By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Unhinged: A Danny Cleary Novel, describing it as “yet another breakneck thriller from Barbra Leslie, a compulsive page-turner that surprises at every turn.” AMO is therefore delighted to welcome back crime thriller writer, dog lover, and snark queen (her words, not ours!) Barbra Leslie for yet another exclusive online interview where we discuss her kick-ass protagonist Danny Cleary, the writing process and what the future holds!
Hi Barbra, thank you for your time (as always) and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online!
Thank you! I am, as always, very glad to be here!
What have you been up to since I last interviewed you in February 2017?
For someone as oddly unaware of time passing as I am, this is a tough one. Well, I wrote Unhinged in that time – the bulk of it, anyway. I travelled from coast to coast here in Canada for various family events, as I have family on the west coast in British Columbia and on the east coast in Nova Scotia, where I was born and raised.
My eldest sister Pamela became suddenly ill last summer, and died in August 2017. She lived in Southern California, and there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. One of my other sisters and I drove across the U.S. in my late sister’s car, with her ashes in the trunk – sorry, the boot to you! – as we were having a memorial in Cape Breton, where my brothers and sisters were all born. It was a bizarre road trip. Lots of laughs and a ton of tears.
Since then, Unhinged was launched, and to be honest I have been pretty deeply in mourning. Like Danny Cleary, my family and I are very close. I’ve started to come out of it now, but it has been probably the toughest year of my life – and with my history, that’s saying something!
Congratulations on the release of your new book, Unhinged. I really enjoyed it as I’m sure you could tell from my review. What’s this latest Danny Cleary novel all about?
Thanks, Marty! In Unhinged, Danny, her brother Darren and their nephews and her brother-in-law Fred – along with her late sister’s cook Marta, Marta’s mother and son, and the former Israeli commando who’d been her sister’s security and butler – are all living together in a coverted bakery in Toronto that Danny has had retrofitted with state of the art security. Her nemesis, Michael Vernon Smith, is still at large, and Danny’s preoccupation is the safety and happiness of her late sister’s boys.
Of course, Danny is more proactive than reactive, so sitting around waiting for the axe to fall doesn’t suit her. Between working as a bouncer at a strip club, confronting past demons, and trying to keep home and hearth safe and happy, Danny is never boring!
How would you describe Danny’s state of mind as the book begins?
At the beginning of Unhinged, Danny is in full-blown self-hatred mode. She’s picking up strangers in bars, and seems to almost revel in the seediness she’s subjecting herself to. She’s obsessively exercising, running across the city late at night, needing to be ready in case trouble finds her again – or more importantly to her, in case trouble visits itself on her loved ones.
She may not be doing drugs, but she’s still punishing herself.
I often feel like Danny doesn’t give herself enough credit. Would you agree that’s a fair assessment?
I find myself having to really think about this question, Martin! Danny tends to be self-deprecating, for sure. Early on – I believe in Cracked – it is explained that it’s a Cleary family trait, finding humour in one’s own foibles. So she has that in spades.
But, yes. I do think your assessment is spot-on. Danny will never be able to forgive herself for not being there for her sister Ginger when Ginger needed her, or for the fact that Ginger died partially because of Danny. And her guilt and sadness at having to end her marriage to Jack is what leads Danny to drugs in the first place.
Danny feels as though she is bad luck to those who love her. In my vision of her, she’ll probably never make peace with that.
In what ways is Unhinged different from the previous two books?
Good question! The first thing that popped to mind is that this is the first book that is set entirely (or nearly entirely) in Toronto where I live. I’ve always written about areas I know well – Southern California, rural Nova Scotia – but I know this city like the back of my hand. It was nice to bring Danny home, as it were.
Also, Unhinged shows Danny as settled, in some ways, as she has been since her marriage to Jack. She’s made a home for her tribe, and she’s committed to making it a safe and happy one. But as we know, Danny can’t stay away from trouble, so between picking up strange men in bars and working as a bouncer in a strip club – not to mention the return of an unwelcome face from the past – Danny is far from a domestic goddess.
I really liked how many of the dangling plot threads from Cracked and Rehab Run were tied up in Unhinged. How much of the overarching story was planned out from the very beginning?
I am actually a bit embarrassed to say that I didn’t plan much in advance at all – or certainly not from the beginning. I knew that I wanted the second book to be set in rehab in Nova Scotia, but other than that? No idea until I got going, really. But when I’m writing, I have white boards all over my walls with plot points, dates, notes about things like, for example, nautical reports for certain parts of Nova Scotia. I also – and this is a bit odd – have what I call fantasy casting on my boards while I’m writing. I find it helps me to envision particular actors for certain roles. Although it just occurred to me as I wrote that, that I have never done that for Danny! I have never imagined a particular actor playing her.
Before I wrote Unhinged, I knew only that I wanted to tie up some loose ends, particularly from Cracked. And I knew that I wanted to have Danny working in a strip club. (I actually had a dream early on involving Danny being a bouncer, and I had to make it happen!)
Once I get writing, I know where I want the books to end up, basically, but not exactly how I’m going to get there. Danny has a mind of her own; it’s the oddest sensation when I’m writing her. I feel like a conduit sometimes, more than a writer!
Had you always envisioned a trilogy of Danny Cleary novels?
Not at all! I wrote the first draft of Cracked quite a long time ago, when I was holed up in Nova Scotia getting clean from my own addiction to crack. I thought it would be a one-off, to be honest. At some point my agent, Sam Hiyate of The Rights Factory, suggested I get started on sequel, even before we sold the first one. When Titan came on board, they wanted a contract for three Danny Cleary books. It was wonderful – I absolutely loved writing these books.
In many ways, Unhinged feels like a definitive ending. Can you see yourself revisiting the series in the future?
You know, I think so. I hope so, eventually. Perhaps with Danny a little older – but probably not any wiser!
I was extremely saddened to hear about your sister passing away while you were writing Unhinged, please accept my condolences. It must have been tough to complete Unhinged following this news, especially as Danny Cleary is such a family-orientated character and of course mourns the loss of her own sister. Did continuing to write Unhinged help with the grieving process?
Thank you for your condolences. It was incredibly painful, to be honest. The last chapters of Unhinged were written with tears streaming down my face, for the most part. The hardest part, I think, was that my sister Pam was my biggest supporter. She read my other books with such attention to detail, it was like having a second editor. She read the opening chapters of Unhinged early on, but I wouldn’t let her read any further until I finished the book. Very sadly, that day didn’t come.
Actually, I did a rewrite, especially of the ending, while sitting at another sister’s house in Nova Scotia, only a couple of weeks after Pam died last August. It was a huge comfort to me, to be surrounded by family as I tied up all the loose ends in Unhinged.
You’ve been very open and honest about your own crack addition many years ago. Has writing these novels over the past few years proven therapeutic at all?
For the most part, yes. Writing Cracked itself was particularly therapeutic, as the first draft was written at a fevered pace while I was still in the early throes of getting myself clean. It possibly saved my life, to be honest. And a lot of Rehab Run was a sort of revisiting of how I felt when I was first drug-free and feeling like I was standing on very shaky ground. It was impossible for me to sit still for about a year, back then, other than when I was sitting at my computer.
The only way in which it hasn’t been cathartic, is that I actually never think about drugs, at all. From about a year after I got clean, I really haven’t had a craving. I don’t follow the typical addict model, that’s for sure. So writing about Danny’s cravings eventually became almost difficult – my own cravings are, thank God, long behind me.
What’s next for you Barbra?
I have had an idea in mind for years, for a sort of post-apocalyptic coming of age story. I’m a voracious reader of both dystopian fiction and science fiction, so this is what I’ve started on now.
Also – and this is breaking news, Martin! – the Cracked books have been optioned by a production company for a television series! So needless to say, I’m incredibly excited by the notion of seeing Danny et al, brought to life that way. Of course, like most artistic endeavours, these things take time, so I am going to have to try to be patient – not something I’m famous for!
Thank you for your time, I will miss Danny Cleary (for now) but I can’t wait to see what you write next!
Thank you so much! Fingers crossed, you’ll like the next book!