The Chain: Northern Ireland author Adrian McKinty had turned his back on writing before penning international best-seller

GRAEME COUSINS chats to Northern Ireland man Adrian McKinty who is now living in New York about his bumpy ride to best-selling author
Adrian McKinty is the Northern Ireland author behind The ChainAdrian McKinty is the Northern Ireland author behind The Chain
Adrian McKinty is the Northern Ireland author behind The Chain

It has not been a straightforward journey for NI author Adrian McKinty, who has ended up with a best-selling novel on his hands having been persuaded to quit his job as an Uber driver in New York and give writing another crack.

Not bad for a former loose head prop for the Jerusalem Lions rugby team... but we’ll come to that in good time.

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The Carrick author, now based in the US, has drawn on his experience as a schoolboy in the Province to come up with a best-selling book about a sinister chain letter that has been nominated for a major crime writers award.

Despite receiving multiple awards around the world, before Adrian McKinty started writing his latest bestseller The Chain, he was struggling to make ends meet and had decided to work as an Uber driver.

Persuaded by fellow author Don Winslow to give it a final shot, Adrian started on what would later become The Chain – a terrifying thriller that sees parents forced to kidnap children to save their own – for which Paramount Pictures has acquired the screen rights.

Explaining how an old school teacher was the inspiration for the book the 50-year-old said: “I know a lot of people just think chain letters are silly, but I remember when I was a kid they scared the wits out of me.

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“People would say, ‘make three copies of this and send it on or your mother will die’. I thought better safe than sorry, I’ll make three copies of this and send it on.

“When I was at Victoria Primary School in Carrick my P5 teacher was this woman called Mrs Carlisle. This was in the late 70s. These chain letters had been going around for a long time. She heard about it and asked if anyone in the class had been getting chain letters and was really worried about it. Most of the class put their hand up. She said, ‘bring them all to me tomorrow’.

“We all brought them to her, she took us outside, put them all into a bonfire and said, ‘I will take all the bad luck and all the hexes and stop these chains now’. Then she set fire to all the letters. I just remember I could not believe it. I thought, ‘well, we won’t be seeing her again’.

“It made a huge impression on me as a kid when you’re so vulnerable and impressionable.

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“I remember any time I was away I’d always say to my mum when I got back, ‘how’s Mrs Carlisle doing?’ expecting to hear something out of The Omen, some news of a grizzly death, but no, she’s still alive, living in Trooperslane to this very day.

“My mum gave her a signed copy of the book. She knows she was the big inspiration for the book.”

After leaving school in NI Adrian went to Oxford University on a full scholarship to study philosophy before emigrating to the USA to become a high school English teacher.

Normally Adrian’s book are set in Northern Ireland, however The Chain takes place in Boston: “I wanted it to be set in America for a couple of reasons. I wanted the main character to be able to buy a gun.

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“Also, the only part of America I really know well is Boston. That’s where my wife is from.

“I like my books to be very accurate. You want somewhere where you’re familiar with, you’ve walked the streets, you don’t make mistakes. You know the smells and the colours and the textures. You don’t want to have to Google details.”

Before The Chain he was best known for his DS Sean Duffy series set in 1980s Northern Ireland: “To me it was a no brainer if I’m going to write a detective series set in the 80s, what do I know really well – Belfast and Carrick. I knew what was on the radio, what was on TV, what people were eating, what they were driving. For me to write about London or New York in the 80s I’d just be guessing.”

Of the movie prospects for The Chain, Adrian said: “Whether that becomes a film or not I don’t know. Fingers crossed. One of my previous books was optioned – Dead I Well May Be – they renewed the option 10 times, every year for 10 years then they didn’t make the film.”

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Adrian’s books have won the Edgar Award, the Ned Kelly Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award and have been translated into over 20 languages. The Chain was recently longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. He faces tough competition in four former champions Denise Mina, Chris Brookmyre, Val McDermid and Lee Child, with the public voting now open to help determine the shortlist, which will be announced on June 8.

Asked whether sales or awards were more important, Adrian said: “I suppose ultimately it’s selling copies of the books over awards. You have to be able to make a living out of this racket. I had a few years where I was winning crime fiction awards but only selling a couple of thousands copies of my books a year.

“At a dollar a book that’s about two grand a year. You just can’t live on that no harm to you.”

Discussing his decision to quit writing he said: “People have said to me, ‘you should never give up your dreams, you’re a bad example’. People have gone after me a wee bit, but I feel like I gave it a good go.

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“For eight or nine years I dedicated myself to being a writer. The books were coming out, they were getting good reviews.

“My problem was they were set in Belfast during the Troubles, that was a hard sell. People would read the back and say, ‘I’ve had enough of all that nonsense’.

“Getting people in England to buy those books was really difficult. It was even worse in America. For a lot of American readers their view of Ireland is The Quiet Man. The stuff I was writing about – RUC vs the IRA, Protestants vs Catholics, bombings, shooting, raids – was really interesting to me but perplexing for American readers.”

He said: “I think the break helped. It gave me a time to think about new ideas and new concepts. I started thinking about my childhood at Victoria Primary School, growing up in Carrick, and that’s where The Chain came from.”

Coronavirus literature

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Asked if he thinks there will soon be a wave of novels set against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, Adrian said: “There’s two ways of thinking about it.

“After the 1919 epidemic (Spanish flu), in 1920, 1921, Charlie Chaplin didn’t start making a lot of lockdown movies. They were basically the same films that he was making before.

“You look at the writing – you have Ulysses (a novel by James Joyce) and The Waste Land (a poem by TS Elliot) – they weren’t about what was happening in that period.

“It just could go on the same as it always has. People don’t want to think about.”

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He continued: “Another way of thinking about it is, it’s such an interesting topic, everybody is going through it. Somebody is going to have to write something about it.

“I was thinking to myself it is actually quite interesting for a crime writer. I’ve written a few locked room mysteries in my early career.

“I really like the idea of someone being murdered in a locked room, during lockdown, while everyone else is in a locked room in lockdown as well. What could be more delicious than that?”

Also discussed during our interview was the idea of a serial killer at work during lockdown.

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Adrian said: “I remember reading a book about a serial killer during the Blitz. It was the perfect crime because so many people were being killed by bombing every night what’s another body lying on the street.

“That might work for Covid too. What’s one more little old lady dead when the police are already overstretched?”

Least productive time

People who think writers will have found it easy to adopt a stay at home regime during lockdown are way off the mark according to Adrian.

He said: “I haven’t really been out of the house for about six weeks, but what else can you do, you have to obey the orders, stay inside.

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“I’m in New York, I’ve been here about two years. Up until the last six weeks it seemed like a great idea, now we’re stuck inside a tiny, wee apartment for two months it’s getting a bit claustrophobic.

“It’s the funniest thing, this has probably been the least productive two months in the past 10 years.

“Both kids are home all the time, you’re homeschooling them and helping them with their online homework and stuff like that. “They’re bored out of their minds so you’re playing Cluedo, Monopoly, and at the end of a day of really doing nothing you’re just exhausted.

“I don’t really understand it to be perfectly honest. Normally I’d go to bed at about midnight or one. By 10 o’clock I’m just beat. Another day’s over, you go to bed, get up and it’s the same thing all over again.

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“It used to be I’d go out and do a really long walk every day, four days a week I’d go to the gym, go for a swim or whatever. “I’ve been doing none of that, yet I’m exhausted all the time.

“For the first month I was feeling really guilty about it. I was saying to myself, ‘Adrian, you’re wasting your life, son, you should be getting up at six, getting the work done before the kids get up’. I was really beating myself up.

“Then I was emailing with a whole bunch of friends and everybody was telling me the same story. They’re not getting anything done and are just really exhausted.

“Somebody on Twitter posted that they’ve used this time really well, they’ve learned French. I unfollowed them immediately. The rest of us are stuffing our faces with pizza and watching TV and you’re learning French – give me a break.”

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He added: “When this lockdown is over the first thing I’m going to do is go to the pub, the second thing is get a haircut. I look like I’ve been living in the jungle for five years. If there’s some hipster haircut place that also sells beer I’m going there.

“If you’d asked someone six months ago what they wanted to do, what their aspirations were, they’d maybe have said they want to go skiing or run a marathon. Ask me now, I want to get a pint in the pub and haircut.”

Sadly for Adrian, he doesn’t think he will be able to visit home this summer: “I go home every summer to check on my mum and stay for a while. I don’t know if that will be possible this year.”

Adrian’s late father worked at Harland and Wolff while his mum worked as a secretary. He has other family members who still live in Carrick, and some further afield.

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He said: “It might have to be Christmas instead. I love to get back and see everyone. It’s a real shame if I can’t this year.”

One elf is enough

Adrian lives in New York with his wife Leah and his daughters Sophie and Arwynn.

Arwynn’s name is based on a Lord Of The Rings character due to the fact Adrian and his wife met in the Oxford pub that author JRR Tolkien used to frequent. “When Sophie was born I wanted to call her Eowyn (another LOTR character), but Leah wouldn’t let me. She said we’ve got one elf in the family and that’s enough. She’s named after her grandmother.”

Loosehead prop for Jerusalem Lions

Adrian explained how he ended up playing rugby for Jerusalem’s local rugby team when his wife was there on a year’s scholarship.

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He recalled: It said on the scholarship that neither you or your partner is allowed to work. For the first couple of months I was just walking around the city enjoying Jerusalem, then I saw this poster for this rugby team – the Jerusalem Lions. I thought, ‘well I’m bored out of my mind here, I’ll go along to their training’.

“I think a lot of them had never played rugby before because I immediately made the first team after the first training session. I spent that year playing loosehead prop for the Jerusalem Lions. We travelled all over Israel, Egypt and up into Lebanon. It was very surreal when you look back on that.”

He added: “When I was playing you took your kit home with you and you got a laundry allowance to get it washed. It was about 100 shekels a week, that’s about £40 or £50. It suddenly occurred to me, ‘Adrian, you’ve attained your dream – you’re a professional rugby player’. I was playing rugby and getting paid for it.”

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