By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Rehab Run: A Danny Cleary Novel (published by Titan Books), describing it as “an impressively well-written novel that is, perhaps appropriately, more inhaled than read.” AMO is therefore delighted to welcome back talented author Barbra Leslie for another exclusive online interview where we candidly discuss the creative writing process, the autonomous nature of flawed hero Danny Cleary, the beautiful Annapolis Valley and her exciting plans for the next book in the series.
Hi Barbra, thank you for your time and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online!
Hey Marty! Thanks for having me back! AMO is starting to feel like my home away from home.
What have you been up to since I last interviewed you in February 2016?
Wow. That’s tough. I feel like it was just yesterday. To be honest, I work. I work all the time. I’ve got a touch of ADHD (well, more than a touch, if you believe the docs) and I tend to flourish when I’m spinning a lot of plates. But of course lately, I’m back in Danny Cleary-land. I must say, though, that for a life like mine, which has been full a lot of chaos and change, it was a quiet, placid year. Which is a Good Thing.
Congratulations on the successful launch of Rehab Run near the end of last year! I really enjoyed spending time with Danny Cleary again as I’m sure you could tell from my review. What was it like revisiting her world?
Thanks again! I was about to say that I love Danny’s world, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct. I love the Clearys, and there a million things I’d love to do with them. But when I’m intensely in writing mode, as I was for Rehab Run, I go pretty deep in. Ideally, I can write for months at a time and then take a mental break to do edits, which aren’t as emotionally demanding. When I wrote Rehab Run, it was like I was right there with Danny et al. And as you can probably imagine, that’s not always the most comfortable place to be.
The story has some connections to the first book but mostly goes off and does its own thing – was this a conscious decision?
I think I wanted to take Danny away from the urban drug landscape. Despite the title, Rehab Run isn’t nearly as much about Danny’s own past or addiction. I wanted to write a slightly more straightforward mystery, I think. I have to read it again this week, so with this bit of distance perhaps I’ll be able to judge whether I achieved that. But in terms of ‘conscious decision’? I’ve got to tell you, Marty, no matter how many outlines I write, Danny will do what Danny will do. I didn’t plan on a lot of what happened in Rehab Run.
How would you say the events of the first book have changed Danny and her outlook on life during the events of Rehab Run?
I think that losing two of the people she loves most in the world – and also feeling the weight of responsibility of her nephews, and her family’s worry – makes her want to change. She will always feel responsible for what happened to Ginger and Jack, and having her nephews in her life in such an intense way has made her want to grow up a bit, and have a quiet life.
But she can’t escape who she is – in Cracked, Danny evolved into a righter of wrongs, whether she wanted to be or not. And in Rehab Run, while she might want to stay away from trouble, when it finds her, she is, by her nature, incapable of stepping aside to let others handle it.
Her brother Darren is only mentioned in passing this time round, although her older brother Laurence more than makes up for his absence. What made you decide to bring another family member into the spotlight?
Somebody has to be looking after the twins! Darren’s got his hands full!
But seriously, when I was writing Cracked, I felt an affinity for Laurence, and always intended for him to have a bigger place at some point. (Actually, he had a slightly bigger presence in an earlier draft of Cracked, but we edited it out.) And coming from a large family myself, it felt natural that different siblings step in at different times of crisis. In my family, that’s definitely been the way. We live thousands of miles from each other, but let’s just say that between us, we’ve racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles.
How does Danny’s relationship with Laurence differ to the relationship she has with Darren?
Darren was always Danny’s pet, the little brother she protected even when she was a kid herself. Laurence is one of her older brothers, so the relationship is going to be a bit different. They have a similar easy, teasing bond, but Laurence is a bit more opaque to Danny. His life has been very much about his career, and it’s probably the first time they’ve bonded this way as adults. She still wants to protect Laurence, and keep him from harm – it’s a lot of what drives her to do what she does, in Rehab Run – but she also lets him look after her a bit.
I thought the Annapolis Valley was a great place to set Rehab Run. What’s your connection to the area and how did it fulfil your needs when writing the story?
I was born and raised in the Annapolis Valley. I have family and friends there. I go back to Nova Scotia often, and really, it’s where my heart is. Toronto has been my home base since I came here for university when I was 18, but when I fly back to the Valley I always think of it as going home.
I wanted a place that would seem serene and safe, but where anything can happen once you get past the parts the tourists see. The Annapolis Valley is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, even objectively – but I like the juxtaposition between the serenity and violence of the natural landscape.
How much do you plan ahead when writing? Does the direction the story takes ever surprise you?
Constantly. Ridiculously. When I was writing Rehab Run, I became so frustrated at one point, because Danny did a couple of impulsive things that, I swear to God, I neither planned nor expected. Which, by the way, threw some of my carefully-planned outlines out the window.
What do you think it is that makes Danny – despite her faults – so likeable? Would you describe her as an antihero?
I think that anyone who is aware of their flaws and honest about them – even just to themselves, and of course we are in Danny’s head when we read these books – is likeable. I don’t mean in the sense of a psychopath who embraces his or her psychopathy, perhaps (although Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is a pretty likeable character). But Danny is aware that there are things wrong with her, some fundamental flaws.
But I wouldn’t describe her as an antihero – though it’s a great question. I had to think about this for a little while. I was thinking about antiheroes in popular culture in the past, say, 20 years, and the one that immediately pops to mind first is Tony Soprano. (I’m a Sopranos nut. I probably wouldn’t be able to have any kind of meaningful conversation with a person who didn’t like the Sopranos. I’d have to excuse myself to find the ladies’ room, and find myself outside hailing a taxi.) We love Tony, we root for Tony – but just when you think Tony’s moral code might be in the right place for half an episode, he commits an inexcusable heinous act, and not one that can be excused even by his own professed moral code. Danny’s actions – even one close to the end of Rehab Run that I caught flak about from some members of my family! – are either a function of her addiction (early in Cracked, in particular) or, frankly, her rage.
I would say that Danny is a flawed hero, more than an antihero.
How far along are you with the third book? Can you tell AMO’s readers anything at all – the title, perhaps?
I can’t help it – I’m superstitious. My rational mind is all about science and proof, but I also grew up to never walk under ladders, and I think I’d faint if I accidentally opened an umbrella indoors. So I hesitate to talk about the third book, other than to say, the chickens are coming home to roost. Okay, a little more: Danny, Darren, Fred and the twins are living in Toronto, and everyone seems to be settling into their new lives – except for Danny. And once again, Danny’s brother-in-law Fred, by dint of his weaknesses, introduces chaos into the lives of the Clearys.
As for the title – still some back-ing and forth-ing between two titles. It might take a coin toss to decide.
Thank you for your time Barbra, it’s been great to catch up with you. I can’t wait for the next Danny Cleary novel!
Thanks so much, Marty!