Marian Keyes: ‘There’s an awful lot of riding in my book’

The 53-year-old author talks love, alcohol, depression and the mystery of marriage

Marian Keyes has a new book out called The Break, about a woman with a husband who takes a year long “break” from their marriage. Photograph: Alan Betson

Marian Keyes has a new book out called The Break, about a woman with a husband who takes a year long “break” from their marriage. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Curled up on the sofa of her home in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, author Marian Keyes is thinking about how she’d cope if her husband, Tony Baines, wanted to take a break from their marriage.

Her new novel The Break centres on a couple in their 40s, soft-hearted PR dynamo Amy and her sound engineer husband Hugh who has requested six months off from their marriage to backpack around Southeast Asia and, possibly, sleep with other women. It’s a break, he insists, not a break-up. So how would Keyes feel if Tony approached her with a similar notion?

“I couldn’t imagine anything worse,” she says, stricken. The couple got married in 1995, the same year her first novel Watermelon was published. Baines, a tall, friendly English man who is fond of soccer and climbing mountains, comes in to deliver coffee and biscuits. When Tony – or Himself as Keyes’s 147,000 Twitter followers know him – leaves the room she describes him as “my best friend . . . we are always in each other’s corner”.

Soulmates Marian Keyes and her husband Tony Baines.

Nibbling thoughtfully on a biscuit – “from M & S” she clarifies – she returns to the question of a break from marriage: “There’s this myth that if a man cheats on you, then you come back fighting but I think if that happened to me in real life I wouldn’t be angry, I’d be sorrowful. And I would take it very seriously. I think most people are not messers. If Tony came to me looking to be single for six months I know it would be hard for him to hurt me but it would also mean he’d got to a point where I’d have to respect it enough to let it happen.”

There is much in The Break about what Keyes calls 'lizard brain' being the catalyst for such sabbaticals

She has written four non-fiction collections and The Break is her 13th novel. It’s hilarious and moving, a zeitgeisty look at how couples splinter or stay together in the face of life’s obstacles . Relationship sabbaticals are a relatively recent phenomenon written about in books such as Wild Oats by Robin Rinaldi. There is much in The Break about what Keyes calls “lizard brain” being the catalyst for such sabbaticals.

“I’d read about these breaks and I was aghast,” she says. “But it also made sense. Our expectations of life are changing because we are living so much longer, people in their 40s now are kidults, they look younger, they go to Electric Picnic, they wear Converse . . . and people are unpredictable. Lizard brain is this ticking time bomb in all of us where something can happen where we suddenly realise, ‘Christ, I’ve probably lived half my allotted time span and I don’t feel I am living fully or I’ve done enough’.

‘No guarantees’

“No matter how much someone loves you or you love somebody there are no guarantees,” says Keyes. “I know that sounds bleak but it’s the reality. Tony loves me now, I love him now. All we have is now and I really, really hope that nothing happens because it would be agonising but, I suppose, people survive worse.”

They do. Keyes herself was treated for alcoholism at 30 and more recently in 2009 she was plunged into what her doctors described at the time as a “major depressive episode”. This grim period lasted “four years, all in”. Keyes knows about survival and has long been an open book about this part of her life. She is one of a small circle of well-known people in Irish life who, by speaking honestly and without shame about their experiences, have chipped away at the stigma attached to mental illness.

Her recovery, when it came in April 2014, was fast, and although she had tried everything from medication to meditation, she cites “the passage of time” as the reason for her recovery. During that bleak time she wrote a book The Mystery Of Mercy Close in which the character’s depression and suicide attempts closely mirrored her own. Keyes says she doesn’t have words to describe that period of depression. “It was like being in an altered reality . . . I was always melancholic and prone to sadness and hopelessness but this was catastrophic and unimaginable.

I was afraid of everyone, afraid to be on my own. I felt like I loved nobody  and nobody loved me

“With alcohol, recovery was straightforward. You stop drinking and you stay not drinking but with this there was no solution. I was afraid of everyone, afraid to be on my own. I felt like I loved nobody and nobody loved me.”

She is well now, she says, but different. “You never go back to the way you were. I have more limitations. I get tired more easily. I think something happened during that time that changed me. If you go through anything acutely painful you are altered . . . people say to me, ‘it’s great that you are better.’ But I’m not better. I am different. I am well but different. Spiritually, I am very different.”

‘Higher power’

During the depressive episode, she lost all faith in a “higher power” a major cornerstone of AA. (She still attends meetings.) The belief has come back since, but it’s changed. “Now I have a different view of life. I just think we are put on Earth on a kind of fact-finding mission, to live through stuff and then go back and report. I feel I am in this body on this Earth to experience the painful and the joyous and that everything that happens to me is meant to happen, there is some kind of purpose which will never be clear to me when I am in this body.”

Does she feel being so open about her depression has ever made people view her as a liability as sometimes happens when people who have suffered mental illness return to the workplace? “I am due to go on a book tour to Australia and Canada and I suppose there is always the worry my publishers have that I might crack up and cost them money . . . but I am very aware of my limitations and I know how to take better care of myself.” She cheerily admits to having been a workaholic in the past but not so much now: “These days I love nothing more than being on the doss.”

It’s three years since her last book, The Woman Who Stole My Life, came out. This is the longest her readers have ever had to wait. “I’m mortified!” she says. For more than 20 years, the arrival of a new Marian Keyes novel has been a cause for celebration by fans of funny, clever, meaningful fiction. From the very beginning, her books were a carefully crafted combination of wit, darkness and real, complex emotion. She’s covered everything from severe depression and addiction to domestic violence and bereavement, always blending light and shade so perfectly you never see the joins.

‘Hilarious and moving’

“It’s a rare gift,” one of her fellow Irish authors told me recently. “The only other writer I can think of who writes so hilariously and movingly about serious subjects was the late, great Sue Townsend.” It’s a source of frustration to many of her fans that Keyes’s books are ever dismissed – as occasionally they have been, usually by those who haven’t read them – as fluff.

For Irish women who have been reading her from the beginning, she arrived on the publishing scene as a page-turning breath of fresh air. Here was a writer holding up a mirror to our twentysomething lives, doing it with heart, great humour, irreverence and superb storytelling. When I began reading Marian Keyes over 20 years ago, it was Rachel’s Holiday, a book about a young woman who ends up going to rehab, that first gave me that feeling of instant recognition: here was someone articulating what it was like to be an Irish woman, with all the messy hang-ups and even messier hangovers this entailed. “I was writing in my own voice about lives that I recognised,” she says. “I don’t think people were writing books about the realities of Irish women, post-feminist women who were still living in a patriarchal society.”

She seemed to have the knack of articulating important truths which I had often been thinking

Her writing made us laugh at ourselves, and at life. She has always written in a distinctly Irish voice using idioms she didn’t think would travel outside Ireland. In fact her depiction of friendships, love and family life – the Walsh family, comprising Mammy Walsh and five very different daughters who have each starred in a Keyes novel – resonated with women of all nationalities. To this reader, she seemed to have the knack of articulating important truths which I had often been thinking but hadn’t yet expressed. Charlotte’s Web author EB White once said that a writer should concern herself “with whatever absorbs her fancy, stirs her heart and unlimbers her typewriter”. (Okay, I changed “his” to her, but it stands.)

Writer’s duty

“A writer has the duty to be good,” he wrote, “ . . . not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. She should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

White could have been talking about Keyes.

Born in Limerick, Marian Keyes grew up in Cavan, Cork, Galway and eventually the family moved to Dublin. She was a self-confessed swot in school and did well in university where she studied law, which wasn’t for her. She went to London and did a series of jobs including waitressing. “It was a very boring life, I drank a lot and any money I had left over went on shoes.”

She was 30 when her alcohol abuse led to a suicide attempt and an intervention by friends and family which resulted in a three-month spell recovering in the Rutland Centre in Dublin. She had begun writing short stories just before her stint in rehab. In a hugely popular BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs segment last March, she told presenter Kirsty Young how at the point when her life had spiralled out of control because of alcohol, she had begun writing. It was as if the universe said “I can give you this. Will you live for this?” While in the depths of depression years later, she wrote a baking book called Saved By Cake, but it’s fair to say that writing contributed enormously to saving her life first time around.

The book went to number one in Ireland, as did her second Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married

The story of Marian Keyes’s writing career is like a plotline out of one of her books complete with the compulsory Keyesian happy ending.

Non-existent novel

In rehab Keyes read some novels that had been published by Poolbeg, and when she got out she sent them some short stories and said she had started on a novel. (She hadn’t.) Poolbeg replied, saying the short stories were good “but peculiar” and asked to see some of the non-existent novel. Keyes, newly sober and full of hope about life, set about writing Watermelon. The book went to number one in Ireland, as did her second Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and that’s when “the Brits started getting interested”. She’s been selling books all over the world ever since.

Keyes has often said she found her voice with her first book – her tone is always chatty and conspiratorial, like a life-enhancing chat with your funniest, most truthful friend – but discovered what she wanted to write about with her second. “I wanted to write about meaningful things but still with humour. I was told very early on that many authors make a career out of writing the same book over and over again. Popular fiction gets accused of being unambitious and formulaic but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to honour women by telling their stories.”

There are, by the way, several very enjoyable sex scenes in The Break. Keyes writes sex brilliantly with a realism and erotic giddiness not found in a lot of popular fiction. “There is an awful lot of riding in this new book,” she agrees. “Not all of my books have sex but this is very much a book about peri-menopausal women and how we are told our libido just shuts up shop. I know somebody who had that sort of relationship and it was all sex and it was dizzying and glorious for her. I suppose I don’t like that cliché that women in their 40s and older are sexless. It’s not true.”

I need to be relaxed, put it that way, and I am rarely relaxed

In the novel Amy says she wouldn’t mind if she never had sex again. Keyes, while admitting she finds it hard “to get from the vertical to the horizontal” says she enjoys sex but has had conversations with her husband along the lines of “I’m really sorry, I know we don’t do it as often as you’d like . . .”

‘In the mood’

“Like, it’s harder for me because I don’t drink,” she laughs. “I need to be relaxed, put it that way, and I am rarely relaxed. People don’t talk about sex but they should. I read something recently that said there is no shame in finding out what works for you . . . whatever it is. Whether it’s a massage or glass of wine or whatever. There is no shame in saying ‘this is what makes me feel in the mood’.

“Look, every marriage is a mystery that’s known only to the two people in it, whatever works for both of you is fine. People shouldn’t feel pressure but they should talk about it.”

She doesn’t enjoy writing the sex scenes because “people think that’s what I get up to. Anyone I know who writes sex scenes I’m like – Jesus Christ do you?!” Would she ever worry about getting a bad sex writing award? “I would,” she says. “But look it, an award is an award.”

This is a novel about marriage but it is, as all of Keyes books are, also a novel about family. The family in The Break is the most “blended” of any that has appeared in a Marian Keyes novel. There are surrogate children and step-children and ex-wives. A chaotic tribe of mischief and misfits and troublemakers.

Now in my family we have two English spouses, a Serbian spouse and a Yank

“My own family is where I get my greatest joy and happiness. When I was growing up Ireland was so mono ethnic . . . now in my family we have two English spouses, a Serbian spouse and a Yank. I love the diversity and the different personalities. We go on holidays together and I find them enormously entertaining.”

In The Break, there is a bossy eldest sister called Maura. “That’s me,” says Keyes, the eldest of five siblings. Their father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago and Keyes says she has taken his place. “I am New Dad, Neo Dad,” she laughs. “God love him, he was such a worrier and a real controller, he was practically going around with a clipboard all his life.” Her father came from poverty and got a scholarship “to a fancy school and trained to be an accountant at night. He always felt very responsible for his family and I suppose he had that thing poor people have of being afraid to return to it. It was all about us being safe, permanent and pensionable, even now he asks ‘what job have you?’ and when I say I’m a writer he gets really worried. We show him all the books but he forgets.”

Lease of life

The new book features a father with Alzheimer’s, and a mother – “not at all like Mammy Keyes” she is keen to stress – who is enjoying a new lease of life. Keyes is full of praise for her own mother and the way she copes: “I have really admired her and other women in that situation that have come into their own,” she says. “They were the ones who didn’t go out to work, didn’t earn the money or pay the bills and suddenly they are having to step up and it’s not all bad. People seem to go through a late-in-life blossoming, almost. It’s certainly what I’ve seen in my mother. She goes out to bridge, to lunch with her friends. She’s more independent because she’s had to be to keep herself sane. When she’s with my dad she is so phenomenally patient and loving and gentle and never gets cross and she’s that way with him because she looks after herself.”

We thought the impact on me physically and on our relationship wasn’t worth it

There is no sorrow around the diagnosis anymore, she says, “we just get on with it”. Acceptance comes up a lot in conversation with Keyes. She and Tony wanted children but it didn’t work out. She wanted six. “Tony was going to mind them. He would have them lined up and he’d introduce them to me and say things like ‘behave for Mummy, because Mummy might get cross and leave us’.” She says she is fine about it now –“you’ve no idea how painless it is” – while acknowledging how painful that situation is for other couples. They didn’t go for infertility treatment. “We got that far and decided we wouldn’t. Good luck to anyone who does it and I hope it works. We thought the impact on me physically and on our relationship wasn’t worth it.

“It was a grace, the pain was lifted from me,” she says.

Women and literature

Even with the sales of 35 million books, the critical acclaim, multiple awards and “national treasure” status, does she feel she gets the same consideration and plaudits as male Irish writers who have achieved far less commercial success? While vocal in the past on this subject, she has mellowed in her views on the way popular fiction is sometimes dismissed but “I will say one thing,” she says.

“Do you remember in the early noughties when a lot of Irish women writers like Cathy Kelly, Sheila O’Flanagan, Cecelia Ahern were selling all over the world? I don’t feel that was celebrated enough. I wonder if a group of young Irish men around the same age had been selling in huge numbers, I really think it would not have passed unremarked.”

These were writers, including Keyes, who “contributed to the nation’s coffers and to our image abroad, publishers were all looking to Ireland. But because we are women and we write primarily for women it doesn’t seem to have the same cultural weight attached, I mean it’s dismissable. That’s something I don’t like.”

I am very worried about Varadkar’s economic policy. To me he’s a Thatcherite

Something else she doesn’t like is “late-stage capitalism” which she can rant about for Ireland. “It’s failing most people, it’s turned people into serfs.” Like many she’s not too gone on “that orange lad”. She means, if it should need clarification, President Donald Trump: “I feel sorry for Trump voters. How wretched and without hope were they that they thought he would make their lives better? It’s a tragedy,” she says. Closer to home, she’s not impressed with our own Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. “That ‘welfare cheats, cheat us all’ was an utter dog whistle campaign . . . I am very worried about Varadkar’s economic policy. To me he’s a Thatcherite and I worry he wants to minimise the welfare state.

“That sickens me. I don’t want to be part of a society that doesn’t care about the most vulnerable.” Keyes who is surely one of the wealthiest writers in Ireland is angry at talk about tax cuts for the better-off.

“We have a housing crisis, a homelessness crisis, a health crisis . . . These are basics that should be provided by the State.” As someone who has always been “left of centre”, what gives her hope, she says, is the “great energy” among the under 30s who seem to have embraced old-school Marxism. Her next book features a young woman who is a Marxist. “I’m enjoying writing her.”

Repealing the Eighth

Lately, Keyes has been a vocal supporter of the Repeal the Eighth campaign, appearing at an Amnesty event and more recently reading a testimony at the Artists For Repeal day in Dublin. She has written about abortion before, in Watermelon and Angels, but in one of the most affecting scenes in The Break, one of the young characters travels for an abortion.

Why did she go there? “I knew that something challenging was going to happen to Amy while Hugh was away, I thought it might be a burglary because we were burgled and I know how traumatising it is,” she says. “But I started writing the abortion storyline organically, I think, because Repeal the Eighth was so much in the ether. It’s very low-key in the book because it’s not a remarkable event, it’s awful but it’s not rare. It happens to 3,500 people in Ireland every year. It doesn’t dominate the book because the issue doesn’t dominate lives. I am not underestimating how frightening it is to travel for abortion but it would be far more traumatic for people to be forced to stay pregnant against their will.”

I always knew 53 would be a good age, now I think 96 will be a good age

She knows that not everyone agrees with her “and I respect that opinion. I think people can have an opinion that they would never have an abortion but can be comfortable or non-judgmental about other people having one. I just think it’s wrong to judge another person’s circumstances. At the heart of this is choice. People can decide for themselves what their moral position is, but other people should have the opportunity to choose differently.”

She is 53 now and she has never minded getting older. “I always knew 53 would be a good age, now I think 96 will be a good age,” she says.

The Break is another whopper of a read by a woman who admits she is incapable of writing short novels. “It’s great value for money though,” she offers. As anyone who has ever met Keyes can attest, in the flesh she is every bit as wise, funny and charming as her books. Her output, whether it’s her novels, her monthly newsletter, her weekly short films – she refuses to call them vlogs – or her tweets are all glorious examples of EB White’s idea that writers should be “lifting people up instead of lowering them down”.

“You’re a legend, Marian Keyes,” I say unprofessionally, by way of a farewell. “I am in my foot,” says Marian Keyes.

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