Marian Keyes, GROWN UPS

Marian Keyes, GROWN UPS

Zibby Owens: Marian Keyes is one of the most successful Irish novelists of all time. She’s written fourteen novels including Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, and her latest, Grown Ups. Her books have all been best sellers with thirty million of her books sold in thirty-three languages around the world. Anybody Out There? won the British Book Award for Popular Fiction and the Melissa Nathan Prize for Comedy Romance. This Charming Man won the Irish Book Award for Popular Fiction. In 2009, she wrote Saved by Cake, while we’ll discuss later, and three collections of journalism including Under the Duvet and Further Under the Duvet and Making It Up As I Go Along: Notes from a Small Woman. She was born in Limerick in 1963 and has spent her twenties in London and now lives in Dún Laoghaire with her husband. Welcome to Marian. I’m so excited to be talking to her today.

Hi. How are you?

Marian Keyes: Hi, Zibby.

Zibby: Can you hear me?

Marian: Yes. It was breaking up a little bit there, but yeah, I can hear you.

Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on my show. It’s so nice to talk to you.

Marian: I’m honored. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: There is so much to talk to you about, all of these books. Your latest book is amazing, your whole career. I heard that you didn’t even know you wanted to be a writer, that it was just something that kind of fell into your lap.

Marian: Yeah, I didn’t start writing until I was thirty. At that stage, I had gone to law school. I was working in accounts. It was only when my life started kind of shutting down — anyone who knows my story knows that I’m recovery for alcoholism. It was the tail end of my alcoholism was when I started writing. I do think they were very, very linked, the two items. I went to rehab. When I came out of rehab, I realized that writing was what I wanted to do. Within eighteen months of coming out of rehab, my first novel was published. I was a late starter, but I feel it happened at the right time for me.

Zibby: Wow. Then tell me about in 2009 — so you started writing fiction. Not to jump right into your most deepest, darkest secrets here, but since we started with alcoholism, let’s go right to depression. You had the beginning of a depressive episode. Then baking got you out of it, which is so inspiring. Anybody can bake. Tell me about that.

Marian: Anyone can bake, except me at the time. I am so not a baker. I am so not a domestic person. I was in the absolute horrors, as anyone who’s been through depression will know. It was this sort of primal urge to bake a cake. My friend, it was her birthday. I thought, flour, eggs, chocolate, I can do this. I baked her a cake. Honestly, baking saved my life for a good few months. It was all I was able for. It calmed me. It’s those small things like sieving flour, weighing things. It’s like acting out your mindfulness. It’s very, very in-the-moment stuff. Then there’s the miracle of it goes in looking like one thing, and it comes out completely different and amazing. Then you get to eat to it. Everything about it is just fantastic. When I got a little bit better, then I wrote Saved by Cake. My husband used to take photographs of all the things I’d made. We work together. When I wasn’t well, our life just fell off a cliff, so we had to kind of make our own entertainment. The book has his photographs and the things I made. It’s kind of self-help-y as well. I write how I felt when I was making a particular batch of things. Hopefully, anyone who’s going through the horrors might find it helpful the way I did.

Zibby: Wow. How great that you put that down and shared it with everybody, and the pictures too. That’s great. Then of course in your latest book, Cara, who’s one of the main characters, ends up having an eating disorder herself, compulsive overeating and bulimia, and resists treatment at first. We have the cake, we have the eating, this whole theme of food that runs through some of your work. Tell me a little bit about that and how you decided on that trajectory for that character.

Marian: The thing about Grown Ups is it starts at the end in that all the characters in the book — they’re this glamorous family of three brothers and their wives, their ex-wives, and their adult stepchildren. They’re at a dinner party. They spend a lot of time together. They get on very well on the surface. Underneath, things are far more complicated, as they always are with any group of people. Three people have their secrets outed because one of the wives gets a concussion. When I started the book, I knew that I needed secrets. Money is always a good one. Infidelity is always another one. Then I was thinking about, what would I hate to be in a situation? I thought addiction because I’m in recovery for alcoholism and I really understand the secrecy. I don’t have an eating disorder. It’s really important to say that. I understand the burden of it. The idea of this woman suffering from bulimia came to me. I feel like as eating disorders go, bulimia’s a particular brutal one because you hide in plain sight. With other eating disorders at either end of the spectrum, it’s evident. Your body is your evidence that you’re ill. With bulimia, people kind of trudge on for years and years with this monkey on their back, with their voice in the head, and nobody really knows. I thought it needed to be written about. Luckily, people who have bulimia or who are recovering have read it and they said that I did it accurately, which is really important always. When I write about somebody else’s journey or their pain, it’s so important to honor it and do it properly.

Zibby: I think you did. I also don’t have bulimia, but it was so candid and open. Even just the little details that you included about how she felt so watched when she finally did have dinner again with her husband, just all these little things that make a character not really just a character, but a true person in your mind when you’re reading it. It’s really great.

Marian: Thank you. That’s lovely to hear because for me, I’m all about characterization. I really want my characters to be complicated and flawed and nuanced and as you say, to have those tiny details that people will pick up on and say, oh, yeah, I remember feeling like that or I can identify with that even if I haven’t gone through. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: You’re welcome. How do you come up with all the ideas for all of the different books? You’ve written so many novels and collections of essays. You have so much, and even the blog you have on your website. You’re just a content factory. How do you come up with the ideas?

Marian: I don’t feel like that, but I tell you, I am fascinated by human beings. I think we are just so interesting. I’m really interested in the gap between the self that we present to the outside world, which is only a tiny, tiny version of ourselves, and what’s really going on underneath. It’s this universe of feelings and longings and shame and secret and secret loves. It’s that gap that I love to explore in everybody. I suppose I feel that almost everybody is well-intentioned. That’s what I try to bring, to see people through that prism. All of us do things that we’re ashamed of. I’ll speak for myself. Inadvertently, I will make mistakes. I’ll hurt people I didn’t mean to. It’s hard to live with that. If I write my characters like that, it gives me ease. I like to read about it in other people’s books. I think, ah, it’s not just me. There’s a relief in seeing somebody else’s flawed humanity. I live in Ireland. I’m surrounded by people who I find extremely entertaining. I lived away from Ireland for a long time. I love being back here. People use language here. People are great at conversation. They have excellent turns of phrase that you don’t get in other English-speaking countries. That helps. Also, I’m really close to my family, to my brothers and my sisters and their wives and husbands, kids, and all of that. They’re a great source of inspiration rather than material. I don’t put the real people in books, but there’s always stuff.

Also, there’s that thing that you said in the beginning. Me, I’ve had my dark times in the trenches with poor mental health and with addiction. I think that has given me knowledge and insight and compassion as well to bring to characters. Maybe people trust me because they think, okay, she blew her life up in her face at least twice. We can trust her that she’s not going to be saccharine in what she writes, the way she depicts people. There’s all of that. I love what I do. Because I didn’t come to writing until I was thirty and because I had spent so many years feeling wrong and pointless and the square peg in the round hole and that I always would be, to be now in something that I get such joy from, I really want to do it well. It gives me huge pride to write a book that people go, I loved that. You took me away from myself. You took me away from the world for a while. You gave me comfort. You made me smile. You made me cry. All of that is so rewarding. I get so much back from my readers. It’s a very symbiotic, nurturing relationship.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I think before I started interviewing authors, I didn’t realize how much the authors were getting from the readers. I thought the readers took all. It’s actually the opposite.

Marian: Oh, no, it’s the opposite. Even when people don’t like what I’ve done, it’s always interesting. Or if people have liked one book and they don’t like the next, or the other way around, it’s always good to know what has chimed with people and what really hasn’t. It doesn’t mean that I will change what I do in response to that. It all goes in. It’s all information, which is never a bad thing.

Zibby: Then when you sit down to write a book, what does that process look like for you?

Marian: Slow it what it is, Zibby, very slow. It is. It really is. For me, it’s all about going deep rather than forward. People write the way they write. For me, I only do one real draft, but it takes me like a year and a half because I’m fiddling, changing things, asking myself more and more and more about that character before I can move forward. I write in my spare bedroom upstairs here. I try to do weekdays. I try and stay open. I think for any writer it’s really important to have time on your own, and I hate that. I just love Twitter, Instagram, scrolling, clicking on stuff, going on Zara, all of that. It’s very, very hard to do isolation or to go out for a walk by myself, but that’s when things really get untangled. Sometimes my husband will come with me. That’s almost as good as being on my own because we sort of share a brain when it comes to the work stuff. It’s slow. I kind of forgive myself for that now. I realize this is my way and that there is no wrong way. Then I’m always worried sick before it comes out and then always grateful when people say nice things. For me, it’s really about the characterization. If something is wrong with me, and it so often is, I know I have to go back and go, okay, I don’t believe him. I don’t like him. I don’t know why. I need to find out. It’s about constantly refining. That’s just how I do it. Other people write a first draft in forty days, and the whole thing is done and adjusted in three months. That’s not for me. Although, I wish it was. Look, we are who we are.

Zibby: I mean, it’s working. Whatever you’re doing is working.

Marian: Thank you. I read an awful lot. I think it’s really important as a writer to read. I read an awful lot of women. I love contemporary books. Anything that’s just out, I’m like, give it to me. Because I write mostly about women, I want to know what women are feeling and thinking right now about the world that they’re living in. What is worrying them? What’s making them happy? How is their daily life? I get an awful lot of that from fiction. Reading was my first addiction. It’s still up there.

Zibby: We share that addiction, for sure. I’m a huge reader. I thought it was so nice on your blog, on your website, how you were talking about all sorts of other books. You have a piece of troubling news like with being apart from your mother with the COVID-19 restrictions. Then your best news, I was like, she’ll surely recommend her own book. Instead, you recommended these other books, which was just so generous of spirit of you. I was so impressed.

Marian: That’s really, really nice. If I love something, I want everyone to know about it, whether it’s a book or a TV show or a pair of sandals or whatever, or makeup. I can never stop talking about that. If I read a book and I love it, I just get really excited. I think, no, no, you must read it. You will love it. One of my favorite things is giving books to people or telling people about something that they’ll love. When I was younger, when I started out, I felt like the world was a zero-sum game. If somebody got something good, it meant that there was less for me. I’m so glad that I’ve got older and evolved to the point where when you give stuff away, I get more back. It’s much more rewarding to be friends with other writers than to regard them as the enemy or my rivals. I feel very lucky that I have so many friends who are writers. It’s a real honor to be in a position to be able to big up other people. I still feel like I’ve only started. Actually, I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years. It is almost my duty because people have been really good to me, people like you now giving me this. It’s the least I can do. That’s the kind of person I want to be. It was not how I always was. I’m pleased that I’ve improved as a human being.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that. You’ve already included so much advice in little snippets just from everything you’ve shared. If you were to give advice to aspiring authors, what would you say?

Marian: There is no magic spell. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Sit down and write it. Write a sentence. If you have a scene in your head and you don’t know where it fits in, you don’t know whether it’s the start or halfway through, just sit down and write it. Try and commit to a certain amount of time every day, like an hour, which is kind of doable for most people, I hope. Consider that hour sacred. No matter what else is going on, you will do that. You will honor what you want to do by giving yourself that hour. Write it your way. Don’t let perfectionism be the enemy of the good. Your first few sentences will appall you with how awful they are. That’s always the way for me. Writing is so much about rewriting and refining, polishing it up. It will be terrible. You will be appalled. Keep doing it because we only get one life. Don’t go to your grave thinking, I could’ve written a great book if only I’d had the courage to do it. Another thing, pretend nobody is ever going to read it, especially your mother, especially when you’re writing those scenes. Just write it for yourself initially. Don’t let other people’s imaginary judgement skew what you’re doing. If you want to do it, you owe it to yourself to do it. I can’t stress that enough. Please give it a go. Maybe not everyone will find that it’s what they want to do, but I’m certain that lots of people will. I think if you’ve already got the spark and the interest, it’s probably going to work. Good luck whoever you are. Please do it.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. I’ve been a fan of yours forever. I remember reading Lucy Sullivan Got Married and all these books, Rachel’s Holiday, for so long. This is a such a treat for me. Thank you for coming on the show.

Marian: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Zibby: Bye-bye.

Marian Keyes, GROWN UPS