Tuesday 17 September 2019

'Beautiful Beara is the star of my new book' - crime writer Alex Barclay on how move to isolated West Cork has informed her writing

Setting the scene: Author Alex Barclay on the Beara Peninsula. Photo: Benson Russell
Setting the scene: Author Alex Barclay on the Beara Peninsula. Photo: Benson Russell
Author Alex Barclay
Alex Barclay in The Tea Room in Castletownbere where she spent time writing her latest novel

The windswept, rugged terrain of the Beara Peninsula is a far cry from the bustle of Dublin city. Yet for Alex Barclay, the former magazine editor-turned-crime writer, the former provides the right amount of creative inspiration. So much so, in fact, that the author has turned her hand to different genres of books, including thrillers and Young Adult.

Twelve years ago, Barclay arrived in the Anam Cara artist's retreat in Eyeries and loved it so much that she decided to move to the area.

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"I didn't know how long I was going to stay, but it's so peaceful and everyone is so welcoming," she explains. "A lot of people end up moving here to write or paint or do something creative. I'd always found it sort of hard to work in Dublin - it's just much easier to get away from it all."

The isolation of West Cork - Beara is a five-hour drive from Dublin ("There are people coming home from London that get back there quicker") - is at once a blessing and a curse for Barclay, who lives alone and ventures out occasionally to a local café or hotel to write.

Author Alex Barclay
Author Alex Barclay

She misses the National Gallery and being able to pop out of her Dublin home for an impromptu gig, but Beara gives back to her, both personally and professionally, and has made the move more than worthwhile for her.

"I miss catching up with people but when there are no other distractions, it means that my working days are incredibly long," Alex reflects. "There have been days that started at 6am and sometimes went on until 3am. I was off-radar quite a lot. I don't think I've spoken less in my life! It's not a regular life at the moment - there has been so much plotting on paper so there has been a sort of lockdown going on. Thank God my family and friends are very understanding."

It's a slog that has resulted in Barclay's 12th book (and her ninth crime novel), I Confess. A psychological thriller set in Cork, Barclay's first book in three years tells the story of seven childhood friends who visit an old inn on Pilgrim Point (a supposedly haunted, religious monument in Beara), near where they grew up. The story reveals each character's own history with Pilgrim Point, and how it connects them all to a dark past they're trying to forget.

Previously, Alex had placed many of her crime thrillers in the US, but this is the first of hers that takes place mainly in Ireland.

"At the very start it was just a little strange writing Irish dialogue, because I wasn't that used to it," she admits. "I started off with the broad idea about who I want the people to be. But then you just write into the character. Often you have to write your way into the story to find out who the characters are. What really caught my imagination was: how much do we change since childhood and how much do we stay the same?"

Barclay's past as a journalist - she had previously written for U Magazine and the RTÉ Guide, primarily on fashion, beauty and celebrity - makes her something of a natural people-watcher. It's a true boon for someone who wants to work as a novelist, she reasons.

Alex Barclay in The Tea Room in Castletownbere where she spent time writing her latest novel
Alex Barclay in The Tea Room in Castletownbere where she spent time writing her latest novel

"I suppose I always wrote about different subjects from the moment I started in journalism, but you do have to have a certain amount of discipline with it," she reflects. "I especially loved writing articles where I had to talk to people going through all kinds of big life changes."

Whatever about Barclay's insight into all kinds of people, the unforgiving topography of the Beara Peninsula also winds its way into the book's eerie atmosphere; the fictitious headland where the action unfolds has an equivalent about 12 miles from Barclay's house.

"I used that rugged landscape and set the story in November - it's dark and can often feel quite distant from the rest of the world," she explains. "I loved the dichotomy of being on this cliff edge looking out at a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, but also feeling this claustrophobic, toxic evening set in an inn. Bringing the small-town setting to the forefront really adds so much."

Beara is an enclave of creatives, and Barclay has slotted right into local life. And while there is the sense that the fine-boned, urbane and glamorous writer is something of an exotic curiosity to its denizens, she says she was welcomed with open arms.

"The main reaction from people who come down to stay with me is that the kindness of people here is off the scale," she enthuses. "The major part of my social life these days is going down to the post office, and I love it. You just end up having the chats with whoever is coming in."

Yet writing about the claustrophobia of small-town Ireland, especially when you live there, can be a challenging prospect, too. "I think it's very clear it's fiction and people understand that it's fiction and it has no basis in fact. In terms of the nuances and the cultures, it's definitely prepped in advance. With psychological thrillers, it really is all about the tension; what's going on in everyone's head, who you can trust, who's lying - I mean everyone's lying - but these things are universal and can be happening anywhere."

Pulling various strands together to create a chilling denouement takes time and skill, although not everyone is fully appreciative of the craft of crime writing.

Famously last month, Brooklyn writer Colm Tóibín offered a withering denouncement of genre writing, eliciting a heated response from writers. "I can't do thrillers and I can't do spy novels," he is quoted as saying. "I can't do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don't find any rhythm in it. It's blank, it's nothing; it's like watching TV."

"I had a lighthearted response to that, to be honest," shrugs Barclay. "I don't take offence by that. There's a general sense that he was simply expressing an opinion on what he likes to read. We just do what we do, and I think we're all secure enough about it to have a laugh."

When Barclay's debut, Darkhouse, was released to fanfare in 2005, she was one of a mere handful of bestselling Irish crime writers, yet the homegrown crime market has exploded around her in the years since then. 'Domestic noir', too, has had a moment in the publishing industry.

"The thing about psychological thrillers is that while they lean on the darker side, they all have a heart to them," she explains. "They all delve into people's minds, and any decent work of fiction does that. People relate to it so well here because that sense of justice is what the reader wants, even if just on an unconscious level. Where there's a crime involved and a character wants to figure it out, there is pain, loss, grief, joy… all the emotions. That's why people respond to it so well here."

Barclay is certainly assured when it comes to her crime-writing craft, but returning to the Young Adult genre has been a relatively recent development. In 2013, she released her first YA title, Curse of Kings (it was billed as the first in a series of six but Barclay has yet to write a follow-up in the series). Earlier this year, however, she signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins Children's.

The first book in the new deal, My Heart & Other Breakables: How I lost my mom, found my dad, and made friends with catastrophe is a diary-form novel for 11-plus readers and will be published in March 2020.

Billed as the sort of book "that can make a reader laugh or cry your eyes out", My Heart & Other Breakables is 'written' by 15-year-old Ellery Brown. She is "conscious, smart, witty and resourceful, American-born but Irish-living", and finds herself on a journey to uncover the true identity of her father.

"I adored writing this, and it was one of those stories that just came out of nowhere," Alex reflects. "It's a real rollercoaster, and I really love her."

Of the idea that Ellery has the power to make the reader laugh and cry, often within a single page, she adds: "Ah look, sometimes the tears have to come out. I'm not a big crier myself - I'm certainly better than I used to be - but a level of emotional stuff is actually pretty healthy. That's why I love hanging out with fellow crime writers so much. You wouldn't believe the really dark, emotional stuff that comes out there."

'I Confess' is out on August 22 via HarperCollins Ireland

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