Writers' workshop proves a novel experience for best-selling author Barclay

Bestselling author Alex Barclay is sharing the secrets of her success with aspiring authors, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Alex Barclay: "You have to follow your heart and your gut because you can't question your story."
Alex Barclay: "You have to follow your heart and your gut because you can't question your story."

IT is not unheard of for writers, by the very nature of their profession, to be somewhat self-regarding, egocentric and wary of competition. Successful Irish author Alex Barclay certainly isn’t any of these things, and is happy to give something back to others at a crime-writing workshop for Waterford Writer’s Weekend.

“I like doing it because writing is an isolating job, you’re on your own for a lot of it. And it’s amazing how many people don’t see how good their work is. They can be shy about reading their work but it astounds me how good it can be. I think it’s very important to be supportive of people in your life who are creative. I was very fortunate that I had that, I had a great team of supporters. I’m also lucky to have fabulous editors.”

How good Barclay’s own work is, was immediately obvious when she began writing in earnest. Having worked in journalism and copy writing, she began working on a screenplay which then became a novel. She sent three chapters to the highly regarded agency, Darley Anderson, who also represent the likes of Lee Child and Martina Cole, and they didn’t hesitate in signing her up.

The Dublin native wrote much of the book, which became the hit thriller Darkhouse, in the picturesque fishing village of Dunmore East in Co Waterford.

“That’s why I’m so delighted to be doing the Waterford writers festival. I was inspired by the whole area down around there. There were so many firsts involved, there are lots of great memories.”

Barclay’s almost overnight success took her by surprise. “I didn’t have any belief — I still don’t — but I love my job and after that I’m thrilled if people like the books. I had no clue how it would go, and still when I hand in a book, I’m not definite if anybody is going to like it.”

However, despite her own moments of self-doubt, Barclay is clear in her advice to aspiring writers. “You have to follow your heart and your gut because you can’t question your story. I meet people sometimes who rewrite to the extent that you wonder if they’re fearful — and I think you have to cast that aside. That’s why I like doing workshops and chatting with people, because it’s hard to just know that yourself. It’s hard to let books go, it’s hard for me to let them go.”

As a literary genre, crime has never been short on talented female writers, with Agatha Christie, PD James, Dorothy L Sayers blazing a trail for more recent successes like Patricia Cornwell and Val McDermid. It wouldn’t be too much to hope, perhaps, that a woman’s talent rather than other attributes would draw comment. So what did Barclay make of one review that described her as the “best-looking thriller writer in Ireland”?

“I’m strong in my sense of being a woman and I wouldn’t take offence at, or be threatened by that. I took it in the spirit in which it was meant, as a nice compliment.”

Darkhouse and its follow-up The Caller were both international hits and featured the same protagonist, New York police detective, Joe Lucchesi tracking down serial killers.

Her next three crime books had a female FBI agent, Ren Bryce, tackling a series of gruesome crimes. Does such subject matter and the research involved get too much at times? “It’s interesting because you’re creating characters with lives, personalities you know inside out, and it can be hard to do horrible things to them. You can get quite upset if you kill certain people, but you still know nobody was really harmed.

“Then I’m out of my fictional world researching in the real world and I find some of it harrowing, and I have to step back. There are things I can’t un-know, though I’m probably slightly better at blocking some of the things I’ve seen.

“But as a writer I can’t imagine honestly what it must be like to go through these horrific events, or to be someone who cares for people who go through them, or to be someone whose job involves violence. To me that’s staggering, when I think of how it affects me.”

Barclay, now based in west Cork, has escaped into a whole different kind of imaginary world with Curse of Kings, her recent foray into fantasy fiction for younger readers. Why the switch?

“It was again being captivated by a story I wanted to tell. It came to me in 2007 when I was writing The Caller. I sketched out what I wanted and what I knew would be the overall storyline in broad strokes. I had to leave it, then I wrote a couple more books but I couldn’t get the characters out of my head.

“I told the story to Maura Reilly, my publicist at Harper Collins, and she loved it. I was lucky to get it out there in a different genre, but I wouldn’t feel limited by anything. If a story came to me in the morning that was completely different again, I’d pursue that too.”

With her next crime book, Harm’s Reach, out next month, Barclay doesn’t struggle to come up with plots for her books. “There are always other ideas I’m writing down, I just hope I have the time to write them all.”

WRITERS TELL WATERFORD’S STORY

The fourth Waterford Writers’ Weekend takes place against the backdrop of the Waterford1100 celebrations, and showcases the literary talent of Ireland’s oldest city. Running from tomorrow to Sunday, the programme includes a talk and exhibition on the life of acclaimed Waterford playwright, Teresa Deevy.

Poet Mark Roper and composer Eric Sweeney, whose new opera, The Invader, premieres at the Theatre Royal in May, will give a talk at Greyfriars Gallery on Friday, with a live performance of short sections from the opera.

Fintan J Power will talk on crime writer, Raymond Chandler, whose mother was from Waterford and who spent time locally with his relatives. Local people have been invited to share their memories of Waterford. These will be aired at the Central Library on Saturday, in association with the website, www.writing.ie, and the National Archives at UCD.

The Waterford1100 milestone is reflected in a creative writing workshop for 9-11-year-olds, with Alan Early, creator of the bestselling Viking-themed Arthur Quinn series. The Seán Dunne Young Writers’ Awards, named in memory of the late Cork Examiner journalist, will make a welcome return, with founder of The Inkwell Group, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, the keynote speaker. She will also present a morning workshop on ‘how to get published’ for aspiring writers.

* www.waterfordwritersweekend.ie



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