We arrive at the Wellcome Collection’s Café a little before Adrian McKinty gets there, and my photographer keeps guessing that every man we see might be the writer of some of the best crime novels around. I do know what Adrian looks like, except he turns out to be more handsome in real life. (I’d have said ‘much more’ but that might give him ideas, and I wouldn’t want that.) I have to say it looks as if life in America and Australia agrees with him. The red hoodie isn’t exactly wrong, either.
I go to claim him before anyone else gets in there, and we hug. At least I think we do.
While I send the photographer off for a mug of tea that Adrian doesn’t need, we chat about Manchester and its bus station, through which he used to travel a lot, on his way to and from Belfast. He talks a in mix of a Northern Ireland accent, and sounding quite American by way of ending every sentence as though it’s a question.
‘I only ever visited Manchester once. I know it’s funny, but they used to film a lot of Northern Ireland troubles pictures in Manchester.’
‘It was recently New York in some film, too.’
We talk about the Wellcome Café, where neither of us has been before, and I tell Adrian that I asked friends on facebook to suggest suitable interview venues. ‘I picked this because it was the closest to Euston. And at least we’re not in a brothel! That was one of the suggestions.’
Adrian laughs. ‘Legal ones?’
‘I have no idea! I suppose the friend who suggested it must have had some idea.’
‘I know that in Melbourne there are, there’s like a dozen very prominent legal brothels. In fact my local, erm…’
‘Your local brothel?’
‘My local football team St Kilda City, which is literally round the corner from us; for about a year they were sponsored by the local brothel, and so where on your shirt it says Vodafone or something, on their shirts it said the California Club. And I was dreading the question from my kids, what is the California Club? But they never asked.’
The photographer brings our tea and I explain we’re talking about brothels.
‘With very limited experience.’
‘That brings me neatly to my first question. Did you make up the Chicken Tikka Pot Noodles [which turned out to be an important clue in the latest book]?’
‘Yeah, I totally made that up. I researched the date. I was able to find that from Golden Wonder. I don’t know what it tastes like.’
‘The idea just wouldn’t have occurred to me.’
‘Also the British Library is a godsend, because they’ve got all that stuff online. Newspapers online, it’s fantastic. You can be 10,000 miles away and reading The Times from April 1982.’
‘I used to have to go to the British Library in Colindale, where you had to ask for these huge books.’
‘No, the real thing. A porter would bring them on a trolley. I think you were allowed four at a time.’
‘I remember when I lived in London for a year – although you wouldn’t know it from how lost I got this morning – I used to go to the British Library pretty much every day, because I was at UCL. In theory they had everything, but now and again you’d go in there and you’d come back with a little piece of paper which said “we’re sorry but this was destroyed in the Blitz.” You know, the material, Hitler got rid of it!’
‘Well, you can’t argue with an excuse like that. That answers my question about research. You don’t just make it up.’
‘In a way I don’t care that much about the truth. I’m more interested in the emotional truth.’
‘More interested in the journey the characters take, and more interested in what they do with their lives and the decisions they make, but it makes it easier for me to have that skeleton, that framework, of these events laid out. It’s more fun as well, spending a couple of months reading old newspapers. And the thing I used to do, which was so much fun, was listening to the British singles chart from 1982. I love doing that!’ He sounds very enthusiastic. ‘The records were so bad, just universally terrible.’
‘Yes, they were.’
‘So much fun but I’m so glad I don’t have any of those records. But yeah, I enjoy the research.’
‘What about police procedures? Do you make them up?’
‘No, I went back and read a lot of mysteries set in the 1970s and early 1980s. And then I actually had to read a boring textbook on police ranks and uniforms. That wasn’t so much fun to be honest.’
‘How about “knowing” about being Catholic [like Duffy]?’
‘That was something I had to do. At that time the RUC would have been about 15% Catholic. How dull it would have been to have a boring old Protestant. This was irresistible. The material generated was just unbelievable. It’s funny when you talk to Americans and they say “how was he an outsider again?” “Because he’s a Catholic.” And they go “but they’re all Christians, they’re all white, they’re all roughly from the same geographic area, they’re all from the same class, so they’re all the same.” And I used to go “weell, they’re not, in Northern Ireland it’s a little bit trickier.”
By having those nuances and by having him a Catholic, slightly more middle class, slightly more educated, from a slightly different geographic area, you’ve got four fracture lines. You can really come together and explore, and that’s soo much fun.’ Adrian sounds equally happy and excited.
‘I think you’ve said you didn’t come into contact much with Catholics.’
‘Me personally? Almost no Catholics, when I was a kid. Where would they be? The Catholics went to different schools, they’d be playing different sports, playing Gaelic, while we played rugby and football. For that I basically had to do a lot of reading and try and put myself into the character. How would someone middle class, a slightly more educated Catholic think? That was quite fun as well. It’s like being on Mars in many ways.’
‘Surrounded by all these crazy, dour, bible reading Protestants, their weird religion, and all their strange ideas. And then I’d also think, who’s this Catholic with all his books and all those records and his fancy leather jacket? I loved that bit, and it seems bizarre to say it, but when you’ve got two white Christian males coming together, and then saying the words culture clash.’
‘To me it feels as if with the Duffy books you finally have come back home [to Carrickfergus], as it were. Is that the case?’
‘I think that’s true. Basically, I wrote about anything I could that wasn’t Northern Ireland before. I wrote about Cuba, I wrote about New York, I wrote about Denver. Anything, anywhere, and I was really reluctant to go back and look at Northern Ireland. First to look at Northern Ireland at all. Second to look at Northern Ireland during the darkest time. I just think it was a sort of’ – he thinks carefully – ‘unspoken thing; “let’s not talk about this, let’s let sleeping dogs lie and let bygones be bygones, and don’t stir the fire too much.”
Actually I’ll tell you a funny story; funny as in ironic, I guess. About nine years ago I was in Belfast and my first book, Dead I May Well Be, had just come out. [The publisher] Serpents Tail got an email from the BBC “we really like the cut of this young man’s jib. Can he come in for a meeting with us?” I got in contact with this producer at BBC Northern Ireland and said “how about we set up a meeting and I pitch you some ideas for a TV show?” I went there, and he was this older gentleman, and he said “I love your writing. Let’s hear this idea that you’ve got.”
This was 2003, before Life on Mars, and I said “what about this for a concept; you’ve got two policemen in Belfast in the seventies, just two coppers like The Sweeney, solving ordinary crime, like Regan and Carter, and you’ve got all that seventies music and the seventies clothes. Just solving ordinary crimes, but in the background you’ve got this civil war going, army helicopters, the city’s on fire.” As I am talking to him, I’m thinking to myself, this is the greatest idea that anyone’s ever had, he’s going to absolutely love this.
What I wasn’t thinking of was his body language, which was pushing himself further and further away, getting paler and paler and I ended up this pitch on how much fun it would be and he just said, “ah yes, well, you see we don’t think you understand something, young man. We here at BBC Northern Ireland, we’re not about the past, what we’re interested in is telling stories about contemporary Northern Ireland. We’re interested in the future, young people’s stories today, and where Northern Ireland is going. And we don’t want to look back into those times.
I can give you some advice. I think you’ll find that no one’s interested in reading about the troubles. No one in Northern Ireland is interested in the troubles, no one in the south of Ireland is interested in the troubles, and certainly no one in England is interested at all in hearing anything about the troubles. So if I can just give you that one piece of advice for your writing career.”
I was listening to him and he was a wise old owl. At the time I didn’t really process it, but subconsciously it must have gone in, and for the next six, seven years I didn’t dare touch it. Every time I began writing a new book, in the background was, what would his advice be on this? That was around in the background as a mental block for years,’ (he sounds incredulous now) ‘until about two years ago.
I started writing a story. Well, I have so many page ones. Actually, so many chapter ones, about thirty of them, that just don’t go anywhere. So I wrote chapter one of Cold Cold Ground and I didn’t think too much about it because…’
‘It was just another one?’
‘Chapter one of a space opera, chapter one of whatever. I’ve got all these books and I look at them in the drawer and think I’ll return to them next week. I read it with excitement and I think “my god, that is crap, that’s beyond terrible.” So I wrote the chapter one and went back and read it a week later and I thought “this isn’t bad, this could work! But what about the wise old owl?”
Then I thought, let’s just write the book, and forget the wise old owl, and forget what my publishers might think and what my agent might think. Just write the book. I was feeling this burning intent to actually write the book then, because I had the characters in mind, and I saw where they could go, and I was getting so excited, I was getting chills down my spine with the idea of writing about that era.
I would have been about 13 then, and I was having all these dreams. All these memories, coming back to me in dreams; going through the street barriers in Belfast, the army Land Rovers on the streets and the army helicopters hovering above your head like gnats. And I was having all these, not nightmares…’
‘Really vivid dreams. The food tastes, like an Ulster fry, or things like smokey pubs. All these things coming back to me. And I told myself “the wise old owl is probably right,” no one’s going to want to read this book, no one’s going to want to publish this book, and it’s gonna just sit in the drawer. But I’m going to write it for me, and maybe my kids, so I’ll have this document on what it was like for me’ (he bangs on an imaginary book for emphasis) ‘and the thing that really gave me a chill of excitement was I’d decided to set it in the house where I was born.’
‘In mum’s upstairs bedroom. I’d never set foot in that house since we moved out in the mid eighties, and I’ve never been back, but to go there in memory, was so emotional. I was in the downstairs living room. You know, the protestants have the good room you…’
‘You never use.’
‘Would never go into. It’s where the minister would come, or someone from the council. No one else would be allowed in the good room. Your mum would yell at you “what are you doing in there? Get out!”
The thing that really got me about that book was the smell of the paraffin heater. My dad would light – especially in winter – he would light the paraffin heater and the whole house would fill with paraffin fumes. It sounds horrible, but actually it’s very pleasant, paraffin, it’s a beautiful intoxicating’ (Adrian is getting poetic) ‘rich smell. We could all have been killed in our beds, poisoned, but the smell was unbelievable, so rich and beautiful. I think that’s why I’m insomniac to this day, because I need that smell to go to sleep. It was like being drugged every night for 14 years. And I thought, “my god, I get to write about the paraffin heater!”
So I wrote it for me, but sent it off to my agent and he said “ah, no, no, and I could see he knew the Northern Ireland thing as well. And he said, “well, let’s send it to Serpents Tail, and they didn’t kick up any kind of fuss, they just said, “OK, it’s your next book.” So I had no problems.’
Adrian breaks off suddenly, ‘Sorry, what was the question???’
We laugh. ‘I don’t know!’
‘That was very long and rambling answer.’
‘You returned home, which you have and I think that’s why it works.’
‘You know what you’re talking about. The tingling. I think that’s why when we read it, it’s just that little bit more…’
‘It’s that intensity of feeling for me.’
‘And because you’re going back to childhood I suppose it’s OK, because otherwise, living in exile there’s the risk that you lose track of what’s really Northern Ireland now.’
‘Yeah, I was back there yesterday, and I was surprised by the things that were still happening. For ten years people have been telling me everything is changed in Belfast, no more rioting, no more trouble, all these old hatreds, gone. And like Friday night in the middle of a riot…’
‘Police helicopters above, and petrol bombs going off. “Wait a minute, weren’t you telling me that this was all over?” (we laugh) On Friday night I went for a run in Carrickfergus. When I’m back I like to go for a walk or run round the old streets. It was raining but not heavily, so I put a hoodie on and got some music on my iPhone, and I ran along the seafront of Carrickfergus. The castle’s all lit up, absolutely beautiful, the lough’s there, so gorgeous, and the rich sea smell.
Then I cut into Carrickfergus into the town centre, in the middle of West Street two police Land Rovers sitting there, a couple of coppers in full riot gear and I thought “hmm, what’s that about, a bit weird, and I don’t think the policemen looked quite relaxed. Well maybe something happened and it’s all over.” So I turned right and ran up North Street, and I got to the North Gate on to the Albert Road and it’s a full scale riot.’
We have to laugh.
‘There’s about 50 kids with petrol bombs and stones. I’m not a very observant person, because I should have noticed that in North all the cobbles had been ripped up, and were I a Sherlock I’d have thought “ah, all these cobbles are ripped up. Riot in progress! Do not continue!”
But I didn’t twig that and I literally ran between the two lines, police on the left and they had a big water cannon, which I’ve never seen before, behind the armour with the plastic bullet guns. Meanwhile the rioters, mostly kids by the look of it, throwing stones and cobbles and petrol bombs. And then I run in between the two wearing my hoodie, and I look exactly like them…’
‘I was just shocked. I stood there for about five seconds and then some sense kicked in and I thought this would be an excellent way of getting a plastic bullet in the head, and I thought I’m going to get the hell out of here, and I turned and hightailed it back down the street.’
Adrian is the perfect story teller. ‘Northern Ireland is never boring, there’s always some weird stuff happening. The next day I went to Belfast to No Alibis book store to sign some stock for an old friend of mine, David, who runs that shop. This trouble had flared overnight and word had gone out “don’t go into Belfast on Saturday,” so I was in an empty train going into Belfast…’ We laugh. ‘I went into the city and it was like a futuristic dystopia, because there was nobody in the streets. I went into the Marks & Spencer food hall, and I was the only person in there.
So I walked through the city and went down to No Alibis to visit David and to sign stock. He said “you’re going to have to do it very quickly, I’m off to a poetry reading. In fact, would you like to come?” I signed stock and then walked up with him to Queen’s University, and there’s this Irish poet called Sinead Morrissey, and there was 150 people crammed in for the poetry reading. This is so typical of Ireland; you’ve got riots, the city’s closed down, but you advertise a poetry reading and 150 people will show up.
The place is full of paradox. They’re so in love with the written word, especially poetry. The darkness is so deep in Belfast, but the light is also so light. All these contrasts. 24 hours in Ulster and you go from a riot to a packed audience for a poetry reading. As an outsider coming back it was such a rich, interesting experience for me.’
‘How often do you manage to go home?’
‘About once a year, to see my mum, and that’s it.’
‘In one of your radio interviews you talked about the protection racket. Did you know about that as a child?’
‘Everybody knew. The newsagent, the pub, the Chinese restaurant, all the local businesses were paying protection money. In those days it was to the UDA, nowadays I think it is the UVF mostly. The peace process always has a slightly mocking ironic ring to me, because yes, it is technically a peace process, and the murder rate has gone down, but these guys are still running the rackets, they’re still getting the paid protection, still deal in drugs. In fact I think it’s a lot more drug dealing nowadays than it ever used to be, because of the IRA, and then the Protestants copied them, saying “don’t go to the police, go to us if you have any community problems, look what we do to drug dealers.” Nowadays that doesn’t happen anymore.’
‘What are you going to do after the third book about Duffy?’
‘That’s a brilliant question. I have no idea. I’ve all those abandoned first chapters, but I am probably just going to abandon them.’
‘They are no good?’
‘I don’t think they are good. Occasionally, I think maybe there is gold in this drawer and I go through it, but I was right the first time; terrible, fit for kindling. What I might do’ (he speaks slowly, considering, as though for the first time) ‘is take a break, just for a year. Have a think, have a reboot, try something new. I’ve lived in Australia for four years, and I’ve never written about it, so maybe it’s time.’
‘Yes, you’ve done Colorado.’
‘I’m not sure though, because I don’t think I’ve got a handle on Australia yet. Not sure I really understand what makes Australians tick, and I don’t think I’ve quite got the vernacular. I don’t feel I know it the way I should know it before writing about it. But we’ll see.’
‘We just just read Deviant and my husband pointed out that if you poke fun at the people in Colorado, they’re not going to like it.’
‘Oh no, I don’t think they do. I don’t think that book quite works.’
‘You think it does? Nobody bought the book at all. Not a single person bought it, but I loved writing it. Because I really wanted to write about Colorado Springs. Such a weird town! It’s where George W Bush found Jesus. The head of the Christian Coalition is there. It’s got this weird history. Nikola Tesla went there to conduct his experiments into electricity. The Air Force Academy is there. Lockheed is there, and they’ve got all these weird experiments with aircraft, so if you’re there at night time you see these weird UFOs in the air. I really loved it there. It was such a fascinating place, and this is my attempt to write a little story about it. But like I said, it didn’t do so well.’
‘But not because it’s no good.’
‘I enjoyed writing that book.’
‘I have just finished reading the Lighthouse trilogy. Will you write more Young Adult fiction?’
‘I don’t know. The reason I did the Lighthouse books was because I had an idea and I knew I couldn’t tell that story through the vehicle of crime fiction. It was an inappropriate medium, but the medium could probably be Y A fiction.
The idea for Deviant, well I kind of had the idea and didn’t know what the medium was. And I thought it might be fun to do this through a really dark Y A book. Let the story be in charge, let it tell you what to do, and it will. Maybe I’ll make it back to that space opera…’
‘I’m just thinking, your Y A books were published in America, and I wonder whether they would do better over here?’
‘Yeah, they’ve never been released over here. I’ve never understood why. I think it did quite well in Ireland. I think we sent them to the agent in charge of international rights, six years ago, and there were no takers then. There might be now.’
‘You were saying on your blog about the Duffy books, that nobody wanted to read about the troubles anywhere.’
‘But I sat back, and I thought “the Swedes would.”’
‘Yeah, the Swedes would. Also, I think it’s brilliant the way the Swedes made the world want to read about them. In the seventies, you were thinking Volvo and ABBA. But the Swedes, they thought “what we’ll do is quality crime fiction, we’ll make it very Swedish, we’ll make the world come to us.”
I was talking to Stuart about this last week – Stuart Neville – and he thinks it’s starting to turn a little bit. He thinks there’s a little bit of momentum where the world is becoming more interested in, and convincing an American to buy something that isn’t James Joyce or The Playboy of the Western World.’
‘Very 1950s. John Banville’s books do well there, because he wisely set them in 1950s Dublin, and Colm Toibin does that as well; he sets them in historic Ireland, or rural Ireland.’
‘That is something I don’t go for. I’m just thinking, when I grew up there was a whole generation who were pro IRA in Sweden.’
‘Stieg Larsson, he was a big IRA, Eritrea National Resistance Army, PLO guy. He was into all those resistance movements. He went out there. He walked the walk.’
‘Who’s got the foreign rights to your books?’
‘Serpents Tail have all the rights for the Duffy trilogy. I wonder who has the rights for the Dead books? I think it might have gone back to me. The Y A books have gone back to me.’
‘Do you think the books will sell abroad?’
‘They’ve sold the German rights. Not really surprising, I think I’ve about four or five books in Germany. Where else? I think only France. Maybe Spain as well, I’m not too sure.’
‘You want to go further north, that’s the thing.
‘Scandinavia. I don’t think they’ve ever sold the rights there.’
‘Tell them to!’
He gasps a little. ‘Yeah, they should. I have never been to Sweden, so I’d like to go. I went through it on the night train they used to have from Copenhagen to Oslo. Although now there’s a bridge, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, but I don’t think the train runs any more.’
‘That’s a shame. I remember arriving at Oslo, and the conductor does a whole series of announcements, in Norwegian, in Swedish, and then he does them in German, and in English. Just an ordinary guy, an ordinary stiff that works for the railway!’
‘But it turns out he speaks like five languages. Can you imagine that here?’
‘Not really. Are you in Melbourne permanently? Is your wife’s job a permanent one?’
‘Yes, she’s at Melbourne University, so we’re there for the long haul. We’ve just had a little adventure; she had a six month sabbatical, so we put our house up on a house swap site. It was really fun because a lot of people want to live in Melbourne. We wanted to live in America, but we had a lot of choices.’
‘You could just pick?’
‘We ended up picking this house in Seattle, so for the last six months we’ve lived in Seattle, which has been lovely. I’ve never lived there before.’
The photographer points out that this explains his hoodie.
‘I took the kids to a baseball game, trying to get them all excited. They were bored out of their minds. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like taking them to cricket. So we spent six months in Seattle which was a really nice, pleasant place, very nice people, weather not so.’
‘A lot of rain but I think no worse than Belfast or Manchester.’
‘Worse than Melbourne, though.’
‘Definitely worse than Melbourne. Seattleans don’t really complain about the rain, but people who move there from California do. I thought it was perfectly lovely, but the kids – it has to be said – hated it.’
‘They are so young that normal will be Australia. You’re Irish, your wife is American and now you’ve been in Australia for so long, with young children. Where is home?’
‘Good question. There is no home, we’re wandering…’
The photographer suggests Adrian is a pirate.
‘Yeah, a pirate, an exile. I’m condemned to travel continents forever, without a home. It’s hard to say. The day before yesterday I was back in Belfast, and in one way it felt like home; my mum was there, my sisters were there, my little brother was there. I was staying in the bedroom where I lived most of my life, and yet, it didn’t feel like home.’
‘But you didn’t feel you’ll want to move back there?’
‘After the events of the last six weeks, I think that’s increasingly unlikely. To have the kids grow up in an environment where it matters if you’re a Protestant or a Catholic seems absolutely absurd.’
‘I just can’t believe that level of atavism is still occurring. When I was there it all seemed deadly serious. This is a cultural identity which is being eaten away and all these symbols still matter. But then when you come over to London, it just seems silly. So no, I don’t think I’d ever want to risk my family there.’
‘So might it be America?’
‘It might be Australia. I like it. It’s certainly a great climate. The problem for me with Australia has been it’s so far away. That flight is really terrible. You have to fly seven hours to get anywhere, and that anywhere is Kuala Lumpur. And then do a 19 hour flight to London. I’ve done that four times, and I’ve just vowed never again. If there’s an emergency with the kids, we can’t have my mum fly out, we can’t have Leah’s mum fly out. There’s nobody. But on the other hand, really nice people, very pleasant culture, really pleasant environment.’
‘It does sound extremely nice.’
‘I blogged the other day about music in books, partly thinking that you put a lot of music in your books, and then Seana [a regular commenter on Bookwitch] helpfully pointed out that you don’t think men should sing.’
‘I just think the female voice is so much more pleasant, I really do. It is a crazy thing to say, but when I listen to Robert Plant, or Mick Jagger at his age, going on stage, it just seems ridiculous. But again, I’m not as crazy as I was, and it’s especially true when you get an old blues singer from the Delta, and I think “now I get it, this is the vector for all his pain and suffering.” The medium is the message. And you get someone like Tom Waits, and I’ll never say a word against Tom Waits. I have to walk down and back a little bit.’
‘I finished The Lighthouse Keepers just the other day. I enjoyed your description in there of Larne. Very nicely put.’
‘Yeah, what a weird place Larne is. I used to go drinking there when I was a kid. We’d take the train down and it was such a tough little port town. Port towns are generally cosmopolitan, because they’ve got ferries coming in, they’ve got sailors coming in, and Larne is the absolute reverse. It’s very dour, it’s very conservative, very 19th century, it’s very much a backwater. They should be used to foreigners and strangers.’
‘It’s a scary place. I wouldn’t want to be alone there from out of town on a Friday night, asking for directions.’
On that interesting note, I move on to the business of getting Adrian to sign books, while hoping no one from Larne will want to ‘help’ him with directions on any night of the week, should he go back there. ‘I couldn’t carry my whole library, so settled on the two most recently read books.’
‘I’d be happy to do any of them, yeah. This one’ (indicating The Lighthouse Keepers) ‘I think there’s gonna be less than ten signed copies, in the world. For the first two I did a book tour, but by book three I’d moved to Australia, so couldn’t. My god, of the actual book there might be six signed copies on the planet Earth!’
We discuss pens and then Adrian notices the almost totally black pages at the front of the book. ‘Oh, how am I going to do that?’
‘I don’t know.’ I had assumed Adrian would know how to deal with his own book.
‘What you need is a silver pen. I bet you Terry Pratchett walks round with silver pens in his pocket, bet you he’s prepared for that. So how am I going to do that?’
‘There,’ I say, pointing to a paler blob on the title page.
‘I could actually, in the cloud, that would be fantastic!’
‘It would be. Yes.’ We move on to Duffy in I Hear the Sirens in the Street.
‘This one’s easier. Anything in particular?’
‘Something nice, irreverent, whatever.’ I forget to say please.
‘No pressure at all. Draw a picture. Some people draw very nice pictures in their books.’
‘I know what I’ll do.’
The photographer thinks she sees something else in the upside down image, and is a little shocked. We laugh, and then Adrian’s publicist drags him away, out into the cold.