Paul Harris has held the post of U.S. Correspondent since 2003 for the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, The Observer. Prior to that he reported from Africa for the Daily Telegraph, the Associated Press and Reuters. He's covered conflicts and trouble spots all around the world, including Iraq, Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. In 2003 he was embedded with British forces during the invasion of Iraq. His first novel, The Secret Keeper, was inspired by his reporting on events in 2000 in Sierra Leone as that country’s long civil war came to an end.
In The Secret Keeper, journalist Danny Kellerman receives an urgent letter from an ex-lover in Sierra Leone, where he once was a war correspondent. But it's already too late; she's been murdered in a roadside robbery. Danny returns to Freetown, where his investigation uncovers secrets that shed a shocking light on the woman he though he knew-and reveals a hidden truth that could destroy those in power. Trapped in the heart of a dangerous nation where he can trust no one, Danny is soon forced to choose between his integrity and the devastating consequences of speaking the truth.
Harris is on a book blog tour to promote the paperback release of The Secret Keeper and agreed to a Q&A with In Reference to Murder.
IRTM: In the novel, your protagonist, Danny Kellerman, talks about how journalism "had always been what he'd wanted to do since he was a little kid" and "of how chasing a story could feel a little like chasing a drug, getting high, moving on to the next one. Of how covering a war had seemed like the ultimate hit." Since you started a newspaper at the age of 9 and were yourself a war correpondent, are Danny's thoughts here parallel to your own? And is chasing a story a little addictive, perhaps?
PH: Definitely. It may sound silly but I still remember the thrill of bringing out a school newspaper (one issue only!) when I was nine. The front page story was an update on a recent burglary at the school where a video recorder (remember them?) had been stolen. A teacher read the story and said: “I didn’t know that!”. I found that thrilling. That I was able to find out something this adult teacher did not know and then tell him. I think that is the heart of journalism and, yes, it is certainly addictive.
IRTM: Sierra Leone has had such a tragic history, what with Europeans and Americans using it as a trading post for slaves, to revolts, riots and wars throughout the 20th century, corruption, coups, drug cartels, the torture and maiming of civilians in the diamond trade. That's certainly a lot of fodder for a crime novel, but what made you focus on child soldiers?
PH: I think it was the surreal experience of going through roadblocks manned by teenagers and sometimes kids younger than that. These guys would have guns and undoubtedly many of them had done and seen terrible things. But often the interaction was still very much that of an adult and a child/teen. They would smile, laugh, be surly or deferential. It was scary but also fascinating. Beneath it all – and despite the fact they could kill you without much thought – they were still kids. I think I wanted to shed a little light on the implications of that.
IRTM: You've said before that few people cover wars or crises and emerge untouched, but also that journalists often go into these situations with their own agendas. That's kind of a paradigm for a novel, isn't it? The author often has his or her own social or moral beliefs that spur the writing of a book, and a good novel will touch its readers on a deeper level than just mere entertainment. Did you begin The Secret Keeper with a certain motivation in mind, and do you feel you accomplished it in a way that won't leave your readers untouched?
PH: I wanted to explore moral complexity and the fact that almost everything in life is a shade of grey, not a black or a white. That is certainly my belief. While I acknowledge that there are a few moral absolutes in life, they are exceedingly rare. The journalists, aid workers, child soldiers, diamond dealers, politicians and generals in The Secret Keeper inhabit that grey world. Sometimes the right things are done for the wrong reason; sometimes the wrong thing is done for the right one. Other times the right thing causes more harm than the wrong thing and vice versa. I hope that a reader of my book will understand that morally complex and, I think, deeply human, view of the world. Perhaps that will then help them view their own life experiences a little differently.
IRTM: Since this book is based in part on your own experiences, did you find it harder to write from true life or from your imagination?
PH: In the end I wrote from both. I used my own experiences to provide a backdrop and inspiration for certain characters and situations. But after that I just let my imagination run free. For example, the character of Ali – a Lebanese diamond/arms dealer – was taken from a man I saw once on a helicopter ride in from the airport. He was sitting opposite me, wearing very cool shades despite being inside. It was a time of great panic in Freetown as the RUF were approaching and everyone was afraid. But this guy was cool as a cucumber. I spoke a few words with him and he just did not seem bothered by the threat at all. Or even that interested. I never saw him again. But the mental image of him stuck with me and eventually became Ali. So, to answer the question, I did not find it harder one way or the other because I tried to fuse my real life experiences and my imagination together.
IRTM: Many of the reviews for The Secret Keeper praised your knack for dialogue, something I imagine was honed via years of interviews and talking with a wide variety of people. What advice would you give for other writers on how to create realistic, believable dialogue?
PH: That’s a good question. I have to say I never really thought about that. Dialogue just does seem to come naturally to me and perhaps that is indeed linked to my day job as a reporter. I would say that a writer should focus on making dialogue snappy by keeping sentences and whole pieces of speech not more than a few sentences at a time. A common mistake is making a chunk of explanatory dialogue long and full of commas and sub-clauses, like an entry from an encyclopaedia. Real people just do not speak that way. It is far better to split that up into short sentences and several different chunks of speech.
IRTM: It seems there are daily reports about the death of journalism, with such sites as the Twitter feed "The Media is Dying" chronicling the collapse of one publication after another. Do you agree we're hearing the death knell of print journalism, or is it just evolving?
PH: Now that is a question dear to my heart. I am afraid I am very much a pessimist on this subject. There are great things about the Internet in that has democratised information and broken down barriers to direct communication. But the damage done to journalism has been immense. Journalism and communication are not the same thing. Journalism is vital to a democracy and its business model has been destroyed. Nor will it come back. I don’t think newspapers will die off completely. But there will be less of them. They will have a much smaller staff. They will report less from the field. I look at the struggles of my own newspaper, The Observer, and I can see it. We still put out a great newspaper but the brutal fact is I am the sole remaining staff foreign correspondent of The Observer who is based abroad rather than just travelling out from London. Internet evangelists will call me a Luddite, but I think that is a tragedy. I don’t believe a good blog beats professional journalism.
IRTM: You're a fan of popular science books like those by Richard Dawkins and Richard Fortey (good choices, by the way). Can we expect a science-based thriller down the pike? (Science reporting might be ripe for some good stories.) Or will there be a sprinkling of scientific elements in future efforts?
PH: I had not thought of it but now you mention it…. I think that would be great. I love science and get incredibly annoyed when anyone says it is boring. Science is, in my opinion, inherently as beautiful as any great work of art. After all both seek to unlock truths and tell us about our world.
IRTM: Speaking of upcoming books, you're starting a new book about an American presidential campaign, I believe. Is that to be a nonfiction book or a political thriller, and is it a standalone or are you thinking perhaps a series?
PH: Yes, I am coming to an end of the first draft of writing. It is intended to be a standalone thriller. Again I am taking the background and inspiration from my own experiences reporting on the 2004 and 2008 campaigns but then letting my imagination run off with it. I have written about 80 percent of it and should have it finished in a month or so. Then I cross my fingers and send it off to my agent.
IRTM: You have how many thousands of air miles under your belt -- and you also have a fear of flying. How do you manage to work around that? (Or maybe I can you give a few tips from my pilot hubster...)
PH: I would welcome tips. My fear of flying is not too bad. It is not debilitating. But I get very nervous at take-off, landing and any form of turbulence. But I just suck it up. I fly all the time for work and I live away from my parents and family and I love travelling to foreign countries. Not flying is simply not an option. I have a few superstitious rituals that I go through (idiotic, I know, but whatever keeps the plane in the air!) and if we hit a patch of rough air I practise counting my breaths slowly. It is a meditation technique that works pretty well at calming oneself down.
IRTM: So, you're a poker fan. Will we be seeing you at the U.S. Poker Championship at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City some day soon?
PH: I think that would be a bad and expensive idea. I love poker but am currently on a year-long streak of what feels like awful cards but is probably just an inkling that I have become as good at the game as I ever will. Luckily, my home game is small stakes and, in all honesty, I play for the relaxation and the company of good friends as much as anything else. I live in New York and so even a losing Friday night at my home game is going to be cheaper than dinner and drinks out at a restaurant.
Paul Harris is giving away a signed copy of his book, The Secret Keeper, to one lucky tour visitor. Go to his book tour page, enter your name, e-mail address, and this PIN, 4934, for your chance to win. Entries from this blog site will be accepted until 12:00 Noon (PT) tomorrow. No purchase is required to enter or to win. The winner (first name only) will be announced on his book tour page next week.
To learn more about the author and the book, visit his website at TheSecretKeeper.us.