations. For me, I think that imagination is linked to anxiety—you imagine all the terrible things that can happen. When I think of them, I think of how I can use them. There’s not a lot of research—I’m good at looking at everyday situations and then coming up with ways they could go horribly wrong. Like a letter delivered to the wrong house, or picking up a hitchhiker who’s not all she seems. I fear our kids got away with many
things despite my detective-like mind, although a couple of times I figured out where they were when they were supposed to be home. That was satisfying. ■
Former Toronto Star Life Editor and columnist Linwood Barclay is the internationally bestselling author of more than a dozen novels, including Trust Your Eyes, A Tap on the Window, and No Time for Goodbye. Follow him on Twitter @Linwood_Barclay.