Watermelon - Interviews


Braveheart

One January morning last year, Marian Keyes woke up half-drunk as usual, and decided that she could no longer face the world. She gathered whatever tablets she could find, washed them down with booze, and waited for oblivion. As she lay there she felt "floaty and euphoric" and wondered hazily about the waste: "I was still finding it hard to believe that: 'This is me and this is my life and look at how I've ended up.'"

She was 30.

By January of this year she was sober, had landed a three-book publishing deal and was engaged to be married. The first of the three novels, Watermelon, has just come out. It has a jolly pink cover, a breezy blurb, and - after a bit of negotiating with the publishers - a 'happy' ending. "I like happy endings. I used to be a bit cynical about them; I thought they were very soppy. But I'm a bit of a sucker for them now."

Keyes says that she's not remotely like Claire, the heroine of Watermelon, whom she describes as a "quite bolshie, optimistic, sprightly kind of woman who's hard to suppress."

She's more cautious and inclined to worry. Therefore, it takes an effort to believe in her own happy ending. "What I do, rather than wake up and think it's all going to go horribly wrong, is I wake up filled with gratitude, and almost disbelief at how wonderful it is. And that is another way of making sure that I never get too complacent about any of it."

"I was doing something that wasn't fulfilling me and I was too scared to find out what I should have been doing."

Keyes is a surprising package. I'm not sure what alcoholics are supposed to look like, but I think I was expecting something altogether harder and heftier. But Keyes is a winsome little thing that you'd whoosh back in the front-door for fear of her getting her death of cold. She's sometimes told that she looks like Vivien Leigh, which isn't surprising: she has a thick head of jet-black hair tumbling down her back; big green eyes (made bigger by clever make-up); red lips, and the faintest dusting of freckles on a pretty face. No, she doesn't seem ravaged by drink.

She says she doesn't have any theories about alcoholism. "From what I can see, it can happen to anyone, anywhere, any time, from any background. I think the important thing really is to stop focusing on reasons, and to start focusing on solutions. With me I still don't have the reasons. And quite frankly I'm not even interested in the reasons any longer."

As she describes it, hers was a normal childhood. (As if in evidence, her very normal-looking and welcoming Mammy sends in tea and cake on the best china.) Keyes is the eldest of five. Her father, Ted, worked in a local government and the family moved around the country, settling in Monkstown when she was 12. She says she was always a worrier; sleeping in her school uniform in case she'd be late for school; leaving basins of water in the bathroom in readiness for the fire that she expected to start during the night. She was just seven then. She jokes about this in her publicity material, but she must have been an intense little girl.

At 14, she did usual things for a Dublin teenager: fighting with her parents about getting out to discos in the local rugby clubs; hanging around the shopping centre; drinking for the first time. She didn't think twice about it and it didn't seem to affect her except to give her a great confidence boost. She worked at school, got good grades and ended up doing law at UCD in 1980.She had little interest in law; she was in college for the social life. She managed a 2.2. degree with minimum work ("I'm sad that I didn't get a better degree").

Sick of studying and having no money, she put off training to be a solicitor and took an administrative job in the Eastern Health Board. After 18 months, she decided to move to London. "The fact that nobody belonged in London made me certain that I had as good a chance as anybody else. I had such a huge inferiority complex about absolutely everything."

London in the spring of 1986 was supposed to be the land of opportunity. And for many it was.She began waitressing. Then the restaurant needed someone to do accounts and she got the job and lots more money. Two jobs later, she arrived in the position she's had for the last seven years, in the accounts department of an architectural college. She reckons she's lucky.

For the first few years, she had great fun in London. It was on with the micro-mini and party, party, party. "It was only really when I started to approach 30, I think, that I found I was aware of the gaping holes in my life. I mean, my job was going nowhere and people younger than me were getting married and having stable, steady lives and I was still living the life of a single girl and partying a lot. I was too old for it, really, and I was still doing it because I was terrified of the alternative: turning into the grey-haired old spinster living in the bedsit with the one-bar heater and the 40 cats. And I felt like they were my options."

Up to then, drink had been her "constant companion" and the fuel for her high-energy social life. She's not sure when it changed. "Suddenly, I found that I preferred drinking on my own, because I could get drunker. It was very insidious. It was there, sneaking up on me the whole time. And one morning I woke up and I found I wanted a drink. And I didn't slap a hand to my forehead and say: 'Oh, I'm an alcoholic'. But it happened another morning. And it happened again."

So she had a glass of wine in the morning before going to work. (Wine was her drink, but she'd take anything if she was stuck.) And then she drank herself into a coma in the evenings. Sometimes she didn't even get to work: she just stayed home. Didn't eat, didn't wash, didn't care: just drank.She didn't dream of specific things - like a man, or children, or a career - just contentment. "I would be kind of dreaming of better times, when things would be better, that's what it was. I used to dream of a happy future."

"I wanted peace of mind and I wanted not to be lonely."

She got anti-depressants from her doctor but because she was drinking they were useless. As 1993 progressed, so did her decline. Everybody knew she had a problem. Everybody was telling her to stop. For a while, she thought that if she was an alcoholic then that was fine, she could go on drinking: it was beyond her control. But that didn't wash with anybody. So she drank in secret and lied about it.She got through Christmas at home in Dublin and then went to New York to see her sister. "I was in despair. I thought; 'I'm never going to be able to stop'. And it was horrible because I really suffered terrible, savage depression - completely alcohol related. I wanted to be on my own and I wanted to be in bed and I wanted to sleep. When I went to New York I was OK for a couple of days, and then I went off the rails."

Back in London, things came to a head when she realised that nothing was going to change in 1994. "I suppose it was kind of a New Year thing, that I thought: 'I'll try to be good now and I'll try and get a grip on it this year.' A new start and stuff. And then I didn't. I went and I got drunk again. It was a culmination of good intentions and not being able to follow them through. It was so lonely; it was so horrible; it was just a hell."

She had often had suicidal thoughts, or a desire not to be there any more. "But not in any kind of: 'I will take these steps and I will ensure that it happens.' Suicide very often seemed like a very enticing thing. And the desire to do something about it was there that day."

She left a note, just that 'I can't bear it any more. Something like that. 'Sorry.'"

The night before, she'd been out with a friend. Her friend realised she was in a bad way and called round to her flat in the morning to see how she was. She found Keyes half-conscious and called an ambulance. In the busy emergency ward they gave her a charcoal mixture to mop up the toxins from the tablets and a psychiatrist was supposed to come around. But, in the meantime, she discharged herself and went back to the flat. The next day, her friends put her on a flight to Dublin.

Whatever they'd suspected, it was a huge shock for her parents. "They were horrified, God love them. Oh, they were very upset. And they were in no way equipped to deal with me and my condition."

They got her into the Rutland Centre for some tough treatment. Family and friends told her what a bitch she was when she was drinking: "How selfish I was, how manipulative I was, how immature I was."They told her awful things she didn't remember doing. She knew she had to change.

Oddly, she says now that she doesn't miss drink that much. If she could get through that humiliation and pain without an anaesthetic, well then, there was hope for the future. In the end, the Rutland became a refuge. She came out, feeling fragile as a new-born. Six weeks later again she was back in London, facing into her job, determined to make amends.

In the midst of the depression the previous autumn, Keyes had started writing. Shortly after her return to London, in May of last year, she sent her short stories to Poolbeg Press. Within a week, Kate Cruise O'Brien had written back saying she'd love to see the novel Keyes had mentioned in the covering letter. Since no novel existed Keyes got cracking and pumped out the first 12,000 words of Watermelon in a week. She got a deal.

So she was back working, had a wonderful unexpected chance to write, and she was staying sober. That was more than she could wish for. All this, and romance too? That was a bonus.

Tony Baines had been a close friend for years. He was one of those she turned to when she returned to London and, as usual, he was a brick. (As he's being today: sitting listening to the interview; bringing us tea and coffee - twice; taking her phone calls...).

In August, he went on holiday and she missed him far more than she expected. She describes their reunion with a storyteller's zest.

“The day he came back, he came to see me and he was collecting me after work and I was standing on steps outside my work and it was late August and summer was on the way out. And it had been raining and it had just stopped. Very still, and the ground was still wet and there was the smell of the trees and the leaves and it was lovely and I saw him walking across the square and he smiled, like from miles away, and..."

Ping?

"It did pretty much and I was in the horrors. I thought: 'God no, I've fallen in love with him.'"He was coming out of another relationship and wanted to be with Keyes. She was reluctant.

"I thought: 'No, this isn't going to work. I've got to concentrate on my sobriety. And I'm only four months out of the laughing house.' And I kept saying: 'We must put a stop now to this nonsense', and 'Sorry, and all that. But he wouldn't take no for an answer, sure you wouldn't?"

Baines chips in: "At times, you tried to provoke the odd row, and you tried to end it, but I wouldn't.""Well, you told me that you just realised that you had to be patient, and you were patient"

"It was just one of those things were it felt like the rightest thing. It was just so natural and I've never been so sure of anything."

Last October she stopped fighting it, . "I just thought: 'I love him. Feck it.'" At Christmas, they announced their engagement. It'll be a big church affair in Monkstown after Christmas.

She's working on her second novel, Lucy Sullivan's Getting Married. It's about "a 26-year-old woman who suffers from depression."

It's darker than Watermelon, but still written to be funny and accessible. She's been pleased with the reaction to Watermelon, particularly the way people tell her it's "like sitting down with a good friend in the kitchen and having a great auld chat."

But she's learned from her first outing and she says the second book will be tighter and she's rewriting more. That's no harm: Watermelon is written with great verve - you can practically taste Keyes's excitement at writing a book - but it needs pruning.

She writes for two hours every morning before work and edits in the evening. She's staying in her job for now. Baines works "in computers". If the writing takes off they'll be looking for a house in Clare. And in five years time she'd like to be writing full-time. Having said that, she tries not to think about the future. She goes to self help meetings a few times a week and believes in the motto: One day at a time.

She believes that the self help meetings keeps her sober: not so much by making her stay away from alcohol, but by giving a support through life's inevitable hassles. And does she think she'd slip without them?

"I do, I'm not saying that I know for sure. I just know from empirical evidence that people who stop working on their sobriety start drinking again."

As an afterthought, I wonder why she went public about her drinking: nobody need ever have known. It never occurred to her to hide her past. Indeed, she has a sense of mission: "I feel that my story is a real story of hope and I know there are people still out thee who are suffering, who are drinking, hating it. And I feel very proud of myself and I feel very, very grateful and I don't feel that there's anything to be ashamed of, or to be secretive about. And my story, thank God, had a happy ending."

Publication: Sunday Independent (Ireland) Journalist: Patricia Deevy Photographer: Leon Farrell Date: 24/09/1995