Patrick Radden Keefe Weaves History and True Crime in His Book Say Nothing


-Welcome to the show. -Thanks for having me.
-This is a marvelous book. One of my favorite of last year, but that praise pales
in comparison to the fact that Obama named it as one of
his favorite books of the year. “Entertainment Weekly” named it
one of the Books of the Year. And when this news comes out,
that must be exciting to receive praise
from people like that. And yet your mom —
when you gave your mom the news, she was not that excited.
-Yeah, so, my dear mother — there were these lists,
which was very exciting. And I was just grateful that
anybody read the book at all. And “Entertainment Weekly”
came out with this list of not only of
the best books of the year but of the best books
of the decade. And my mother
had really loved this book called “H is for Hawk,”
by Helen Macdonald. Terrific book.
I’d recommend it to you. My mother loved this book. And so, I get this
“Entertainment Weekly” list, and I showed it to her —
you know, “Look, Ma. I done good.”
[ Laughter ] And she looks at it. She looks at the whole list,
and she says, “Huh. So they didn’t pick
‘H is for Hawk.'” [ Laughter ] “But they did pick your book.”
[ Laughter ] So, you know.
-There you go. Well, maybe the parents of
whoever wrote that loved yours. -Exactly, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[ Laughter ] -You got this idea
from reading an obituary. Is that a place
you usually look? The obituary pages for —
-You would be surprised. I find an article —
My father — This is all about
my parents here. My dad loves the obituary page. It’s the first part
of the newspaper he reads in the morning.
[ Light laughter ] He’s calls it — My dad’s an
Irish-American guy from Boston. He calls it
the Irish sports pages. [ Laughter ]
And, uh… And it’s like the first thing
he reads in the morning. It puts him in the right
frame of mind to face the day. [ Laughter ]
-Right, exactly. -To read about all the people
who just died. So, I often do get ideas there.
And in this case, I read an obituary of that woman
whose photo is on the cover. -And this is both a book,
a history book about the troubles in Ireland,
and it’s also a page-turning true-crime story where you try
to get to the bottom of an unsolved murder that
happened in Northern Ireland. Was this something
that you knew much about before you got into it?
-I didn’t know much at all. You know,
with my very Irish name, you would think that I had some intense connection
to this story. But it was just in the context
of my day job at “The New Yorker,”
I stumbled across this story about this notorious murder
that had happened in 1972. This woman, Jean McConville,
who was a window and a mother of 10,
was at home with her kids in Belfast in 1972,
and this gang pulled her out the house,
an armed gang. They told the kids,
“We’ll bring your mother back,” and they never did.
And she disappeared. And it turned out
she’d been killed by the IRA. And so that was sort of
the way in. And the obituary that I read
was of this woman who may have had something
to do with that killing. -And then you basically
become an investigator over the course of writing this. And one of the things, you know,
I found so riveting in the reading of it is, it does
sort of seamlessly weave, you know, a history lesson,
which I knew a little, and now I feel like
I know a great deal more, and also this —
the investigation into this. And you go so far as to name who
you believe the killer to be, with the backing evidence. And this is a person
who is alive. You write about
how weighty a choice that is to actually put a name
on the page. -Yeah. I mean,
it was a strange one for me. I’m glad to hear you say that
about the book, because part of what I wanted
to do was write something that didn’t feel like
a history book. And because it starts
with this mystery, I thought that might give it
a little bit of momentum. I did not think going, into it,
that I would solve the mystery. And I spent four years
on the book. I went back and forth
seven times to Northern Ireland. And in the end,
I ended up figuring out the identity of this person.
And so then I — You know, as you can imagine,
I had to talk to a great many lawyers
before naming — [ Laughter ]
— naming this person who’s still alive and had never
been implicated in this. But I did, and I think it was
the right thing to do. -Did you — you know,
you mentioned your Irish name. You mentioned growing up
in Boston, obviously. You know,
an Irish-American community that’s very robust there.
But yet, growing up, did you have this connection
to the troubles? Did you have a sense
of what it meant? Did you feel close to it?
-I didn’t. You know, it’s funny.
There was an Irish bar down the street from my house
where my dad used to go. And they collected in this bar
for the IRA. People would pass around a jar
and collect. But to me, it felt foreign. It felt like something happening
in another country in another part of the world. I didn’t feel
any connection to it. The strange thing
was going to Ireland. And I thought everybody would
say like, “Oh, Patrick Keefe. Come on in.”
You know? There was none of that.
[ Light laughter ] There was this sense of,
“Here’s this American. He’s from New York.”
-Yeah. -You know, I was very much
an outsider. -But you do speak in the book
sort of at the conclusion that being an outsider
was helpful in trying to get these
old stories out of people, because insiders are sort of
strangely too connected to it. Right?
They all know somebody who knows somebody who might be
implicated by telling the story. -Absolutely.
‘Cause it’s such a small place, and, you know, the title
of the book is “Say Nothing.” And there were moments
along the way where I kind of rued having chosen that as
the title, because you do go, and there’s
this code of silence. To be an outsider
helped a little bit, because it’s such
a tribal society that it was harder, I think,
for people to just kind of, you know, get the cut of my jib
and figure, “Oh, well he must have this perspective
or that perspective.” Instead they could just take me
as kind of an honest broker who was just looking
for the truth. -Well, it’s a fantastic book.
I can’t recommend it enough. Thank you so much
for being here. -Thank you.
-Just a delight talking to you. Patrick Radden Keefe, everybody.

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