Alex Barclay hasn’t had a holiday in six years. And for the past two years she has been on a writing lockdown. Never a stranger to hard work, she has taken on a particularly large burden of late. Along with her two-book deal for adults, there’s another for teenage fiction. And if that wasn’t enough, she’s also writing a commissioned TV series.
“I’ve been writing rhyming picture books for kids, too,” she says. “It’s the craziest routine, but I love it all!”
We meet in Dublin the day before Alex launches I Confess – a psychological thriller and her first book to be set in Ireland. She looks amazing – more like the high-powered magazine journalist she used to be than a writer who has just emerged from her enforced isolation in the Beara Peninsular. Observing her glowing complexion, bright eyes and shiny hair, it’s hard to believe she’s managed to look this good on a maximum five hours sleep a night, and with minimal exercise.
“I used to run on a treadmill,” she says, “but now I’m a disgrace! Living where I do, I should be out.” She does roller skate and hula-hoop. “I’ve just bought a new hula – a black and yellow one, for my launch. That gives me so much pleasure.”
I last interviewed Alex in 2013, for a children’s book, The Trials of Oland Born, which was couched as the first of six in a series titled Curse of Kings. It was a powerful read, but there has never been a follow up.
At the time she was midway through a six book crime series, set in the states, featuring Ren Bryce, a feisty investigator who just happens to be bi-polar. She said, back then, that she set her books in America because it’s a grander landscape and the crimes there tend to be crazier. Was it difficult, deciding to set a book in a place where she lives?
“I was nervous about that. I worried that people would go, ‘oh my goodness, it is set here. It’s such a beautiful place but the novel is so dark,’ but people have been gorgeous. It’s fiction. There’s nothing like it in real life here, and you wouldn’t want there to be. Everyone has been amazing!”
Alex moved from Dublin to Eyeries, near Castletownbere after falling in love with the area following a visit to the retreat, Anam Cara, a place she still goes to, regularly.
“I first went in 2003 and I will never forget it. You’re sitting there with five writers or artists, and you never know who you will see at breakfast because people’s stays overlap. You might have become very closer to someone, over dinner, and then they’ve gone. It’s really interesting.”
That makes a change for Alex. She often packs herself off to a hotel or café to write, but admits that, such is her appetite for work, she can often be found with the laptop on the arm of the chair, her plate on her knee.
“And I’m eating, and I’m still working.”
I Confess opens when Edie, and her husband Johnny open a luxury Inn on a remote peninsular with a dark past. They invite Edie’s closest childhood friends for dinner, but as the storm rises, uncomfortable events from the past rise into consciousness. And then a body is discovered. It’s a compelling, if sometimes horrific read – but it’s the beautifully drawn characters that keep the reader’s compassion. I’m not surprised to hear that it took Alex a while to get to know all her characters.
“I did it by writing dialogue; that’s what I always do, but with I Confess it was crucial. The reader isn’t in anyone’s head at the reunion because I wanted it to be exactly what it was – as if you are there with them. There’s nothing else. You get a sense of them from what they are saying. I wrote countless pages of dialogue that didn’t go in – it was just me getting to know the characters.”
All of them – the four women and three guys have distinct characters, and when the novel dips back to their childhood, we can see how they have progressed. Have any of them taken characteristics from the author?
“It’s really interesting how the personal weaves itself into all my books,” she says. “You think, when you start writing that there is nothing of you in there, then you go, ‘oh, oh!’ In this book, I’m in all the characters on some level.” She pauses, and, looking abashed, says, “I’m conscious of sounding mad, but characters write themselves.”
IS it hard to kill off characters she’s fond of?
“Oh my God! I do that in several books, and yes, tears were shed. I did kill someone else off in I Confess, but I resurrected them. I couldn’t do it!”
In I Confess, Alex was examining how much we change from childhood.
“How much of you remains the same, and how much to other people lessen the change? I am fascinated by that. Other people give you a role, and in a group, you perform it. It’s your role forever, and allows no room for development, or even atonement of your mistakes. You can be caught in a time of your life that is no longer representative of who you are. I think that can be hard for people.”
To emphasise this point, the author gave one of the girls, Helen, MS.
“I wanted that, because it has made Helen, in a sense, invisible. She’d been a nursing director, but it’s as if everything that happened before she was in a wheelchair has been wiped.”
The friends are united by a tragedy that happened in their teens, to Jessie, who became wild after an incident of abuse. This, Alex says, was particularly hard to write.
“I just adore children, right? They’re so precious and so tiny and small it breaks my heart that someone could harm them. Oh God,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes, “Now I’m getting emotional. But also, that, and it’s a common thing, perpetrators think that it’s a victimless crime. That off the children go, and their lives are unaffected.
“I see the people who go public with what they have suffered, and I think the bravery of that is extraordinary. But it’s a risk that they will be defined by that. And that’s heart-breaking. That sense of all else is wiped away and they are a victim.”
The first of Alex’s teen books, My Heart and Other Breakables, is to come out next March. It’s been described as the funniest book to make you cry. Alex says that she was an awkward teen, who, with strict parents who didn’t let her out, lived a closeted life. But she’s adored writing about the teenage years.
“I love hanging out with teens, and writing about them is a great freedom. My niece, Lily, is 20 now, but we’re really close and I love that interaction. The other kids in my life, my nephews and nieces are younger, from 13 down to 6, but I find them so interesting and the way they view the world. I don’t envy them. They have to deal with social media and that would have killed me.”
When I suggest that, after her launch, Alex might consider taking a break, she looks panicked.
“I’ve my deadline for the next book, and then there’s the TV series to continue. Perhaps, then, I’ll have a break.” She smiles, but then it turns into a frown. “But I’ve got the sequels of I Confess, and the teenage book to do.”
I Confess by Alex Barclay. Harper Collins: €14.99. Kindle: €5.62.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 4th October.
Sue J Leonard. 2019.