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The Secret Keeper
A Novel
Paul Harris
Book: Paperback
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INTRODUCTION

In 2000, Danny Kellerman was given the chance to move beyond his newspaper office in England and become a correspondent in war-torn Sierra Leone, a country ravaged by roving bands of drug-addled and ruthless child-soldiers, led by merciless men who longed to control the country’s most precious resource, diamond mines. While there, he met and fell in love with the American aid worker Maria Tirado, but he could not convince her to leave behind her cause – the rehabilitation of the country’s growing number of ex-child soldiers – for a life with him in London.

Now, in 2004, Maria’s tireless efforts to rehabilitate the ex-Revolutionary United Front youth have garnered her unwanted and hostile attention, and she sends a cryptic letter to Danny, asking him to return to Sierra Leone. It turns out that her plea for help arrives too late: by the time Danny receives the letter, she’s been dead for three weeks, murdered in what local officials have deemed a robbery. Danny, however, knows there’s more to the story than the few paltry facts he’s been given.

Together with his former driver Kam and a wealthy Lebanese businessman named Ali, Danny seeks to uncover a secret that undermines the façade of peace that’s come to settle over Sierra Leone. When their questions about Maria’s death and her involvement in the politics of the country become too intrusive, though, Danny must decide whether Maria’s memory – and the memory of those people victimized by the very people now in power – are worth the lives of those who have managed to survive under this corrupt and brutal new regime.

Suspenseful and thrilling, Paul Harris’ The Secret Keeper is a work of fiction that brings to life the very real atrocities perpetrated by the crime lords and child armies of Sierra Leone at the turn of the century. It touches on the subjects of trust, betrayal, loyalty and friendship, as well as the power of the righteous versus the power of greed.

ABOUT PAUL HARRIS

Paul Harris

Paul Harris is a journalist who has written for Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Daily Telegraph. For four years he was a war correspondent in Africa, where he covered the conflict in Sierra Leone. Now The Observer’s U.S. correspondent, he lives in New York City. The Secret Keeper is his first novel.

A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL HARRIS

Q. Like your character, Danny Kellerman, you spent time in Sierra Leone as a reporter. What made you want to write a work of fiction set in this country, after writing so much nonfiction about the country and its people?

One thing I have discovered during my career as a journalist is that journalism might be a good medium for propagating the facts about a place and a story but it can sometimes be less effective at telling the truth. Every journalist will write a story and then look at it and think: But is that what I truly believe is happening? Journalism is hamstrung by the demands of objectivity, the interest of an editor, the problems getting all the interviews you need and the small word count of an article. Fiction is liberated from all that. For me, writing a novel allowed me to explore what I believed to be true about some of the themes and issues I had encountered as a journalist. I think The Secret Keeper gives the reader more truth about Sierra Leone, journalism and war than any article I have ever written. That was very satisfying.

Q. Compare your writing process as a journalist to your fiction writing. What are the most striking differences? Which type of writing do you find more rewarding?

They are so different as to be almost incomparable. With journalism there is a constant interplay between my desires for a story, the needs and wants of my editor and newspaper, and the simple facts on the ground. It is limited by deadlines, people who don't want to be interviewed and people who don't tell you the truth. With fiction, the only limit is your imagination. I do not feel intimidated by a blank computer screen. I see it as something to be filled up with ideas and thoughts. When it comes to reward though, I enjoy both. Fiction fulfills my creative impulse, but journalism serves a purpose in society and also for those individuals one writes about. It is sadly rare, but sometimes an article that one writes makes a real difference to people, often those stuck in bad circumstances. When that happens there is no better feeling in the world.

Q. Did you find it difficult to write fiction about Sierra Leone? What conflicts or problems, if any, did you have when writing the novel?

Writing the novel was in some way a cathartic experience. It allowed me to get some things off my chest about the nature of journalism and the nature of war reporting that had bothered me. I wanted to puncture some of the romance that surrounds the popular image of war reporters and show them with all too human faults, like ego, ignorance or fear. I felt as a journalist I had certainly had all those traits when I had been there. As such the novel seemed to flow easily out of my mind. I never suffered from writer's block. It felt like watching a magician pull a long string of handkerchiefs out of their ear: it just keeps on coming and coming. I found the novel's plot and characters just emerged like that. It just took a couple of tugs and it was like the whole thing had already been written. I just had to type it out.

Q. Was your introduction to war correspondence anything like Danny’s? What do you think is the most difficult part, ethically, physically, and emotionally, about reporting from a war zone?

My introduction to conflict journalism occurred in South Africa covering ethnic and political fighting in the townships. It was a very scary moment to be in a car, at night, driving slowly up a road into a neighborhood full of warring gangs of people who were killing each other. But, as I was young and ambitious, it was also very exciting. I think Danny feels that way too, battling the conflicting emotions of fear and thrill. As I covered more trouble spots I realized that the difficulties are as varied as the conflicts. In Sierra Leone one was basically alone and reliant on a local stringer to keep you safe and also make sure you were able to do the job. In Iraq, as an embedded reporter, it was easier to feel safer and looked after by the military. But that brought a whole host of other ethical problems along with it. One area of common ground was a feeling of guilt at being an outside reporting on the terrible problems of local people. At the end of the day I could always just leave and go home. They could not. In that way I think the problems faced by war reporters can be over played. They are real and genuine, for sure, but are nothing compared to the difficulties faced by the people that they choose to report on.

Q. What are you working on currently? Do you have any plans to write a nonfiction book, or will you stick to fiction for now?

The book I am working on now is exploring another area of my career. After I was embedded in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, I decided that I no longer really wanted to do any trouble spot reporting any more. Shortly after I was posted to New York as the US Correspondent of The Observer. Covering the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008, I have discovered an unexpected love of the drama and theatre of American politics. Now I am writing a thriller that is based on a run for the White House by an outsider candidate who suddenly ends up the front runner.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Discuss the effects of the prologue to the novel –does it force you to see Danny as a sympathetic character, no matter what you discover about him in the rest of the book? What motifs are introduced in the prologue and carry through the rest of the story?
  2. The book chapters alternate between 2004, the year that Maria dies, and 2000, when Danny first goes to Sierra Leone on assignment for The Statesman. Evaluate this structure and the way it controls the pace of the novel and creates suspense. Did you find it effective? How do the flashbacks influence the reader’s impression of the present events?
  3. Discuss Danny’s relationship with Kam – what did you make of their friendship as the book progressed? Did you ever doubt Kam as Danny did? Why or why not?
  4. Evaluate how well the author painted a picture of the political situation in Sierra Leone at the turn of the century, from the RUF to the mercenaries to press corps to the UN peacekeepers and aid workers. Despite this being a work of fiction, what nonfiction issues does the book bring to light?
  5. Discuss the moments in the book when Danny does his war reporting with Kam. What did these incidents reveal about Danny’s breadth of experience, both as a journalist and as a man in the world? In what tangible (and intangible) ways did he change as he did more war reporting? What does the novel do to confirm or dispel stereotypes about journalists and the world of journalism?
  6. Similarly, how is the book a commentary on European and American involvement in the domestic affairs of African nations? Does the book support or condemn foreign peacekeeping missions, or does it reveal the situation to be more complex than “good” or “bad”?
  7. Compare and contrast the few women in this novel – Maria with Rachel, and Rose with Danny’s mother. Consider, in particular, Rose’s and Danny’s mother’s capacity for forgiveness, and their ability to love someone who hurt or betrayed them so badly. Also, consider Rachel’s ability to be friends with her past lovers. Does Danny learn from these women? What evidence is there, in the novel, that he might be following their examples?
  8. Out of all of Danny’s acquaintances and friends in Sierra Leone, who did you feel was most trustworthy as you read the book? Did you suspect any of the characters of double-dealing from the start? Who, and why?
  9. One of the primary subjects in the novel is betrayal. Danny is particularly affected by those betrayals involving the women in his life: Rachel and her new lover; Maria and her CIA connections; and to an extent, his mother and her unrelenting love for his father and sympathy for his father’s widow. Discuss the other places in the novel where betrayal surfaces, and what the author is saying about betrayal and its place in the human experience.
  10. Similarly, what is the author saying about trust? Based on the characters in this book, should we believe in such a thing as trust? Using Danny as an example, discuss whether or not we can or should even trust ourselves to make the right choices in life.
  11. Was justice served with Harvey’s death at the end of the book? Do you think it gave Danny real closure to know that his letter had done its job? Do you think he did the right thing by agreeing to keep quiet about Maria’s blue file? In the end, were a few lives worth more than the memory of the hundreds of murdered and mutilated Sierra Leoneans?
  12. Do you think Maria truly loved Danny? What evidence in the book do you find to support this? What part(s) of Maria’s personality do you think was/were authentic and true?
  13. To whom does the title of the book refer? Do you think it is Danny? Is it Maria? Could it be Harvey? Discuss the title of the book in the context of the novel, and how it could apply to more than one character.