The New School hosts the 2020 National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
The following interview with Patrick Radden Keefe the 2020 award winner for nonfiction, is part of a series of NBCC interviews conducted by New School creative writing students.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (PRH) traces the lives of Jean McConville, a widow with ten children taken from her home at the height of the war between the IRA and the British Government, The Troubles. And Dolours Price, the first female IRA Paramilitary Volunteer, who, along with her sister Marian Price became infamous for taking part in a 1973 London bombing. In this up-close historical narrative, Radden anchors the reader in a handful of influential characters from that time, following their lives through the decades-spanning conflict. The personal and political seamlessly integrate, creating a gripping portrait of the region’s tumultuous climate, the IRA’s hierarchy and characters operating within it, and the ways warfare has traumatized the community of Northern Ireland.
Plamena Malinova [PM]: Was there a definitive moment where you knew you had to write this book? I read that the initial spark for the project was the obituary of Dolours Price. Was there something specific about that or besides that that stood out?
Patrick Radden Keefe [PRK]: There were two main things about the obituary that got me thinking that there might be a story, and the first was just the idea that Dolours Price was a young, tempestuous, radical in her 20’s who did awful things but then that she survived the conflict. And after the fact, looking back at what she did in a way says something interesting about this character. The other draw was the notion of these two very different women who are joined by this one act of violence in 1971. One of them is a victim, one of them is a perpetrator. I was just interested in how over the decades, tracing the aftermath of that act of violence for people on both sides, and tracing the trauma not just for the victims, for the McConville children, but also the perpetrators, Dolours Price, and others.
PM: I found myself very empathetic toward the characters and invested in the outcomes of their lives. Do you get emotionally invested in the people you’re speaking with? And how do you combat potential character or narrative biases when interacting with subjects?
PRK: On some level, if I didn’t feel some emotional reaction to the story, I probably wouldn’t be interested in writing the stories. I guess the first point to make would be, in many instances, the people I’m writing about aren’t people I have direct interaction with because their either dead or not talking to me. The four primary characters in this book Dolours Price, Brenden Hughes, Jean McConville, and Gerry Adams, I didn’t speak to any of them. But I never the less was emotionally invested. Often, I was moved by the stories I learned, and think there’s a way to be alive to that and be aware of that and not have it constitute bias and not have it lead you to want to alter it in any way. It’s possible to feel some degree of emotional engagement and empathy for your subjects but not have that constitute some level of bias. At the end of the day, my ultimate allegiance is to the truth of the story, not to these individuals or their loved ones.
PM: Because the second person narrative is so close, I was very surprised to learn that you never spoke with the central characters. What are some craft elements you employ in composing a narrative where you cannot directly talk to the subject?
PRK: I’m very happy to hear you say that because in my day job at the New Yorker I often do write around pieces where I don’t have access to the central subject and for me the test of whether or not a write around works is precisely that the reader may not have even realized that you didn’t have access to the person. The question is how you get that close to them. For me, I have a whole bunch of schools I guess you would say, that I employee and have used for years. You try to find people who are close to them, family members, friends, former associates. You’re trying to find interviews they have given that have been published, unpublished interviews, oral histories, and letters they’ve written, journal entries, articles they’ve written, memoirs. In the case of the Price sisters, medical records, prison records and so it becomes this collage of often hundreds of different pieces of information and if you put it together, I hope, can create a vivid enough portrait of the person, that it doesn’t matter that you weren’t able to speak to them.
PM: How did you think about structuring the book and the narratives of the Price sisters and Jean McConville? Specifically, why the reveal was placed at the end? Was it a chronological thing, as narrative or editing thing?
PRK: To the first question, structure in some ways was the hardest part in putting the book together because it is a complex story, but it’s very important to me that it be an inviting reading experience. I didn’t want the book to feel like homework or wading through a history textbook. Narrative momentum was important to me. I wanted to write the book in such a way that people who might not have an interest in The Troubles could engage with the story and the characters. Then it became this question of how do you take one fundamentally pretty byzantine story that unfolds over five decades, and distill it into a form that doesn’t feel overwhelming and unapproachably complex. It’s hard. I spent months just outlining, not writing any pages at all. My reporting just became what goes where, how many chapters are there, where do you start.
And your second question, I didn’t set out to discover who the shooter was. That wasn’t something I had focused on, but one of the big structural choices I made was treating this more like a novel in the sense that I would take a handful of characters and only tell you stories that they experienced. There are major events in The Troubles that aren’t in the book because they didn’t happen to one of my main people. I had always assumed that the person who killed Jean McConville was just some anonymous person who wasn’t one of the characters in the book.
PM: Right, surprise!
PRK: Yeah, it was a big surprise for me. It was like something out of an Agatha Christi novel. But I wasn’t holding out. I was done with the book. I had written 29 chapters already when I made that discovery. In retrospect, in terms of narrative speed, I think placing that reveal in the last chapter was not only the right choice, but it wasn’t that calculated, because I had the book already when I made the discovery.
PM: This narrative is so intricate. In building it, how did you decide on what details were important? Which characters to keep or leave out, and what to focus on?
PRK: That’s one of the hardest aspects of this kind of work. You go out and spend a lot of time researching. For me, it’s always painful. When you’ve been accumulating these hard-won stories, and have this sobering moment when you realize it doesn’t cut it, it’s not interesting enough, or it’s too digressive. I think that problem, which is always compounded when telling a story about The Troubles because the thing about Northern Ireland is that it’s a very tiny place where everybody knows everybody. There’s a way people tell stories about their own lived experience there that is just innately digressive. So, for four years, in speaking to people, when I’d say tell me about Jim, they’d say, ‘Well, we’ll tell you about Jim, but in order to really understand Jim you need to know the story of his mother, Clare, and the thing about Clare was, she had this incredible relationship with her brother Tommy, and in order to really understand Tommy, you really need to know about the time he was in prison.’ And your five miles away from what you were talking about five minutes ago and it’s not that the stories aren’t fascinating they are. Still, one frustration I had in reading books about The Troubles, was the tendency on the part of very good writers to take all those great stories and jam them in, so you get this overwhelming smorgasbord of fascinating digression that can bog up any sense of narrative. That was pretty challenging for me. I did end up cutting a huge amount. I know the book probably seems intricate and full of digressions as it is, but believe me, there were many, many more.
PM: How do you get to the heart of the story but still respect potential danger to subjects or even yourself?
PRK: I never felt as though I myself was in any grave danger, there were some intimidating situations along the way, but only a few and nothing all that severe. As far as talking to people, it was hard because there’s already a prevailing culture of silence about these things. Then you also have to remember that I was coming in on the heels of this debacle of the Boston College Project, so you had all these people who probably would have been suspicious to begin with, and then on top of that, they just had this American University totally botch promises of confidentiality. Some of the time what I encountered was I’d make assurances to people, that I took their story seriously, and extending them anonymity to talk to me, and I would get met with skepticism because there was this sense of, well that’s what the last guys told us and look how good that worked out.
PM: And how did you corroborate stories?
PRK: It was hard. I just kept going back and talking to people again and again, and some of it was corroborating with their contemporary accounts. I would go to interview somebody and ask them about something that happened in 1977. Then I would go back and find an article from the Andersonstown News where that same person gave an interview in 1977 and said something completely different, and I would go back and ask about the discrepancy. Even if you believe that everybody you speak to is approaching this in good faith and telling the truth, people’s memories change. It was a combination of corroborating by talking to people multiple times and other people they had confided in, finding letters they’d written or interviews they’d given. At a certain point, your judgment steps in, so if there were stories I didn’t believe I didn’t put them in the book. And in stories where I thought there was an asterisk, there might be enough in here, I’d put the version that was most plausible in the book, but then I’d add, however, there’s another version, this could have gone another way.
PM: I can imagine that the ‘say nothing culture’ further compounds the trauma.
PRK: That’s completely right and there are other moments. There’s one moment late in the book where
Dolours Price is talking to Ed Moloney ( A Secret History of the IRA) about how when she drove Jean McConville she describes her as being cavalier and foul mouth and saying something like they wouldn’t have the balls to off me or whatever it was. I want the reader to know that Dolours was — also I personally believe it sounds like she’s — telling a story to make herself feel better about the fact that she’s driving this woman to her death. I pretty much said that in the text, do we really believe this, or is this a story that she is trying to persuade herself of?
PM: How has this exposure to warfare, and this decades-long conflict shaped the community of Northern Ireland? Specifically, what are the coping patterns you saw within the IRA and those directly affected?
PRK: I think a lot of people have coped with alcohol and denial; denial is a big part of it. But for others, for somebody like Dolours Price, they coped by talking, by breaking the silence and speaking out and defying that culture of silence. My view of that place is that it has been deeply warped by the experience of warfare and violence and trauma. I don’t put this in the book, but there are studies now of transgenerational or intergenerational trauma where there are children who have been born after the Good Friday Agreement who have residual trauma from growing up in these households where there are these awful secrets with parents and grandparents who aren’t able to deal. Even though they didn’t encounter the stuff firsthand, there’s a real impact on their lives.
PM: Using your experience in journalism, what is a technique you employ to keep on track or anchoring yourself to the story? What is the balance of letting it lead you and redirecting focus? Maybe this happens after in editing.
PRK: It always happens after. I think different writers have different bedside manner in interviews, and mine is to be pretty unobtrusive and to listen and go as long as people want to. And that’s particularly true when the people I’m talking with have very painful experiences as of the case in this book. The people I’m talking with are not very savvy when dealing with the Press. This may be a kind novel thing for them. It’s not a thing where I want to drive the conversation, on the contrary, I like to gently push them here or there, but generally, I want to give someone what feels like a safe environment where they can feel comfortable and talk on their terms. There’s a moment in the book, actually in the context of the Boston College interviews, where at first, a lot of people were very bottled up so what will happen is in a bunch of cases you get people who were initially reluctant to talk. Then eventually, we sat down and just talk for four hours straight, and they have a big cry. In part, it’s because it’s a culture in which people often feel intimidated about talking, and suddenly having the opportunity to do so, they were able to let it all out.
PM: What key factors maintain the IRA comradery during the period of the troubles, after the Good Friday Agreement and the present?
I think early on, there was a very intense righteous and ideological fervor that bound people together, a sense of mission, duty, and destiny. Part of what I did in the book was to tell the story about what happens when that falls apart. And for somebody like Dolours Price or Brendan Hughes, they made a pact in the early 1970s: if I go out and risk my life, I’m ready to go to prison, I’m ready to die and take the lives of other people, innocent people in some cases, I’m ready to starve myself to death if necessary, to see friends die. If I do all that I’ll achieve this political objective, which in their case was to get the British out of Northern Ireland. So, they thought it was transaction — this is what you give, and this is what you get.
Part of what was so fascinating to me was they were caught up in the excitement and the glamour and righteousness of this movement in the early 1970s, but what happens when doesn’t pan out? How do they go on? They were obviously angry and felt disowned. But the really interesting part of your question to me how do you maintain this kind of unity that you see even today with Sinn Féin persist, in the absence of that, and it’s really interesting. I think it probably has to do with a sense that the movement blocked out a lot of people who fell out of the organization, like Anthony MacIntyre, who was socially ostracized for speaking out – if you’re not with us, everyone will turn their backs on you. I think you see that in other groups and social movements.
This interview was first published on March 3, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.
Patrick Radden Keefe is an award-winning investigative journalist, and staff writer at the New Yorker. He is the author of two previous books, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream and Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World Of Global Eavesdropping.
Plamena Malinova is an MFA candidate at The New School. She is currently working on a book about her Bulgarian grandmother. Find her on twitter @plamenawrites.