One for the Marian Faithful
Published in the Sunday Times (21/06/2020)
Many readers have said they just can't read during lockdown. One of them, a close friend, asked for a recommendation. Nothing too heavy, no nonfiction, something funny but not silly. Immediately Marian Keyes's Grown Ups came to mind. And she said: "Yes, that's exactly what I need. I need a Marian Keyes."
Apparently many other people feel the same. Since early June Keys's latest has been no 5 on the Nielsen Bookseller SA charts. It's become the panacea for lockdown-reading mehness. As Keyes told Lifestyle, "humour is incredibly useful for dealing with unpleasant realities".
Now read those words in a gentle, lilting Irish accent, and you have the wonderful Keyes - funny, wise and, most of all, kind and empathetic - on our Skype interview. Yes, we Skyped! She's in Dún Laoghaire, a coastal suburb of Dublin, where she lives with her husband, Tony, who she refers to as Himself in her tweets.
Keyes has been making readers happy for 25-plus years, since her first bestseller, Watermelon, was published in 1995. Women (and lots of men) gobbled it up. It was the start of the series on the Walsh brood - a big dysfunctional family with five daughters, so five separate books, and Mammy Walsh with her own A- Z of the family.
Keyes says: "Without a doubt, Watermelon was the easiest book to write. I hadn't a clue what I was doing. I can't tell how much of not a clue I had. I understood nothing about structure or editing. Anything I found funny or interesting I would just put in. And it was only after that - as my mom says, 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' - I understood where I had made mistakes. I feel like I have grown up in public as a writer and that all my mistakes have been out there for everyone to see. It's a lengthy, painful process of learning the craft of writing. So with each book I try to learn from the mistakes of the previous book."
I feel like I have grown up in public as a writer and that all my mistakes have been out there for everyone to see
And she has. Each book has outsold the one before.
The Walsh family isn't the only family she writes about. There are her stand-alone books as well as a few nonfiction books - collections of columns with her hilarious observations on life, in-laws, weight loss, parties, and lots and lots of makeup.
Keyes is now 56, with more than 30-million copies of her books sold in 33 languages. Grown Ups is her 14th novel.
It's a doorstop of a book (650-plus pages) and, beware, you will binge.
Keyes writes about the Casey clan: Jessie, who's married to Johnny, his brother Ed who's married to Cara, and Nell who's married to the third brother, Liam - and their children. It starts at the end, when Cara (who's suffering from concussion) drops a few major truth bombs at the supper table, and the entire family is left feeling raw and exposed. In a Keyesian twist, the next chapter is set six months earlier and she slowly unpacks who the characters are and what the heck they did.
Keyes decided the Caseys needed one novel to tell their stories. Like a puzzle, they all needed to slot together in one book. "It had to be the whole family. All the Walsh books were first-person confidentials. There's no way Grown Ups could be told as a first-person narrative. It had to be an omnipresent voice. My writing is instinctive and I knew it had to be like this as there were too many perspectives."
This is where Keyes's magic comes in. Each character is authentic, identifiable and empathetic. They're like the new Sex and the City trope of identifiction.
There's Jessie: a hardworking mother who runs her own very successful business. She was happily married to Rory, who died, and years later she married his best friend Johnny. She has to deal with her past and her bundles of insecurities. Keyes explains: "Jessie is so different to me. She's brave and pushy. I can see why a lot of people don't like her, but I really like her. She's insecure, and she just wants the family to be together all the time. I really identified with that. Maybe it's because I don't have children; I like being around all the nieces and nephews. That's important. The longing to be in the thick of a big, rowdy, messy family. Her and her entrepreneurial stuff, I don't know where that came from. And that she is and was the stronger partner in both her marriages."
Jessie is always doubting the decisions she makes. Keyes says this is something she wanted to highlight. "I do think that we women are told all the time that we're only allowed in the space that's really owned by men, that we are there under sufferance.
I think it's very usual for any woman, no matter how successful, to feel insecure and uncertain in a way that men don't. Because men have been told their whole lives 'this is what you're born to do', 'you're entitled to all of this'. Men don't have the insecurities that fabulous women like Jessie have."
Then there's Nell, who recently married Liam and is quite a bit younger than him.
"I knew when I was writing this book that it was important to represent millennials,"
says Keyes. "Nel was a conscious choice for me. I have a 20-year-old niece who is so woke, so lovely. She doesn't buy new clothes and she's so moral and worried about the state of the planet. She inspired me. And what else inspired me - I don't know what it's like in SA - but in Ireland and the UK, millennials are unlikely to ever own their own homes, and there's no job security for them. Their lives are so insecure compared to what life was like for me. And I don't like it when people call them snowflakes or other derogatory names. The world's a really frightening place. I wanted to represent that generation. I'm close to my niece and I know how she thinks about things. I was able to give all that to Nell."
The third character seems to be the crowd favourite. Cara is married to the gentle and kind Ed. She has a crippling addiction to food, and what that does to her is something many identify with. "Cara was the easiest person to write because I understand addiction
and how it controls her."
Keyes is open about being a recovering alcoholic, in Alcoholics Anonymous for many years. "But I got quite far into the book and realised that Cara had to be more than just her addiction. Then she became the most challenging person to write. I kept having to add in more details. The fact that she loves music became something."
The reader will cheer, cry and have fun with these women. They become real and that's a direct function of the fundamental way that Keyes works. "The characterisation is vital; it's always more important to me than plot. I spend a lot of time on it, which is why I'm so slow writing my books. I feel apologetic about that and ashamed, but at least I am proud of the book when I finish."
Keyes is hard on herself. After a recent interview in which she was asked for favourite books and she rattled off more than a dozen, she felt bad because she didn't name more. She tweeted: "My apologies for all the writers I omitted. When I'm asked who I read I tend to panic. I should carry a list in my pocket." (Do yourself a favour and follow her on Twitter @MarianKeyes, not only because she has great recommendations for books, but because she's so darn amusing.)
She has good advice about anxiety, which she suffers from. "It's gotten easier as I've gotten older, and I don't think it's such a bad thing. I would rather be mindful of other people's feelings than be an arrogant person who thinks they're great, who strides through the world not caring who they hurt or offend.
"I'm an empathetic person. There are times when the self-hatred and thinking about the stupid things I've said becomes very painful, but I've learnt that I'm not that important in the big scheme of things. It doesn't really matter if I put my foot in it. I always ask myself if I was well-intentioned and if I can say honestly that I was then I have to let go of it. It will always be something that I struggle with. But that's who I am. I think at a certain point we have to accept our natures."
It doesn't really matter if I put my foot in it. I always ask myself if I was well-intentioned and if I can honestly say that I was then I have to let go of it
From about 2009 Keyes suffered from crippling depression. She couldn't write.
"It went on for years. I had two spells in a psychiatric hospital and I saw a therapist. I still see her to this day; we have our Zoom calls once a week. I also did everything people suggested. I tried mindfulness, yoga, exercise, eating alkaline food. I was so desperate to not feel the way I was feeling, I would've stood on me head covered with a bucket of ice water.
"I've also tried every antidepressant. I have my equilibrium back today and I'm grateful that they found the right tablet and the right dosage for me. I'm OK today but that includes taking antidepressants and seeing my fabulous therapist. I make no apologies for taking care of myself. There's so much shame attached to taking tablets. But I'm not ashamed. You're stigmatised for having depression and then you're stigmatised for taking tablets to help you live with it.
"I want to be happy and be able to function. I have no intention of coming off the drugs because I'm OK. And then some people say, well if you are feeling fine why don't you come off them. But I know if I did, I wouldn't be OK. It's proof that the tablets are working, not proof that I can come off them."
It's a tiring and an emotional time the world is facing, but Keyes seems not to be taking it too badly. "I'm OK. I'm an introvert; I love people but I can only deal with them in small bursts of time. My work is solitary - the writing part of it. It hasn't been as hard for me as it has been for an awful lot of people. Apart from book tours, my life is quiet. I miss my family, my mother and my nieces. It's less painful now than it was in the beginning. I got used to it. Technology is handy and I get to see all my bunnies on the screen every Saturday."
Anxiety and depression aren't all of Keyes's demons. Alcoholism still lurks, but she's managing. "A routine helps. I try to work and exercise. I go to AA meetings on Zoom, which is great. That was my biggest worry, not having meetings. That was a real freaker because I really value them. But I'm sleeping badly. My dreams are horribly vivid and full of anxiety. That's where the exercise helps. I run on a treadmill. It's simple and effective. It disperses the ball of fear in my stomach."
Exciting news for fans of the Walsh family is that Keyes is writing the sequel to a fan favourite, Rachel's Holiday. "I'll tentatively say it's going well. The whole Walsh family is in it. It's been nice to write about them again. It's told from Rachel's point of view, but they all have a story in this.
"I had to reconnect with all of them. Claire is real to me, as is Rachel and Helen actually. Margaret and Anna less so. But I work at it, keep at it until it's right. It's frustrating that it doesn't snap into place immediately. I worry. And I have to keep going back, and check it again and again. At least I know this is what I do and it's worked in the past.
"I've decided not to overthink it. I've done this before. I've written books before. I can do this. Sometimes I believe myself and sometimes I don't."