Patrick Radden Keefe Knows Where to Dig

By Finlay Renwick

2024년 4월 26일

Patrick Radden Keefe Knows Where to Dig

“I know I’m onto a good story when I’m talking to someone, and I find myself leaning in to catch everything that they’re saying,” says Patrick Radden Keefe, leaning in a bit for dramatic effect. “The fact that I can feel my own pulse quickening. That’s the best proxy I can come up with for when something grabs me.”

“I feel like at its best, a good story is when you want to bottle your own excitement and serve it up to the reader.”

A contemporary master of narrative non-fiction, Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a best-selling author; he’s hosted an award-winning investigative podcast and his 2018 book, Say Nothing, a thrilling, tragic inspection of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is currently being turned into a limited series by Disney+ and Hulu. He is equally adept at capturing the grand and the granular. Teenagers fall from London apartment blocks under murky circumstances; 80s rock bands are caught up in government conspiracies; family’s ruin, and are ruined, by drug empires; and seemingly regular people are sucked, or dive heard first, into various underworlds

When El Chapo, the infamous Mexican cartel boss, wanted a biography written about him, his people reached out to Radden Keefe, who politely declined. 

“I grew up reading a lot of crime fiction,” says Radden Keefe, sat across from us inside The Drama Book Shop, an old favourite of his in Midtown Manhattan. “I’m interested in what makes people err, and transgressive behaviour and how society reacts to that.”

“There are really interesting questions about why people deviate from what we think of as conventional moral behaviour,” he adds. “If it’s an IRA member who ends up on trial at the Old Bailey, I want to know what got them to that place. It’s not that I’m withholding judgement, but I want the story to be intimate enough that you can see where they start, and where they end up.”

For most aspiring journalists, a position as a staff writer—even a single byline—in The New Yorker is the dream; the Real Madrid of writing long, expansive non-fiction stories that will be read and discussed by a wide and enthusiastic audience. “When I discovered The New Yorker in college, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” says Radden Keefe. “It just took years and years to achieve that specific ambition. It felt like a bit of a walled garden. I pitched and pitched, and eventually I went to law school, thinking that I better have some sort of backup plan.”

Most backup plans look like a job in digital marketing or some shifts at a bar, for Radden Keefe it was a law degree from Yale, which he added to a masters from Cambridge, and another from LSE, along with a graduate degree from Columbia. Before that first byline appeared, he’d written a book, Chatter, about eavesdropping and subterfuge within government agencies. He calls it, “a better title than a book, but it got my foot in the door. When you do this kind of work, you spend six months on a magazine article, or years on a book, so of course you want every story to be a banger, right? You want it to resonate with people.”

We finish our coffees and take a walk around Midtown, the Monday lunchtime workers emerging from their offices in Patagonia vests and smart shirts, the pavement crowded with tourists who strain up at the skyscrapers and chaos of a thousand billboards; Times Square simmering just down the block. Radden Keefe’s latest project is to turn his recent story about Zac Brettler, a regular London teenager who became entangled in the city’s grim underbelly, into a book. A perfect Radden Keefe story, it’s cinematic, labyrinthine, shocking. An incision into the parts of society that are often concealed just below ground level.

“There’s a strange intimacy that you achieve with someone when they’re recounting to you the darkest moments of their lives,” he says. “I always want to be very, very clear that I’m not a confessor or a therapist. I have my own agenda here, which is slightly different to others, in that I need to go out and tell this story."

We round the corner and step into Bryant Park, a small patch of green in the city, cold and clear in early spring. “I think of this as a job like any other. I try not to be too precious about it, I just want to be alive to what’s going on around me. It's about meeting lots of people and staying curious.”

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