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New Thriller 'The Chain' Has An Origin Almost As Exciting As Its Plot

Writers, like all artists, are willing to give up a lot to keep doing what they love best. But sometimes, reality bites, and dreams have to be put aside in order to put food on the table. That's what happened to Adrian McKinty — but then, with a little help from some friends, he found a way to keep going. The result is his new book, The Chain.

No one would ever have called McKinty a failure. He'd written a lot of critically acclaimed crime novels and mysteries, including a series based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he grew up. He'd also won some well-known literary prizes, the prestigious Edgar Award among them. There was just one problem: "To all the world it looked like I was a successful writer, but just no one was buying the books, and so my income was gradually drying up," he says.

McKinty and his family were living in Australia when things got really tough. Although his wife had a teaching job, they were having trouble making ends meet. Finally, they were evicted from their home. McKinty says he remembers "all our stuff being dumped on the sidewalk in front of our house. And my little girls looking up at me and going, 'is everything going to be alright?' And me thinking, 'I don't know.' And the one thing that really got to me was, we'd lived in that house for about ten years, and I'd drawn that height chart of the girls growing up on the wall. And then the landlords came in and they gutted the place and that height chart was destroyed. And that's kind of the moment when I realized that I was going to stop this writing business and do something else with my life."

To all the world it looked like I was a successful writer, but just no one was buying the books, and so my income was gradually drying up.

McKinty wrote about his decision on his blog — and that led to an exchange of letters with best selling thriller writer Don Winslow, who says McKinty was too good to stop writing. "I felt I had a fix for him," Winslow says. He sympathized with McKinty, because he'd gone through a similar experience in his own writing career. "You know, I had six or seven published novels, but couldn't make a living at it. At one point I think I had $37 in the checking account."

That all changed when Winslow got a new agent, a guy named Shane Salerno, a best selling author and a high profile screenwriter with deep connections in Hollywood. Salerno had started a new business aimed at getting writers published, and if possible, getting them movie contracts as well. Winslow says Salerno turned his career around — and he thought he could do the same for McKinty, "because Shane and The Story Factory have sort of fought this revolution to make this work for writers, and to get writers a living wage, you know, that people can exist on and thrive on."

By that time McKinty was working as a bartender and driving for Uber. "I'd driven this guy to the airport," he recalls, "and I'd got home and and he had actually been sick on the side of the car. And I was hosing down the car and the phone rings at about midnight and It's Shane Salerno. And it's really late and I'm exhausted and I said, 'Shane, I really appreciate everything that you're trying to do for me and I appreciate Don taking interest. But, with all due respect, I'm going to hang up now and I'm gonna go to bed.' So I hung up on him, and he calls me back immediately."

Salerno is a persuasive guy, says Don Winslow — and he has a pretty simple pitch: "Come work with me, trust me. And listen, McKinty used to hang up on him for a number of phone calls, because I think he was pretty determined that he was done."

"And then," says McKinty, "he got me, because he said 'Adrian, do you have an American story?' And it turned out that I had." Salerno told him to pitch it, "and I pitched him the story of a woman whose child is kidnapped by this evil entity, this organization known as The Chain, and to get her child back she has to pay the ransom. And then she has to kidnap someone else's child to replace hers on the chain, and then it goes on forever. And he said 'OK, I want to read this, I want to read this story, right now."

Salerno told McKinty to start writing, and gave him $10,000 — an advance on the advance, as he called it.

It's one of those ideas where you hear it and you go 'Yeah, that's a breakout book.'

"It's one of those ideas where you hear it and you go 'Yeah, that's a breakout book,'" says Winslow, who calls The Chain the kind of thriller you can't put down. "It's shocking. But then it takes you into that world, and that's what great crime fiction does. You know, it starts with a startling kind of shocking premise, and then you're into it and you're off and running. And the rhythm of this book, the pace of this book, it's one of those things that just grabs you and does not let you go."

The Chain is now being published in the U.S. and 36 other countries. Paramount Pictures bought the screen rights for seven figures. The main character, Rachel, is a cancer survivor and divorced single mom. McKinty based her on a number of strong women and fictional characters he admires. He say he had to make Rachel sympathetic even as she gets caught up in an evil chain of events.

"This is someone who crosses the line and does bad things. But I knew that I wanted the reader still to be on board with her, to have them think to themselves, 'Well, what would I do for my kids?' And I think for most people, you'd pretty much do anything if your kid was in jeopardy or in harm. You'd do anything to get your kid back."

After all, Adrian McKinty says, that's the way this book really got started. It was the day he saw his daughters looking at him on the sidewalk outside what used to be their home and he knew he'd do anything for them, even give up writing.

This story was produced for radio by Tom Cole, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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