'I gave up writing, found work in a bar and became an Uber driver' – Antrim author Adrian McKinty's journey from eviction to a seven-figure film deal
Everyone always tells you to follow your dreams. But no one ever tells you what to do if the dream goes sour and you end up homeless and on the street, which is the situation I was in just two years ago.
Our society’s big myths and much of our cultural propaganda is based on the Horatio Alger ideal of the little guy who makes it. You’ve seen this story again and again on TV and in films.
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In all good films about someone who makes it against the odds there’s always that guru figure who comes when things are looking their darkest and who gives the hero The Talk. The Talk is always something like: “Okay things are hard now, you can quit and go back to your humdrum life or you can do X and risk everything and give yourself a shot at doing what you really want.”
Then the music swells and the hero trains or fights or goes on the quest and either accomplishes their task or fails – but they fail with glory like Mr Balboa at the end of the first Rocky.
I’m no Rocky. But a little over 10 years ago, I did have the chance to follow my dreams and I took it. I was teaching at a high school in Denver, Colorado and writing novels in my spare time. Novels that critically were doing quite well (getting decent reviews and winning the odd prize) but which weren’t really selling. I’d sold one of my books to Hollywood and every year in January the book got re-optioned and there would be a flurry of emails that this was going to be the year they made it into a film.
Then my wife got offered a new teaching job in Melbourne, Australia and we decided to move there. She would teach and I would write full time, really concentrating on my craft and seeing if I could make it. I took advice from writer friends and mentors and they all said I had to take the chance. I had two little girls to look after, but I believed the movies and the fairy tales and decided to go for it.
Almost immediately things started to go wrong.
The studio I’d sold my book to cancelled the project, with the result that the option money dried up. My new book, supposedly coming out with a big New York press, got shelved. I scrambled to find a place for it and it came out with no publicity or reviews and vanished without a trace. Except it didn’t really vanish. It generated a Nielsen BookScan number showing exactly how many books it had sold, which turned out to be only in the hundreds. When I tried to sell another book, all the editors I pitched to looked up the BookScan number and saw that I was commercial suicide.
For a couple of years I didn’t publish anything and wasn’t bringing in any money at all to the family. I thought about quitting but then I got a break. I wrote a novel taking place in the 1980s Belfast of my childhood, a crime novel with a lot of atmosphere. That novel, The Cold Cold Ground, got the best reviews of my career and the publishers asked for a trilogy, and then another trilogy. I wrote them and I won several awards, including the Edgar Award, which had been my dream when I began writing.
But – and this is a big but – no one was buying these books. They were coming out from a UK small press and an even smaller press in the US. They weren’t available in many shops and with virtually no publicity or visibility (and a tough subject matter), they sold in minuscule amounts. I was a critical darling and a successful writer but in reality I was earning less than the minimum wage. A few thousand dollars 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 makes no money.
My wife Leah was working harder than ever but, as Bob Dylan says, “one day the axe just fell” and we got an eviction notice at the house we’d been renting for the last decade.
I’ll never forget the day all our possessions ended up on the pavement and that height chart I’d drawn on the wall of the girls getting taller and taller was lost to us forever as the landlord gutted the place.
But for me it was a moment of clarity. My wife had been working so hard at her job and I had been contributing nothing, vainly pursuing this arrogant dream of becoming a successful writer.
I wrote a blogpost – which is still online – saying that I was giving up writing full time and taking a break from blogging, reviewing and all other activities while I looked for work. My wife was against me doing this like all good wives in those movies; but 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 drive my car as an Uber, which the family found hilarious as I’m a terrible driver.
We got a new place, moved in and the kids were happy – and I began to forget about writing.
And then I got a phone call. It was from another author, Don Winslow. He had read my blogpost and wanted to know if I was serious about giving up writing. I told him I was. It was over for me. I’d tried my best and it hadn’t worked. He asked if he could give some of my books to his friend and agent, Shane Salerno. “Sure, give them to whoever you want,” I said. Two weeks later Shane called me at 1am. He said he’d read my books and declared that I was a big talent and I shouldn’t even consider giving up writing.
I told him it was too late. I had heard people tell me that before, and I’d made my decision. I hung up on him. He called back. I hung up on him again. He called again.
Shane asked what exactly had gone wrong and I told him I’d been trying to sell these noirs about Belfast and no one was interested.
“If you had to write an American story, what would it be?” he asked.
As it happened, I’d had a sketch of an American story in my notebook for the last five years.
“Well, look, lately I’ve had a few setbacks and I’ve been reminded that family is the most important thing. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my daughters and that has brought me back to this idea I’ve been thinking about for a book called The Chain.
“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 kidnapping scheme that prays 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, mate, and I’m fine with it,” I told him.
“What if I wired $10,000 into your account tonight, would that tide you over for a while?”
“I can’t take your charity! I don’t know who you are.”
“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. Write the first chapter.”
Shane can be very persuasive and 15 minutes later, at 2.30am, I found myself at my laptop writing the first two chapters of The Chain which are in the book almost exactly the way I wrote them that night.
I sent the chapters to him and I got a call at 4am. “These are great, Adrian, but you really should try to get some sleep. You have a book to write.”
I woke seven hours later wondering if it had all been some kind of dream.
But it wasn’t a dream. Our bank called to say that $10,000 had been deposited into our account from the US and I knew that, for better or worse, I was going to have to write this bloody book for this crazy American agent.
A year and a half later I got another phone call in the middle of the night. By this time, we had moved back to New York as Leah had been offered a very good job at Hunter College. I’d written The Chain, 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! It’s the hit of the book fair,” the voice on the phone said.
Every book has its origin myth. Mine is more of a fairy story. It’s a cautionary tale but a hopeful one, too. Quitting may be comforting, but if you hang on in there and don’t quit just yet maybe the stars will align and with the support of friends and family maybe you’ll get lucky, too.
Join Adrian McKinty for a Murder One Midsummer event with Steve Cavanagh at Dublin’s Pearse St Library on July 23 at 6.30pm. Tickets, priced at €12, available at www.murderone.ie
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