By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Cracked: A Danny Cleary Novel (published by Titan Books), describing it as “a cracking good read” and as a book that “could only have been written by someone with first-hand experience of addiction”. With a sequel planned for release in November 2016, AMO is delighted to present an exclusive online interview with the book’s friendly and candid author, Barbra Leslie!
Hi Barbra, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online!
Hi Martin! Happy to be here.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
Absolutely! I’m Canadian, born and raised in Nova Scotia, but I’ve lived in Toronto since I came here for university, eons ago. I always had the adventure bug, and I dropped out of York University’s Fine Arts Studies program to go on tour with Cats for two years selling t-shirts, then later did a degree in English at the University of Toronto. I’ve done everything from bartending and waitressing to doing marketing for law firms and writing for a legal newspaper, and eventually ended up working in various positions in the criminal justice system. I’ve done a lot of travelling, and when I have a bit of time I want to get back to Southeast Asia for a while. I lived in London for a bit in my 20s, in Streatham/Brixton, and in Dallas, Texas for a year as well.
I’ve written all my life, published short stories and poetry when I was younger, a novel, Nerve, and then did a couple of screenplays – optioned but not produced. I wrote a couple of other books I haven’t published yet, but I got hooked – ha! – writing Cracked and put everything else aside. It’s definitely a departure from anything else I’ve done.
I recently reviewed your new book Cracked on AMO, describing it as ‘a cracking good read’ (pun intended!). What’s the book all about?
Thanks again for the great review! Cracked is a fast-paced, noir-ish thriller about a young woman, Danny Cleary (who happens to be a crack addict), whose twin sister is murdered in Orange County. Danny and one of her brothers fly to southern California, intent on finding their sister’s killers and exacting revenge. It’s difficult to talk about the plot too much without giving away spoilers – as you well know, the book takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns along the way.
How would you describe the main character, Danny Cleary?
Danny is loyal and fierce, but because of trauma in her own life, she has slid into heavy-duty drug use. She’s smart — but not necessarily academic – and instinctive, and, partially because of her love for her family and partially out of a kind of not caring about her own welfare, she will do anything to do what she has set her mind to. She’s a bit of a machine that way. And her history as an amateur fighter helps when she gets herself into trouble — which, as you know, she has a wont to do! Danny is most definitely not a slave to her fears. She’s so much fun to write.
I also wrote in my review how Cracked ‘could only have been written by someone with first-hand experience of addiction’. Was it difficult to write the darker passages of the book?
In a nutshell, yes. When I signed the contract for the Cracked series, I realized that I was going to have to, uh, come clean about my own past addiction. For a period of a few years after my marriage ended, I suffered serious depression, and I started using a lot of cocaine with people I met then. Eventually the man I started seeing began doing crack, and soon so did I. I lost my life savings — and my soul, for a period of time — to that drug. It was a nightmare, and when I stopped – around six or seven years ago now; the timeline at the end is still a bit fuzzy – I had a lot of cleaning up to do in my life. I’m still digging myself out, in some ways. Writing a very early draft of Cracked was a bit of a catharsis, but when I was doing final edits, dealing with some of the heavy drug bits was difficult. But hey – it’s saved on therapy bills!
How did publishers respond to having a novel where the main character is a crack addict?
There were some editors who responded with comments about how the drug use was unrealistic. I found that funny, as well as frustrating – while I am most definitely not Danny, the drug use in the book is most definitely autobiographical. I have a memory that is sometimes too good – I can remember all the bad things in precise and painful detail. And of course there were publishers that didn’t think readers would identify with a crack-addicted protagonist – but oddly, Danny seems to have really struck a chord with readers. Which, of course, makes me incredibly happy.
I really enjoyed the central murder mystery – were you inspired by the works of any other crime/mystery writers in particular?
Thanks! You know, I was pretty uneducated when it came to crime books until I was writing Cracked. But one day I picked up a Dennis Lehane book and bam – I was hooked. The two crime writers that really grabbed me early on were Lehane and James Lee Burke. Later, I found scores of others, of course. I love Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books, and Nicola Griffith’s Aud series, and a lot of Robert B. Parker and James Kellerman. And I’m a huge Patricia Highsmith fan.
There is plenty of subtle humour throughout the book. Do you think it’s important to have some moments of levity when dealing with such dark subject matter?
I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute, but I know as a reader I like a bit of punchy wit to alleviate the tension. Not just as a reader, actually – I tend to be that way in life, as well. I have an unfortunate tendency to crack a bit wise in difficult moments. So I wouldn’t say I thought about it; it just came naturally.
Danny often clashes with both criminals and the law. How much research was involved when writing the book?
Well, as I mentioned I’ve worked in the criminal justice system on and off for a number of years. I am contractually unable to talk about much of that, but I got a lot of on the job training. I’ve seen my fair share of the darker side of life, in that way. But certainly there were specific things I had to research – a lot of the book takes place in the States, which has a different legal system than we have here in Canada.
Cracked is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. Was this something you always had in mind?
Not at all! I was hoping for a second book, but when we were talking to Titan Books about a deal, they wanted to know if I had ideas for a third book. Of course I did – as far as I am concerned, Danny is part of the fabric of my life now. I’ll miss her when she’s gone. If she ever is – perhaps if enough readers catch on, she can stick around for a while.
Are the remaining two books already planned out?
I’m working on the second book right now – Cracked 2: Rehab Run. It will come out in November 2016. I’ve known for a while what that plot was going to look like. And the third book – well, yes, I do know, and that one will be a killer!
What’s next for you Barbra?
Well, Martin, the short answer is, writing and more writing! I’m on pretty tight deadlines for these two books, and I’ve been playing with an idea for something else I want to work on as well – a kind of post-apocalyptic novel, but not in the science fiction sense. Though I do love science fiction these days. I of course still do some ‘day job’ work, and at the moment my fantasy is a quiet cabin in the woods where I can go with my guy and our dog, with no screens – other than my laptop, of course!
Thank you for your time, I loved Cracked and can’t wait to read the next Danny Cleary novel!
Thank you so much, Martin. I’m thrilled that you liked it, and I’ll do my best to make sure you like the next one at least as much!