Categories
Notebook

The true stories of Patrick Radden Keefe

Many events have been scuppered by the lockdown, but one in particular was a real miss.

Get a 15% discount on Say Nothing at the Well Told Bookshop – use coupon lovelongform

Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing, was due to speak to former Guardian Long Reads editor Jonathan Shainin at the Daunt Books festival in March, but the event was – of course – cancelled.

The reputation of Say Nothing is growing with every person who reads it – a pure narrative, researched over many years, telling the story of the murder of Jean McConville in Northern Ireland in 1972.

In piecing together the mystery surrounding McConville’s disappearance, Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of the rise of the IRA, the Troubles, and the peace movement in a work which was described by the great David Grann as being “meticulously reported, exquisitely written and grippingly told”. It’s certainly that, and more. To a British audience for whom the Troubles were an impenetrable subject, it is truly revelatory.

Lovers of longform will want to read in particular a section at the end of the book entitled ‘A note on sources’ which describes how a massive project like this book comes to pass. In it Radden Keefe writes:

Memory is a slippery thing, so I have sought wherever possible to establish corroboration for individual recollection. In instances where there are discrepancies among different accounts, I have used the most plausible version of events in the main text of the book and elaborated on alternative accounts, or other nuances, in the notes.

This is not a history book but a work of narrative non-fiction. No dialogue or details have been invented or imagined: in instances where I describe the inner thoughts of characters, it is because they have related those thoughts to me, or others, as detailed in the notes.

Radden Keefe, 44, has been a contributor to the New Yorker since 2006 (his articles are here) And now he has burnished his reputation even further with what further defines what a narrative podcast series should deliver.

Wind of Change is an eight-part series which seeks to get to the bottom of a rumour which reached Radden Keefe from a intelligence source: that the Scorpions hit Wind of Change had in fact been written by the CIA to help foment the uprising of young people which fuelled the collapse of Communism.

Miranda Sawyer in the Observer wrote: “Wind of Change is a beautifully constructed listen, never less than entertaining. I burned through it in a day and loved every minute.”

While she thought the series was too long, my reaction was quite the opposite – at the time of writing I’m on episode seven and have that familiar moth-to-a-flame feeling of not wanting to listen in case I get to the end.

The series has been made by Pineapple Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify, which is publishing one episode each week. However, by listening through Spotify, you can binge on all the episodes now. It really is a treat. You can find the podcast here:

And if you haven’t read Say Nothing yet, you can get a copy with a 15% discount using the code lovelongform at the new Well Told Bookshop which is now in beta. (Please let us have any feedback on the bookshop itself to info@welltold.org. A full launch is to come.)

Categories
Notebook

Jon Ronson’s scruples

Jon Ronson in 2016 (Photo: Gage Skidmore [CC])

Conventional wisdom for writers of non-fiction is that building suspense is one of the key tools to keep readers engaged.

Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, advises writers that, since they will have few opportunities to include suspense, they should make good use of any they do get. Even Dickens advised: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

But in his podcast series The Last Days of August, Jon Ronson chooses to be upfront about deciding not to build suspense.

The series, an Audible Original which is now freely available, concerns the death of porn actress August Ames. In episode two, Ronson says this:

“Before I take you to my interview with Mercedes Carrera, I want to stop for a moment, and tell you something. These first interviews were recorded in early 2018 but this is the Jon of a year later talking who, with my producer Lena, spent ten months investigating August’s death. I don’t want this to be one of those shows which creates narrative tension by fuelling suspicion that a person might be a murderer. So I want to tell you that while we uncover some extraordinary and unexpected things and devastating mysteries will reveal themselves and be solved, this will NOT turn out to be a murder mystery.”

Jon Ronson, The Last Days of August : The Last Days of August: Episode Two

It’s a bold decision to take, and even bolder to be open about it so early in the piece.

Perhaps a glimpse of Ronson’s motivation came in a conversation he had with Manveen Rana for the new Times podcast Stories of our Times in which he discusses his history of anxiety and how that’s been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“I also developed a new kind of anxiety called scrupulosity. It’s an excessive concern about behaving in an ethical manner. You tie yourself up in knots about doing the right thing ethically…. Specifically I suppose mainly as a journalist. You want to make sure that your stories are ethical, that you’re treating everybody in the right way, whilst still being a proper journalist. You know as journalists we have a great responsibility over people we are chronicling, and you’ve got to be ethical.”

Jon Ronson, on Stories of Our Times