THE CHAIN by Adrian McKinty has won not only this year’s Barry Award for Best Thriller, but also the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year (in the U.K.), the ITW Best Thriller Award (at Thrillerfest), and the Macavity Award for Best Novel. Here is the fascinating story of how the novel came to be — in the author’s own words.
Adrian McKinty: From Uber driver to Hollywood’s hottest crime writer
By Adrian McKinty
I’LL NEVER forget the day we were evicted from the home we’d lived in with our two young children for nearly a decade. As the landlords gutted the house, and my daughters wept, it struck me that as well as the roof over our heads, we lost the marks I’d scratched on the kitchen wall charting their heights as they grew.
All their stuff was sitting there on the pavement and I just thought: “Adrian, what have you done with your life?” It was a moment of clarity. My wife had been working hard at her teaching job and I had been contributing nothing, vainly pursuing my arrogant dream of writing. Outwardly, I was a critically acclaimed, successful author but it was all fake. My books were selling two or three thousand copies a year and I wasn’t providing any real income for the family. A few years earlier, a crime novel I’d written, The Cold Cold Ground, set in the Belfast of my Eighties childhood, had attracted the best reviews of my career. It seemed to vindicate my decision to give up a well-paid teaching post to devote myself to writing. My publishers asked for a trilogy, and then another. I won several gongs, including the prestigious Edgar Award.
But (and this is a big but) no one was buying these books. They were coming out from a small publisher in the UK and an even smaller one in America.
They weren’t available in many bookstores and – with virtually no publicity – they sold in minuscule amounts. In fact, I was earning less than the minimum wage for all that effort. A couple of thousand pounds a year.
If your books sell and you get good reviews, you’ll keep writing. If your books don’t sell and you get horrible reviews, you’ll quit because you’re not an idiot. But pity the fool who gets his ego stroked by good reviews but still makes no money.
Everyone tells you to follow your dreams. But no one tells you what to do if the dream goes sour and you end up homeless, which is the situation I was in just two years ago.
I thought: “You’ve been off on this bloody ego trip, you’re going to get yourself a job, quit this writing, go back to teaching and call it a day.”
Almost the last thing I wrote was a blogpost saying that I was giving up writing full-time and taking a break from blogging, reviewing and all other author-related activities while I looked for work.
I knew I’d given it my best shot. My duty was to look after my daughters and make sure they never had tears like that again.
I found work in a bar and started the registration process to begin driving my car as an Uber (which my family found hilarious as I’m a terrible driver). We found a new place and moved in, the kids were happy and I began to forget about writing.
Then, one evening at about 1am, I had just got home after dropping my last Uber customer of the night off at the airport. The phone rang and a man introduced himself as literary agent Shane Salerno.
His client, the hugely successful US writer Don Winslow, had seen my blog post and urged Shane to read some of my books.
Now, in the middle of the night, Shane told me I was a big talent and I shouldn’t even consider giving up writing.
I told him it was too late. People had told me that before and I’d made my decision. I hung up on him. He called back. I hung up on him again.
He was nothing if not persistent. He called back and asked exactly what had gone wrong. I told him I’d been trying to sell these novels about Belfast in the Eighties and clearly no one was interested.
“If you had to write an American story, what would it be?” Shane asked.
As it happened I’d had a sketch of a US-based story in my notebook for the previous five years. Visiting Mexico City, I’d heard about so-called exchange killings where a person offers to swap themselves for a kidnapped family member while a ransom is raised.
I thought about combining this with the idea of chain letters. When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, we used to get these bloody horrible chain letters – terrible things would happen if you didn’t send them on.
These were the seeds for what I started to tell Shane: “An ordinary woman’s child is kidnapped by an evil criminal organisation and, to get her daughter back, she has to pay a ransom and kidnap someone’s else child to replace hers on The Chain.
“And the next person has to kidnap someone else and so on. Forever like a chain letter. It’s a diabolical scheme that preys on good people and asks the ethical question: how far would you go to save your family?”
I heard something drop and smash in Shane’s kitchen. “I want you to write that book,” he said. “I’ve given up writing,” I told him, “and I’m fine with it.”
“What if I wired $10,000 into your account tonight, would that tide you over for a while?” Shane asked.
“I can’t take charity! I don’t know you.”
“It’s not charity. It’s an advance on your advance. I want you to write this book. What are you doing right now?”
“I’m going to bed.” “Don’t do that,” he said. “Write the first chapter of The Chain.”
Shane can be very persuasive and 15 minutes later at 2.30am, I found myself at my laptop writing the first 30 pages of The Chain. I sent the first two chapters to Shane. He woke me at 4am.
“Forget bartending. Forget driving a bloody Uber,” he said. “You’re writing this book.”
I went back to bed and woke seven hours later wondering if it had all been some kind of dream. It wasn’t.
Our bank called to say that $10,000 had been deposited into our account and I knew that for better or worse I was going to have to write this bloody book for this crazy American agent.
I told my wife the good news was that I was going back to being a writer and we had $10,000. The bad news was that I’d hooked into some major league craziness. “It’s totally bizarre. It’s like that Al Pacino film – Carlito’s Way. I thought I was out and these guys got me for one last job.”
A year-and-a-half later I got another phone call in the middle of the night.
By then I’d written The Chain and Shane had found a publisher and the publisher had taken the book to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“They loved the concept and they loved the characters! We’ve just sold The Chain to 36 countries,” the voice on the phone said.
Two years on, The Chain is about to be published. And then last week came one more phone call from Shane: a film deal with Paramount for a figure that two years ago would have seemed like a pipe dream.
My response was: “You should have told me to sit down first. Can you say it all again really slowly as if you’re talking to an idiot?”
Quitting may be comforting but if you hang on in there and don’t give up, just maybe the stars will align and, with the support of friends and family, maybe you’ll get lucky too.