Northern Irish crime author Adrian McKinty has just won a prestigious crime novel award but it would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago when he and his family had been evicted. He told David Hennessy that coming back from that has been ‘almost like a fairytale’.
The Irish author Adrian McKinty was thrilled by the news last week that he has won the UK’s most prestigious crime novel award, Theakston Old Peculier for his latest novel The Chain.
However, this achievement would have been unthinkable in recent years when the Northern Irish crime writer had given up on writing.
Struggling to make ends meet and with his family evicted from their home, Adrian was forced to put down his pen and start working as an uber driver and bar tender. Despite being the winner of numerous writing awards, he told us recently he just wasn’t making money and had to put his family first.
After reading Adrian’s blog sharing his situation, a late-night phone call from literary agent Shane Salerno persuaded Adrian to give his dream one more shot – and the result was life-changing. The Chain has been published in 36 countries, is an international bestseller and now set for the big screen with Universal snapping up movie rights in a seven-figure deal.
Adrian McKinty said of his win: “I am gobsmacked and delighted to win this award. Two years ago, I had given up on writing altogether and was working in a bar and driving an uber, and so to go from that to this is just amazing. People think that you write a book and it will be an immediate bestseller. For twelve books, my experience was quite the opposite, but then I started this one. It was deliberately high concept, deliberately different to everything else I had written – and I was still convinced it wouldn’t go anywhere… but now look at this. It has been completely life changing.”
Adrian told The Irish World: “The lowest of the low was when we ended up being evicted from our house and that time was an awakening moment.
“And I thought, ‘Adrian, what are you doing with your life, mate? How has it come to this? That you’ve been evicted. That you’ve been pretending to be this successful writer winning awards. You can’t even keep a roof over your head for your little girls. That was a catalyst for it all. Then I got a wee bit of luck with this book and meeting (American crime writer) Don Winslow and his agent. They sort of got me on the straight and narrow again back to writing.”
Despite being an award-winning writer famed for his Sean Duffy novels, the eviction was a sharp shock that caused Adrian to start driving an uber and working as a bartender to make ends meet.
This was Adrian’s second Theakston nod and the author described it as “almost like a fairytale” after being so disillusioned that he quit.
“I effectively quit.
“You can get all the praise and good reviews you want but it doesn’t buy the corn flakes. It doesn’t pay the rent.
“I was living in Melbourne, working in a bar, driving uber, doing odd jobs for people, just anything to make a living.
“I’ve taken a bit of stick about this on Twitter and at the time as well. People have held me up as an example of what not to do.
“In this business you’re supposed to follow your dream and all that kind of stuff, but I had done my best to follow my dream and make a living as a writer and I had two little girls to support.
“It just wasn’t working out. I tried it for about eight or nine years and I just wasn’t making the money – so I quit.
“I went out and got a real job and I was making money and providing for my family.
“I don’t care if people think I’m a bad example. You have to put your family first.
“I was living a fake reality really, the fake dream of being this successful writer who was winning awards and all that kind of stuff, but I wasn’t really making any money at it.
“You have to live in the real world, not the fake reality. You’ve got to provide for your family.
“I’ve taken some stick about this on Twitter but those people have to live their lives and I have to live my life and I feel I did the right thing.”
Adrian has received international recognition for his DS Sean Duffy series set in 1980s Northern Ireland. The well-known American crime author Don Winslow persuaded the Carrickfergus author to give writing one last go and McKinty started on what would become the smash hit sensation The Chain.
The book sees parents forced to kidnap children to save their own.
Reflecting on where he is now compared to where he was just a few years ago, Adrian says: “It’s almost like a fairy-tale. It’s so bizarre. Three years ago, I was at my lowest ebb literally saying, ‘Adrian, you’ve given up on your dreams. You’re nearly 50 and you’re working in a pub. What are you doing cleaning glasses, mate? You’re driving an uber and you’re not even that good a driver. You’re gonna end up killing somebody. Your dream was to be a successful writer and it had all gone to hell’.
“Three years later I’m living in New York, I’m short listed for the Theakston, my book’s a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. What did I do? Was there a fairytale Godmother involved somehow? How did this happen? It’s so, so strange. Just the last two or three years have been quite a rollercoaster.”
It was never like he would not write again. Adrian says he was always sure he would return to it when he was on a more stable financial footing.
“It had always been one of my dreams to be a writer but I thought to myself, Okay, I’m just going to put it on the back burner for two or three years, get my finances in order, sort out my family life first, get some money in the bank and then start it again at night’.
“I could do it part-time the way I had done it at the start but just the idea of being a full-time writer, getting up early and writing at the desk all day just hadn’t worked out for me at all. About three or four years ago I just realised I needed a change of plan.”
Adrian remembers winning an award that meant so much to him, he didn’t go. Having been shortlisted the year before, Adrian thought it unlikely he would win the 2017 Edgar Award, named after Edgar Allan Poe, that he left his wife to accept it for him.
“The biggest thing I’ve ever won is the Edgar Award, the American equivalent and that one came completely out of the blue. They used to give it every year in New York and I didn’t even go because I had been short listed for that one twice before and lost both times.
“But my wife was there for a job interview and I said, ‘Why don’t you go just in case?’ And she said, ‘I won’t have to say anything, will I? You’re not gonna win?’
“I said, ‘Absolutely not. I guarantee I’m not going to win. You won’t have to go up there to say anything’.
“And I won. She was affronted. She had to go up and make a speech on my behalf. That’s the biggest thing I’ve ever won.”
How did her speech go given that he had promised his wife she wouldn’t have to get up? “She said to me, ‘You’ll have to write something on a card for me to read’. And I said, ‘No, can’t do that. That will jinx it’.
“As soon as you write something down, ‘I would like to thank…’ That guarantees you’re not going to win. She said to me, ‘But you have already guaranteed me you’re not going to win so I won’t have to do it so just write me the card anyway’. So I said, ‘Well I suppose that’s true. I’ve promised you you’ll never have to read this’. So I wrote something on a card, standard stuff and thank God she had the card. She just went up and read the card. I was in Australia. We were living in Australia back then, it just luck she was in New York for a job interview.”
Paramount Pictures have acquired the screen rights to The Chain in a seven-figure film deal. Asked who he would like to see playing his characters, Adrian says he will wait until he starts to get excited about any possible movie of his book: “Oh God, i haven’t even thought about that. I’m deliberately not thinking about that and I’ll tell you why.
“About 12 years ago, one of my books was optioned for the movies. It was a book called Dead I May Well Be and I flew out there. They took me out for these Hollywood lunches and they turned my head. They said, ‘We’re gonna get Colin Farrell for it, we’re going to get Russell Crowe,’ I remember all these names and I just thought, ‘This is fantastic: Hollywood lunches, famous people’.
“I got so excited. I became convinced it was going to happen and then as the years went on, the phone calls got fewer and fewer and they just disappeared and then I was just really, really disappointed because I had built it up so much in my mind.
“So this time I have decided to protect myself a wee bit more and I’m not even going to think about it. That’s their job. If they want to write the script, if they want to make the film: Give me a call the night before the premiere and I will definitely come and I will be excited then but I don’t want to get my hopes up too high after last time.”
Launched in 2005, the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award is the most prestigious crime novel prize in the UK and is a much-coveted accolade recognising the very best crime writing of the year. Adrian sees it as a really strong shortlist and a group of writers he knows and happens to have stories about.
Adrian beat competition from the legendary Mick Herron. Likened to John Le Carré, Mick picked up a fifth nomination with Joe Country, the latest in his espionage masterclass Slough House.
“Mick is a good lad. I’ll tell you a story about Mick. A few years ago I was in Oxford and I was drinking with Mick. He claims not to be in MI5. He says he’s just an ordinary guy.
“Here’s how his mind works. A few years ago I was in Oxford and we had gone out to drinking. I said to Mick, ‘Something terrible has happened, I’ve left my phone at home and I’m staying in an Airbnb and all I can remember is it’s by a canal’.
“He said, ‘Describe the surroundings’. And I described the surroundings and by a process of detective work, he found the airbnb and got me back from the pub to the canal. Mick is a good lad, very very smart guy.”
Is Adrian sure he’s not in MI5? “He denies it but you would deny it, wouldn’t you?”
Based in Nigeria, Oyinkan Braithwaite was the only debut author to make the shortlist with My Sister, the Serial Killer.
“Oh my God, I have a story about her too. She’s great as well. I was at a crime festival in Norway I think and I had dinner with her and she was a riot. I love her. She is absolutely hilarious.”
Scottish-Bengali author Abir Mukherjee was vying for the title with Smoke & Ashes, described by The Times as one of the best crime novels since 1945.
“Him as well? I know Abir. He came to the noir festival in Belfast a few years ago. There’s a famous pub in Belfast called The Crown, there were about nine or ten crime writers there and Abir and me spent the night trying to outjoke one another. People would throw out a topic and I would try and do a joke about it and Abir would try and do a joke about it. People would decide who was the funniest and I have to say Abir won that one. He was just funnier than me on the night. He’s a good lad, what a character.”
The next title on the shortlist was The Lost Man by former journalist Jane Harper. Jane’s debut The Dry has been adapted for the screen with Eric Bana and is due to be released this year.
“Oh my God, I lived in St. Kilda for about ten years. I had to go to a photo shoot one day and it was me and Jane Harper. I had never met her but she shows up and we sort of look at each other and we know that we recognise each other. I’ve seen her in the street, she has seen me in the street. It turns out we are next door neighbours. She was in the street behind me. Our back gardens backed onto one another. It was bizarre. We had been neighbours for five years and not known it. I know Jane very well.”
Glasgow’s Helen Fitzgerald made the list with Worst Case Scenario. Fitzgerald was also author of The Cry which was adapted into a major BBC drama starting Jenna Colman. For some reason Adrian doesn’t have a story about her though.
The news coincides with updated lockdown reading research from Nielsen Book showing that the genre is continuing to soar in popularity, a trend led by younger readers and men. Alongside an increase in the overall number of crime and thriller novels in the bestseller charts, even more people are turning to the genre in lockdown, particularly younger readers (18-44). Of the three quarters saying that their fiction interests have changed, 26 per cent say that crime and thriller has become their genre of choice.
“It is quite odd. I grew up in the seventies and eighties and it doesn’t seem back then there was so much crime fiction as there is now. It seems to be really booming especially in Ireland. I remember going into- I think it was Waterstones in Belfast- eight or nine years ago.
“Remember Scandinavian crime fiction The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and all that stuff was everywhere? They had a big Scandinavian crime fiction section and I said to the person, ‘Where’s the Irish crime section?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we don’t have one’. And they had a Norwegian crime fiction section, Swedish crime fiction section but no Irish crime section. I thought that is so strange and it’s all changed in the last five or so years. Everybody seems to be reading it. There’s a lot more writers from Dublin, there’s a lot more writers from Belfast and I wonder what it is. I wonder if it is the escapism or just things come in cycles and this has come back into fashion again or whether it’s just this idea that you can go into this world where there’s chaos and disorder and then 350 pages later, there’s some kind of resolution. It’s all solved and that gives people comfort. There’s violence and there’s death and there’s chaos but at the end it’s all sorted out and maybe that’s the best prescription for these turbulent and confusing times.
“I’m reading a mix, I always do. I’ve been reading Steve Cavanagh, I’ve been reading Stuart Neville, I’ve been reading Jane Casey. I’ve been reading Tana French, I read her books every year or so to refresh.
“I finally read Normal People. My kids were like, ‘My God, how come everyone else in the world has read Normal People and you haven’t yet, you damn fool?’So I finally read Normal People, I really like that.
“I think we can call him an adopted Irishman. You know the author David Mitchell? I read his new book Utopia Avenue. I’m actually reading quite a bit of stuff the last few weeks because there’s nothing else to do,right?”