The author of such works as Rachel’s Holiday and Sushi for Beginners talks to Siobhán Tracey about her new book set in L.A.
Anyone who has ever read one of Marian Keyes’ novels will already have an impression of the author’s irrepressible sense of fun, which finds humor in situations not obviously funny. And in the flesh, Keyes, the best-selling author of six novels, radiates a disarming friendliness and naturalness. While she has had her share of hard times, she seems to be someone who, having achieved fulfillment in her personal and professional life, finds that her demons have very much been exorcised.
When I meet Keyes in a midtown Manhattan hotel, she is in the early stages of a promotional tour for Angels, her latest book, which is her first novel to be set in the United States. Angels derives its title from Los Angeles, and Keyes admits to a certain ongoing fascination with the city of the stars. Before Angels, the settings for Keyes’ books were Dublin or London, places and cities she has lived in and knows intimately — this was her first time to be inspired by the unfamiliar.
Inspired and mesmerized. Keyes found the clichés surrounding the city to be true. “It’s amazing, people in L.A. really do seem like human Barbies walking around. And the things that you think are exaggerated — the skinniness and the plastic surgery and focus on appearance — it’s all true.” However, Keyes is also thrilled by L.A.’s many positive attributes. “It’s such a city of extremes. Everybody is there because they have huge ambition — they have a dream. Everybody is so focused on success and all the things they have to do to achieve it — it’s a very creative environment.”
Keyes’ first trip to L.A. came about because her second novel, Rachel’s Holiday, which was based on her time spent in rehab battling alcoholism, had been optioned for Touchstone Pictures. Two more month-long research trips followed, the first with her husband, Tony, and the next with Tony and her two younger sisters, which meant that she had a reasonable amount of time to observe the character and characters of LA.
The reference to younger sisters in Angels begs the question as to whether Keyes’ books are based on her own family experiences. Keyes, who has two brothers as well as her two sisters, admits there are parallels. “The experiences in Rachel’s Holiday were my own — the rehab obviously — but Rachel Walsh isn’t like me. She is a lot feistier. I feel like the dynamics in the Walsh family are similar to those in my own or any biggish family — although the dramas and dysfunctions thankfully aren’t as bad or as exaggerated as they are in the books. Growing up I would have experienced similar banter and teasing. But, it’s affectionate,” she adds. “It’s coming from the fact that you can get away with it because you love them and they love you.”
Like many writers, Keyes seems to have fallen into her writing career almost by chance. After completing a law degree in her native Dublin, she worked as an accountant in a London firm. Along the way, she recognized that what she had accepted as just social drinking had become a problem. She put herself through rehab and summoned the will to start writing in her spare time. She also met and married her English husband, Tony Baines.
After 11 years living in London, Keyes moved back to Dublin in 1997. She lives beside the sea in Dun Laoghaire, less than a mile from where she grew up in her parents’ house. She is happy to be back home and close to her family. “I thought I would really miss living in London but I don’t. I even love the way Dublin is so small. That used to freak me out but now I find it comforting. Also, Dublin has changed so much — as I have — and that makes it easier as well. There was none of that power-of-the-church thing that used to be there. It’s a much more secular society and that makes me happy.”
Keyes’ transition was undoubtedly also eased by the fact that her London-based publishers, Penguin, require her to make frequent trips there, and her husband has embraced all aspects of Dublin life with enthusiasm. “Tony loves it — he was more keen than I to move back. He’s still very charmed by the place and by being near the sea and the way people talk. Thanks be to God. It would have been very tricky if he didn’t like it.”
The move has worked equally well on a professional level as a personal one and Keyes’ career has flourished. In this she is aided by Tony, who gave up his own career to concentrate on hers. “He does everything except the writing. He is a wonderful organizer — nothing is too much trouble. He’s ego-less.” She adds, “But then we’re equally supportive of each other. I respect the fact that he’s incredibly clever — and he’s over-qualified for this job but it’s worked very well and we’re very lucky.”
On the subject of other writers, Keyes admits to loving all the women with whom she’s allegedly in the same “romantic comedy” literary genre — Catherine Alliot, Jilly Cooper, Elinor Lipman (“she’s like a modern day Jane Austen”), and Mavis Cheek. She also loves Janet Evanovitch and Ian McEwan. Like many of the female comedy writers mentioned above, Keyes’ books are marketed more towards women than men. This is unfortunate, as Keyes books are genuinely funny.
Keyes says that when men read her books, they come back to her afterwards and say that they laughed while not expecting to. “Books like mine — or say the humor in something like Bridget Jones’ Diary, which is such a funny book — transcend gender.”
Keyes doesn’t worry that by being marketed mainly towards the female market, she might be dismissed as just another “beach-blanket” novelist. She knows that what she is doing is something more than the usual “romantic comedy” and is secure enough not to need the approbation of others. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I write for myself — changing what one writes in order to capture a market must be the most soul-destroying thing a writer can do. If it’s not working for me, I feel that it won’t work for anyone.”
Certainly, there is more to her novels, which The New York Review of Books has described as “eccentric, romantic comedy,” than girl meets boy only to lose boy before being reunited with boy plot. Typically, subjects as painful as marriage breakup, miscarriage, alcoholism and drug addiction are explored and through love and friendship, the human frailty which is the root cause of the protagonist’s dilemma, is brought to some sort of redemption.
Indeed, so high is Keyes’ stock among the Irish literary establishment that she was included in the pantheon of Irish writers such as Frank McCourt, Conor McPherson and Roddy Doyle in contributing a chapter to the murder mystery book Yeats Is Dead. The book, the brainchild of writer Joseph O’Connor, was a collaborative, round-robin effort by 15 writers in aid of Amnesty International. Keyes wrote the fifth chapter and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “Some of the writers are so hilarious. It was quite a macho thing — a lot of male writers were messing with the previous writers by bumping off characters so Joe O’Connor had to intervene after Chapter 9 and say ‘Enough — stop the slaughter.’ Every interesting character was being killed off by the new writer. I was honored to be included with such writers as Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt.” Modestly, she considers it fortunate that she wrote her bit at a relatively early stage in the proceedings. “Luckily, I was only the fifth writer so the plot hadn’t gone out of control at that stage. God love Frank McCourt — he did a great job doing the last chapter — there were so many strands to pull together — it had become so complicated.”
Keyes enjoyed the experience of writing her chapter of Yeats Is Dead to the extent that she intends to write a murder mystery or comedy thriller to tell the story of Helen, another one of the Walsh sisters. “I’m worded about writing about Helen,” Keyes admits of the prospect of writing about the one sister who appears so hard and selfish as to be almost a caricature. “I think that Helen will have to be a slightly different genre. It will be difficult to make her sympathetic. I thought that I would do a comedy-detective novel rather than doing the emotional landscaping that I’ve done with the others. That would have been a real cop-out — she would have appeared totally pathetic if behind her brittle shell she was really weeping — I couldn’t do that to her. So many people think she’s great and would love to be like her insofar as she’s fearless and is unconcerned about other people’s opinions.”
Keyes’ next project, though, will not be Helen’s or Anna’s story (the only two of the five Walsh sisters not to be written about) but a novel called Venus Rising which Keyes, without disclosing any of the plot, reveals that she is “having great fun with.” However, the writing will have to wait until after the publicity tour, which, apart from the early starts to catch planes, Keyes admits to enjoying immensely. “The readings can be incredible — a joy. As a writer, I feel that’s the ultimate reward — to know that what we do actually touches people. That’s lovely.” ♦