Top novelist Marian Keyes talks to Hannah Stephenson about how the death of her father gave her writer’s block, and how she’s coped with the grief.
Marian Keyes’ funny, touching books have entertained us for almost 25 years, as her heroines once in search of love have now grown up and – although often still in search of love – have other problematic fish to fry, with kids, exes, work and other contemporary trials and tribulations.
Always a delight to speak to, Keyes, 56, is as effervescent as her writing, with her sparkling humour, generous nature and heartfelt honesty.
Even those who haven’t read her books will delight at her musings on Instagram and Twitter, as she talks about ‘Himself’ (her husband Tony Baines), ‘Old Vumman’ (her mum) and other members of her family.
View this post on Instagram
And today, we have Himself modelling a handheld clothes steamer! Oh my God! THIS is the first time in my life I've ever been excited about a domestic appliance. I've heard other people rave in squealy, delighted tones about cordless vacuum cleaner and I'm sorry lads, I've just never caught the thrill. But THIS!!!! Over the past little while I've been doing photoshoots and one of the stylists had one of these and I was ENCHANTED! That clothes could be dewrinkled without having to hoick out the ironing board and creak it into its upright position? This be WITCHCRAFT! Except it B'AINT witchcraft!!!! This means that I might ACTUALLY de-wrinkle my wrinkley clothes instead of succumbing to my usual nihilism/laziness. Apart from the day I passed my driving test TODAY is the most grown-up I've EVER felt in my whole life! . . . #adulting #grownups #grownup #ironing
“I have so much fun on Twitter,” she enthuses. “All I do is waste time. Lots of people follow me who have never read my books, and who are never going to read my books, but they think I’m good fun.”
Old Vumman on her way over with bagloads of hand-crocheted booties for New Babby pic.twitter.com/3GHTgehg7R— Marian Keyes (@MarianKeyes) January 23, 2020
Her upbeat manner today is a far cry from her well-documented earlier years of alcoholism and the crippling depression which started in 2009 and plagued her for more than four years, during which she sought a plethora of both conventional and alternative therapies. It lifted in 2014 as inexplicably as it arrived.
But it has taken the top Irish writer – whose novels include Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, This Charming Man and The Break – more than two-and-a-half years to complete her latest novel, Grown Ups, because her beloved father Ted died in December 2018 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, which halted Keyes’ creative process for six months.
“It was like getting a dead arm to the brain and I would sit and stare at the computer and try desperately to plan how the story was going to end, but I couldn’t access the feelings I needed in order to write it properly,” she recalls.
How did she cope with the loss?
“Quite well. I’m grieving but I’m functioning and I did from the beginning. I was afraid that it might plunge me back into deep depression.
“I’m well now,” Keyes continues. “The emotions that I’m feeling are appropriate, they’re grief. I don’t feel different from myself. I’m grieving but I’m still me.
“I’ve had all the symptoms of grief, like sleeplessness or terrible exhaustion or terrible sorrow and the fear that my mother’s going to die. It’s made me very needy around her. I keep making her promise not to [die], which is ridiculous. We laugh about it because we know she has no say in it, but it made me not able to work.”
She doesn’t like to linger on the subject of her depression, for fear that talking about it will spark its return. Nor does she embark on lengthy book tours, which can mess with her head, she says.
View this post on Instagram
Its #worldmentalhealth day. Hello to my fellow sufferers of Depression and the General Mads (new medical term 😊) If you're one of those lucky people who have no idea how acute anxiety, bottomless sorrow or an unshakeable sense of impeding catastrophe, feels like, then know this: you may not be always immune. Some quick reminders: Mental illness is NOT self-pity. Mental Illness is not staved off by owning a big telly Mental illness cannot be cured by swimming in cold sea water Mental illness can strike a tall, slender, good looking woman, who has 3 perfect children, a nice man, 4 Prada bags and a fondness for Net-a-porter. No-one on earth is immune Mental illness has some similarities to Cancer: contracting it and recovering from it - breaking news! - IS NOT A CHOICE . . . #worldmentalhealthday #mentalillness #mentalhealth #becompassionate #selfcare #selfcompassion #depressionawareness #depressionrecovery #depression #anxiety #anxietyrelief #TheFear
The tour for Grown Ups is the biggest she’s done since before 2009. She’s doing a handful of events in February, plus TV and radio, before trips to South Africa and Canada. These days, she knows the warning signs.
“It’ll be OK, but I do worry about pushing myself too hard. I can tell the minute I’m in over my head by the way I feel. I start to feel like I’m in a nightmare, so I’m trying to find a balance.”
Grown Ups is a tale about a glamorous, seemingly happy family – until you scratch the surface to find a plethora of contemporary problems, from overspending and debt, to bulimia, family clashes and complications facing blended families.
Bulimia is not something Keyes has suffered with herself, she says.
“This is not my story, but bulimia isn’t spoken about that much. A lot of women of all ages have a really disordered relationship with food and body image. It’s really important to write about that because I think everyone feels ashamed if they do feel like that.”
She says her fictional couples are not her and her husband – although some personality aspects are similar. He handles all the bits of her career that she doesn’t want to do, although they stop short of calling him her manager. They’ve just celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary.
View this post on Instagram
It's really not on to be nice about your husband, not in the circles I move in, anyway. It's okay, once every 3 years, to punch his upper arm and say, reluctantly "Shur, you're not the worst, I s'pose." But this fellit is SO nice and always on for an adventure and listens to me bang on about Samarkand and how it reminds of, is it an Issac Bashevis Singer short story? Or maybe its Love in the Time of Cholera? And doesn't rise to his feet, shrieking 'SHUTUP, SHUTUP, SHUTUP, you're driving me INSANE.' He doesn't get enough credit for his fabalissness. Thank you for letting me do it. I promise to not do it again for another decade...
“We were both a bit stunned, looking at each other, thinking, ‘Jesus!’ But if you marry somebody who treats you nicely and with kindness and respect, you probably have a better chance of staying the distance than somebody who you suspect might be playing offside,” Keyes reflects.
“But then, other people might find the kind ones really boring. If you’re married for a long time, you live through several marriages. It’s not just one unsteady broken stream of the same. People change and they can change in different directions.
“Talking to each other about the important stuff now and again helps. We watch telly together, that’s our special time together. That’s our thing.”
Celebrating her anniversary, she posted on Instagram that at one point she thought she’d be alone forever.
View this post on Instagram
This day, 24 years ago, Himself and I got married and, just, I feel so lucky. Every relationship is unique and what I needed (essentially, a man who didn't play games) might bring you out in hives. Also, 2 people can be very bonded at the start, but everyone changes and, without any malice, those same people can grow away from each other. What I'm trying to say is that so much is down to luck. And I feel like I've won the lottery. He's my best friend. We have such a laugh. He's seen me at my utmost WORST and he's still here. He smells LOVELY! Always! He is so interesting. Also affectionate. He is very obliging (will drive Mammy Keyes to Limerick, for example, or pick Teddy up from school.) There is NO-ONE on earth, I'd rather walk to the dry-cleaners with. (That happened one day, I was on my way down there and he said, 'Hang on, I'll come with you.' I asked why and he said, 'Just' and I was delighted and off we went and talked about nothing and it was a great 40 minutes.) For what it's worth, I thought I'd be alone forever, I had an uncanny ability to pick men who agreed with my own very low estimation of myself. I'd no interest in 'nice' men because A) I didn't 'deserve' nice and B) the absence of drama would mean I'd have to be present to my actual feelings. Anyway. What I'm trying to say is, He's lovely, a good, GOOD man and I'm so happy we're together 😊😊😊 . . . #relationships #marriage #love #marriedlife #relationship
“I really did. But in fairness, I was a drinking alcoholic in those days, I was nobody’s catch. I was just lucky that I met him at a time when I thought, ‘I deserve somebody nice’,” she says.
They got together in the early-Nineties, when her alcoholism was at its worst and she ended up in rehab, only to find Baines waiting for her when she got out. They were married a year later. They live in a big house south of Dublin, but never had children – although not for want of trying.
They were almost at IVF stage when they decided to put on the brakes.
“At that point, I felt I was being told something by the universe, that nobody gets everything. I had a really nice husband and a career I was loving. I was sober and life was really good.
“I can’t describe it because I’m not in any way religious, it was just an ego check from the universe, which said, ‘Hold on there a minute, take a look at what you have’. Together we decided to focus on what we had, rather than what we hadn’t.
“I do regret not having children. We would have loved them and I still feel that. My brother’s having a new baby any second now [the baby has since been born]. It makes me curious that there are these people we could have met and that we didn’t. I don’t really feel sad now, but I acknowledge that it would have been something lovely.”
She’s been writing about the modern woman for nearly 25 years, and agrees the heroines of today are very different to the ones she wrote about at the beginning of her career. Are women still looking for Mr Right?
“I think desire for companionship is incredibly human and we’ll always seek that out, whether it’s with platonic friends or in a romantic relationship. The idea of finding ‘The One’ or waiting for ‘The One’ is a very pointless exercise, and one where a person is always going to be disappointed.
“I’m wondering if people are starting to realise that there is no other human being out there who will come and fix all your broken bits and make you feel extremely happy without a break. There’s a more mature discussion about relationships these days,” says Keyes.
“I still write about love. The humour will never go. But I accept more that love does not conquer all.”
Grown Ups by Marian Keyes is published by Michael Joseph on February 6. She is on tour until February 15. For details, see mariankeyes.com/events.