I recently read what, for me, was one of the best crime books I’ve encountered since I began blogging – ‘Cracked’ by Barbra Leslie. You can read my review by clicking here. I was so impressed by Barbra’s writing that I asked if she would mind asking a few questions and I’m delighted that she agreed.
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Barbra. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you! I’m so happy to be talking to you.
Firstly, would you mind telling readers a little bit about yourself?
Sure! I was born and raised in a small village in Nova Scotia, Canada, the youngest of six children. Youngest by quite a lot, I might add – my next oldest sibling is eight years older than I am. We owned a small grocery store and lived above the store, all of us. My father died when I had just turned four, and my eldest siblings had moved out by then, off to university and their lives. By the time I was 10 or 11, it was just my mother and me. I moved to Toronto for university when I was 18, and other than lots of travelling and living other places for periods of time – London, Dallas, Texas – it’s been my home ever since. I’ve been writing all my life – published my first story at 15, and poetry and short stories in university and after – but I was working long hours at day jobs by the time I was in my early 20s, and really living the life of a young woman about town. I published a novel in the late 90s called Nerve, and wrote other things I never did wind up publishing, but an unpublished manuscript found its way into the hands of a producer and it got optioned for film. I spent a lot of time on that screenplay, my first, and a fun project. Hasn’t yet been made, but who knows? It’s a fickle business, the movie business.
But I’ve worked in many kinds of legal jobs, from a writer for a legal newspaper to doing marketing for a big law firm, from tracking criminal cases for the Attorney General to working as a court reporter.
What made you decide to write crime fiction as opposed to any other genre?
Well, my first novel, Nerve, wasn’t a crime book, and I had never written crime fiction before. Frankly the idea hadn’t occurred to me until, quite literally, the night I sat down and started writing a very early draft of Cracked. And I love this genre so much now, I can’t imagine writing anything else.
Unless I do a foray into a post-apocalyptic novel or series, which I am also a bit obsessed with just now.
As you know, I thought ‘Cracked’ was the best crime thriller I’ve read since I started blogging, what gave you the idea for the novel?
That is such high praise, Linda. I’m flattered. I may even be blushing a little, sitting here at my desk!
I decided to come clean with this about a month ago, knowing the book was coming out, and questions like this might be asked. So, in a nutshell: in 2005 when my marriage ended – and I knew I wasn’t going to have children, which I quite literally, at that time, couldn’t imagine living without – I embarked on a kind of odyssey of low living. It wasn’t planned, of course. At first I just started frequenting a local bar where a friend had gotten a job. Soon, though, I realized that the new friends I had met there were doing a lot of cocaine.
Now, you must understand, I was about the farthest thing from a drug user – let alone addict — that you could imagine. I had tried weed a number of times in my life and for the most part hated it, and the smell made me sick. And in high school when my friends were experimenting with acid – it had a big revival at that time, at least where I grew up – I had no interest. I do like my wine, but even that I didn’t really start drinking – again, with a few exceptions – until I lived in London when I was in my late 20s. England taught me how to drink! (But that could be a topic for another interview altogether: the difference between English and North American bar culture. Maybe another day…!) But sitting at my desk here tonight, when I think of it, I haven’t had any wine since – oh I guess a week ago maybe? When I was doing crack, I pretty much counted the hours until I could do it again.
When I jumped into this life of partying with cocaine, things went downhill quite quickly. I was, in retrospect, suffering from major depression, and I couldn’t bear to be alone with my sadness. I fell in love with a man who was as damaged as I was, but unfortunately for me, his level of addiction beat me, hands down. When he started doing crack, I eventually tried it.
I went from being a nice young middle-class matron to a hard-core crack addict in the space of about a year. It ruined my life, put simply. I lost myself, I lost my soul, and I could easily have lost my life. And while I have been clean for about seven years now, there are aspects of that time that I am still climbing back from.
But I am so incredibly fortunate to have the people around me that I do, my friends. None of my friends before this did any kind of drug. I pushed them away for a long time, but when I was ready to come back to the land of the living they were there for me with open arms.
There is a very dark underworld in ‘Cracked’. Without spoiling the plot for future readers, how did you go about researching the world of drugs, guns and murder?
Well, drugs – I’ve told you about that. While Cracked is most definitely fiction, the depictions of drug use pretty closely mirror my own experience. Guns and murder? I’ve spent years watching and listening to police interviews with accused, witnesses and victims in criminal cases, for a police service here in Ontario – but not, I hasten to add, in Toronto. (And I take my confidentiality agreements very seriously!) Plus sitting in a lot of courtrooms, reading a lot of police files while I was tracking cases for the Ministry – I was paid to get that education, you might say.
What made you decide on a female protagonist?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I’ve written from a male perspective before as well, and I’ve had editors think that I was a man, from my writing. Which is bizarre to me, and funny. But an editor at one publishing house rejected Cracked because of the drug use – which is fair enough, but as you know, Linda, the book isn’t about drugs, it’s just a part — and she couldn’t understand why a man would use a female pseudonym. No woman could write this level of violence, she said.
I guess when I very first started writing the book, I took Danny Cleary on as a part of my psyche. When I started a very early draft, I was sitting in Nova Scotia at my mother’s house, where I had gone to care for her when she was sick. I was just getting clean, and I couldn’t tell her – I didn’t want to upset her – so I had no rehab, no help, nothing. Writing Cracked was my rehab. Although once I wrote a very rough draft I put it away for a long time. It was hard to come back to; when I was newly clean and still having urges at times, I didn’t want to immerse myself into that world again.
I thought the first person narrative was incredibly effective. What made you write from this perspective and not the third person?
Excellent question, Linda. I think, again, that it was unconscious. When I sat down that night to start this book, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write, exactly. I hadn’t thought past the basic plot. But I just had to write it – the pull was as strong as any I have ever felt, to anything. And I was using Danny as a sort of catharsis, I think.
How did you go about planning ‘Cracked’? Did it emerge naturally as you wrote or did you have meticulous plans before you began?
Before I began? Absolutely no meticulous plans. I knew the tone I wanted, the sort of style I wanted. But in the back of my mind, the book was just all about revenge. Take-no-prisoners revenge. My life was in utter shambles at that time, and other than the time I spent at the gym in the afternoons while my mother slept – as I said, she wasn’t well and I tried to stick close to home – I exorcised my demons, and the book fair raced along.
However, the book you read does not much resemble the book I wrote originally, other than that the characters of Danny and Darren don’t change, and the very basics of the stimulus of the plot – Ginger’s murder and the quest for answers and vengeance. But I must say, a good 60% of the plot changed when I picked it back up again, a long time later.
This is the first in a trilogy about Danny Cleary. Why did you decide to have a trilogy?
I realize that my answers here sound as though I’m a bit flighty, but it wasn’t a decision I made, as such. I didn’t want to let Danny go – I couldn’t imagine this book being a one-off. I had a million ideas for where I wanted Danny, and a possible series, to go. (You know, there have been times over the last few years, when I’m having a bad day, when I’m feeling low, I just stop and start thinking about these characters, thinking about what they should do, and I feel utterly calm again.)
I had started an outline for the second book before I even finished my last draft of Cracked. Then when Titan Books expressed an interest in signing me for the book, they asked for an outline of a third. I said, “yes, please,” and it was down on paper, almost fully fleshed-out, that afternoon. In fact, in some ways the third book became more real to me than the second.
And who knows? If they do well enough, maybe we’ll see more of Danny et al! I certainly hope so.
We hear quite a lot about Danny’s brother Darren in book one. Will he appear in the next part ‘Cracked; Rehab Run’?
Yes, absolutely. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the sibling who’s front and centre with Danny in the second book is Laurence, her TV producer brother who lives in New York. The second book, most of it, takes place in rural Nova Scotia, where I grew up. It’s my homecoming book. But the book – the character — is so much about family that Darren is most definitely not the only family member that the reader will get to know.
Family is obviously important to Danny. How far do her views reflect your own feelings about family?
For me, my family is my lifeline. I have five brothers and sisters whom I love beyond anything. And some of them have families. In fact, in the acknowledgements section at the back of Cracked, I name them all. My mother, had she lived to see this book released, would have loved that.
But I am probably closest to my three sisters. The four of us get together every year or so, usually in southern California, where some of Cracked is set. One of my sisters has lived there for 30 odd years — but she is not, I hasten to add, the basis for Ginger’s character. I don’t have a twin, never did. But I talk to my family constantly, and if someone is in crisis, someone else flies to be there. We all live in different cities, or at least most of us do. Orange County, Vancouver, Toronto, and parts of Nova Scotia. My sisters and I are all very different; lead vastly different lifestyles and have different interests, but when you get us together, you can be pretty sure that for the first two nights no one within a quarter mile gets much sleep. We share the same sense of humour.
And after the really awful years of my life, I can truly say I don’t think I would be alive without them.
And not having any family where I live, I’ve got friends who are as close to me as family and who, as my friend Linda likes to say, I would walk through fire for.
The different characters in ‘Cracked’ are quite tricky to pin down and decide who’s to be trusted. To what extent do you think multiple personas are typical of people in real life?
Another great question! To answer this as fully as I would like, I would have to give away plot details, which I am obviously not going to do. But I will say that the extent that it is used in crime/thriller/mystery books – or plays and films, for that matter – is not proportionate with real life. No one would be getting anything done; we’d all be sequestered behind locked doors in mortal fear.
That being said, we are so often treated to stories of men who have double lives, with two different families who don’t know a thing about each other. Or exponentially more horrific, serial killers who lead seemingly normal existences with responsible jobs and families who love them. Dennis Rader, known as the BTK killer, was an upstanding citizen in his Kansas town; a church deacon, from what I’ve read. I defy anyone to look at any photographs of that man and think that he was capable of the horrors he carried out; in fact he looks remarkably like someone who tried to sell me a car a few years ago. Here in Ontario several years ago, we had Russell Williams, who was a Colonel in the Canadian Forces and, while in that role, committed two horrible murders and several sexual assaults. And notoriously photographed himself in his victims’ lingerie. His arrest was a shock to his community, and by all accounts to his wife.
I believe that evil does exist. I think the majority of people in prison are not evil; most of them are products of their birth, circumstance, upbringing and untreated or undiagnosed psychiatric issues. Evil exists; it just doesn’t usually wear the face we expect it to. It’s just as likely to look like Ted Bundy as Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber).
These have been amazing and honest answers Barbra. I’d like to thank you again for agreeing to answer questions about ‘Cracked’ and to wish you all the success you so obviously deserve in your future writing.
Thanks, Linda! And here’s wishing you continued success with the blog!!
You can follow Barbra on Twitter
‘Cracked’ was published in ebook and paperback by Titan on 24th November 2015 and is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as from Titan. ‘Cracked’ is the first in the Danny Cleary series by Barbra Leslie.