15 December 2015

The Intel: Barbra Leslie


If you’re looking to break bad this Christmas, then Barbra Leslie’s Cracked - the first in a trilogy featuring her kickass heroine Danny Cleary - is going to provide enough sex, drugs and violence to get your Auntie Gladys through the festive season.

Cracked features good girl turned crack addict Danny Cleary as she races to uncover the real story behind her twin sister Ginger’s apparent accidental overdose. Battling both her own demons and family members intent on blaming Danny for Ginger’s downfall, when her nephews are snatched by a Danny lookalike it becomes apparent that to save her family and avenge her sister she’s going to have to look to her own past for answers.

Canadian author Barbra is as entertaining and engaging as her high-octane novel. But behind the laughs, Cracked is an uncompromising story that comes from a very personal place - her own experience of being addicted to crack cocaine.

In this fascinating intel interview, Barbra talks about her vengeful and compromised heroine, her experience of working in the criminal justice system, dropping the F-bomb - and facing up to her own demons by writing a novel…

Tell us about Danny Cleary…

Danny is a lot of things. She’s a former personal trainer and fighter. She’s smart – though not particularly academically-inclined – and snarky. She’s brave, but more than that, she’s loyal.

Oh yes! And she’s addicted to crack cocaine. That seems to be her most defining characteristic when people read about Cracked. I think when you actually read the book itself, the drug use – while certainly a major part of the plot – is only part of who she is. And it seems that people are getting that, when they actually read the book.

In fact, the next book in the series is called Rehab Run, so that may give you an idea of where Danny’s headed.

Was it a lot of fun to write such a flawed and in-your-face heroine?

Huge fun. Danny is sort of like my spirit animal – I’m pretty straightforward and usually trust my own instincts. But Danny takes that to such an extreme – her protective instinct with regards to her family and her willingness to do absolutely anything it takes to protect – and avenge – them.

She is also, at times, difficult for me to write.

Where did you get the inspiration for Cracked?

Ah. And this gets to the heart of why she was sometimes difficult for me to write.

In a nutshell: I was a crack addict. I’ve been clean for about seven years now.

I was a middle-class young woman, happily married. But when the marriage ended, I started going out to bars nearly every night. I was deeply sad, nearly crazy with sadness, and I wanted to be around people. I had a friend who had started working at a local pub, and that became my watering hole – but much more.

Untitled 1Very quickly, I met some people there who were doing a lot of cocaine, and I jumped in with both feet. This, despite the fact that whenever I tried weed it made me sick, and I had never had any interest in any substance other than my beloved Prosecco (okay, and red wine too, in winter). I started spending all of my time with these people. They were damaged, like I was, and didn’t judge. When I fell for a man who eventually started doing crack, I decided to try it. I was pretty far down the rabbit hole already, by then. But once I tried crack, it took over my life and nearly destroyed me.

I got clean on my own, in the late 2000s. My elderly mother – which has since passed away – needed care, and I went to Nova Scotia to look after her. I white-knuckled getting clean, and I started writing a very early draft of Cracked while sitting at my mother’s dining room table.

As I said, that’s the nutshell version of a brutal story. But you get the idea.

You’ve worked in criminal law – how have your own experiences influenced the book?

In some ways, not as much as you would think, although I do have extensive experience with the criminal justice system here so I know a fair amount about police and court procedures. I’ve worked for a police force in Ontario (not in Toronto, I hasten to add) transcribing videos of police interviews with witnesses, accused, victims of crime. That can be brutal. And I did a job at the Ministry of the Attorney General where I was one of three people monitoring about 300 of the bigger criminal cases across the province for media relations and so on. Not to mention working as a court reporter. Not a bad education for a crime writer, I suppose! But I take my non-disclosure agreements pretty seriously, and I’ve signed a number of those over the years, so I haven’t included anything in my writing that I’ve particularly taken from a specific case.

And really, I’ve got enough in my head, trust me. I quite literally dream plots.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Listen to your editor.

But before you have one (i.e., before you have a publisher), while it’s great to get feedback from people, if you take notes from too many of them it can mess with the voice in your head that tells you when something is good, when something works.

I made that mistake with Cracked, and it took me a long time to get the book back to where it should have been. And then when I worked with first Alice Nightingale and then Cath Trechman at Titan Books, they were both so brilliant and incisive, I wished I had never listened to anyone else! Not that I didn’t get great notes from other people, by the way – I just got too many of them, and did too many unnecessary rewrites. It messed with my confidence a bit – one person would hate one aspect of the plot, and another would love it and hate another. I think I lost my own voice for a period of time, and really lost heart with the book for a while.

If five people read your book and four out of five of them say that, I don’t know, your main character should spend more time at his job, where is he getting his money? Then you might want to listen to that; it’s probably a valid point. But if two people say that and two people mention that they like the mystery around how he has all this money to burn, then go with your gut.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Now you’re killing me! I’m going to limit myself to crime writers. Dennis Lehane and Robert B. Parker for their noir sensibilities and quick-wittedness. James Lee Burke, for being one of the best writers I have ever read, period. Nicola Griffith for her Aud series – brilliant writing and plotting, and a female protagonist who more than holds her own against anyone. I’m really enjoying reading Rachel Howzell Hall’s Eloise Norton series right now – the underbelly of L.A., and a great female detective. Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman series is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I want to read them again, immediately. His writing is so moving and peels back layers so skillfully, it’s breathtaking. And a heartbreaking series.

I wish I could spend a month just reading. Going for walks with my partner and the dog, and reading. Then get back to work on Danny #2.

Give me some advice about writing…

Read a lot. Read all the time. Read as much as you write, time-wise.

Find the best time of the day for you and do whatever you can to make that time sacrosanct – no phone, no Internet, no people – nothing. (Easier said than done, I know.) Every so often, if your circumstances permit it, have a writing-only weekend, like your own little writing retreat. Make sure you have everything you need for the weekend, tell your people you’re unavailable, and park yourself at your desk. Or pace. I pace a lot. (And talk to myself. But that’s me.)

When you finish something, let it sit for a week before you read it all, from start to finish, without making any notes. Do not think about it during that time. Catch up on your planned Netflix binges. Then when the week is up, try your best to read your book as a reader would, and think of what worked for you, and what didn’t.

What’s next for you and Danny?

Cracked 2: Rehab Run will be out in November 2016 and the third in November 2017. I’m very excited about where the series is going. By the title alone, as I mentioned earlier, you know that Danny goes to rehab. Will it take? Will she get clean – and stay that way? What kind of shenanigans will she get up to? Well, I can tell you only this: the second book begins with Danny finding a severed body part on the grounds of the rehab facility. And the second book is set where I grew up – in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia.

Other than Danny? Well, I’ve been playing with a post-apocalyptic idea for a long time now, and at some point I will get to that. My niece Maddy, who’s 16 now, sat up with me one night last Christmas and we talked into the wee hours about the plot. She’s campaigning for it to be a Young Adult novel, but we shall have to see.

Besides, I think I swear far too much in my writing for a YA audience! Even when I try not to, the off F-bomb finds its way in.

Cracked, published by Titan Books, is available right now in paperback and ebook.


Merry Christmas from Crime Thriller Fella!