Marian Keyes is the author of 13 novels, all bestsellers around the world, with 30 million books sold to date. Anybody Out There won the British Book Award for popular fiction and the inaugural Melissa Nathan prize for Comedy Romance. This Charming Man won the Irish Book Award for popular fiction. Marian's latest novel, The Woman Who Stole My Life, is published in paperback by Michael Joseph on May 21st
Louise Moore is the managing director of Michael Joseph and has worked for Michael Joseph/Penguin for 18 years
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)
Marian, you’ve said that you never thought you would publish a novel, yet you’ve published 13, and each has been wildly successful, appealing to a broad audience. Each of your novels explore different themes – often dark and complex. What comes first for you – the story? The theme? The characters? The voice?
MK: The voice is always the starting point. While I'm waiting to start a new novel, I agonise about what sort of set-up to pursue – a first-person narrative or an ensemble piece? I wonder where I could set it, what age or ages my characters might be and what kind of theme I could examine. I go through countless scenarios and eventually a voice will speak in my head and it will be what sounds like an opening sentence. (I must say that it rarely survives into the finished book, but it gives me a starting point.) From there, I begin to build my character or characters and create the world they inhabit.
Louise, how long have you worked with Marian? What attracted you to her work?
LM: I started reading a copy of Watermelon that I bought in Dublin airport on a work trip in early 1996. When I got off the flight, only a few chapters in, I borrowed a mobile phone from our then sales director, rang Marian's agent Jonathan Lloyd, and said "I'm going to publish this writer". Jonathan said "you can join the queue". I wasn't late to the party exactly, but it was already clear from the trade's reaction to her first novel that here was a life-changing moment for whom ever was lucky enough to take her on in the UK. I just absolutely loved her voice. It was just so real, so alive. I wrote her a love letter in a fax and then I "joined the queue". Then, when I met her, I fell in love with the person, too. I knew, in a way you know very few times in your work life, that when she agreed to be published by us, it was a career-changing moment for me. And so it proved.
Marian, you’re so prolific and your novels are big – both in length and in ambition…do you discuss your ideas in advance with Louise or do you wait to give her a completed manuscript? Or send in a few chapters?
MK: Once I have a broad idea of who or what the novel might be about, I tell Louise. She is always interested and asks broad brush-stroke questions which help me focus and bring clarity to areas that might still be murky in my vision. However, the finished novel is rarely anything like these initial ideas and I think at this stage in our relationship Louise trusts me to do what I need to do, to veer off on paths that I hadn't known would appear and follow them. Usually when I've about 5,000 words written I send them to her for her opinion. Again, she takes a very light touch – she's always encouraging but doesn't hem me in with specific requests. She lets the book evolve.
It takes me a long time to write a novel – probably about two years – and at various stages, especially when I’m having a crisis of confidence, I’ll send Louise chunks of what I’ve written and she’ll give her opinion, her suggestions and – always – her encouragement.
Then, when I think I’ve completed the book, Louise will come back with her honest opinions about what needs to change – some characters will need to be moved to a more front-and-centre role, some aspects will need to be cut (ouch!), timelines will need to be altered and clarified and relationship flash-points may need to be highlighted. She’s always right. Everything she suggests makes the book a far, far better one.
Louise, how do you prefer to work with writers? Do most things come into you as complete manuscripts? Or as an idea? Or in dribs and drabs?
LM: There is no one-size-fits-all here. Writers differ hugely. Sometimes I see a synopsis, sometimes an author wants me to look at something part way through to discuss direction and help if need be, sometimes the complete manuscript just lands in my inbox without much warning! Marian usually shows me something when she's a good way in to the new manuscript, for feedback, and then delivers the complete manuscript. I think she has a few readers at home she really trusts and relies on to see early drafts also.
Marian, although the books are often packaged in a fun and whimsical manner, they often – always – have a dark undercurrent running through them. Do you and Louise discuss cover design and titles much? Do you have a lot of input? Or is that something you’re happy to leave in the hands of your publishers?
MK: I find titles very tricky – I'm rarely certain about one right from the start and yes, I'm aware that a book is judged by its title as much as its cover. Louise and I will discuss any ideas I have and together we agree on one that we feel best represents the book. As for covers, Louise has a first in fine art, she's very gifted visually and I love her ideas. Defenders of my work often complain that my covers don't represent my books but I disagree, I love my cover designs. I think the cover for The Mystery of Mercy Close is incredibly beautiful. And I think the hardback design for The Woman Who Stole My Life is exquisite. Also, Louise keeps my covers evolving and regularly re-jackets my backlist.
Louise, can you talk a little bit about covers and marketing strategies as well?
LM: Our strategy and cover usually spring directly from the novel itself. We have a small, dedicated team here, that works on Marian's novels, and we sit around and brainstorm before we make tentative plans on what we want to do. It's a long process. For This Charming Man, we went through nine cover proofs before we got the right shade of grey (no pun intended!) and we often proof two or three iterations before we get to the jacket we like. We work very hard to reflect the quality of Marian's writing, how funny, how touching, how compelling it is. I feel very strongly that she doesn't get the recognition from the literary establishment, in the UK at least, that her writing deserves. I don't think she shares that frustration – she just loves people reading her work. But she should win prizes. One day she will be on school and university syllabuses. Rachel's Holiday, for instance, is one of the most brilliant and joyful and sad and vital pieces of writing about addiction. It should be compulsory reading for all teens. And we are working to make that happen with our packaging and our approach of a special edition this year.
Louise, so much of the brilliance in Marian’s writing is in the clarity of her voice, her easy command of language. Are you sometimes afraid that your input will disrupt the fluidity and authenticity of her voice?
LM: I will give her broad feedback initially, and then a colleague – Celine Kelly – does a more detailed edit. But it is never, from either of us, about the language. We don't change sentences or paragraphs. We usually help out if need be on structure and order of plot. Her novels are always complex and multi-layered, with multiple tenses, and it's hopefully helpful to have an editorial eye to stand back and work out the balance of the narrative. Marian always welcomes editorial feedback – that's not the case with quite a few authors of her stature and experience, and you can sometimes tell that, I think… mentioning no names! But often, we will highlight a query and make a suggestion as to how to solve it, and Marian will absorb it and then solve the issue in a way that works far better than we would ever have thought of suggesting. It's quite an organic process, I would say. I think her husband Tony does quite a bit of editing himself…
Marian, how does it feel when you hand something over? Do you breathe a sigh of relief or go into massive fits of self-doubt? Do you ask anyone other than Louise to read your work?
MK: As soon as I have a scene or chapter worth reading, I give it to my husband and he's very like Louise – encouraging but honest. And I have a few trusted friends that I will send early chunks of words to. But when I send my final version to Louise, I'm in an agony of self-doubt. I don't know at what stage the sigh of relief comes – perhaps when I've incorporated all of Louise and Celine's changes and they approve of how I've done them. Maybe then. But always in the few weeks before publication, I have nightmares that I've libelled someone or everyone hates the book. The self-doubt isn't pleasant but the upside is that it keeps me striving to do my very best.
Marian, what was the most challenging part of The Woman Who Stole My Life for you?
MK: Withholding the salient facts from the reader, while keeping them intrigued. And that's a timeline issue, I suppose – I had to keep Mannix's name out of the first part of the book, while letting the reader know that Stella's had her heart broken. There's a point where hiding details from the reader becomes ridiculous and amateurish and judicious use of time-jumping managed to avoid that. But it was challenging.
And for you, Louise?
LM: I think it was probably making the timelines work. I adore this book on so many levels, it's almost like a book within a book within a book. Writing like this is just so, so difficult to pull off. I'm glad to say I think her fans appreciate that fact.
Marian, you read a great deal – and you are an avid user of social media. I suppose these two things are unrelated, but how do each of them impact on your writing? Do you and Louise read the same books? A bit of an informal book club?
MK: It's gas – without even consulting each other, Louise and I read almost exactly the same books. Last year we discovered we were both reading the Cazelot Chronicles and we both said exactly the same sentence, "I'm rationing them because I can't bear them to end." I adore reading and I love to read something that makes me thing, "God, I'd love to write something as good as that." I want to be the best writer I can be and one way to do that is to immerse myself in brilliant, directional writing.
Regarding social media – I’m on Twitter non-bloody-stop and never mind the pram in the hall! Twitter is the great enemy of art. Well, for me, I use up so much of my daily allowance of words on Twitter that there are less left over for novel-writing. I’m hoping to start a new novel soon and, sadly, Twitter will have to be banished to the margins of my life.
Louise, what’s the best thing about working with Marian?
LM: Everything. But mostly having her as a friend. I truly love her. I feel we have grown up together.
And same question for you, Marian… and can you give us a hint about what you’re working on next?
MK: Louise is the best editor in British publishing – she's a whip-smart, savvy, visionary, charismatic woman with a huge amount of emotional intelligence. She gets me totally – she never tries to micro-manage my writing, she lets me get on and write exactly what I need to write. And she is my champion – she has believed in my writing from the word go and has thrown her monumental energy into convincing others to believe in me too. I know it frustrates her that I don't get the critical respect that she thinks I deserve – (I take a different approach, I'm very grateful for the readers I do have and I know the worth of my books, even if it's not always acknowledged in the wider world) – but knowing that she thinks I deserve more acclaim is hugely encouraging. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have her as my editor – she has made my career. We've been together for almost 20 years and we've had so many thrilling experiences and so much laughter and fun – she's my friend and I love her dearly.
At the moment, I’m finalising a collection of non-fiction and for my next novel, I’m hoping to revisit Claire Walsh from my first book Watermelon, published 20 years ago.