ONE OF THE STRANGER moments in my career as a magazine journalist was a phone call in May 2014. I had just published “The Hunt for El Chapo,” an article in The New Yorker about the criminal career, and eventual capture, of the fugitive Mexican drug baron Joaquín Guzmán Loera, and I got a voicemail in the office from an attorney who said that he represented the Guzmán family. This was, to put it mildly, alarming. I had developed a minor specialty, over the years, in what editors call “the writearound”: an article about a subject who declines to grant an interview. Some journalists hate writearounds, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge they pose. It takes a lot of creative reporting to produce a vivid portrait of someone without ever getting to speak to them, but these pieces are often more revealing than the scripted encounters you end up with when the politician or the CEO actually cooperates. When I wrote about the reality TV producer Mark Burnett, he wouldn’t talk to me—but he had two exwives who did, and in the end, I think I learned more about Burnett from speaking to them than I would have from Burnett himself.
In the case of El Chapo, the drug lord was locked up in a Mexican prison by the time I started my piece, and not giving interviews, so I had taken it for granted that he wouldn’t be sitting down with me. Nor did I ever entertain the notion that when the article came out, he might read it. Despite running a multibillion-dollar narcoconglomerate, he was said to be practically illiterate. Even if he couldread, he did not strike me as a New Yorker subscriber. But when my article was published, it contained a series of revelations that were subsequently picked up in the Mexican press. So somehow, it must have come to his attention.
I waited a while before calling the lawyer back. I figured that he would probably raise objections to some detail or other in the piece (and worried that it might be the passage in which I revealed that El Chapo was a prodigious consumer of Viagra). I spoke to a source of mine who made some discreet inquiries and was able to confirm that this attorney really did work for the Guzmán family. “Just call him up, I’m sure it’s no big deal,” my source said. Then he added, “But use your work phone, and never, under any circumstances, give them your home address."
Summoning my nerve, I called the lawyer back. He spoke with an accent, in a starchy, formal idiom, and when I told him, as casually as possible, that it was Patrick Keefe from The New Yorker, he announced, with an almost theatrical seriousness, “We have read your article.”
"Oh,” I said, bracing.
“It was”—dramatic pause—“very interesting.”
"Oh!” I blurted. “Thank you.” I’ll take “interesting.” Could be worse.
“El Señor . . . ,” he began, before lapsing into another pregnant pause. “Is ready . . .” Seconds ticking by. I clutched the phone, my heart hammering. “To write his memoirs.”
In advance of the phone call, I had gamed out the conversation like a high school debater: If he says this, I’ll say that. I had prepared for every contingency, every direction the discussion might take. But not this one.
“Well,” I stammered, floundering for something remotely coherent to say. “That’s a book I would love to read."
"But sir,” the lawyer interjected. “Is it a book you would like to write?”
I confess that when the opportunity to ghostwrite El Chapo’s memoir was first presented, I did give it a moment of serious consideration. During his years on the run, he had become an almost mythical figure, and, as a journalist, the idea that I might get to hear his story in his own words was genuinely tantalizing. But before getting off the phone that day I had already declined the offer. Guzmán was responsible, directly and indirectly, for thousands of murders, maybe tens of thousands. There would be no way to accurately write his story that did not explore that side of things—and the lives of his many victims—in great detail. But it seemed unlikely that this was the sort of book El Señor was envisioning. The whole scenario felt a bit like Act I of a thriller in which the hapless magazine writer, blinded by his desire for a scoop, does not necessarily survive Act III.
“Even under the best of circumstances,” I pointed out to the lawyer, trying to be as tactful as possible, “the relationship between ghost writer and subject can occasionally . . . fray.”
The lawyer was very courteous about the whole thing. After another brief phone call a week later (in which he said, “As you continue to consider our offer . . . ,” and I said, “No, I’ve considered! I’ve considered!”) I never heard from him again. What had started as a genuinely frightening experience became an amusing dinner party anecdote. But the encounter also seemed emblematic of the adventure of magazine writing: the uncanny intimacy that a reporter can feel with a subject he has never met, the strangeness of putting a story out into the world for anyone to read and watching it assume a life of its own.
I was in junior high school when I first fell for magazines. This was the late 1980s, and magazines—the physical thing, these bright bundles of stapled paper—were ubiquitous and felt as if they would be around forever. In our school library there was a “periodicals room,” where one wall was festooned with the latest issues of Time, Rolling Stone, Spin,U.S. News & World Report. And, of course, The New Yorker.
Nobody used the adjective “long-form” back then; that would come later, to distinguish the sprawling stories more typical of magazines from snappier pieces on the web. But even as a student I came to think that at least where nonfiction was concerned, a big magazine article might be the most glorious form. Substantial enough to completely immerse yourself in but short enough to finish in a sitting, these features had their own fine-hewn structure. There was an economy in the storytelling that felt, in contrast to the nonfiction books I was reading, both attentive to the reader’s attention and respectful of her time.
So I grew up reading The New Yorker and nurturing a secret fantasy that I might someday write for the magazine myself. For a long time this was just a fantasy; it took many years of false starts and strange detours (law school is not a route I would recommend to aspiring journalists) before the magazine published my first freelance piece in 2006.
The paradox of magazines is that they’re both perishable and permanent. Printed on flimsy paper, they’re eminently disposable, like a Dixie cup, designed to be discarded. Yet at the same time, people hold on to them. I used to love, as a child, arriving at the house of some family friend to discover a shelf of National Geographics, those resplendent yellow squared-off spines all lined up in a row.
In the conventional narrative, the internet killed magazines. And in many ways, it did. It upended not just the economic conditions that allowed magazines to flourish but also a whole culture of metabolizing the printed word: when you hurried home to snatch the latest issue from your mailbox, or stood for an hour at a newsstand to flip through the offerings, or toted around an old issue as it gradually tattered in your backpack. In another sense, though, the web saved the magazine story, retrieving it from the recycling bin and giving it permanent life. A big magazine feature used to be as evanescent as the cherry blossoms: here today, gone next week. Now it’s just a click away, forever.
And this only accentuates a deeper paradox in the form itself. If I’m going to devote the better part of a year to researching and writing an article, and you’re going to devote the better part of an hour to reading it, I’d like to try to tell the complete and definitive version of the tale. I want to capture the reality of a story, in all its vivid, dynamic glory, and pin it down, like a lepidopterist with a butterfly, arranging it under glass, just so.
But of course, life doesn’t stop when you publish. The story keeps moving, unfolding, fluttering its wings. Your characters continue to act, often in confounding ways. After all, they’re real people. They break out of prison again, like Chapo Guzmán. Or they see a legal defeat turn into a victory, like the undefeated death-penalty lawyer Judy Clarke. Or they suddenly kill themselves, like Anthony Bourdain.
These stories were written over a dozen years, and they reflect some of my abiding preoccupations: crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial. I’ve never had a particular beat (a great luxury of magazine writing), and instead I tend to pursue stories that pull me in for one reason or another, because of the complexity of the characters or the intrigue of events. But certain themes keep recurring, and these pieces are connected by other small coincidences. El Chapo ends up residing in the same bleak supermax prison as Judy Clarke’s client Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The arms trafficker known as the Prince of Marbella is erroneously accused of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a crime that Ken Dornstein, whose older brother was on the plane, spends a quarter of a century trying to solve.
Reporting a story can be a wonderfully consuming project, so consuming that when the undertow takes hold, I sometimes feel as if I could happily float away, following the research wherever it takes me. But I always remind myself that I have to come back and tell the story, and hopefully capture, in the telling, some of what made it feel so captivating to me in the first place. These are wild tales, but they’re all true, each scrupulously fact-checked by my brilliant colleagues at The New Yorker. Together, I hope that they illuminate something about crime and punishment, the slipperiness of situational ethics, the choices we make as we move through this world, and the stories we tell ourselves and others about those choices.
Copyright © 2023 by Patrick Radden Keefe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.