The Phone Call That Changed a Writer’s Fate

“The Chain,” a kidnapping thriller being marketed as “Jaws for parents,” is emerging as one of publishing’s biggest bets of the summer beach-read season. . . .

It’s a remarkable turn of fortune for 51-year-old author Adrian McKinty. Early in 2017, the Northern Ireland native had given up writing after years of trying to make it as a crime novelist. He was working in a bar and driving an Uber in Melbourne, Australia, to help support his wife and two kids after they had been evicted from their home there.

The author had wrestled with his own demons since 2013. After writing more than a dozen books, he had enthusiastic fans, but not enough of them. His books didn’t sell—often just a few thousand copies, even in the British Isles. . . .

In early 2017, Mr. McKinty and his wife Leah Garrett, then a professor at Monash University, were raising two young daughters outside Melbourne, but money was tight. The eviction jolted him. Mr. McKinty told people he was going to stop writing books. “When the sales are so low that you can’t keep a roof over your head, it’s probably time to rethink your career plan,” he says. He began working in a bar, writing free-lance book reviews for the local paper, driving for Uber and planning to go back to teaching.

He was just settling into his new life when he got a call from author Don Winslow in California. The two had never met, but they’d liked each other’s books and Mr. McKinty one night impulsively sent him a bummed-out note about his decision. Mr. Winslow, who had struggled himself with good reviews and low sales, offered to send Mr. McKinty’s books to his L.A.-based agent Shane Salerno. Mr. McKinty was flattered but unenthused. He’d moved on. He didn’t bother googling Mr. Salerno.

One late night, after an Uber passenger had vomited on his car, Mr. McKinty got home and Mr. Salerno was calling, telling him he could jump-start his career, but not just with books about Belfast. Did he have an idea for an American story? He half-heartedly outlined two of them, which left Mr. Salerno unmoved. Anything else? Well, yes, he did have another one, a short story he’d written in 2012 stashed in a drawer, “The Chain.”

He described the idea, and was just getting to Aristotle when Mr. Salerno said, “Stop right there. I want to read this book.” Would he write a couple of chapters? Okay, I guess. “No, like right now.”. . .

“The Chain” was finished in the summer of 2018 and sold to Little, Brown a few months later, along with another thriller in the same vein.

—From a Wall Street Journal article, “The Phone Call That Changed a Writer’s Fate,” by Richard Turner.

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