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When life imitates art: what links a Canadian author, a Manhattan boss who is crushed to death by a lift and a group of people who are trapped when one fills up with water in a Toronto basement?

As he prepares to launch a new novel in Belfast, former journalist Linwood Barclay tells Una Brankin of the unsettling coincidences which mirror the book's plot

Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay with his wife Neetha
Linwood Barclay with his wife Neetha

By Una Brankin

The irony is unsettling. Bestselling Canadian author Linwood Barclay writes a novel about random individuals plunging to their deaths in plummeting elevators in Manhattan.

Then, on the cusp of his European publicity tour for the book, and two days after this interview for the Belfast Telegraph, a terrible real-life tragedy occurs when a 30-year-old man takes the lift in his luxury Manhattan apartment building. It suddenly drops when he tries to step off into the lobby, crushing him to death.

In the case of IT executive Samuel Waisbren, the elevator in his building had been shaking and malfunctioning for some time, according to other residents. In Linwood's new thriller Elevator Pitch, a more sinister force is behind the spate of deaths in the New York skyscrapers.

It was during his research for his latest nail-biter - he has almost 20 novels to his credit - that Linwood discovered how frighteningly easy it would be for someone to manipulate the operation of these "little claustrophobic cubes" in any city in the world.

"I went to see the guy who oversees the skyscrapers in Toronto and he showed me this large remote, like a TV remote, and with this he could control every lift in every building - WOH! And the thing is you can buy one of these things on eBay for €500," he says, incredulous.

"So, I thought: 'Oh, I gotta book here'. I've taken certain liberties in it, but this thing is real - you could take it home and adapt it. I thought the guard I spoke to would be fearful, but he was all excited: 'Yeah, I know how you could kill people with an elevator'.

"I could imagine all these different scenarios and then, incredibly, in Toronto last year there was this sudden torrential rain and a couple of people got trapped in an elevator in a basement that started to fill up with water. They were treading water with their faces up to the ceiling when the fire department got there. Quite a scare they got."

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The genial author was so taken with the story that he wrote a vignette based on it in the final edit of Elevator Pitch involving a canoodling couple who get into a bit of trouble within the four steel walls.

He will be in Belfast next weekend to launch the book in No Alibis, his third visit to the Botanic Avenue bookstore. It's another coup for the atmospheric little book shop. Linwood's fans include none other than his idol Stephen King, who has declared: "Read Elevator Pitch as soon as possible. It's one hell of a suspense novel."

Like King, many of Linwood Barclay's books have been optioned for film and TV. A drama series has been made in France and he wrote the screenplay for the film based on his breakthrough novel Never Saw It Coming.

Yet, like King, he remains as accessible to fans as ever.

And also to journalists, courtesy of the three decades he spent in newspapers before turning to writing thrillers full-time. Having started off as a reporter, he worked in various news editing roles before starting a humorous column for the Toronto Star in 1993.

He recalls his newspaper years as "a lotta fun; I loved the immediacy of the newsroom", and laments the decline of print media, particularly in regard to the local stories that will never get covered as a result.

Unsurprisingly, he takes umbrage at Donald Trump's relentless demonising of the media in general.

"It's horrific," he says quietly. "Even before he became President he made a habit of painting the media as villains to pave the way for himself.

"His presidency is a horrific development for the media. He is exposing journalists to danger and threats. It really is horrific."

Now 64, American-born Linwood recalls the less brash, pre-Donald Trump New York of 1965 when his father Everett, an illustrator who specialised in car ads, took him to visit the World Trade Fair and bought him some much cherished comics from the huge array at Grand Central Station.

Everett moved his family from Connecticut to Canada in 1959 to take up a job Toronto. In 1966 he bought holiday campground in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, which he ran with the help of his wife Muriel for five years until he died at 59 from lung cancer. Barclay was 16.

"He had quit smoking earlier in his life, but the damage was done," Linwood explains. "He went to hospital in March 1971 and had one lung removed. I remember getting my driving licence that month, for the driving to and from the hospital, and for getting the groceries.

"By November he was dead. I've never smoked - everybody in newspapers when I worked there did. I only ever had three cigarettes in Paris once, to fit in."

Left to take over his father's maintenance and overseeing role at the holiday camp, the teenage Linwood would make up short stories "in my head" as he did his rounds, mowing acres of grass and replacing toilet rolls. Inspired by detective fiction and television series, he tried his hand at novel writing while he was studying English literature at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

When his manuscripts were rejected by publishers he turned to journalism and found work on a number of local newspapers, starting with the Peterborough Examiner.

Unbeknownst to him in the beginning, he had entered the perfect training ground for a suspense writer. Two stories in particular, which emerged while he was working as a news editor, remain seared in his mind.

"The story ran for several days. I got a call at the start of the night shift at 11pm about a missing girl. At 11.20pm I got another call to say they'd found her in a fridge in a drifter's apartment. I remember directing people on the desk to call sources and sending out others to the scene.

"It was a very dramatic evening. I was only 25 and suddenly I had to put a story like that together. In tragic times like that you get an adrenaline rush, when usually it was all I could do to stay awake until the shift was over at 6am.

"Another night we were listening to the cops' radio and they were talking about some van that had parked in front of a company that made cruise missiles. The cops thought there was something funny about it and the next thing it blew up and wiped out the whole front of the building. That was another big story, although no one was killed, fortunately."

It wasn't until the early 2000s that Linwood found time to write fiction, in conjunction with his humorous column for the Toronto Star.

He had four comic mystery novels published between 2004 and 2007, all featuring a sleuth who works as a newspaper columnist by day. The books were modestly successful in the UK but nothing in comparison to the sales of No Time For Goodbye, a runaway bestseller internationally in 2007.

The novel centres around a 14-year-old girl who wakes up one morning to find her entire family missing.

Linwood says: "There was an incident in Toronto where a young girl was taken from her house in the middle of the night and I thought I would turn it upside down - for a girl to wake up at 5am to find her family gone. I sent an email to my editor.

"He said: 'Well, what happened to the family?' I said I had no idea. He said: 'You'll figure it out'. Other times I'll wake up with an idea and it's all there. I don't know if I have been dreaming; it's just there. I think there's just something different happens in the brain of writers, in the subconscious. I live in hope that something will float by and I'll catch it."

In June 2008 Linwood wrote his last column for the Toronto Star. He turned to writing fiction full-time with the support of his wife Neetha, to whom he dedicates all his books (he found himself "incredibly touched" when his hero Stephen King told him that he knew his wife's name from all the dedications in the novels he'd read). The couple has two grown-up children: Spencer, an artist and architectural model-builder, and Paige, an event planner.

"It was a big decision for me to give up work," he admits. "Neetha didn't mind but it is the hardest thing to be the spouse of an author. She is a fan of my books, but she can hardly say otherwise, especially when I'm sitting there watching her read!

"I'll be thinking: 'Was that a chortle or a snigger'? All that. I only let her read the last draft now, like everyone else. The only thing I gave her an advance read of was The Promise trilogy, because when she read the first one she said: 'Oh my God, I have to find out what happens next'."

A former kindergarten teacher, Neetha has encouraged Linwood to write for children. "Not so different from to what I normally do but I had to stop the F-bombs," he remarks.

He has also been writing scripts for film and television, which he finds much "less challenging" than producing a novel. But his legions of fans needn't worry that he's easing up on his suspense fiction, as he has another thriller - about automatic cars with demented minds of their own - in the pipeline.

In the meantime he seems to be genuinely happy to be promoting Elevator Pitch in Belfast next week.

"If I'm in Dublin for a book tour, I try to get up to Belfast too, and vice versa. I love the picture of Colombo on the ceiling in No Alibies and I love the owner (David Torrans) - and the Irish writer John Connolly - he's the funniest guy.

"Anyway, they put me up in this magnificent hotel in Belfast last time I was over. I remember watching that drama you had filmed here - The… something? Oh yes, The Fall.

"And Gillian Anderson opens up the door in her hotel room and these lights come on for her to do her make-up.

"That was the hotel, The Fitzwilliam. I wanna go back there and I wanna see the Titanic building also. I'm afraid I have no Irish connections, but I do like Bailey's Irish Cream..."

Linwood Barclay's Elevator Pitch book launch takes place at No Alibis bookstore on Belfast's Botanic Avenue on Saturday, September 7, 4pm-6pm. To register for free tickets, visit: launch-tickets-64007179196

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