Irish author Adrian McKinty on seven-figure movie deal and why he can't wait to get back to the pub

After seeing his 2019 thriller The Chain hit the bestseller lists, Adrian McKinty tells Gail Bell of his surprise at winning The Theakston Old Peculier Award and why he can't wait to escape New York for a pub in his native Carrickfergus

The rights to Adrian McKinty's latest novel have been purchased by Paramount
Gail Bell

CARRICKFERGUS-born author Adrian McKinty remembers the moment well; his "deer in the headlights" moment, as he calls it, on learning he had scooped one of the most prized of all crime writing awards: the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2020, announced last month.

The modest Northern Ireland writer, former barman and Uber driver, could scarcely believe it, especially after another "bloke from Belfast", his "old mate", Steve Cavanagh, ran off with the 'Old Peculier' last year.

"I was on the live stream with the other [shortlisted] authors and I really assumed I hadn't a hope in hell of winning," says McKinty from his adopted home of New York – he ended up in the US, incidentally, after "meeting a girl", now his wife, Leah, while a student at Oxford and "following her to America".

"This is a BIG one and I thought there would be no way that a guy from Belfast would win it two years in a row, so, in my mind, I'd written it off already. As well as that, it was a pre-recorded interview and it was only 6am in New York, so that added to my startled look of confusion."

He is undoubtedly sincere in his self-deprecation, probably because it has taken a while to fully accept his recent 'bestseller' status after grappling with long periods of self-doubt and financial stress due to previous books which the critics liked but which weren't commercially successful.

I wonder if he looks back on his time as a taxi driver and barman with some nostalgia and, perhaps, latent appreciation for a time when customers' stories could be banked for future novel plots – but not a bit of it.

"No," he says without hesitation.

"It was horrible. I was desperately worried about my family's finances. I have two little girls and I didn't know whether we were going to have a roof over our heads. It scared me s***less."

If his language is direct in general conversation, it is even less embellished in his award-winning thriller, The Chain, which tells the heart-pounding story of a mother's race to save her kidnapped daughter – something she can only do by turning kidnapper herself and snatching someone else's child.

Described as a "high concept" thriller, McKinty quickly realised less was more when it came to words and he ruthlessly tore through his manuscript with a red pen, cutting out unnecessary words, ideas and even characters, so it would have "a breathless momentum".

"The initial manuscript was 103,000 words and I cut it down to 85,000," declares the former teacher who studied philosophy at Oxford and also holds a law degree from Warwick University in England.

"There was a need to be incredibly economical with the prose.

"Regarding the concept, I thought it was terrifying, but I completely believed in the logic of it. At the time of writing it, my two girls Arwynn and Sophie were 16 and 12, so I could buy into the horror."

Now, his page-turner is in the early stages of being turned into a Hollywood movie – Paramount have snapped up the rights in a seven-figure deal – and, if all goes well, the first thing he will do is buy a house so he doesn't have to worry again about his family becoming homeless.

"It looks like the movie is happening, although with Hollywood, you can never tell," allows McKinty, whose previous crime novels have earned him the Edgar Award, Ned Kelly Award, Barry Award and Anthony Award and have been translated into more than 20 languages.

"If it does happen, I'll probably be able to buy a house – not in NYC, obviously, but maybe in New Jersey or somewhere like that – the first place we'll have ever owned, so it will be life changing."

With an award-winning bestseller on his hands and a movie pending, it is strange to think that two years ago, the writer, best known for his Sean Duffy series (he's coming back, by the way – there will be three more Duffy books), had pretty much given up on writing altogether.

"People think you write a book and it will be an immediate bestseller, but for 12 books, my experience was quite the opposite," he reveals.

"Then, I was persuaded to give it another bash when I had this idea – partly inspired by chain letters, which always scared me as a child – but still not thinking it would go anywhere. So, yeah, it means a lot to me. Vindication? I dunno; something like that."

The idea for The Chain actually goes back to the 1970s when, as a child in primary school, McKinty remembers the threats and curses contained in chain letters which were passed around like sweets. Recalling the chain letters of his youth made him wonder if he could update the idea and use it in a modern way, while playing on the notion that parents will push aside ethics and morality in a desperate bid to save their children.

"I'm still scared of chain letters, today," he admits.

"I remember getting one as a kid and it was covered with runes and stuff like that – it really weirded me out. I do worry about giving parents nightmares and I try to tell people that they should really not read this book if they are easily stressed. This is not the book for them – or, rather, it's not the book they should read before bed."

For his own reading pleasure, the temporary New Yorker likes to devour science fiction – "pure, delicious escapism" – and is a fan of Iain M Bank's Culture novels in particular, but for outside 'downtime', there is nothing better than riding his bike around Central Park early in the morning.

"It's been an intense four months in New York – lockdown and then, for three weeks, curfew," he says, "so having the birds and the trees pretty much to myself early in the morning in the middle of this city has been blissful.

"I do miss 'home', though, and, if I'm allowed, I will definitely come back this year. I miss my friends and family and also the food, especially Ulster Fries. And I miss the pubs – America doesn't really have a pub culture.

"I can't wait to go to a pub and a chippy."

:: The Chain is available now, published by Mulholland Books.

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