Adrian McKinty Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Adrian McKinty. McKinty is the award-winning and critically acclaimed Irish-born author of the popular Troubles Trilogy, Dead Trilogy, the young adult Lighthouse Trilogy, and several standalone adult novels. His full-length debut novel, Dead I Well May Be, was short-listed for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, and its sequel, The Dead Yard, was selected as one of the twelve best novels of the year by Publishers Weekly and won the prestigious Audie Award for Best Thriller/Suspense audiobook. McKinty studied politics and philosophy at the University of Oxford in England and also taught high school English in the United States before moving to Australia. His latest novel is In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. Blackstone Audio published the audio version, narrated by Gerard Doyle, simultaneously with the hardcover on March 4, 2014. Welcome Adrian. Thank you so much for joining us today.
ADRIAN MCKINTY: It’s great to be here.
MH: In the Morning I’ll Be Gone is book three in the popular Troubles Trilogy, and book one, The Cold Cold Ground, started it out by winning the 2013 Spinetingler award for best novel. Did you have certain expectations in mind for the trilogy when you sat down to write In the Morning I’ll Be Gone?
AM: I did. What I really wanted to do was capture the time and place of Belfast in the early 1980s because when you’re growing up there you perceive the situation to be, as most kids do I suppose, completely normal. But it wasn’t until I’d left Ireland many years later, I was describing my childhood to my wife, and she told me, “That’s not the way most kids experience life.” Every morning you would have to go out and look under your car for bombs, or the buses would be searched by the police or the army for bombs. Armed soldiers would be driving through the city or on foot patrol through the city, and every night there would be riots and explosions, sometimes bomb scares in the school. That was really quite extraordinary, and I’d forgotten all about that. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized it was an extraordinary experience, and that perhaps I could capture it in a novel. The vector I chose for that was crime fiction because it’s the genre I love the most.
MH: Specifically about the Troubles Trilogy, just tell us a little bit about the development of the series and the origin of your character, Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy.
AM: Sean Duffy is a Catholic member of the RUC, Royal Ulster Constabulary, and at that time Catholics were extremely rare in the RUC for two reasons. One was institutional. It was basically a Protestant police force. It was about ninety percent Protestant. They did start trying to recruit Catholics in the 1970s and 1980s. But the IRA realized that it would be a huge propaganda coup for the RUC if it could achieve parity with Catholic/Protestant balance in the police force. So the IRA put a bounty on the head of all Catholic officers. If you joined the RUC you were considered to be a traitor. The IRA basically tried to kill every Catholic who joined the police. Therefore, recruitment was very low—about ten percent. But I wanted him to be a Catholic because I thought this would be so much more interesting if he was one of the very few Catholic police officers, or even fewer Catholic detectives. Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be delicious if I took a Catholic boy from the country who’s a little bit more middle class, a little bit better educated—he’s been to the university—and put him in a Protestant town, in a Protestant police force, with stolid working-class, mostly Presbyterian people around him. Then you’d have all these wonderful fracture lines coming together of class, religion, culture, outlook, and that would make a really interesting frisson, at least for the first book.”
MH: Publishers Weekly says, “The explosive conclusion to McKinty’s Troubles trilogy combines an IRA thriller with a locked-room mystery…Though it’s the end of the trilogy, readers will hope that this won’t be the last they see of Sean Duffy.” What do you think is the appeal of this particular character with your readers?
AM: He was really fun to write. I just love this guy who was interested in various kinds of music. Definitely a culture vulture in a time when that culture wasn’t really appreciated by people he was around. He’s into the music that I was into at the time, which was just this classic era of 1970s bands. He’s into the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Kinks. And here’s this extraordinary period where this 1970 dinosaur rock was coming to an end and these great 1980s bands are starting up, like Joy Division and New Order, and he’s in the cusp of these two worlds. Plus, he’s been trained in classical music. I have a lot of 1980s pop culture and musical references, which I think there’s a lot of nostalgia for. And I liked the fact that he’s intersecting with the culture. I also think he’s a bit of a bohemian, a bit of a rebel. In the tradition of a lot of police procedurals, he’s slightly a rogue cop. But he gets the job done. I think readers and listeners respect police officers who are intelligent and a little bit devil-may-care, but who are ultimately professional and who are very good at nicking villains.
MH: The popular Troubles Trilogy is set in Northern Ireland, which is where you were born. What draws you to set your stories there?
AM: It’s just such a fascinating place. It’s really extraordinary. On the one hand you’ve got this culture where people come and just don’t understand this conflict at all. You’ve got two groups of people—they’re all white, they’re all working class, they’re all Christians, so why is there such antagonism between them? It just makes no sense. If you go to somewhere like Syria it makes sense because you’ve got Sunni, you’ve got Shia, you’ve got Druze, you’ve got Christians, you’ve got all of these minorities who are completely different religions, different ethnic backgrounds. And in Bosnia it makes sense because you’ve got all these different groups. Even in Ukraine, at the moment, you’ve got religious, geographic, and political differences, but in Northern Ireland it seems to make no sense at all because they’re all Christians, they’re all white, they’re all working class, and they all look and talk the same. You cannot tell one group from the other group. Freud has this idea of the narcissism of the small differences. You’ve got this tiny little difference that one group is Catholic and one group is Protestant, and this gets exploded up to be the most important thing in the world. I remember when I was a kid there, you’d be walking around and you’d meet some strangers, and the very first thing you would do when you were chatting to them, was you’d try to figure out if they were Catholic or Protestant. This stayed with me for years. After I left Ulster and moved to England, or America, I was still trying to figure this out. I suddenly realized, “Wow, that’s not important anymore. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a Protestant or a Catholic.” Yet, you go back to Belfast and it is important. You’re always trying to figure out which of these two groups someone comes from. And just this milieu, this extraordinary milieu of riot, and this low-level civil war coupled with this very literate culture—this culture where poetry is extremely important. When I was a kid, we memorized huge reams of poetry, and history is extraordinarily important, so everyone knows their history, they know their poetry, everybody can play a musical instrument, and everybody can sing a song—this extraordinary cultural richness. At the same time, this frightening and terrible low-level civil war was going on. It’s just an extraordinary society and an extraordinary culture, and I think readers and listeners have caught on to that, or at least some of them have really been attracted to all these contradictions that were taking place then.
MH: Some reviewers have described the genre you write as Irish crime noir. Do you feel that’s accurate?
AM: I think that there’s this burgeoning movement of Irish crime writers who are just coming to the forefront. You’ve got to understand the context. It used to be that no one ever wanted to talk about the Troubles. It just was not done. It was a terrible thing that happened. For thirty years, from 1968 until 1998, 1999, the Troubles were carried on, and there were bombings, there were shootings, and there were kneecaps. Then in 2000, there were a lot of peace deals with the IRA and with the UVF, and with the various groups, and this cone of silence fell and no one really wanted to talk about it anymore. They said, “Look, that’s the past. Let’s forget it.” There’s this Belfast expression, “Whatever you say, say nothing,” and that descended upon people. No one wanted to talk about it anymore. When I started my writing career, I wrote about anything but Northern Ireland. I wrote about New York, where I lived for a decade, I wrote about Denver, where I’d lived for a long time. I even wrote about Cuba, where I’d been to many times. I basically wrote about anything but Belfast. But then, at the end of the decade, around 2010, 2011, I thought to myself, “Well, just because no one wants to talk about this, or no one wants to write about it, that’s maybe the very reason why we should be talking about it, and we should be writing about it.” So, I started writing this series about Sean Duffy, and I had the expectation that I wouldn’t be able to find a publisher and I wouldn’t be able to find an audience. I was quite surprised, after the first book, that people were interested. Then, I noticed around me that I wasn’t the only one who had thought this. There was this extraordinary time where people like me, who are my generation, were writing these books that dealt with these issues of the 1970s and 1980s. Friends of mine, people like Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Declan Burke, and Eoin McNamee. We’d all just decided, subconsciously, without planning it, that we’re all going to tackle this period, and most of these guys were using crime fiction to tackle it. The whole Scottish noir, or tartan noir thing has been going strong for the last five, ten years. So I’m hoping that this burgeoning Irish noir, or Belfast noir movement will get some momentum too.
MH: Do you see yourself in any of your characters or stories?
AM: Oh, yes. There’s a bit of Duffy in me, and there’s a bit of me in Duffy definitely. We share the same taste in music, more or less, although he’s a little less tolerant of The Smiths than I am. I’m actually a big fan of The Smiths, whereas Duffy hates them. I think we share the same recreational choices a lot of the time. We share the same taste in cigarettes shall we say, and the same choice in booze. I even have his T-shirt and leather jacket. There’s a lot of me in Duffy. He’s a little bit more reckless than I am. I certainly wouldn’t do the things that he does. I believe I’m a better driver than he is—he drives rather recklessly across the countryside and often doesn’t wear his seatbelt. But I also think, as a novelist, you’re in all your characters. There’s even a bit of the villains that I’m in, and a bit of the villains in me, and that makes it interesting too.
MH: We have a question from one of your fans who happens to be a member of Blackstone’s staff who says, “One thing many of your characters seem to have in common is an internal drive to never give up. No matter how bad situations get, they persist until the job is done. Is that you? Or is there something about that character that attracts you, that sort of strong willed character?”
AM: That’s not me. I’m a quitter. If things aren’t working for me, I’ll generally get pretty depressed and give up. You have no idea how many chapter ones of novels I have in my drawer. I think it’s about twenty of them, where I’ll write chapter one and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and leave it for a week, come back later, read it, and just say, “Oh my god, this is awful.” I’ll give up, never look at that again, and be embarrassed to even think about it. So, I’m a quitter, but I think characters in books, if you have them quit, or if you have them stop the investigation, especially detectives, it’s going to be a fairly tedious book for the second half. You have to keep them sloughing through. Then the question you have to ask yourself is, “Why are they sloughing through?” And I think the answer with Duffy is this: Ultimately, he’s got nothing else but his professionalism. His personal life is not going that well, his emotional life is a wreck, and I think that if it wasn’t for his professionalism, and for his work ethic, then he would just be a complete mess. That’s the one tether that he holds onto in a society that’s falling apart all around him. With literally anarchy in the streets, the one thing that he has to hold onto is that he’s damn good at his job.
MH: Is this truly the end of Sean Duffy and this memorable series?
AM: My next book is definitely not going to be a Sean Duffy book. I found this really strange, true story set in the South Seas in 1906 among a group of German nudists who fled Germany and set up this paradise civilization. On this paradise island in the South Pacific, there was a series of unexplained murders. That’s going to be the next book, which is very interesting. After that, I really have no idea. I’ve quite enjoyed the stand-alone formant because when a reader is reading a stand-alone they have literally no idea what’s going to happen—and whether the character, the detective, or whomever the protagonist, is going to make it to the end. I quite enjoy that format. So maybe the Pacific book, then a few stand-alones, and then we’ll see what happens next.
MH: Do you find a difference for yourself in preparing when you write a stand-alone versus a series?
AM: Oh, yes. I enjoy stand-alones better, especially the ones where I sketched out the original plan, but I’m not really sure of the ending, because then, when you’re writing the book, you’re surprised about what happens in the end. I love that. Then you say, “Oh he died at the end.” They’re not going to like that, but that’s what the story demanded. I quite enjoy stand-alones. I’m not a big series guy. I’m not such a huge fan of series that go on to the fourteenth book or the fifteenth book. Although, I have to say, my favorite audiobooks of all time—the exception proves the rule—are the Patrick O’Brien audiobooks. There’s twenty-one, or twenty-and-a-half of those. They’re narrated by Patrick Tull, and I wish there were more. He could have written forty of those and I would have been very happy to keep reading those.
MH: Describe your writing process, and how you’ve developed your style.
AM: Well, no one should copy my writing process if they want to be a writer. Ken Bruen, who’s another friend of mine and a famous Irish writer. His process is the one to copy. He gets up at 5:30 in the morning, goes for a walk around Galway town, comes back, feeds the ducks, has a cup of coffee, and at 6 a.m. he sits down to write. He works from six until nine, gets the kids off to school, and that’s him done for the day. He writes a thousand words, or two thousand words, every day. James Patterson has the same process. Patricia Cornwell has the same process. That is the process to be modeled, I believe. But that’s not me at all. I get up, groggy, unhappy, get the kids off to school, try and write, fail miserably, take the laptop to the coffee shop, look at the blank screen, get distracted, read the newspaper, try and write something, come back to the house thinking a change of pace will help. It doesn’t. Read a book, watch TV, have a bath, try and write again, fail miserably, and then delightedly realize its three o’clock and time to go get the kids from school. So that’s basically my process. Snatches here and there, and then, somehow, miraculously, at the end of a year a book gets written.
MH: You’ve got a good academic background. You’ve studied politics and philosophy at the University of Oxford in England. You’ve taught high school English. When you research a book, do you rely on the library and Internet, or is it mostly from personal experience?
AM: For the Duffy books, a lot of it has come from memory, that time living in a small town called Carrickfergus, which is just five miles from the center of Belfast. A lot of it comes from memories of the time, photographs, and just incidents that happened. But I do love research. There’s nothing I like better than going to the library and reading old books and old newspapers. For one, it’s a very good excuse not to write anything because you just say, “Yea, it’s a research day.” You just go off to the library, you read all the old newspapers, and it’s fascinating. You read old books and you feel you’ve had a good productive day doing research. In fact, I’d be very happy to spend the next five years just researching and not writing anything—that would be paradise for me.
MH: When did you begin writing?
AM: I started when I was living in Denver. I was teaching high school English. I was teaching a lot of short-story classes, and I was telling the kids how easy it was to write a short story. I said, “Look, your lives are interesting.” It turned out to be true. Their lives were quite interesting. I said, “It’s very easy writing about what you know.” I thought maybe I should be practicing what I preached, because I lived in New York as an illegal immigrant for three years before getting married and getting my green card. What happened was, I arrived in New York on a Wednesday, unemployed, freshly arrived in the city, and by Saturday night I was pulling pints in a pub in the Bronx. I did that for the next three years and worked on building sites and construction sites with a lot of really dodgy characters who were mobbed up in a lot of places. I worked with the Teamsters union, and all these guys came out with all this fantastic free dialogue. I thought, when I was living in Denver a few years later, “Maybe I can take all these free dialogues, these stories and all these incidents, and make a narrative out of it.” I wrote my first crime novel, Dead I Well May Be. Rather amazingly to me, I sent it to an agent, and the first agent I sent it to accepted it, and he sent it to a publisher, and the first publisher he sent it to accepted it, and that’s how it began—almost by accident.
MH: Who has been your biggest influence as a writer?
AM: Oh, so many influences. When I was in high school, I discovered Cormac McCarthy and I felt that I was the only person in Northern Ireland who ever heard of him, especially his early Tennessee books which are set among the Ulster Scott settlers of Tennessee and Kentucky. I loved him. Stylistically, he’s a very difficult writer to try and copy, or to be influenced by, but I just loved Cormac McCarthy. I grew up in the tradition of great English writers, like Evelyn Waugh, J. G. Ballard, and P. G. Wodehouse. I love that. I love putting comedy in my books basically from that background. I was heavily influenced, of course, by the great Irish tradition James Joyce, who we all did in school, Samuel Beckett, and Oscar Wilde—I loved his prose. Then after I came to America, I discovered all these guys that I’d never read before. Daniel Woodrell was a huge influence on me, the crime writer, and I still read whenever a new Daniel Woodrell novel comes out. Then, it was only later that I discovered Scottish noir, particularly Ian Rankin, even more so perhaps Iain Banks. I love his Scottish Noir books and his science fiction novels.
MH: When you’re not writing, what do you do to unwind?
AM: That’s a good question. I love to read. I read a lot of books. I love to go for walks, I walk the dog, and I walk the neighbor’s dog. Melbourne is a great walking city. I ride my bike a lot; I ride my bike all over the city. It’s a very flat city. You can ride all the way down the coast. I know you’re not supposed to do this, but I sneakily listen to a lot of audiobooks when I’m riding my bike. You sometimes get told off for encouraging people to do that, but I ride on bike trails, so it’s not that dangerous. I do that a lot.
MH: What types of audiobooks do you enjoy listing to?
AM: I’m very eclectic. I’m an Audible reader and I have Downpour on my iPod as well. The last book I listened to was Longbourn, which is Pride and Prejudice from the servant’s perspective, by Jo Baker. I just listened to a book by this quantum physicist from MIT called Max Tegmark. He wrote a book on quantum theory. I read this steampunk novel which I loved called The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, that’s narrated by my narrator, Gerard Doyle. I basically read a lot of different genres and types of audiobooks.
MH: What was it like listening to Gerard Doyle’s audiobook version of your work?
AM: I thought he was very good. I said to him afterwards, “I didn’t know you could do a Yorkshire accent.” I’m going to do a lot more Yorkshire characters in my book. He did an excellent Yorkshire accent in that book. I was only used to his Irish accents. Sir Richard Frances Burton is the hero of this steampunk novel and he did a very good, sort of upper-class, English colonial, diplomat accent, and then he did a very good Yorkshire accent. I’m going to give him more accent challenges and see how he responds.
MH: Shifting media, The Cold Cold Ground and Dead I Well May Be have both been optioned for television. Any idea what actor you would like to see play your characters?
AM: That’s a good question. I think for The Cold Cold Ground, they wanted an older Irish actor. For me, my ideal actor would be Michael Fassbender, but I think he’s gotten too big to do TV. You know who I thought of for The Cold Cold Ground as well? Daniel Radcliffe. His dad is from Northern Ireland, and I saw Daniel Radcliffe doing his father’s accent and it was extraordinary. He was like this, “‘Right there, how’s it going?’ This is how my dad speaks.’” And I just said, “Wow.” I saw him playing Allen Ginsberg in that film Kill Your Darlings, and I thought, “Wow, Daniel Radcliffe would be fantastic in this.” If Michael Fassbender is too big, and Daniel Radcliffe is looking to change direction, this might be the perfect vehicle for him. As for Dead I Well May Be, when they thought about doing it as a film about three or four years ago. Now they’ve switched to thinking about doing it as a TV series. When they thought about doing it as a film, they had Colin Farrell in mind, and I don’t know if that’s still the plan or whether they have someone else that they’re thinking of.
MH: I read on your Wiki page that you played loose head prop forward for the Jerusalem Lions Rugby Team, which, right there, sounds like the setup for a book.
AM: That was a fantastic year. My wife got a Fulbright to go live in Israel for a year, and by the nature of the Fulbright I was a spouse, and I wasn’t allowed to work. We moved to Jerusalem and I had to find something to do with my time. I was a tour guide for a while, which was really ridiculously cheeky because I’d basically arrived in the city a week earlier. I was taking tourists around the old city, the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and things like that. Then, I discovered the Jerusalem Lions, a semiprofessional rugby team. I showed up at training camp and the team had just got started. I said, “Look, I used to play rugby in high school. Are you looking for players?” They were just flabbergasted and said, “You actually know the rules?” I said, “Yes.” They asked, “And you can play?” and I said, “Yes.” “You’ve got the job.” I got the job as their loose head prop forward, and the loose head prop is the guy at the front of the scrum. I don’t know if you know how rugby works, but when two groups of people meet, it’s when the heads clash at the front. I played loose head prop forward for them for a year, and I got a small fee. I think it was like sixty shekels a game, which was about ten dollars or twenty dollars, or something like that, plus a laundry allowance and a travel allowance. I played games all over Jerusalem and all over Israel. I think we went down to Egypt once, and took the bus across the Sinai in Egypt. The most intense game we ever played was we went up to South Lebanon. There’s this UN contingent called UNIFIL, and it was the Fijian army. The Fijian army was in their UN blue helmets, and the Fijians are mad rugby players. They love rugby. We played them, and that was a nightmare because the Fijians are enormous and we were a bunch of skinny guys from Jerusalem. We see these huge Fijians, who were all six-foot-six, two-fifty, three hundred pounds. When we were playing in this little scratch rugby field in South Lebanon, the first thing they told us before the game started was, “If the hooter sounds, we all have to get off the field and go into the bomb shelter because it’s probably Hezbollah firing rockets from South Lebanon into Israel. Which is fine, but sometimes the rockets fall short. So, don’t be shy about running into the bomb shelter.” And I said to the guy, “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t be shy about running into the bomb shelter if the hooter sounds.” So, we played the Fijian army and they crushed us. I remember that score was about seventy-five to nothing. Once they got running, how do you stop a three-hundred pound Fijian? Sometimes, there would be three or four little guys hanging off him, and he would just keep going. It was like Gulliver being attacked by the Lilliputians. It was ridiculous. That was a very funny game.
MH: Any chance that experience is ever going to show up in one of your novels?
AM: I should. That would be so funny. I’ve thought about a memoir or putting that in somehow, but I just haven’t found the right vehicle for that story. But that was definitely the craziest rugby game of my life, and one of the craziest years of my life too.
MH: One last question before I let you go, and this is probably the most serious. It’s from a fan here. Who drafts the best Guinness?
AM: Who drafts the best Guinness? First of all, you have to have it in Dublin. I’m sorry, but Guinness does not travel well. You have to have it made from Lithia water. I don’t even think the Guinness in Belfast is that good. You have to have it in Dublin. You have to have enough Lithia water, and you probably should have it in the Temple bar, which is this area south of Dublin where they have very good pours of Guinness. I would get there in the afternoon rather than the evening when the barman has a little bit more time. They used to say, “If you get your pint of Guinness in less than five minutes, the barman is not doing a good job.” Because a pint of Guinness should be poured about a third of the way up, then it should settle, and the barman should chat to your about life, or maybe give you a tip on the horse racing. Then he should pour the next third, talk to you more about life, and give you some more horse racing tips. Then finally, he should pour the head. The whole process should be this long engaging dialogue between you and your barperson, and it should take about six minutes. If you get a shamrock on the head, send it back, you know that’s just for the tourists. If it comes with a beautiful head, which is about half an inch tall, and it’s taken awhile and you’ve had a nice experience before the pour, you know you’ll get an expert pint of Guinness.
MH: The Zen of Guinness. It sounds like a good philosophy for life. Thanks so much for joining us today Adrian. This has been a great interview.
AM: Thanks very much for having me.
MH: We’re very excited about the upcoming audiobook release of In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. Thanks again.
AM: Thank you.
MH:Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Adrian McKinty. You can find In the Morning I’ll Be Gone as well as book one and two in the Troubles Trilogy, The Cold Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Street, along with many of Adrian McKinty’s other titles, and all of Blackstone Audio’s audiobooks at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in March 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
In the Morning I’ll Be Gone
A Catholic cop tracks an IRA master bomber amidst the sectarian violence of the conflict in Northern Ireland
It’s the early 1980s in Belfast. Sean Duffy, a conflicted Catholic cop in the Protestant RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), is recruited by MI5 to hunt down Dermot McCann, an IRA master bomber who has made a daring escape from the notorious Maze prison. In the course of his investigations Sean discovers a woman who may hold the key to Dermot’s whereabouts; she herself wants justice for her daughter who died in mysterious circumstances in a pub locked from the inside. Sean knows that if he can crack the “locked-room mystery,” the bigger mystery of Dermot’s whereabouts might be revealed to him as a reward. Meanwhile the clock is ticking down to the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984, where Mrs. Thatcher is due to give a keynote speech.