Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, Say Nothing is, to my mind, the ideal blend of gripping crime narrative and larger portrait of societal upheaval, in this instance how the 1972 murder of Jean McConville was intrinsically linked to the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Keefe’s new book, his first in over a decade after The Snakehead, has already received plaudits in the UK and Ireland upon its publication late last year.
I’ve long admired Keefe’s work at the New Yorker, where he publishes must-read stories on complicated figures ranging from Astrid Holleeder, the Dutch woman who turned in her gangster brother after years of high-grade family terror, to Mark Burnett, the reality television mastermind behind The Apprentice (and thus, President Trump), to the Sackler family, heirs to and carriers of the Purdue Pharma flame and its responsibility for the opioid crisis—and subjects of Keefe’s next book, announced just prior to the publication of Say Nothing.
Over tea at a quiet SoHo restaurant on a weekday afternoon in January, Keefe and I discussed Say Nothing, the “collective amnesia” those in Northern Ireland feel about the IRA’s terror reign in the 1970s and 80s, and the responsibility reporters have to the families affected by violent crime, above all the woman at the center of Keefe’s book, Jean McConville. The conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, appears below.
Sarah Weinman: Let me start with something rather obvious, but which I’m also highly curious about: what drew you to this story, first as a magazine piece, and then as a book? How did you know there was more to the story than what was published in your initial New Yorker piece?
Patrick Radden Keefe: The beginning was Dolours Price. She died in 2013. I read the obituary. I hadn’t had a particular connection to the Troubles or to Ireland as a writer.
SW: In hindsight, was that surprising?
PRK: Maybe. I’m a little bit contrarian. I grew up in a milieu in which there were certain things taken for granted about the conflict and relationship you would have to it. So maybe there was a part of me that didn’t feel [a connection] because I didn’t want to feel something others told me I should be feeling. Dolours had such an outsized life. In a strange way, it’s all there in the New York Times obituary.
SW: A capsule of the book.
PRK: Yeah, this idea of this one very dramatic life by this person whose whole persona is dramatic. From her involvement in the McConville murder, her participation in the Boston College project, the falling out with Gerry Adams—
SW: And being married to Stephen Rea! When I read that detail in Say Nothing I really had to double-take, I was so surprised. Maybe it was common knowledge and yet, it just stuck out.
PRK: I certainly hadn’t known that before. I think it’s commonly known in Ireland but not here. So initially, it was more about Dolours than Jean McConville. The idea of youth and radicalism and radicalization is something I thought a huge amount about, too.
SW: Dolours and her sister Marian, Gerry Adams—they were all so goddamn young.
PRK: When we talk about radicalization today, we mean something slightly different. Ex-IRA people would bristle when I went on long riffs about some young person in Europe radicalized by ISIS.
SW: Or radicalized by white nationalists on Gab, or Reddit—
PRK: Right. But! Youth has a lot to do with this. I struggled and was very careful in the book to show that glamour has a lot to do with it, too.
SW: They were so rooted in 60s revolutionary fervor, like the Weather Underground. Something in the air then, for understandable reasons, and I don’t think it could replicate itself in its entirety. Which also makes me think of that photo of Dolours!
PRK: And the self-awareness with which she invites the Paris-Match photographer in.
SW: It’s also interesting to compare that Dolours photo to the one of Patty Hearst, taken in the bank.
PRK: Yes, totally.
SW: It wasn’t a deliberate set up in the way that the Dolours photo is…
PRK: But the iconography is similar. I wanted to capture, in the early chapters, a sense of moral righteousness. They weren’t wrong about living in an oppressive situation. This youth sense of the whole world on fire, revolution. But also this glamour, these figures, it’s a tricky balance to strike. I wanted to get at the seductiveness, to help you understand why these young people did these things, but the second half of the book needed to capture the hangover years later. They are all older, they’ve gone on hunger strikes, had children, PTSD, gone to jail, looking back at the things they did in their teens. I feel it would have been irresponsible to write the first third without getting the last third. I wanted to take a moral longitudinal point of view, “this is what it’s like when you are 19.”
By happenstance, David Remnick wrote a piece—just one—about Ireland. It’s in The Devil Problem. When I went over, there were certain people who were suspicious of me. Particularly with respect to Gerry Adams. At first I couldn’t figure out why but then I realized they remembered this piece David wrote 20 years ago. When Tina Brown was the editor. Perception of him as Tina’s hatchet man—
SW: Oh wow, layers upon layers!“Ex-IRA people would bristle when I went on long riffs about some young person in Europe radicalized by ISIS.”
PRK: Exactly. So he knew this terrain, and had interviewed Adams. And so we decided to do this piece. It took a long time. Started in May 2014 and submitted in March 2015, and was going the whole time. I took 2 trips over there. It was a long piece but I knew it could be a book because there was so much more.
I’d love to talk to you about this because I know you’ve thought about these things too, but as a writer there’s an embarrassment of riches where there’s all this great stuff. The temptation is to jam it all in there, but that’s a disservice to the reader.
SW: Right, because you have to tell the story first. And you have to—maybe entertain is the wrong word, or not exactly the right word, but definitely engage the reader, whether at 8,000 words or 2,000 words or 100,000 words.
PRK: And in a way that can carry it through. There’s this huge literature about the Troubles. I’ve read a lot of those books now. There’s a strength and a weakness in those books because they are clotted with so much great stuff. You can feel the people writing the books, “here’s this great anecdote, to understand what happened to her you need to know about her uncle” and there’s a 5,000-word digression.
SW: A series of Wikipedia jumpoff points.
PRK: I knew there was a book because of the combo of a rich cast of characters and a pretty strong narrative arc. In which it felt as those the concept was, you have a half-dozen people and this atrocity in 1972, look at reverberations. My last book was set in Chinatown. I spent years and years interviewing people, but as a writer I was straining to map people very disparate in time and place. The weirdness of Belfast is that it’s so tiny. This pinball machine, bouncing off each other relentlessly. Which felt like a dynamic you could put to good use in a book. When Brendan Hughes dies, Gerry Adams is right there at the funeral, Dolours Price is there, writing about it.
SW: From my standpoint, I remember when the agreement happened in 1994, I was a teenager in Canada at the time (so there was extra Commonwealth connection, I guess.) It felt like something that, once decided, let’s bury it, not think about it, and have collective cultural amnesia. By highlighting certain people, it gets past the amnesia. So I wonder what challenges that posed for you, where you are trying to tell the story of individual people, and of a crime affecting the McConville family, but how it stands in for the systemic stuff.
PRK: Yeah. God, that’s a good question. It’s a weird thing, some of it is about ambition. Mine was never about writing a full-spectrum, “here’s the whole story” kind of book about The Troubles. At the same time, the ambition certainly was to tell a series of individual stories with symbolic resonance. It’s not that Jean McConville is the Troubles. Her story is quite extreme, but you could pick any number of victims and see how the Trouble bleeds out, and how people carried it out. Hope that in a specific story, some way to capture larger picture.
To your point about amnesia, that was the whole rub all through the reporting. People would not want to talk about things I asked about, some good, some bad, some not interested.
SW: You began this story after Dolours Price died, but if she was still alive, do you think she would have talked to you?
PRK: I was just talking about this the other day. As I was writing, I often wondered what it would be like to be alive and answer the questions I was asking rather than the ones from other people. I was lucky enough to get a hold of unpublished interviews which were great, but of course you want to be there to ask the questions. I felt as if I knew her quite well but also was someone quite good at deluding herself at times. Places in the book where I explicitly, rhetorically question whether she’s deluding herself, especially about Jean McConville—did she say what she believed, or what she is telling herself?
SW: This whole book explores unreliability of narrative. I’m thinking also of Gerry Adams [head of Sinn Fein]. He would deny what he did in the 1970s. Not just amnesia but willful manipulation. What did this tell you?
PRK: I know. He didn’t talk to me either. It’s funny. Twice now I have had the experience of writing a long magazine article and turning it into a book. I know that was the case with you, too. The piece is a calling card as you do the reporting, which can be helpful or can make things harder.
SW: Especially with the stuff around Remnick. They were creating a narrative about you.
PRK: There’s a meta-question threaded through this process. That I’m this outsider. I like to think I’m pretty diligent as a reporter. That’s the shoe leather to get the story right. But I didn’t grow up there, I don’t live there. There are people who will never talk to me because I’m an outsider. I came out thinking that’s an asset. One of the things that’s been wonderful about the reception in the UK and Ireland, where the book’s out already, is that people have said a book like this couldn‘t have been written by an insider.
SW: Because then you could assemble all the perspectives from the outside whereas if you were inside you would have tunnel vision.
PRK: Exactly. Even if you did your level best to be objective, people could tar you as partisan.
SW: Let’s now talk about the Belfast Project at Boston College, an oral history designed to chronicle the Troubles that ended up becoming evidence in the McConville murder case. What so floored me was the naivete with which everyone went into that project. Did they not understand what the consequences and ramifications might be? Reporting that out from your standpoint, what was that like who did you talk to, where did you go, walk me through that process.
PRK: I know. The naivete thing, you’re absolutely right and what’s bizarre is that they kept it within a small group of people [who didn’t know what the consequences would be]. That was kind of born of suspicion/paranoia to keep it all secret. I truly think a big problem was that there were only five to ten people who really understood what was happening at all. That’s not enough people. So when it all unraveled…
SW: Almost like they were the Boston Globe working in Spotlight.“There are people who will never talk to me because I’m an outsider.”
PRK: Let’s do it in our mineshaft here where we’re the only ones who know, because if anyone else does it’s dangerous… the problem is that you end up with a kind of groupthink. Questions that should have been asked, but weren’t. And then when it all unraveled, Boston College, which should have been fully behind them, the institutional backstop, and their reaction was more, “wait a second, what was happening here?”
It was a tricky one. I spent a lot of time over four years talking to Ed Moloney, director of the project. He was a very key source. Ed’s a complicated guy. He was a source and a character and on some level a competitor. On some level it’s a fraught dynamic. I also spent a few years talking to Anthony McIntyre, he was another big source. His wife, Carrie Toomey, is mentioned only briefly in the book, but she’s an essential figure because she was around for a lot of this, very instrumental in organizing the project’s legal defense, and she was good friends with Dolours Price.
The one interview I have is the unredacted Brendan Hughes transcript. I couldn’t get the other ones. I tried.
SW: In their own way they were protecting their sources.
PRK: Yes. We do slightly different things, and if you read the book you’ll gather that I think the project is flawed in pretty fundamental ways. But I respect that restraint. And I did find a way to work around the [lack of available interviews] because there are only certain interviews I describe. I don’t have the documents but I have their recollections.
SW: Jean McConville’s children—or at least some of them—did talk to you for the book. Was it difficult?
PRK: It was difficult at first, and then three of them talked to me. Three have died, there are now seven left. Those were fraught relationships and still are. The family has been through obvious hell.
SW: They didn’t know her fate for decades and knowing it didn’t necessarily make it better.
PRK: With the McConville kids, there’s no version of the book they would be 100 percent comfortable with.
It is. I wrote a piece a few years ago about this guy, Ken Dornstein, whose older brother was on the Lockerbie plane. He spent the last 25 years trying to figure out what happened. His wife, Kathryn, a brilliant psychologist, she and I had amazing conversations about how Ken built his life around this quest. What would his life be without it? He had constructed so much meaning around this void. If he ever solved the mystery, would his life have no meaning anymore? There’s a little bit of a parallel over there. So it was intense. But I also feel as though I did right by the McConville kids.
SW: Last question. How do you know when a story is your story? What, to you, is the difference between a Patrick Radden Keefe story and a David Grann story or a Rachel Aviv story or one of mine? With so many ways to write crime stories, so how do you know which ones, automatically, are those you would gravitate to? Or which ones aren’t for you?
PRK: That’s a good question. I don’t know, I’ve tried not to get too… I try to be pretty workman-like about it, to be honest. Not to get too paralyzed. To remind myself that it doesn’t have to take the rest of your life. For me, a lot is about character. A classic example for me, I wrote this piece about Amy Bishop. Never in a million years would have looked at that story and thought I could write about it. But my brilliant editor, Daniel Zalewski, described Amy’s mother, how she walked into the room and watched one child kill the other. A few minutes before the cops come, she had to decide whether to say if it was a murder or an accident.
Her choice dictated the rest of Amy’s life and cost the lives of others. Daniel’s point was that the heart of the story was her mother, making a decision that none of us could say, in the abstract, what we would do. Left on my own, the idea crossing my desk, I wouldn’t have done it.