While out reporting Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe felt a lot like Truman Capote. As played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2005 film, Capote embodied an approach Keefe describes as “I am an alien, I come from another planet” — a promise that he’s not coming in with any agenda.
It’s a crucial part of Keefe’s book, a nonfiction smash comparable to David Grann’s 2017 phenomenon Killers of the Flower Moon. Ostensibly investigating the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Keefe used his outsider perspective, having grown up in New England, to uniquely take on the Troubles, the traumatic period of political conflict in Northern Ireland from the late ’60s to 1998. Released last month, Say Nothing is already a best-seller set to be turned into a TV series on FX by the producers of American Crime Story.
A portrait of two now-deceased women — mother-of-10 McConville, and IRA terrorist Dolours Price — Say Nothing reads like a novel in its character-driven intensity. Says Keefe, “There are moments in the book where I’d hear crazy stories that, if you told them in fiction, would seem too bizarre.” Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker, intended to explore McConnell and Price’s intertwining lives but, in interviewing more than 100 people, found an entire community emerging in the shadow of the tragic political killings.
EW caught up with Keefe about the process of writing the book, reactions so far, and more. Read on below. Say Nothing is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m curious about how this project evolved. What story did you set out to tell here?
PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: In my day job at The New Yorker, I write this big, sprawling, often investigative narrative pieces. I only do three or four of them a year. This book started as a piece of the magazine. I read an obituary in The New York Times in 2013, of Dolours Price. What initially drew me in was the outsize drama of the life of this woman. Then, in that obituary, it mentioned that she had implicated herself in the disappearance of this woman, Jean McConville, in 1972. That was the seed for this story — the idea you could tell this story of these two women, one of them an IRA soldier, and the other a victim, and through their intertwining stories tell a larger story about the Troubles.
You’re coming at this mystery as a total outsider. Was that a benefit in your reporting?
At the beginning, I thought it would be a disadvantage, just because the history is so complex there and I felt that there was a very steep learning curve for me in terms of grasping some of the politics and almost tribal dynamics of the place. But I pretty quickly concluded it was helpful to be an outsider, in part because it’s such a divided place. There’s a sense that if you’re from over there, the minute you open your mouth and people hear you say a few words — your accent — they plot you on a matrix. Fairly or unfairly, they immediately draw conclusions about the baggage that you’re bringing to that encounter. I often think about the persona that a reporter has, when a reporter goes out into different environments. There’s one approach where you go on and try to mirror the people around you and seem as much like them as you can, in order to put you at ease. And then there’s this very different approach, the Truman Capote approach: I am an alien, I come from another planet. His novelty counterintuitively made people more ready to tell him their stories. This was a much less extreme instance here, with me, but there was a sense that I was neither fish nor foul. That ended up helping a lot.
Were you conscious of that as you went into these interviews?
Yes. It was something I was thinking about and I had to make it clear to everyone all along the way: I‘m not coming in here with an agenda. I’m going to dig really deep into this story and try to get to the bottom of it, but I’m not going to prejudge where it comes out. I’m going to tell this story as I find out.
So how did that story evolve? One woman’s disappearance, in this time and place, ends up resurfacing decades of conflict and trauma, as you write.
I knew from the beginning that this was a murder mystery. It starts in the opening pages with the abduction and disappearance of this mother of 10. When it started, I didn’t start out thinking I want to solve this case, in part because I thought doing so would be impossible. But over the four years I spent working on the book, I gradually developed more and more information about what exactly transpired after she was abducted and who it was that took her to the place where she would be killed and who would kill her. At a certain point, I knew, too, of the three people in the execution squad. There was this last, elusive person, the one who pulled the trigger, and ultimately at the very, very end of the book — as I was working on the final chapter — I figured it out.
Some, in the period since the book was released, have described it as “novelistic,” and I tend to agree. How do you feel about that characterization?
I’m happy that people have read it that way because that was very much the intention. There are hundreds and hundreds of books and movies about the Troubles — many of them very good — but what I was trying to do was tell a story that was chiefly a narrative about a handful of characters. That was something I was thinking about constantly as I was writing. You could have some interesting historical event which, in a history book, would be really important. But my rule was always: Did this impact my characters in a first order way? If it didn’t, then it wasn’t something I was going to dwell on at any length. The one caveat for me would be, obviously, it’s a story about real people. From a structural and storytelling point-of-view, I did very much want this to read like a novel and be approachable in a way that a novel is. On the other hand, I never lost sight of the fact that these are real people, and for the people who died — the victims, the real victims, and the trauma felt by people on both sides of this one act of violence — there’s real trauma. I encountered it a lot.
Let’s talk about the way you play with genre a little bit. You mentioned murder-mysteries, and the book does borrow the conventions of that mode occasionally.
I love genre fiction and it’s something I think about often when I’m writing: Importing some of the storytelling techniques and structural devices from fictional genres. The murder-mystery would be one. But Say Nothing is also very much, in places, a spy-versus-spy espionage story. I wanted to use some of those formal devices in a way that would make this a pleasurable, compelling read. At the same time, it’s nonfiction. I’m both limited by and have to answer to the truth as I discover it.
To that point, what was your process of getting to the truth? How did you balance research with interviews, and how did they inform each other?
In many instances, there would be people who were going to be important characters in the book who were either dead, or people who wouldn’t talk to me, [like] Stephen Rea, the actor who was married to Dolours Price. Then it becomes a question of, “How do I conduct my research in a way that I can try and really vividly capture who this person is or was, in a way that’ll land with the reader and feel true, when I don’t have the opportunity to talk to them?” What I did over four years in Say Nothing was [draw] on old letters and found people who were friends with them. [I read] memoirs, published and unpublished accounts, government intelligence reports, archival footage, and unpublished interviews. Eventually, you end up with this collage of material that I hope brings the people alive on the page.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in conducting these interviews?
This was so shocking to me: how dangerous this history is in the present-day. Jean McConville was murdered in 1972, before I was born, and it was so strange for me to go knocking on doors and see the fear in people’s faces as I asked them about an event that happened almost half a century ago. There’s still this culture of silence around the Troubles, where many people do know, but nobody will speak of. The book is called Say Nothing for a reason.
And the greatest challenge in writing it?
It was structural: How do you take this incredibly complicated history and distill it in a way that feels like a fast-paced, character-driven drama? I’m thinking about the person who gets out of the subway with a magazine, or maybe they’re reading it on their phone. You’ve got their attention for just a couple of stops. You want to hold onto it and you don’t want to let go of it. On every page, in every paragraph, that’s what I’m thinking about.