Once, Adrian McKinty and his family were visiting a small island off the Australian coast. It was hot, there was nothing much to see. The locals carried shotguns to hunt rabbits and seemed vaguely threatening. On a race to get back to the last ferry, their car almost hit a woman on a bicycle who appeared out of the blue. Still shaken, McKinty joked to his wife that if they had hit her, they would never leave the island alive.
Cut to lockdown in New York, McKinty’s present home, where he was suffering from writer’s block. On the phone chatting to his agent, Shane Salerno, he told him about their near miss. “You did hit her,” Salerno said. “That’s the book.”
That indeed is The Island, the second international bestselling thriller from the Belfast-born and one-time Australian resident, in which an American family visit Dutch Island and mayhem ensues. I watched McKinty talk about it via BAD Sydney’s International Online Festival, in one of four interview sessions with top crime writers. The others were Janet Evanovich, Harlan Coben and Mick Herron (the fifth session with Don Winslow was postponed).
They were all promoting their latest books, but also had plenty to say about their long and prolific careers, which were by no means overnight success stories. Before his breakthrough into thrillers, McKinty wrote six noir crime novels about his Belfast cop Sean Duffy, which were well received but never sold more than 2000 copies in a year. Noir is still his favourite style: he can have the music-obsessed Duffy go off on a rant about Bono or Robert Plant and readers will stay with him. “But you can’t get away with that in a thriller.”
Janet Evanovich credited her love of the adventure story to the Scrooge McDuck comics she read as a child. She began by writing romance novels and switched to crime: “My goal was to write a book, sell it to the movies and become rich and famous. Now I am, but it took 25 years … The romance novels took 10 years to get published, I had this huge packing crate of rejections. One was written in lipstick on a bar napkin.”
How does she get to her desk every morning at 5.30? “Wine helps.”
Harlan Coben revealed how he got the idea for the start of his new book, The Match. He was walking through the New Jersey woods when he noticed a boy of about five, walking by himself. He thought: “What if he came out of the woods and knew nothing but living in the woods, 30 years pass and he still has no idea, then there’s a DNA match and he’s standing across the street from his biological father’s house?”
My favourite interview was with Mick Herron, who spoke with both wit and seriousness about his Slough House series of British secret service novels, which could not be further removed from the world of James Bond.
“I’m interested in writing about failure,” he said of his bunch of loser spies known as the Slow Horses, eking out their drab existence in a drab London building under the thumb of their shambling boss, Jackson Lamb. He finds he relies more and more on the real world for humour and farce: “Much of the time I feel the British public is being treated with contempt by the government and I want to return the compliment.”
But don’t get ideas that one of his characters, a sociopathic politician with floppy hair, is meant to be anybody in particular. “I did not describe his hair as blond.”
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