In 2004 I was given an opportunity to pitch a TV show to the BBC. My first novel, Dead I Well May Be, had just come out, and although the book hadn’t sold well, it had been well reviewed, and this had attracted the attention of the Beeb.
Partly autobiographical, Dead I Well May Be was about a Northern Irish born, illegal immigrant living in New York in the early 1990s, but for my pitch, I wanted to suggest a show that drew on my roots growing up in the Belfast of the 70s and 80s. I thought that the 70s might be on the verge of a comeback, so I came up with the idea of a cop show set in 1977 during the darkest days of the Irish “Troubles.”
Two Belfast detectives—partners—one Protestant and one Catholic, would try to solve ordinary crimes while all around them chaos was raging. This was the period when bombs were going off daily, when the streets were filled with soldiers, and when it looked like the whole society was going to collapse into civil war. Add to that 70s music, 70s fashions, 70s hair, and the birth of Belfast’s punk scene, and I thought that I was onto a winner.
I assumed my enthusiastic pitch had gone well, and when I was done, I leaned back in the chair wondering how I would spend my new-found TV wealth.
“Mr McKinty,” the elderly, owl-like BBC Producer began, “that is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
I was flabbergasted. He had surely misspoken. “Are you sure?”
The wise old owl looked at me with sympathy.
Young man—the Troubles have been only been over for six years. Nobody in Northern Ireland wants to watch a TV show set during those terrible times. Nobody in the Republic of Ireland wants to watch a show set during the Troubles. Everyone in England is so sick of Ireland, they wish the whole island could be towed into the middle of the Atlantic and sunk. And as for trying to sell this in America? Forget it. They still think it’s the 1950s and The Quiet Man over here. If I can give you some free advice: never write about Northern Ireland and especially Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
I walked out of the BBC that day stunned but convinced that the wise old owl was right. When I went into bookshops in Belfast or London, I hardly ever saw fiction set during the Troubles. So, for the next seven years, I wrote about every other place I’d lived in or visited: New York, Denver, Havana, Australia—but never Northern Ireland.
The Irish novels that became best sellers over this time period were almost all nostalgia pieces, and when the BBC did commission an Irish crime series, it was, of course, set in 1950s Dublin. (The banal Quirk series written by John Banville.) What the punters wanted was comfort viewing, not uncomfortable viewing.
In 2011, after a long period of writer’s block, I began writing a mystery novel that, much to my dismay, was clearly set in Belfast. And worse, it was set in Belfast in 1981 during the IRA Hunger Strikes. As I kept writing, I kept hoping that the location of the book would suddenly switch to somewhere else, but it defiantly stayed in Belfast right through to the end.
But the weird thing was that it was the easiest book I’d ever written. The words poured out of me, and once the floodgates of memory opened, entire episodes of my childhood that I’d forgotten about came roaring back: the smell of petrol bombs during a riot; army helicopters landing in the field behind our terraced house; our next-door neighbour, a major in the army, checking under his car for bombs before giving my little brother and me a lift to school; another next-door neighbour who was arrested for murder in the middle of the night; the time I got knocked down by a police Land Rover in a hit and run...
I called the book The Cold Cold Ground and sent it to my US publishers who promptly rejected it, telling me that it wouldn’t sell in America. Ten other US publishers said exactly the same thing. My UK publishers, fortunately, didn’t reject it, and it went on to get the best reviews and sales of my career. And then, I did get a US publisher, the excellent start-up Seventh Street Books.
Not listening to the BBC’s advice and finally writing about what I knew—my childhood in Belfast during the Troubles—had allowed me to delve deeper into a greater vein of poetry and truth than I’d ever done before in a book. Prior to writing my Belfast novel, I’d just been making up stories, but now, I was recreating the past in an artistically fulfilling way that readers could identify with.
And that’s the secret, isn’t it?
Good fiction gives readers access to emotional truths that are universal, transcending history, culture, or geography. Reaching these truths can be done in a number of ways, but one of the best is still through that hoary old trope: write what you know...