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From big pharma to jaded revolutionaries, Patrick Radden Keefe finds stories by staying curious

Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe writes for the New Yorker and his books include “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” and “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.”
Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe writes for the New Yorker and his books include “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” and “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.”

Author and New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe has covered a broad range of subjects in his writing. His books include “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” which looks at the role of the Sackler family in the opioid epidemic and “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,” which will be a series on FX/Hulu later this year. He’ll be at the Santa Fe International Literary Festival on Sunday, May 19.

His latest book is “Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks.” Keefe told KUNM he finds his topics by asking a lot of questions and trying to stay curious.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: And usually what happens is someone will start telling me a story and I'll feel myself leaning in and wanting to know more. That's when I know — when I'm hearing about it the first time and I sort of feel my pulse quicken a little bit, that this seems like a good tale. And I want to follow that.

KUNM: Your book “Say Nothing” is a really gripping story about the devastation the violence in Northern Ireland has had on people and its lingering impact to this day. What sparked your interest in that?

KEEFE: The way that started was I was reading the newspaper one day in 2013 and I stumbled on this obituary of this woman Dolours Price who died in 2013. And she had been the first woman to join the IRA as a full-fledged soldier. So not just kind of helping out in the background, but actually carrying a gun and planning operations and planting bombs. To be honest with you, I think I had always thought of the troubles as a very male story. And so the idea that there was this woman was intriguing, just right away. And then I learned that when she was older, she looked back at some of the things she had done as a young woman with a great deal of ambivalence. And that was interesting to me, the idea of what happens to somebody who's a young paramilitary in their 20s, planting bombs, and really kind of living this life of radical political violence and certainty. What happens when they get older and they're looking back at the person that they were when they were younger? And so that was sort of the seed for me, it was that was just reading that obituary pulled me in I wanted to know more about this woman.

And I found out pretty early on that she had been involved in this notorious disappearance of another woman, a mother of 10, who was abducted and disappeared in 1972 named Jean McConville. And so that was how it started this kind of connection between these two very different women who were joined together by this terrible act of violence.

KUNM: Your latest book is a collection of your New Yorker articles called “Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks.” What draws you to the people who you slot into these categories? It's pretty broad.

KEEFE: I'm interested in why people depart from conventional morality. And sometimes that's Chapo Guzman, who, you know, one of the stories is about. Sometimes it's white-collar criminals are people who've been accused of white-collar crime. Like there's a big story about Steve Cohen, who today is better known as the owner of the Mets, but at the time was implicated in a big insider trading scheme on Wall Street.

And I'm really interested in the stories that those people tell themselves. Over the years, I've worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and there's a great saying in screenwriting, that if it's a good villain, he shouldn't think that he's the villain in the movie. Like he thinks he's the hero of the movie, he's watching a whole other movie than the one that you're watching. I have found that to be true that, you know, I wrote a book about the Sackler family, and I think they think of themselves as sort of victims really more than anything else. And so what I want to try and do is, try and understand these people, get close enough to them, that I can really, not suspend judgment — I see the bad things they're doing. But I really want to understand what's the story that they're telling themselves about why it is that they do these bad things.

KUNM: There is such a great line in the Rogues book about Anthony Bourdain. “He's Apollo in drag as Dionysus.” Can you say more about that?

KEEFE: He was an incredible guy, and somebody I still think about all the time. But one thing that really struck me is that he had this, you know, if you saw him on his CNN show, he had this sort of louche persona, where he was always - he always had a beer in his hand. And he was out, you know, kind of ordering up at a restaurant and gazing into the sunset and living this kind of Beatnik life. And in person, he was somebody who, you know, for the first nearly 30 years of his career worked in a kitchen. As anybody who's worked in a kitchen knows, it's there's a sort of discipline there. There's an almost athletic kind of rigor to that. So anytime we met, he would show up 15 minutes early, he was incredibly punctilious about timing. He was quite sort of fussy and courteous about all kinds of things. And so I just thought it was funny that he had this, this kind of, you know, this Sex Pistols t-shirt, and this rock and roll attitude. And yet he was this guy who actually was sort of clean and organized and disciplined and courteous, and always, you know, at great pains to, I think, live a sort of orderly life in a way that I should also say, having known a lot of people who've struggled with addiction, as he did, in a way that a lot of people who've been through addiction have, that there was something quite controlled about his life.

KUNM: Well, Patrick Radden Keefe, thank you. I really appreciate you talking with me.

KEEFE: You as well, thank you. I'm really looking forward to this visit.

Patrick Radden Keefe will speak at the Santa Fe International Literary Festival on Sunday May 19th at 11 a.m.

For the full interview with Keefe listen here.

Full interview with Patrick Radden Keefe

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.