Award-hoarding son of Belfast Adrian McKinty talks to Craig Sisterson about morally compromised characters, the facade of success and what happened after he quit writing.
A phone call can upturn a life. It's a Thursday morning in Massachusetts and Rachel Klein is driving to see her oncologist for a rescheduled check-up. She told her daughter Kylie everything would be okay but Rachel is concerned. Has her breast cancer returned?
Her phone rings; an unknown caller, a distorted voice. Telling her it's not about the money but The Chain, telling her to pull over to receive the most important call of her life. No cops. Surely it's a prank? Then a woman calls. She's part of The Chain and she's kidnapped Kylie. A photo pings: Rachel's daughter, not at the bus stop nor at school, instead blindfolded in the back of a car.
To get Kylie back, Rachel must pay and kidnap another child. Just as this caller has done after her son was taken. Two desperate mothers, both now part of The Chain.
What lines would you cross to save your child?
A phone call can change a life. It was approaching midnight in St Kilda, Melbourne on an autumn night a couple of years ago. Adrian McKinty had a shelf full of writing awards and a wallet full of moths. "It was a bizarre double life, because on the surface I was this highly successful author who was winning awards and getting acclaim but underneath the surface, I was broke and not making any money at my chosen profession," says McKinty, on the phone from New York.
Not long before, his family had been evicted. It hit him hard. Everything they owned on the footpath, the landlords destroying the height chart that marked nine years of his kids' growth in Australia. The final straw. He wrote a blog saying he was giving up writing and returning to full-time work. One of the world's best crime writers was now a barman and Uber driver.
"I just thought, 'This is it,'" says McKinty. "I'd been living on this ego trip for years where I'd been winning awards and people think you're this successful writer but actually it's your wife who's been working incredibly hard keeping this family together and you've been doing nothing."
Then McKinty's phone rang. An unknown voice, full of enthusiasm. Hollywood screenwriter Shane Salerno, who'd become a revolutionary agent for a handful of acclaimed mid-list authors after Salerno's friend Don Winslow hit his own, "I've had it, I quit," moment a few years before.
Winslow himself had previously called McKinty to sympathise and encourage the Belfast native to keep writing after seeing the blog post. He'd passed McKinty's outstanding Sean Duffy series set against the Troubles to Salerno, who now wouldn't take no for an answer.
"I said, 'Mate, the timing is just terrible, I've made my decision and that's it,'" recalls McKinty. "I'm just really tired, I'm going to hang up the phone but I really appreciate you and Don getting in touch."
Thirty seconds later, the phone rang again. Salerno pitches what he can do for McKinty, the clients he's helped, how much he loves his books, how he's changed things for authors like him. McKinty is appreciative but exhausted. He's been beaten down by receiving accolades but not publisher backing. By his books being beloved by critics but not getting into bookshops. By audiences at British festivals groaning when he said his noir tales were set during the Troubles.
"I was just so damned tired of trying to get another 10 copies sold," he says.
He farewells Salerno, then goes upstairs to join his wife in bed. The phone rang again.
"I just go, 'Oh My God,' and Shane says, 'Adrian, I understand the problem but if you were to write another story, what would it be?' And that's kind of where he got me, because I'd been thinking about The Chain for about five years."
It's a heart-clutching premise inspired by travel, childhood fears and Greek legends.
"About five years earlier, I'd been in Mexico working on a book about the assassination of Trotsky," says McKinty. "I got completely fascinated about this idea in Mexico of exchange kidnappings, where you hate that your aged grandmother has been kidnapped so you swap yourself for your granny, meanwhile the rest of your family raise the ransom."
That seed merged in his mind with memories of chain letters.
"I don't know if you had them in New Zealand but we got them in Ireland in the 1980s and they were f***ing terrifying. Irish are superstitious to begin with and these letters would arrive covered in pictograms and scary symbols, saying if you didn't copy them out completely and send them to three people, your mother would die. I totally believed them when I was a kid."
Sprinkle in memories of the legend of Demeter and Persephone (a goddess enters hell to rescue her daughter) and voila - an idea that percolated until it was unleashed thanks to a persistent caller who believed in McKinty's talent, even when he'd stopped believing it himself.
So McKinty pitched the idea of The Chain to Salerno, who was so excited he demanded McKinty get on his laptop and start writing immediately. Cue curse words. Salerno had so much faith, he offered to wire $10,000 to McKinty as an "advance on an advance" for a novel that was just an idea.
"This mother***er browbeats me down and I find myself at five to three in the morning in front of my laptop, writing The Chain," chuckles McKinty.
The first 30 pages flowed from his fingertips, a rarity in his writing career. He emailed Salerno and crashed out after 4am. He woke to an empty house (his wife got the kids to school) thinking he'd had the weirdest dream ever. Until he opened his laptop to 10 emails from Salerno.
"I go, 'Holy shit, it wasn't a dream, this is really happening.'"
During the next year, McKinty finished writing The Chain. It became his first book ever sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It's being released by 31 publishers around the world, in 22 languages. A seven-figure deal for film rights has just been announced. McKinty has gone from eviction to "overnight success".
Salerno's phone call(s) changed the Northern Irishman's life.
"All I can feel is this tremendous feeling of gratitude," says McKinty. "I don't feel I've really changed as a writer, I just feel I've got lucky. There are writers who are better than me who've never got a lucky break, and after 10 years of struggle I got a lucky break."
What still matters most to him as a novelist and reader is atmosphere and strong characters that drive the story.
"You can have any high concept you want, but a thriller doesn't work if the characters aren't interesting, if they aren't turning the wheel of the story." While the kidnapping chain is a great hook, for McKinty the key thing was putting his lead into a moral quagmire.
"I knew that I was not going to cheat the readers with Rachel having a cop-out. I knew that she had to make some really horrible moral choices along the way," he says.
McKinty had been infuriated when a television show he loved, Deutschland 83, used a near-drowning to save an audience favourite from having to cross the line. He swore he wouldn't shirk the creative responsibility.
"You can allow readers to have complicated emotions towards your lead figures – it's an insult to their intelligence to think they only want characters who are completely black or completely white. The more complicated they are the better for everybody."
THE CHAIN, by Adrian McKinty (Orion, $35), is out now.