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Book Box | Meet Patrick Radden Keefe, the writer who exposed big pharma (and others too)

Feb 23, 2024 07:26 PM IST

The award-winning author of ‘Empire of Pain’ on what drives him to investigate and enjoy playing the skunk in the garden party

Dear Reader,

 Patrick Radden Keefe (Sonya Dutta Choudhury) PREMIUM
Patrick Radden Keefe (Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

I have been a fan of Patrick Radden Keefe ever since I read his stunning exposé, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021). And now I am to meet the man himself. I have mixed feelings. Will Keefe be as exciting a conversationalist as he is a writer and storyteller? On a cloudy Sunday in Jaipur at the literature festival held at the start of this month, I got a chance to find out.

Keefe’s session at the front lawns at Hotel Amer Clarke was packed, his audience clearly as enthralled as I am by his works. In Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland published in 2018, a reader is landed square in the middle of the Irish militancy. The book features incredible characters like the Price sisters who carry bombs and go on hunger strikes. It zooms into historical personalities I hitherto had a hazy idea of like Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, and also examines the anatomy of a protest movement.

What drives this investigative journalist across the world, writing on themes like art and arbitrage, institutionalised greed and violence, painting unforgettable pictures of real life characters? And how does he deal with threats of legal action (he was spied on by a private investigator during the writing of Empire of Pain)?

Read edited excerpts of our conversation:

What was your childhood reading like?

My mother is a professor of philosophy. And she wrote books. I grew up in a house with lots of books. I read lots of mysteries and loved Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I went to high school outside of Boston, and the library had what they call a periodicals room, a room with all the magazines. I must have been 15 or 16, when I took the New Yorker off the shelf, and I was very taken with it. I thought I'd love to write for the magazine when I'm older. And of course, it took many, many years.

You decided at 16 to write for The New Yorker. When did it finally happen?

I was 29. I had been pitching to The New Yorker for seven years, and they always rejected me. In fact, in my office at home now, I have a framed rejection letter from 1998.

And then in 2005, they accepted a pitch finally. Even then, they didn't actually say yes. Because the story was about Chinatown, the editor, who is now my editor for the last 19 years, said, ‘Very interested in this. But you have to prove to us that you can get sources in Chinatown to speak to you.’

And so I spent a month just going to Chinatown and knocking on doors and trying to meet people. And then eventually I came back and I said okay, I have these eight people who will talk to me. The story eventually came out in 2006, when I was 30.

And in the years you were trying to be a writer, you went to Yale Law School and trained to be a lawyer?

What I really wanted to do is be a writer, but I wasn't sure I could. The New Yorker had been rejecting me, I wasn't sure I could make a living as a writer, so I thought I have to have a backup plan. After studying law, I joined a law firm and worked there for three months. I hated it. This was in New York. The law firm had an office in Rome. And so for six weeks, I was in New York and for six weeks, I was in Rome. And by the end of the summer, I thought I could never do this for a living.

Besides a law degree from Yale Law School, you have two masters degrees, from Cambridge and London School of Economics. How have these shaped you as a writer?

My education has been at a series of very elite institutions. But I always looked at those institutions with a little bit of scepticism, even though I was on the inside. You know, there's an expression that I love, which is to be the skunk at the garden party, you know this expression?

I was always very sceptical. I think I get it from my mother. Especially if it's a nice environment, a privileged environment, and I'm in it, and I'm benefiting from the privilege, there is always a little part of me uncomfortable with it, and wondering, you know, what are the real dynamics here?

You spoke earlier about ethics and unfairness and one thing that jumps at me about your work is how you write about right and wrong, whether it’s the Sackler family in Empire of Pain or the drug lords, art smugglers or scamsters in your long form features. And I'm wondering, did it kind of relate to your mother being a professor of philosophy? Did you as a child growing up have these dining table conversations about right and wrong ?

My mother is very interested in tricky ethical questions, and we have always had great, conversations about those types of things, like, why do right, why do wrong.

My father comes from a Catholic family. But my mother is an atheist. And so even things like believing in God, we’d talk about these things. As a child, I sang in a church choir, not as a religious thing, but because the music was very beautiful. And at the church, they would have these classes.

One time they told the biblical story, of Abraham and Isaac, of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his child. And they went around the room, and asked the children, ‘What would you do if God told you to sacrifice your parents?’ And all the kids said, ’If God told me to, I would sacrifice my parents.’

I was 10 years old then. And I came home and I told my mother and she said, we are taking you out of that class. Both my parents, they like to chew over a tricky issues. They are very good conversationalists.

Your first trip to Jaipur was to do a story on an art smuggler?

I picked up on the story when I read an article about the art smuggler Vaman Ghiya, who was being prosecuted. What was interesting to me about that story was that I learned that some of the idols that he removed from temples, are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in very esteemed collections in the United States.

And the funny thing is, a lot of these art collectors, like Arthur Sackler (from Empire of Pain) they were considered to be champions of Indian art, because at that time , for a lot of people in America, if it wasn't European painting, and sculpture, they didn't think of it as art at all. So these people who championed Indian or Chinese art, they may have been progressive, yet there was often something quite exploitative about their transactions.

For people like Arthur Sackler, this was a kind of madness. On one hand, he's like a great champion of East Asian art, because he could appreciate the beauty and the value in the historic significance of these artworks. On the other it was about conquest, almost neo-colonial.

And I have to tell you, in that story that I wrote about (Vaman Ghiya) one of the magical statues ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I published that story, I thought that the Met would say, we will return it. They didn't.

You are a brilliant narrator in the audiobook of Empire of Pain. How did you prepare for this?

I spent a year doing Wind of Change. It’s an eight-part podcast, which investigates the strange convergence of espionage and heavy metal music during the Cold War. And I was working with very good producers. In the studio, there's a glass window and you can see the producer on the other side, and they would kind of coach me on reading into a microphone and how to keep it lively. And then I did the audiobooks for Empire of Pain and Rogues.

Have you faced legal consequences for any of your stories?

Nobody has ever actually filed the lawsuit. They threaten to all the time. Just this past week, I got three legal letters because of the story that I'm working on.

What story is this?

It's about a boy in London, who was 19. And he died in 2019, he went off the balcony of a luxury building. And after he died, it turned out he had been pretending to be the son of a Russian oligarch.

And finally, what are you reading these days?

The best book that I have read in the last few years, is a novel by Claire Keegan called Small things like these. It’s short, I read it in one sitting on a plane, I was on the middle seat, and when I was finished, I was crying. People must have been wondering. It’s so powerful.

***

Returning home after this conversation, I rushed off to read the The idol thief. After which I read A teen’s fatal plunge into the London underworld. Keefe writes of Zac Brettler, who posed as an oligarch’s son, and connected with people like gangster Dave Sharma, and son of a millionaire Conservative Party donor, Akbar Shamji.

“London is the capital of pristine facades, often painted in wedding-cake shades of cream or ivory; the city’s dominant aesthetic is literally white-wash,” Keefe says of the setting. He also quotes from Oliver Bullough’s Butler to The World, a book I highly recommend for its incisive investigation into the world’s financial systems.

What about you dear Reader: what is your favourite scam book? Do write in with recommendations.

And until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal.

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