An Interview with Adrian McKinty
Author of Fifty Grand and DEAD I WELL MAY BE
After reading two excellent novels from Adrian McKinty back-to-back, mostlyfiction’s Guy Savage tracked the author down for an interview, and McKinty kindly cooperated. McKinty is an Irishman, educated at a British university who immigrated to America, and who now lives in Australia.
ADRIAN MCKINTY: FIFTY GRAND is the story of a female Cuban police officer who comes to America to investigate the hit and run death of her father. This is complicated by the fact that Cubans are not allowed to leave Cuba and Cuba and the US do not cooperate on criminal cases. When she arrives in Colorado she finds that her father’s death is a lot more complicated than she was initially expecting and then the fun really begins!
MF: What sort of research did you do for the novel?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: I ended up travelling to Cuba four times over a two year period. I travelled throughout the island although I only ended up using the notes I took from Havana.
MF: One of the things I’ve noticed in both FIFTY GRAND and DEAD I WELL MAY BE is that you "give away" future plot elements. For example in DEAD I WELL MAY BE, you disclose the manner in which some characters die later in the book. These "giveaways" are unusual in crime thrillers, but it works brilliantly. Would you comment on that?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: When you think about it, a first person narration is a very odd device indeed. You, the author, are pretending to be the lead character telling his or her story in the book. I thought to myself well, if the events in the story are all over and done with, we know one important thing – the narrator must have survived to tell the story, so there’s no point trying to generate suspense over this element, however you can generate suspense over what took the narrator to certain places or got them mixed up in certain situations. I also think the conceit that the story is being told by a non professional novelist means that they occasionally they are allowed to make “mistakes” with chronology telling you things out of sequence etc. which helps me the novelist leak hints of the story earlier than I normally could.
MF: One of the things that struck me about FIFTY GRAND was its structure. The book begins in Colorado and then backtracks in time to Mercado’s journey across the border. Did you envision the novel’s structure from the beginning or did you revise a great deal?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: Fifty Grand was different from every novel I’ve done. Normally I will meticulously plan each chapter and then fill it in. In a thriller or a mystery you really can't afford to be flabby and have loose ends. However, this book came from an odd situation: I was in Havana on holiday and it was my last day there and I hadn't come to write anything, I’d gone more to take a vacation and shoot some photographs of cars and buildings. Now, I knew that Ernest Hemingway had written For Whom The Bell Tolls at the bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Habana Vieja, so just as a sort of goof I brought along my notebook and a pen and got some drinks and sat there to see if literary osmosis would work its magic. After the second or third mojito funnily enough I did start to write and before I knew what had happened I’d done the first four chapters of Fifty Grand without any real idea of who these characters were or what the story was. (The first four chapters are virtually unedited and unrevised and are in the book as I wrote them in long hand in Havana). Of course when I got back to Denver, I knew I had to sit down and figure out the story which I then did.
MF: On your blog, you mention that in 2004, DEAD I WELL MAY BE was published to a “chorus of indifference.” But that after Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of ANGELA'S ASHES praised the book, you write that his comment boosted your career and gave “an adrenalin shot to the heart.” How do you feel about what happened? Bitter, grateful, happy?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: I was so happy. I’d worked on Dead I Well May Be for a couple of years and I’d been expecting bad reviews and (hopefully) good reviews but to get no reviews at all in the New York Times or the Boston Globe or Entertainment Weekly etc. completely surprised me. The book came out and then sank without trace. Two years work down the drain just like that. And then six months later Frank McCourt reads Dead I Well May Be and praises it to the heavens and suddenly everything changed: it got optioned by Universal, I got a British publisher and a French publisher, Simon and Schuster brought out a paperback edition and finally it got shortlisted for a Dagger Award. It was a real lifesaver and I owe the late Mr McCourt big time.
MF: It seems that some books are published to a flurry of publicity--you know the books whose names you hear wherever you go. Talent doesn’t seem to be the deciding factor in which books fade and die. How much publicity do you think an author has to do for themselves in the 21st Century?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: There are two ways to get your book noticed: one have an enormous publicity machine behind you, or two, live in Manhattan/Brooklyn and attend the right parties. Publishing is such a cliquey world that people tend to review one another’s books frequently. I could never crack The New York Times because I wasn’t part of the clique, I didn’t live in Brooklyn Heights, I was just this unknown Irish guy living in Denver, you know? I also think there’s a big structural problem with book buying these days in that the male reader is vanishing faster than Yangtse River dolphin. Reviewers and editors have largely given up and aren't pointing out books that men might want to read. It is assumed that men just watch sports and play video games nowadays and I think that completely bogus. Men would read more books if they were told that there were cool books out there that they might like.
MF: How successful do you feel your blog is in connecting with your readers?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: The success of the blog has surprised me. People do seem to read it and comment on it. But when I started it I decided that it wasn’t just going to be a vehicle for me to plug my books. I usually never mention my books at all unless something particular has happened (like a launch or a great (or horrible) review). It would be pretty tedious stuff if it was all about the sell and I try to avoid that.
MF: How was it growing up in the violence of Northern Ireland?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: Northern Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s was a very violent and strange society. Bombings were common, riots frequent, you used to have be physically searched to go into the centre of Belfast and yet I remember my childhood as happy. I grew up in a Protestant housing estate (a housing project) in north Belfast and that world was very insular and friendly, we were always running in and out of other people’s houses and despite the violence I felt safe with many friends. Yes, occasionally there would be incidents (the IRA set a car bomb off just down the road and one of my neighbhours was arrested for a series of terrorist murders) but on the whole I think it wasn’t a completely warped childhood and I remember it when affection. The violence was part of life and once you accepted it you just had to move on.
MF: You studied Philosophy in Oxford, but have you had any formal training as a writer? At what point in your checkered career did you decide to write?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: I was living in Harlem working bar in the Bronx as an illegal immigrant in the early 90’s and I think that was the place where I first thought about writing. There was just so much material in the characters around me: low level mobsters, petty thieves etc. I started writing down their dialogue and after a few years I had notebooks filled with the stuff. When I moved to Denver and got some distance from New York I knew I could turn that material into a book. And I did.
MF: What’s next for Adrian McKinty?
ADRIAN MCKINTY: I’ve just finished a Young Adult novel. (I do a series of YA novels for Abrams). And I have two completely different ideas for the next crime book. I’m going to take a couple of months off to have a good think about which idea works best. I’ll probably write the first few chapters of both books and then pick one of them and write it.
MF: Thanks so much for your time. It's been an interesting interview and love your books. Look forward to seeing what you do settle on.