‘We want to read about people falling in love’: Marian Keyes and Curtis Sittenfeld on the romcom revival

Irish and US authors on the joy of writing romance and the potential for menopause novels

Marian Keyes is the author of 15 best-selling novels, several of which centre on the daughters of the Walsh family; the most recent is Again, Rachel. Her books frequently feature characters dealing with issues such as addiction, bereavement and domestic violence. She is also the host, with Tara Flynn, of the BBC Radio 4 advice programme Now You’re Asking. Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of seven novels, including American Wife and Rodham, reimaginings of the lives of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Her new novel, Romantic Comedy, revolves around a TV sketch show based on the long-running US series Saturday Night Live, and dissects celebrity culture in a love story set during the pandemic, much of which takes place via email exchange. Their conversation took place over Zoom with both authors in their homes, Sittenfeld in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Keyes in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin.

Marian Keyes: I was so excited when I heard that a new book from you was coming, because I would read anything you write. And I was thrilled at the idea of Curtis Sittenfeld writing in the romance genre. When I finished the last book I wrote, I had a big plan for a novel about a group of six characters who had been friends for 40 years. And one of them had become a kind of quite evil rich person. But when it came to starting it, I couldn’t do it, because the world after the pandemic just got worse. And I thought, I just want to write something lovely, where the stakes are kind of low, except on a personal level. So I started writing another love story. It really seems that people want to read about people falling in love and being good to each other. Because the world is so sharp and pointy, we need something nicer.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I totally agree. I had a book come out in 2020 [Rodham, about Hillary Clinton], and I thought to myself, I want the next book I write to be short and fun. And actually for seven months I worked on another book, and looked up one day and thought this is neither short nor fun and set it aside. Obviously, books that are not short and fun have value. But I feel exactly like you – for the reader’s sake, but also for our own sake – just in terms of choosing the world that we exist in while we’re writing. It’s hard to voluntarily walk into darkness as a writer right now.

MK: The thing that I really loved about Romantic Comedy was the emails that they sent each other. Your couple fell in love in a new way; it was far more essential and reduced, what they were conveying. They got to the important stuff really fast – about their families, about the main character Sally’s marriage. And I liked the thought that people fell in love during the pandemic. It was an awful, awful time and we’re still feeling the effects. But it wasn’t all bad. We lived in a different way for a while. And people fell in love in different ways.


CS: I feel like if you write realistic fiction, and if it’s going to be set in 2020 or after, how can you not acknowledge the pandemic? I hope that not all novels from now on are pandemic novels. But it’s funny because I was saying to someone recently, I feel like if I had set this book from, say, 2014 to 2018, I would have felt a greater sense of dread on my characters’ behalf because I would have thought, I know what’s coming, but they do not know. And it almost seemed more optimistic to show them getting through it, than to just bypass it or pretend it didn’t exist.

MK: The last book I wrote was actually written during the pandemic, but I set it in 2018, because I just didn’t know what was going to happen, and I didn’t want to engage with it. And the one I’m writing now is set in this year. So it’s sort of post-pandemic, and it’s got that sense of urgency of people living faster, and with more hunger.

CS: I can’t wait!

MK: It’s about the Walshes and it’s Anna Walsh and a man that she’s had an on-off thing with for 22 years – every time she was in love with him, he was with somebody else. And, anyway, they end up in the same place with the world changed, and they’re changed, and she’s going through the menopause. And she can’t get HRT because the doctors in Ireland are not as, how would you call it, generous with the prescriptions as they are in the US, where I think their prescription writing is inspired by Tolstoy.

CS: It’s never the wrong moment for a menopause novel, but I feel like menopause is almost, I hesitate to say, trendy. There are all these celebrities who are peddling products that are menopause related. It’s the golden age of menopause!

MK: Maybe 15 years ago, if I heard the word menopause, I’d have blessed myself to stave it off. And now I just feel differently because I think ageing for women is not what it used to be; that it’s okay. You can still be alive. You can still run marathons, you can fall in love, you can be great at your job. Or you can stay in bed all day and eat chocolate, whatever you want. Menopause is not the death knell that it used to be.

Curtis, did you have any worries that people would judge you? That people would say: “In the name of God, what did she do dumbing herself down to write in this sort of pathetic genre?” because there is so much judgment about romance?

CS: I wish that I were totally indifferent to any public reception of my books. I’m not, and I do read reviews, especially early on, but I just can’t imagine letting public sentiment determine what kind of book I would write. I think one of the incredible gifts of being a writer is choosing the parallel universe that you live inside. I feel really strongly that I have to write the best book that I’m capable of, but I feel like the topic is very much up to me.

MK: I just loved the way you wholeheartedly went for it. It was just beautiful. And also so funny.

Just because something is positive or uplifting doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have depth or seriousness.

CS: One thing that people ask me a lot, what is the message that you were trying to convey? And I think, Oh, I never am trying to convey a message.

MK: Just because something is positive or uplifting doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have depth or seriousness. You know, I think a lot of people might have trouble grasping that; that if there is a love story that’s central to the novel, it doesn’t mean silliness or disconnection from real life. All my novels are driven by the characters and what they need. And I do almost always include something like addiction, or menopause or domestic abuse, but they can only be there to serve the story to the characters. In Romantic Comedy, Sally’s mother has died; you didn’t go into the details, but it was so obvious how much her mother loved her, and how happy they were together, and what a huge loss it was.

CS: As I get older I have more appreciation that people’s ability to acknowledge or engage with each other’s pain varies greatly. And, of course, few of us are explicitly taught that this is what you should do when someone is grieving. I think this is kind of what Sally and Noah are doing for each other in their emails. There’s such a huge difference between someone who does say that to you, and someone who knows that something significant happened in your life and doesn’t acknowledge it, probably not for any bad reason, but just because they feel awkward. So I think the book is trying to explore: how do we try to be adults to each other?

MK: It’s lack of communication that stymies so many relationships. And it is difficult as a human being when you meet somebody, and something has happened to them that you have no experience of. People find it easier to say nothing rather than put their foot in it. But it is so nice, just to have your horrible experience acknowledged, which is what they do for each other.

CS: I read romances from a young age, probably nine or 10. I don’t know if this term exists in the UK, but over here, the phrase is bodice-rippers. At the time, I was kind of like, “Oh, these are giving me such a historical education – a sexual education and a historical education,” because maybe they’d take place during the revolutionary war, or in 1905, or on a ranch out west or something like that. I went to boarding school, and when I would fly to and from where my family lived I would buy one in the airport and then just inhale it. And I read Jackie Collins, and I think I first read Danielle Steel in fourth grade.

MK: I studied law. So every Saturday I would read two or three Mills & Boons. I loved them because there was nothing to worry about. I knew it would be all right in the end – and from a week of criminal law and property law and all of that, it was just so nice to be in this safe place. And God, I loved Danielle Steel.

CS: She’s supposed to be an incredibly lovely person. She’s generous to the homeless or unhoused population in San Francisco where she lives – she’s this real quiet force for good in addition to being a beloved, prolific writer.

MK: I love reading about the people that celebrity left behind – people who almost made it or who made it for a while and then got jettisoned. And how do you deal with that? Because it’s possible for many more people than it used to be that you would be briefly famous. And how do you cope with life afterwards?

CS: I probably look at People.com 20 times a day. I think I have read every headline ever posted. I’ve done this for years and years, but it was funny to be writing this book because I could look at People.com and think: “Am I doing research or am I procrastinating?” So I did feel as if, having read romances from a young age and having consumed celebrity gossip from a young age, the question is, what took me so long to write this book? How did it not happen until now?

To bring it all full circle, are there menopausal romances, besides the one that you’re apparently writing – does that exist as a category?

MK: There isn’t a cohort of writers. Yet.

CS: It would be called “RomMen” or something like that. There’s been such a sweet reaction to this book, where people will say things like: “I’ve been having a hard time and I just devoured it and it made me so happy.” And I kind of think: “Oh my gosh, as a writer, what can be more rewarding?” So I have thought: “Should I consciously write more cheerful books, or more uplifting books? Should I write more about romance, actually?” And I have thought: “Could it be romance for women in their 50s and 60s and 70s?”

MK: I mean, you’re an artist, you have to do what you want to do. But my God almighty, I think there would be a massive, massive response of gratitude and delight. Some silver fox with a Harley, a beard, an earring. – Guardian

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Doubleday. Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes will be out in paperback from Penguin Michael Joseph on April 13th