The secrets we keep: Mary Beth Keane on her latest novel, 'Ask Again, Yes'

The secrets we keep: Mary Beth Keane on her latest novel, 'Ask Again, Yes'
Mary Beth Keane by Nina Subin

The latest novel by Irish-American author Mary Beth Keane, exploring what happens behind the closed doors of two NYPD families, has catapulted her into the cultural conversation, writes Esther McCarthy

When Mary Beth Keane was nervously reading parenting books prior to the arrival of her first child, her own mother gave her some sound words of wisdom: “None of it matters, the baby will teach you”. It’s a mantra she often remembers when she’s writing a novel.

“That was good advice,” she says, over tea in a Dublin hotel. “I do think that’s true. And I think it’s the same for novels. Someone’s like: ‘Oh you can knock out a fourth novel now you’ve done three’, but one has nothing to do with the other. I think you can have 15 kids and they’re all strange and great in their own way. And that’s as true, I think, for writing fiction too.

“I wouldn’t want it to be prescriptive. The whole point is to find out something that you didn’t know that you thought. Unravel something that you really feel needs to be worked on.”

Her latest, Ask Again, Yes took the most unravelling yet. Set in an Irish/American community in a suburban New York town similar to where she grew up, it centres on two young NYPD cops who live next door to each other, and the potentially explosive secrets and events that happen behind their closed doors.

She said getting the novel to where she wanted it to be was a challenge:

This book almost killed me, it was the hardest book, really. I kind of thought going in, it’s not historical. I wouldn’t have to do all the research, but it was way more difficult.

“I wanted to dig in and really explain the nuances of how people feel and also sometimes the surprising things we do. There’s a moment between two characters where one sort of forgives the other. And in first draft I thought: ‘No one is going to buy this’. But literally nobody has questioned it. That was part of the challenge, to convince people that we can surprise ourselves.”

Already an acclaimed author, Keane has been getting stellar reviews for her latest. It has spent the last number of weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. In the US, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’s acclaimed book club selected it as the winner of its Summer Reads.

“That came like a bolt out of the blue. I was already happy with the way things were going and it had been on the bestseller list for two or three weeks. This is the business. This is what makes it crazy and wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking.

“It has been a huge help sales-wise, but also I think a lot of people haven’t talked about what it means to an author to be on there. Johnny Carson used to have authors on fairly regularly, and that doesn’t really happen anymore. And I think for other writers it means a lot to see one of your colleagues. It makes it part of the cultural conversation in a way that it hasn’t been before.”

Growing up in America with her Irish immigrant parents, Keane as a young girl would be shocked by the sight of a gun worn by the many NYPDs in the very Irish community in which she lived.

“The dads of a lot of my friends growing up were NYPD and so I would be at their houses... They’d be these jolly men flipping burgers on the grill or they’d be working on their houses. But then I would see there was a gun strapped to his hip.

"In those days, a cop had to keep his off-duty weapon on him at all times. I would think how he must see violence at work, or the jolly man I’m seeing now must be quite different from the person he has to be at work. And I think I was always a little bit obsessed with that contradiction.

“They’re all good storytellers, for the most part. But I wanted to get at whether they felt afraid. Or if you see something really bad at work, how much do you carry that home?”

Ask Again, Yes is a moving account of lifelong friendships, love and the secrets we keep. But it shies away from the often sentimental views of the ‘old country’. Keane wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t want to be critical of anybody’s experience of Ireland, of course. And people are so rightly sensitive about their own feelings about their own ancestry.

We lived in a very Irish community where I think when you come in the 60s, you end up referencing Ireland of the 60s for the rest of your time there.

“And here has changed quite a bit. I remember coming in the Celtic Tiger years with my parents and them being quite rattled by it. My mother witnessed someone drop money on the street and look down and keep walking. And that really upset her. It wasn’t the Ireland that she knew.

“But the post-Catholic part is the part that’s really frustrating to me. When I write a character who’s Irish and they’re not going to church or they don’t feel under the knee of the Catholic Church, people sometimes object. Some people, I feel, think of Ireland as a museum. I want to hand them Sally Rooney and say, ‘This is actually Ireland now’.”

Keane, who spent family summers in Louisbergh in Co Mayo, and still regularly returns to the west to see family, may soon see her novel onscreen — it’s a story perfect for a TV adaptation.

“It’s been optioned by a pair of producers who’ve done a few great movies that I admire like American Beauty, Milk, and Silver Linings Playbook, but they’re thinking of this book as a limited series. I’m really relieved about that, I think it’d be a very difficult story to tell in 120 minutes.

“Right now, it’s early, early stages. I think I’m just really learning a lot about that side of things. There are so many things that have to be in place. It makes publishing seem sort of simple. You write the book, you sell it, it comes out.”

Ask Again, Yes is published by Penguin Random House Ireland.

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