Barclay banks on dark tales for young adults
Alex Barclay: 'This book was written for myself, aged 14'
Crime writer Alex Barclay has turned her hand to young adult fiction but insists compromise is not on the cards
It’s fair to say that Alex Barclay’s reputation precedes her. Formerly a fashion journalist, the Irish crime writer burst on to the crime writing scene in 2006 with the bestseller Dark House, a novel celebrated for its exploration of the brutal aspects of human nature.
The 39-year-old has published four more adult crime novels, but her new offering, Curse of Kings, is an epic quest written for young adults.
“I was a little concerned about someone not buying a book for their child because it’s written by a crime writer,” says Barclay. “And everyone said, ‘No, crime writers who write even darker stuff than you write for children, too.’ So that is kind of reassuring.”
Subtitled The Trials of Oland Born, Curse of Kings tells the tale of 14-year-old Oland, factotum to the evil Villius Ren, usurper of the good King Micah of Decressian. Humiliated and abused on a daily basis, Oland finally snaps and sets out on the journey that will, a mysterious letter informs him, lead him to his destiny.
Barclay cites her childhood reading of Enid Blyton as the strongest influence on Curse of Kings. “My favourite books of hers would have been The Enchanted Wood and The Faraway Tree series. In terms of what stayed with me, it’s very definitely mysteries and secrets and exotic locations. I recently found some of my ‘early writings’, from between the ages of four and nine, they were all in our attic at home – what a laugh. But sure enough, they were all stories about caves, and secret things far away, and mysterious people acting strange.
“This book was probably written for myself, aged 14. The escapism and the strangeness of it all would have been amazing to me then, but the magical elements would have been great, too. I just love, as a reader, not questioning that kind of fantasy. And as a writer, that’s great – it’s not rooted in the ‘gritty realism’ of crime fiction, you just have to let go and not question it all too much.
“The one thing I would have been conscious of was that the story couldn’t be too dark,” she says, “because it does get a bit dark in places. And there are no graphically described scenes of violence in there. But in terms of the actual writing, there was never a question of adapting the vocabulary or reining myself in.”
In writing for young adults, Barclay is following in the footsteps of Irish crime writing peers John Connolly, Colin Bateman, Cora Harrison and Eoin McNamee. But she insists the story itself is what has led to this book. “I had to write the story. That was the compulsion, and it really was a compulsion. I first came up with the idea five years ago, when I was writing The Caller, but I knew it wasn’t the right time to finish it. So I went ahead and wrote the crime novels, and then came back to Curse of Kings about three years ago.”
There’s a timely quality to the tale, given Oland’s miserable experience at the hands of his masters. “I feel so strongly about bullying. I just think it’s so heartbreaking. For anyone who has suffered it, and it’s so prevalent at the moment – you see it in the newspapers every day. Oland suffers an extreme version of bullying but he is bullied physically and emotionally and treated horrendously. What makes it worse for him is that it’s the only world he knows.”
Despite the epic fantasy context, Oland has no magical powers or access to enchanted weapons. He is thrown back on his own resources, and particularly his untapped reserves of courage. “I’m always intrigued by the concept of inner strength. Because it’s impossible to know what’s inside you until you’re faced with a situation that tests you to your limits.
“I suppose I’ve never felt limited by anything,” she continues. “I’ve said before crime fiction used to be considered a more masculine world, but that wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest as a woman and a writer. It just wouldn’t enter my head not to write something I wanted to. If I got inspired in the morning to write a cookbook, then I’d do it. I don’t know how my publisher would feel about it,” she chuckles, “but I’d do it. Nothing would stop me.
“At one point during the writing I paused and I realised that this was what I used to do when I was 10 years old. And here I am, still doing it.”
She laughs. “I probably do feel like I’m a big child at the best of times, and now it’s been confirmed.”
Crime for teenagers
John Connollyis best known for his supernatural-tinged Charlie Parker series of private-eye novels. He published The Book of Lost Things in 2006, a story that blended fairytale and mythology. More recently he has published the Samuel Johnson series of children’s books, beginning with The Gates (2009).
Eoin McNameeis the author of Resurrection Man (1994) and The Ultras (2004) and will publish the third of his Blue trilogy, Blue is the Night, later this year. McNamee has also published a pair of trilogies for children and young adults, the Navigator trilogy and the Ring of Five trilogy.
Cora Harrisonwrites historical crime fiction set on the Burren in Clare during the 15th century, featuring the Brehon judge Mara. She also writes the award-winning series The London Murder Mysteries, the first of which, The Montgomery Murder (2011), was selected for the Blue Peter Book Club.
Colin Batemanhas published 22 adult crime novels, the most recent of which was The Prisoner of Brenda (2012). He has also written eight titles for children and young adults, among them Reservoir Pups (2003) and Fire Storm (2010).
Curse of Kings by Alex Barclay is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books