Children’s fantasy is a world apart for Barclay

The internationally regarded crime writer has written a wonderful, tale about a magical, medieval kingdom for children. She explains why to Sue Leonard

Curse of Kings The Trials of Oland Born
Alex Barclay
Harper-Collins Children’s Books, €15.75;Kindle, €9.23.

ALEX Barclay arrives, a few minutes late, in a flurry of apologies. Tall and willowy, she looks exotic in a black coat with studs on the sleeves. She’s dragging a large suitcase. This trip to Dublin from Cork is also a chance to meet with family.

An internationally regarded crime writer, first published at 29, Barclay has written a wonderful, imaginative book for children. It’s the first in a series of six. Barclay is being described as the ‘new JK Rowling.’ How does that feel?

“I’ve never read Harry Potter,” she says. “But I’m a great fan of the movies.”

Why write a book in which children are the heroes, bravely fighting evil? Was she motivated by money?

“It was nothing like that. I have a huge passion for everything that comes my way. Oland Born and Delphi just came to me from nowhere,” Barclay says.

“I remember thinking writers who said that were pretentious. Then, it was, ‘oh oh. That is how it happens.’ It was five years ago, and it was freezing. I was writing my second book, The Caller. I was in a restaurant with an A3 notebook, and I scribbled all over it.

“It was always going to be set in a kingdom in no particular time, but, obviously, medieval. That made it more magical, for me, and I love magic. To be in that world truly was a gorgeous experience. There was something so pure about it, even though it’s a very dark book.”

“I saw Oland as a servant in a horrible world, and Delphi as something that girls can aspire to. She’s fun and brave, and not just a sidekick. She is fearless and she helps. She’s just cool,” Barclay says. “I created Oland, but I could step back and admire his bravery in a very isolated world. Delphi is like that, too, though her world was different. It connects them. At 14, you want to connect to people. It’s a very difficult age.”

What was Alex like aged 14?

“I was horrific,” she says. “I was awkward and felt unattractive, and different, as anybody who disappears into their own world must feel. I had four gorgeous siblings and fantastic friends, but I wasn’t comfortable in my skin.”

The year 2007 was busy for Barclay. She completed three chapters of Curse of Kings, working on it for a few months in conjunction with The Caller, but the time didn’t feel right. Then, another character came to her. One Ren Bryce.

Fans of Barclay love Bryce. She’s a feisty heroine, and bipolar, like the character played by Claire Danes in the TV series Homeland. Could the producers of that have been influenced by her idea?

“A couple of people have said that. I’m just relieved that my books came out first. I’m fascinated by bipolar. It’s fantastic to throw somebody with bipolar into the FBI, which has all the worst triggers of stress. You get an addictive feeling from danger. Claire Danes is amazing at capturing that. That, and the angst,” she says.

When did she start writing?

“I wrote random, rather sweet poems about field mice, when I was eight or nine. And, at 16, I started a children’s book about witches. By then, I was reading American crime fiction.

“That’s a thing with me, that dichotomy. I was writing for younger children about the children’s world I adored being in, whilst reading the darker world of crime.”

After school, she went to Dublin City University, to study journalism and French. “I did want to be a journalist. And I loved it. I wrote about construction, and the food industry, and fashion and beauty. I was deputy editor of U magazine, and I was fashion and beauty editor of the RTÉ Guide for a year. I loved everyone I worked with. I loved it all,” she says.

Then, she began writing a crime book set in America. She sent the first three chapters to the agent, Darley Anderson, because he represents crime writers Martina Cole, Lee Child, and our own John Connolly.

“He rang me straight away. He said he was really interested. I nearly died,” Barclay says.

The hero changed for book three, but Barclay kept the American setting. Why do that, when she’s an Irish writer?

“It’s a grander landscape, with so much potential, and the crimes are crazier. That’s a draw. There’s this sense of anonymity, and the sense one can disappear. Then, there’s that whole cross-state jurisdiction, and the conflict between different law enforcement agencies. That whole area fascinates me,” she says.

Surely, though, all that means an extraordinary level of research?

“It does. I research everything, and I’m very lucky. I have fantastic contacts in all the law-enforcement agencies, and contacts with coroners there. They are the nicest people; I’ve made great friends. They’re so helpful, it blows me away. I’ve spent all this week researching for book six, and I’m having a blast,” she says.

Barclay isn’t work shy. For the last few months of a book, she writes from 6.30am until 6.30pm. She then potters around, reads a short story, and, maybe, eats something, though having had gallons of coffee, its often only cornflakes. Then, it’s back to work until midnight.

Barclay’s partner, she says, doesn’t too much mind. He works long hours, too. But she does disappear at some stage of each book, to Anam Cara, in West Cork.

“It’s a really wonderful place and it’s been very good to me. All the extra stress is taken away. There are five writers or artists there at any one time, and Sue Booth Forbes is a good friend of mine,” she says.

There is huge support from the other Irish writers. Both the crime ones, and those from other genres. Another, perhaps unlikely support, is Marty Whelan.

“When I was writing this book, I listened to Marty on Lyric FM, religiously, every day. I had to be at my desk by 7.00am when his show starts. If I missed it, I’d listen to it in the afternoon.

“He is so funny. I love him. There’s no bad news for those three hours, and I love the mix of classical with other songs in-between.

“I bumped into him recently. And I could barely speak. My friend had to do the talking for me. I managed to say that I listened to the show every day, and he was asking me what I liked. My friend was willing me to tell him. I was so shy,” she says.

Which is strange, because, in interview, she’s gregarious and open. Yet she says that publicity is strange, after all her enforced solitariness.

“Last August, September, and October, I was on lockdown. I loved it, but it was particularly intense. There was so much to keep track of. The history, the locations, the psychology, and all the different adventures. I drew animals, and maps, and kept a family tree.

“Afterwards, I went to Dublin to see my family, who I hadn’t seen in those months, and I still thought it was summer. I kept going out without a coat, and I was astonished when it was, suddenly, Halloween.

“After being alone a lot of the time, it feels funny going into the world. Talking about the crime books was one thing.

“This {Curse of Kings} is different. You’ve created this world, and only talked about it to your publisher and agent. And, suddenly, people are talking about the locations you made up. It’s surreal,” she says.

Picture: Nick Bradshaw


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