The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris

The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris does not read like a debut novel, but like a well-engineered corkscrew ride through the African heat and the deep recesses of our humanity and morality.

In the early 1990s, civil war began in Sierra Leone–a former British colony ripe with diamond mines–as rebels recruited students and children to fight against the government for more than a decade. The brutality present in the nation at this time comes across vividly in the pages of The Secret Keeper, which readers can easily attribute to the author’s personal experience. It is apparent that those images stuck with Harris as he was writing his debut novel.

“Suddenly he thought of the unopened letter in his pocket. The thick air of the tube took on a tropical whiff. It was close and stifling, clinging to the skin like it had always done back in Freetown, impossible to escape its damp hug. Danny began to sweat.” (Page 9)

Danny Kellerman is a journalist in London whose first foreign assignment takes him to war-torn Sierra Leone. Once in Africa, he is immersed in the haphazard warfare between the Sierra Leone government, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and eventually the British government. Danny meets Maria Tirado, falls in love, and breaks the story of a lifetime about saving former child soldiers, but once the assignment ends he must return to his London life. His content existence is soon disrupted by a hand-written letter from his lost love, Maria, who begs him to return and help her. Along the way, he reconnects with some of his old acquaintances, including his driver Kam and Ali Alhoun.

“‘I’ve been all over Africa,’ he said. ‘And there’s one way to judge if a country is in trouble. Is the brewery closed? I’ve been in the deepest bits of the Congo and they always had beer. That Primus may be shit, it may kill you if you drink two bottles, but they make it. That country will be okay.'” (Page 48)

A synopsis cannot do justice to this well-crafted novel about a war-torn nation and the impact it has on its own inhabitants, the world, and the individuals caught in its web. Readers will find themselves biting their fingernails as Danny digs deeper into Maria’s secrets. But she is not the only character with secrets in this novel. Danny and the nation of Sierra Leone have a number of secrets for readers to unravel, stare at in astonishment, and almost wish they were left hidden.

“With little or no political ideology, the RUF became a vehicle for Sankoh’s personal goals. It took over Sierra Leone’s inland diamond mines and recruited members by brutalizing the children of its victims. Its calling card was the ‘long sleeves or short sleeves’ method of cutting off people’s arms: short sleeves were above the elbow; long sleeves were above the wrist. Young boys were forced to kill their own families and then join. Their crimes meant they could never go back to their villages. The RUF became their only way of survival.” (Page 43-44)

Harris’ The Secret Keeper will have readers reaching for the “oh-shit-bar” as they rapidly make their way through this drama. Danny’s moral compass is tested time and again, while Ali and others stick to strategies that ensure not only their survival but that they come out ahead of others. The Secret Keeper is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and it will twist readers’ emotions, ring them out to dry, and soak up the remainder of their tears.

Is the old conundrum of “sacrificing one for the benefit of the many” the way in which societies should operate? Should we determine our best course of action from this starting point? Read The Secret Keeper to find out how Danny Kellerman and his compatriots resolve these questions.

Paul was kind enough to take time out of his busy journalistic schedule to answer a few interview questions. Please give Paul a warm welcome.

1. How would you describe yourself or your writing style to a crowded room of admirers who were hanging on your every word?

I would describe myself as ‘humbled’ and also ‘very surprised’ if I were ever to find myself in a room with such a large group of admiring people. 😉 Then, having recovered from the shock, I would I say that my writing style tries to be accessible in getting across the emotions of people in often extraordinary circumstances. I would hope that it conveys the fact that people are morally complex; even the best and the worst of us. That few things are ever black and white. That the best of intentions can lead to great wrongs and that sometimes a wrong can make a right. But, above all, I would say that I hope I can simply tell a good story.

2. As an author and journalist, which hat do you find most challenging to wear and why?

I would say being a journalist is more challenging. Writing fiction is actually tremendously liberating. You just sit in front of a laptop, create a blank document and let your imagination run riot. It is fun. It is hard work, for sure. But it is enjoyable, easy hard work (if that makes any sense). With journalism there is often such a huge amount of logistics to get through. The writing part of journalism is the easy bit. The tracking down of sources, the deadlines, the trips into strange places and the understanding of complex situations in compressed periods of time is the hard stuff. Even equipment failures play a role. There is nothing worse than having a great story but not being able to file it because of a computer collapse or the fact that you are in the back of beyond or because the deadline has gone by. That never happens with fiction.

3. Do you listen to music when you write or do you have other habits/routines that motivate you?

I cannot write very easily in a place of complete solitude. I need something to distract me a little. Usually that means I write in a café near my apartment or on a hotel balcony if I have squirreled myself away somewhere for a while. I tend to write in thirty minute bursts and then need to stare into space for ten minutes when it helps to be able to people watch as a way of rebooting. The Secret Keeper was mostly written on vacation where I would disappear for two weeks at a time and just blast away at it. I am trying to develop the habit of daily writing for my second book. It is hard.

4. What’s one of the best pieces of writing advice you’ve received and how did it help you?

Write what you know. But I think I gave that advice to myself. I had first tried to write a very ambitious, very literary, magical realism novel. Looking back, it was a bit of a shambles. I gradually realised this but, instead of giving up, I decided to follow this maxim. I just looked at what I had experienced myself in my life and what I cared about and then tried to craft a story from that. It felt like cracking the code and suddenly I could see how I could really write something that would work and I could be proud of.

5. Finally, what have you been reading lately, and do you prefer fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or other genres?

I prefer non-fiction. I think as a journalist you have just often have an insatiable appetite for knowledge about the world and so non-fiction books are my first choice. I also tend to avoid a lot of fiction out of a fear that subconsciously I will end up lifting scenes or ideas and styles. I want my fiction to be my own not my version of someone else’s. But I did recently read Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, which I enjoyed but did not love. I do, however, love Annie Proulx and I don’t fear stealing her style because it is so wonderfully unique.

Thanks, Paul, for your insightful answers about your writing process and your inspiration.

About the Author:

Paul Harris is currently the US Correspondent of the British weekly newspaper The Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper. He has held the post since 2003. Prior to that he reported from Africa for the Daily Telegraph, the Associated Press and Reuters. He has 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.

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.

Paul now lives in New York and is happy to have swapped the dangers of the front line for the less obvious perils of writing about American politics and culture.

For more information about Paul Harris, visit his website.

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