Mary Beth Keane, ASK AGAIN, YES

Mary Beth Keane, ASK AGAIN, YES

Zibby Owens: Mary Beth Keane is the author of Ask Again, Yes. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia where she received an MFA. She has been named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” and was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship for fiction writing. She currently lives in Pearl River, New York, with her husband and their two sons. She is also the author of The Walking People and Fever.

Zibby: Hi, Mary Beth. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Mary Beth Keane: Hi, Zibby. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. You are the author of Ask Again, Yes which has been on the best-seller list for weeks and weeks and was such a big success that even Jimmy Fallon voted it on his book club as the thing.

Mary Beth: That crazy thing happened, yep.

Zibby: Tell listeners who might not know what Ask Again, Yes is about.

Mary Beth: It’s about two families who end up living next door to one another in a suburb of New York City in the seventies. The book spans about forty years. It begins in the seventies. It ends in 2018, I believe. They end up living as neighbors. The dads in both houses are cops. They’re sort of bonded by what the dads do for a living. The kids become kind of close, but then this tragic event happens that divides the families, they think, forever. Of course, they are not divided forever. That’s not a plot spoiler. You can sort of feel it coming in the prose. It’s about how the things that happen to us as kids, the traumas of childhoods, how we end up carrying them into adulthood in strange ways even when we think we’re long past those things. There’s this situation in the story. I think the story is really about love and how it changes and gets tested and morphs over time, who you have to protect within a love relationship, yourself, the person that you’re committed to. It’s not just romantic love. It’s between siblings, parent and children, and all of the above. Basically, it’s what we all go through in a messy life and whether it’s worth it or not.

Zibby: I’ve heard you describe this as Romeo and Juliet if the families then had to hang out again forever.

Mary Beth: That was something that struck me when I read Romeo and Juliet as a kid — in high school, I guess, was the first time I read it. Then I read it again in college. I thought, this is all well and good, but it’s obvious that the author, if it was William Shakespeare, knew it could only end one way because otherwise it’s sort of even more depressing. How does that love look ten, twenty, thirty years later if they’d lived and they had to be with each other’s families or they had to share grandkids and all of that? I said that sort of tongue-in-cheek once, but now I keep saying it over and over because it is accurate.

Zibby: Sorry to make you say it again.

Mary Beth: That’s okay. It’s a good description.

Zibby: How did you come with the story?

Mary Beth: I come up with an answer, but the truth is I don’t totally know why this story felt most important to me at the time I started writing. I think it’s because some of the themes of the book like estrangement over a long time, mental illness, alcoholism, all of these things were coming up in my own life, not necessarily my own direct life, but my friends and family. I was having to talk about these things a lot and consider them. I’ve said before that we have a long estrangement in my family between my husband and his parents. We also knew each other since we were young. People who don’t maybe have a good imagination may immediately think this is not fiction then. It is. It’s a total fiction, but those things that I was thinking about in real life certainly inspired the fiction that came out of it in Kate and Peter’s story. I think I was just trying to manage becoming a mother and my kids getting older and imagine what it would be like if I were in a situation where we didn’t speak and how that happens to a family.

Zibby: It is hard to imagine as a parent now that you could put in all this work and time and then they grow up and you don’t talk to them when you’re so intimately connected, particularly now because we’re talking during the quarantine. The fact that they could just be out in the world and not talk to you is hard to even wrap my head around.

Mary Beth: And forget that you made them sandwiches every day during this, two hot lunches, two hot meals a day. My oldest son, he’ll be twelve in July. At every stage, there are things that happen that I thought I would never do. I’d never hand my kid an iPad in a long car. This is before I had children. Now I happily give it up just to get five minutes of silence. That’s just a funny example. There are lots of things like that. I think that I worry about what’s coming for us. What thing can I not imagine now that will be here before I know it? It’s a scary thought, but it has to be a real one if it happens over and over again. I also think, I don’t know whether it’s the Irish character or what, but there is a lot of estrangement within Irish families. My parents are Irish born. So are my husband’s. It’s the culture that I’m most familiar with. I’ve noticed that it never happens all at once. It’s not like someone says something that rents the air and then it’s over. It’s happens little by little by little. Then twenty years have gone by and you’re at a funeral. That’s scary to me too, that making no decision is also a decision in a way. The same is probably true for alcoholism. People don’t just become alcoholics overnight. It’s bit by bit by bit. I have friends and loved ones who’ve struggled with this. I’ve wondered why I don’t. I had my first drink when I was like twelve, which was pretty normal the way I grew up. I just know that I don’t. Why is that? Things like that I thought about a lot when I was starting to write this book.

Zibby: Those are all really interesting things. Why can some people try something once and they’re addicted forever? Then other people, it’s like, okay, I can manage this on my own in some way. It’s also scary to think for your kids. You don’t know. They’re just sitting there. What do they have? What genetic predispositions? Maybe one of them is going to — you just don’t know.

Mary Beth: And could I be doing something that is the seed that starts whatever journey that they’re on just by one day, I yell a particular thing? You just don’t know why things happen. It’s scary.

Zibby: I’m going to take that guilt off you and say that there is no way there is one thing you could yell that will turn a child down that path.

Mary Beth: I hope not. You haven’t heard me yell.

Zibby: I can imagine because quarantine is not exactly bringing the best out of me as a parent at times, so I get it.

Mary Beth: The other night I yelled, “No one can have their ice cream until you’ve finished your popcorn.” Then I was like, why do I care? They’re eating junk after junk.

Zibby: I know. I say the same. I’m like, “No dessert until your pizza’s all gone.” Why? Really? Eating pizza’s going to make them better off? They should just skip the pizza.

Mary Beth: It’s fine.

Zibby: There’s so little we can control now. It’s these little rules. That’s all we have left to cling to, the little ropes. We’re swinging through the jungle, and it’s like, dinner before dessert, that’s it. That’s all I can say. It doesn’t matter how bad the dinner is.

Mary Beth: Order is everything at that age. No way. Got to stick to the plan.

Zibby: What you said about how if you don’t resolve something it just grows over time, it’s so true. I feel like actually that happens in a lot of marriages where things just go unsaid or unfixed. Then before you know it, it’s been years. You don’t even remember what the little thing was in the beginning. It just snowballs. It can happen with friendships and marriage and so many other things.

Mary Beth: Or you get used to skirting it, walking around it. It just becomes second nature. Then one day twenty years down the road you have to look at it and be like, wow, this thing has been sitting here for a really long time. It’s gotten awfully big. Now it’s even harder to deal after a long time. I think that happens a lot.

Zibby: I agree. It’s so true. Do you have a lot of cops in your family? I know you said you’ve done a lot of research on this book, or I read that you did a lot of research, but do you have a lot of cops in your family?

Mary Beth: I don’t. For an Irish family, we don’t have any cops. I don’t know why. We were mostly bartenders and construction workers. I have a lot of friends whose dad were cops or now whose brothers or spouses or sisters are cops, so I had access. I grew up in a town that was a lot of NYPD and a lot of FDNY. I was able to interview a lot of detectives who were active in the seventies and eighties and then people who are active now. I think the force is quite different than it was then, as something that was interesting. I did talk to a lot of cops. I think most of them are really interested in telling stories about the job. They see crazy things. I was not that interested in the crazy stories, which was confusing to some of them. They were interesting to an extent, but what I really wanted to know was how they felt or how their spouses felt even about being a cop in the first place. I don’t think that that’s something that a lot of personalities allow themselves to examine fully. I do think a lot of the people I talked to did think a lot about that. They weren’t used to maybe talking the way that I wanted to talk, but I wore them down and got them to talk. Some people, they were very delighted. Some, I mentioned in my acknowledgements. Some, I didn’t because they didn’t want to be mentioned, maybe because they weren’t sure what sort of book I was writing. Maybe they thought I was weird. I don’t know. I was lucky to be able to talk to a lot of people pretty frankly about what work was like.

Zibby: I loved the scene when a rookie cop has his first really bad night and has to call home. The wife is like, “Were you really scared?” There’s this long . He’s like, “No, no, no,” but you know he was and she knows he was. I could just see that happening so easily.

Mary Beth: It’s another thing that I think happens incrementally. I think there’s something about being a police officer where, at least in that era, that was the seventies when that happened, I don’t think they felt like they were — I think it was part of the job to say they weren’t afraid. Of course you were afraid. That’s what courage is. I think if you pretend to yourself for a period of years that you’re not afraid, that’s how this thing builds up inside. The force now, NYPD, has a problem with depression. I can’t remember how many suicides there were in 2019, but it was a lot, to the point where it’s now considered a crisis. I think they’ve gotten much better about that, about counseling and psychology for everyone. I think it still has a ways to go. In the seventies, I don’t think that existed pretty much at all.

Zibby: Tell me about your process writing this book. I understand it took you about four years to write. Tell me the whole thing. Where and when? How old were your kids? Paint me a picture.

Mary Beth: This book was awful to write, honestly. I have no advice when it comes to that. I don’t think writing one book teaches you how to write another. I love hearing writers answer this because I hope to learn something. I think because this book felt so personal to me, I just kept writing to where the energy was, if that makes sense. I saw this one character, Francis, early. I could see him on the beat maybe not that comfortable with being a cop in the first place, but it was this good job. It had benefits. It was respectable. Then he’s in it. What do you do then? You can’t really be something else. I saw his ambivalence. I saw how he looked. I saw the neighborhood. I write that for a couple months, and the things that happened. Then I saw Peter, who’s a different generation. I know he wasn’t Francis’s son. I saw all the things that he was doing. I didn’t know whether I was writing two books or what they had to do with one another. It was a total mess. I had people going off to Vietnam and coming back. Everything that could’ve happened, happened. Then I had to whittle it down to what was essential. It ended up being a puzzle piece. I had to cycle backwards and forwards.

In any case, it ended up, I just wrote a lot of different drafts and structured it a lot of different ways and then finally found this way which seemed to work the best. I didn’t have readers for a long time, partly because I didn’t know what this thing really was. I guess it would’ve helped to get readers earlier. On the other hand, they might have directed me to do something that I didn’t want to do yet since I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Anyway, it was mess. There’s no approach. I don’t outline. I love when people have these boards with string and index cards. It looks like they’re invading a foreign country or something. It seems so straightforward. I’ve tried to do that, but I can’t. The minute I know what’s going to happen next, it’s like all the prose just goes dead. It’s totally flat. I don’t know. I think I just am a messy writer, backwards and forwards.

Zibby: But that’s okay. You shouldn’t feel badly about that.

Mary Beth: I don’t want to take this much time. Also, my kids were little. My husband used to have a job where he commuted between New York and Chicago. Then the kids were little. They weren’t in full-time school. My youngest is in third grade now. I finished the book in 2017 or ’18. It takes a while. Then I try to grab time where I can. Sometimes getting childcare, I found, it wasn’t as helpful as just getting up in the middle of the night by myself on my own time. I don’t think that makes sense to a lot of people, but it makes sense, maybe, to writers. It sounds like it makes sense to you. You’re nodding. It’s a weird mind game.

Zibby: It’s so funny because right before you today I interviewed J. Courtney Sullivan who I realized blurbed your book. She just said the exact same thing, that she wrote her most recent book basically in the middle of the night. That was her time as a new mom and everything. I’m nodding because that’s not a rare thing at all.

Mary Beth: That’s good. I’m glad to hear that.

Zibby: Nor is it rare to not have it organized like that. I feel like it’s actually more rare to have it color coded and perfect before you write it.

Mary Beth: I guess those are the people who are always posting things about their organized boards and stuff. I wouldn’t dare show my desk because it would give people a migraine.

Zibby: That’s why there’s a misperception that that’s more frequent. It’s not. It’s just more frequently posted.

Mary Beth: Good point. Maybe. I don’t know. Good.

Zibby: Anyway, this was your third book. Do you now want to write any more books? You seem a little down on the whole thing.

Mary Beth: This is just me. This is just the way I am. I’m overwhelmed. I just mailed off a hundred pages to a reader friend of mine who’s also a writer. Maybe that’s why I’m in this weird mood. I’m a little bit anxious. I start having a novel start bubbling up a little bit before I’m done with my last one. Then you have to talk about the book that’s come out for a long time, so sometimes you can’t quite look at it. I’m in a good spot now. This is the silver lining of this strange time that we’re in right now. I feel like I can think about a new book a lot more than I would have if we weren’t stuck at home. I’d be on a paperback tour and doing press and stuff like that. The other weird thing is my second book is weirdly relevant to what’s going on now. It was about an asymptomatic character who we all know as Typhoid Mary, but she was a real person. I find myself thinking about her a lot too. But yeah, definitely. Hopefully, I have lots of more books in me. We’ll see.

Zibby: I didn’t read that book, Fever, but I was reading about it. I was thinking, wow, this could so easily be happening to somebody now. It could be anybody.

Mary Beth: Yeah, really. I have more sympathy for her. I had sympathy then, but even more so now. She never had any symptoms of Typhoid Fever at all. She was in her thirties, lived alone at that time. She supported herself. It was really unusual. To just be taken out of your life and isolated from society without ever having been arrested, there was no due process, imagine how frustrating that was. I sort of could imagine it then, but now I can really imagine it.

Zibby: Did you see the movie Richard Jewell that came out very recently?

Mary Beth: No.

Zibby: That might be worth watching while you’re in quarantine. It was about the Oklahoma City bomber. That basically is what happened to him without due process, suddenly removed from life and surrounded by the FBI. There was no court trial or anything. It had some similar themes to that. It was really well-done as a movie with Clint Eastwood directing or whatever. Anyway, just as an aside, not that you’re looking for movie recommendations from me, but just throwing it out there. I don’t want to ask you for advice for new authors. Is there anything else about Ask Again, Yes that I have missed that maybe you’d want to relay to people that I didn’t think to ask or anything?

Mary Beth: A lot of people have taken different things out of this book, which has been — I think the nicest experience, the nicest part of this has been people from other cultures and countries identifying with it. I did not see that coming at all. I thought this was my sort of private book. It felt very personal. I had to write it, so I might as well try to publish it since I’d spent all this time on it. Now I think it’s in twenty-one languages, which is lovely. The thing that really gets me are the letters from an editor in Macedonia or Israel to say, this could be my family. I was afraid that I was writing about people that no one else would care about or understand. That’s been really nice. I hope I don’t sound too — I’ve been stuck in my house for a month, so if I sound grumpy it’s only because of that. To people who want to write a novel and are thinking about it, this has been a great lesson to not try to write to the market or to what anybody else says is a good idea or not. Just write the thing that you have to write. If you do a good job, hopefully it’ll find an audience. You just can’t predict anything else except your own perseverance and your own commitment to your story.

Zibby: Also, this was in development perhaps as a limited? Is that still the case?

Mary Beth: Yeah, that has been really exciting. Fever is too. It’s been a little while. Elizabeth Moss optioned that. She’s been doing Handmaid’s Tale now for a while. This is two producers who optioned Ask Again, Yes. That’s the idea, limited series. It was only a couple of months ago now that everything came through. Hopefully, wheels will start turning pretty soon, I hope.

Zibby: That’s exciting.

Mary Beth: It will be very exciting.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on this podcast. I hope that we all get out of our homes soon. Thanks for talking about your great book and all the rest of it.

Mary Beth: Thank you, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: No problem. Bye.

Mary Beth Keane, ASK AGAIN, YES