Anybody Out There - Interviews


Author of the Month Marian Keyes' new tragi-comic novel examines the tribulations of real life in all their light and shade.

THERE ARE ANY number of things for Marian Keyes to be happy about. There's the accidental career as a writer that led to her first book in 1995. Eleven years and 10 million sales later, the Dublin-based author is a publishing phenomenon, one of the most successful Irish authors of all time.

Yet the petite, attractive brunette with the lilting Irish accent has a dark as well as a light side. There's the effervescent Marian, who fizzes like a shaken bottle of champagne about her visit to Australia in March for her new book, Anybody Out There?

"Ooh, I can hardly wait," says Marian, sounding as if she's just won the lottery, "and do you know, I'm going to places I've never been to, such as Hobart and Noosa. Isn't that grand?"

There's Marian's adoration of her "yummy" nephews and nieces, and four godchildren - "my little angels", she calls them; her devotion to her beloved Irish national football team and the World Cup ("It's beaoooooti-ful, it's the best side of patriotism"); and her passion for shoes, clothes, shopping and Maltcsers, although the latter has given way lately to a new diet without sugar, wheat and dairy.

The flip side of Marian, despite a happy marriage and brilliant career, is fragile, riddled with self-doubt and fear.

"Sometimes I dream my husband, Tony, has left me and I have this terrible feeling of being alone," she confesses. "God almighty, he's not the kind to give me any worries. It's about me, not him. And I've been to see counsellors and they just say that 1 have this deep well of pain that tortures me from time to time." Like its creator, Anybodv Out There? has its themes of heartbreak, loneliness and depression, and lighter ones involving the funny, mad, disaster-prone Walsh clan. The book's heroine, Anna Walsh, is struggling with life - until around the same age that the author sorted herself out. "Anna was 29,1 was 30, so we grew up around the same age, although we had different kinds of wastelands," says Marian. "Mine was a shrinking life mired in alcoholism."

Both Anna and Marian love make-up. In real life, Marian writes a beauty column for Irish Tatler. Anna is a PR for cosmetic companies. "Make-up's fun, an opportunity to tinker with our identity," says Marian. "However, another part of me is sad about the amount of pressure that's put on women to look good.

"It's like Saint Augustine saying, 'Remove me from temptation, but not just yet.' "

Publication: Australia WW Journalist: Carol George Date: February 2006

The Tribune

MARIAN Keyes is a bestselling author of novels that tell bleak tales bound between brightly coloured covers. She says she is prone to bouts of despair and melancholy, yet her books are firmly stamped with a happy-everafter guarantee. She frankly admits to spending a sizeable proportion of her earnings on designer shoes and handbags, yet wishes she were the earthy type who could sell up, donate the proceeds to charity and muck through life with only a pair of Doc Marten boots and the shirt on her back.

As we sit side by side on the biggest and most comfortable lilac couch I have ever had the pleasure to rest upon in her large but cosy lilac house by the sea, I think it would be a great shame if she did sell up and swap her kitten heels for clumpy leather boots.

Keyes is great company. In fact, this interview about her forthcoming book, Further Under the Duvet, is getting in the way of our conversation about shopping and handbags. I want a look inside her wardrobe, but instead I have to make do with her paintings of shoes hanging on the walls and the home-made stiletto-shaped biscuits sent from a friend in the States.

Keyes says she is often depressed by the state of the nation, yet she is a fan of the reality television show Big Brother. I find it hard to square the two; surely watching this human zoo would send even the sunniest disposition into a black pit of despair. I suggest that Big Brother is nothing more than a money-making vehicle for television producers and a baying media who perpetuate the exploitation of these vulnerable souls for their own gains.

She's not buying it, but instead of sweeping my assessment aside she politely gives it some thought before saying frankly, "I despair a lot but I don't despair that much. I think that they are all adults and that they are all media savvy and they know what they are getting themselves into. I save my despair for other things. It's not high enough on my list of priorities to get really depressed about."

I suspect her enthusiasm for the programme is not entirely unconnected to the fact Big Brother's Little Brother hosted by Dermot Leary . . . a daily show devoted to discussion and commentary on the comings and goings inside the BB house. I wonder aloud about the future of Belfast girl Orlaith McAllister . . . she declared she intended to use her stint inside the house to launch a career as a glamour model . . . and I suggest that failure might be rather difficult for her to deal with after the months of public exposure.

"So many people have those ambitions anyway, but generally the people are products of a very celebrity-driven tabloid media, and I just think she might get what she wants. And if she does, well and good, and if she doesn't, loads of other people won't either, " she says brightly. "If I was to strip back how I feel to an intellectual basis I would agree with you. I don't engage with that side of it because I am too busy engaging with other things that I care about more. And if that makes me a very frivolous person then I am a very frivolous person.
However, I don't think that I am. This is just one area where I am prepared to switch my intelligence off and just be entertained."

Keyes is definitely not frivolous, despite the sugar-pink dust jackets and her mantle as Ireland's foremost 'chick-lit' author. Yet she often dismisses her own abilities despite her success. Each month she publishes a diary entry on her website. In one of her summer instalments she mentioned, in reference to her just-finished novel, Is There Anybody Out There? , that she "was actually even pleased with it".

She is often quoted as saying she has no interest in literary credentials. But as any of her readers will know she writes fantastic, thoughtprovoking page turners about 21st-century women. And if she or any sceptics require further evidence of her high standing in literary circles, surely the fact that she was the only female Irish author to be invited to last year's prestigious Haye Literary Festival is proof enough.

When I mention this she appears almost surprised that I would take an interest in her career to date and genuinely grateful that her work has been acknowledged.

"Oh my goodness, thank you so much, you really are very kind, " she gushes. "I was delighted to attend the Haye festival. I suppose my books are presented in the way they are because publishers have this idea that women want to be kept cosy, and often this irritates me because my books aren't cosy at all!

"I feel that I am a product of post-feminism in its worst manifestations. My generation were the first to live with the world after feminism, and we were being told that the war was won and the war was over. I remember being 18 and thinking I could do anything I wanted but then I went into the workplace and discovered that there was no such thing as equality. Women were being led into the worstpaid jobs because there wasn't adequate childcare. And still they were expected to keep house and home together, never mind getting their legs waxed and their nails done! At the same time there was a surge in the number of eating disorders, and women had developed a hugely conflicted attitude towards men.

The terrible shame associated with wanting a relationship with a man yet being made to feel mortified to admit it."

All of this is delivered at breakneck speed Irish Tatlermagazine. She is also a regular contributor to Cara, the in-flight magazine published by Aer Lingus. She says she works so hard now because she is trying to recoup the lost years spent as an alcoholic. "I suppose I have been trying to prove that I am a reliable person that can be counted on, that I am an upstanding member of society."

She says she is less prone to anxiety and worry as she was in the past and that she no longer sees the success of her peers as a failure on her own behalf.

"I used to get really annoyed when I read good reviews of an author who I didn't think was very good at all. Nowadays, I think fair play to them, especially if it's a man. I used to get so annoyed when I saw people like Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons getting lauded because I felt I was doing something quite similar. I mean, after all, they have been heralded and carried through the streets for being men writing about emotions! I don't get angry anymore because I'd rather not be yearning.

I love what I do and I am proud of what of I have written . . . naturally as soon as I say that I feel as though someone is about to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute, it's a bag of shite!'" This seems to be typical Marian Keyes:

acknowledge her own achievements to a degree but always remain on the self-critical side of modesty. At the same time, it isn't hard to imagine her throwing a fit after reading the book-review section in the Sunday papers. She is incredibly hardworking and ambitious but her success is never at the expense of her 'girl-next-door' image. Perhaps this approach keeps her four-inch Jimmy Choo heels firmly on the ground. Or maybe it's to keep all her Big Brother-watching fans on side. Either way, for someone with her talent and imagination, success is entirely justified.

Publication: The Tribune Date: February 2006

The Entertainer

Marian Keyes' latest novel deals with the difficult subject of bereavement but, in her own inimitable way, she once again finds humour in life's biggest tragedies.

While she's written some of the most entertaining Irish novels of the last decade, Anybody Out There  may just be Marian Keyes's best book to date. It's the story of Anna Walsh, a Dubliner in Manhattan, who is recovering from a personal tragedy that has left her with several broken bones and a battered face. Her husband Aidan won't reply to her calls and emails. And, employed by a notorious Dublin gangster, her outrageous private eye sister Helen has troubles of her own.

This is the fourth book by Keyes about the Walsh family, whom readers first encountered in her 1995 debut novel Watermelon. Having written about Claire, Rachel and Maggie Walsh, Keyes says "It was Anna's turn" Like the Walshes, Keyes comes from a family of five children. "Although the Walshes aren't individually like any of us, the atmosphere is the same. We're very close but we're very bickery and noisy." They know she's not about to reveal any family secrets, although her mother was initially suspicious. "When my first book came out, she thought I'd written an expose of the Keyes family and she was very annoyed! I had to convince her it was all fiction." Keyes has always written about serious subjects, drug addiction, depression, infertility. But there was always hope in her treatment of them. And, as we discover nearly halfway through the book, the tragedy that blights Anna's life - and look away now if you don't want to know - is irreversible. Because Aidan is never going to contact her. Because he died in the accident that left Anna seriously injured. "For a while, [my husband] Tony and I gave it the working title `He's Dead and He's Not Coming Back'," laughs Keyes. "I just knew I wanted to write about bereavement. I think it's because at this stage in my life, my parents are getting older and I've been thinking about their mortality and my own. But I didn't want to write about losing a parent, partly because I didn't want to destroy the dynamic of the Walsh family."

Despite the subject matter, the book isn't a tragedy - Anna's own story is leavened with humour and there are many more laughs in the fantastic emails received from her sister and mother detailing their encounters with organised crime. Keyes has always been able to seamlessly blend tragedy and comedy. "It is a balancing act," she says. "Because I don't want to dishonour truly moving scenes with a cheap laugh. I wouldn't be interested in a book that was just humour, or a book that hadn't any."

At first, Keyes found it hard to get that balance right in Anybody Out There? "Originally, it was just Anna's narrative but I knew the book wasn't right," she recalls. "It was really hard to write, I was really anxious throughout it. It wasn't balanced, it was too bleak. It needed something else." Keyes had finished writing Anna's story when, suddenly she thought of using Helen's private detective adventures for comic relief. She wrote the entire sub-plot narrative in one day. "It was the last piece in the jigsaw. And I really enjoyed writing it."

If she does get sick of writing, however, she has an alternative career planned. Recently, she's been making a lot of soup and jokes that she could start selling it from the bay window of her Dun Laoghaire sitting room. "I've it all planned," she says. "I'd sell the soup in lovely pink flasks." If her soups are nearly as good as her books, she could be onto a winner.

Anna Carey, Image Magazine

Publication: Image Journalist: Anna Carey Date: April 2006

Sunday Times

The subtle sisterhood
Following a consciousness-waking journey to Ethiopia, chick-lit queen Marian Keyes has a serious new message. And she’s not afraid to whisper it, discovers Brian Lavery

More than a decade after Marian Keyes quit her job in accounting to begin writing full-time, selling more than 15m books in the process, it seems the Irish chick-lit queen is changing her magic formula. The genre may be derided for its wholehearted embrace of the more trivial aspects of women’s lives, but Keyes now believes that her kind of popular fiction is the best way to communicate a new feminist message.

“I’ve become more politicised and less frightened,” she says. “I’ve always been left-of-centre, and very exercised on behalf of people who were oppressed and being done an injustice. It just never dawned on me that the biggest group of people who are dispossessed is women.
“I should have known, but my generation has been in denial because we were told — or I certainly was, at the age of 18 — that the war was won, the world is your oyster, you have nothing to worry about, it’ll all be lovely. And I swallowed it wholesale.”

The catalyst for her awakening was a trip to Ethiopia with the Irish aid agency Concern in 2002, where she saw women suffering more than anyone else. “That was the start of the flowering of a kind of consciousness that hadn’t been there before,” Keyes says.
On a personal level, the result has been dramatic. Her recent reading list includes work by feminist thinkers such as Susan Faludi, Germaine Greer and Ariel Levy. And on a professional level, that way of thinking has already made its way into Keyes’s work.

She described her approach to feminism last year in The F-Word, an essay in her collection Further Under the Duvet, and in her 2004 novel, The Other Side of the Story, about a literary agent who is blocked by the corporate glass ceiling. In her latest book, however, that message at first seems relegated to the back-burner.

“I am first and foremost an entertainer, and I think nothing can be sacrificed for that,” she says. “It could be counterproductive if I start getting a bit ranty, because people won’t read me then. So it has to be very subtly done. You’ve got to lure people in with the lighthearted story, and then, at the heart of it, have the very serious story.”

“You’ve got to go, ‘Shoes, shoes, shoes! Handbags, chocolate!’” she says, shouting, and then whispers: “Women’s rights.”

By putting the protagonist of her new book, Anybody Out There? in a New York public relations firm that specialises in cosmetics, Keyes tries to strike a balance between acknowledging the attraction of girly stuff and showing its dark side.

The book follows Anna Walsh, the younger daughter in a fictional Dublin family that Keyes has written about before, as she returns to her high-pressure career after suffering horrific injuries and the loss of her husband in an accident. Like Keyes’s earlier work, which tackled subjects such as addiction and depression, it is the story of a recovery.

But Keyes’s feminist stance seems at odds with how enthusiastically she delves into the detail of Anna’s job working for Candy Grrrl. Anna showers friends and family with free samples, her whispering campaign pitch for a new client becomes a big plot device, and ridiculous brand names, such as Multiple Orgasm lipstick, start to sound almost normal even when invoked by Anna’s mother.

“I’m very conflicted about it because I do also love the products,” Keyes says. “I know I’m programmed, and I wish that I didn’t love them, but I do. Like most women, I’m maddened with lust for the whole packaging, the look of it. So yeah, they probably will enjoy reading it, as I enjoyed writing about it. But I know that it’s wrong of me to love it that much.

“It doesn’t lead to permanent confidence, or any kind of growth as a person,” she says. “After I read The Beauty Myth (by Naomi Wolf), it was like, ‘No! Why did I read this? I didn’t want to know all this!’ But once you have the knowledge you can’t unknow it.”

So Keyes tries to be subtly subversive in her depiction of Anna’s cut-throat workplace, where women compete savagely with each other, bosses dole out cruel insults, and female employees’ primary job function is to look good. Staff at Candy Grrrl must embody the style of the brand they represent, even to the point of wearing pastel-coloured boiler suits and silly hats into the office.

As Keyes’s career has developed, she has taken to working harder, she says, and those office details came from her research on location in New York, where she interviewed employees of cosmetics companies – and found them like “robots”. “They were just so frightened of saying anything wrong,” she says.

“They just sang the company song and wouldn’t say anything bad. And that’s all I was interested in, because there are no good anecdotes in a perfect job.”

The research also took her into some of the more eccentric corners of Manhattan. To flesh out the detail of how Anna, psychologically distraught, tries to get in touch with the spirit of her dead husband, the author attended group meetings with amateur psychics. She went with an open-minded attitude, and was hopeful about what she would experience, but left quite cynical. “I went enough times for the hope finally to die,” she says. Most other fiction that Keyes had read about bereavements “talked about missing someone like the person had moved to New York. I think when a person dies it’s not so much that you’d miss them, more that the whole world is tilted.”

In many of those research situations the writer relied on a friend, Anne-Marie Scanlan, to help when interviewing subjects. Scanlan’s assistance proved crucial for Keyes’s next novel, which is about domestic violence and includes a character who works as a make-up artist for cross-dressing men.

“I’m too afraid of asking the things that I really want to know,” Keyes says. “When we were interviewing transvestites, I was dying to know loads: what kind of knickers they wear, and what they do with their bits and all. I just couldn’t ask it, I was just paralysed by politeness. Whereas Anne-Marie was straight in there.”

Even after 10 books, Keyes still writes on a laptop while tucked into bed, propped up by ergonomic pillows, as her husband works downstairs as her administrator and manager.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the enormous size of her novels. At 592 pages in hardback, Anybody Out There? is her shortest, and Keyes is at a loss to explain the length.
“I suppose it’s the Irish thing, of why use one word when 20 will do?” she says. “Obviously I have an idea of a template for a book, that it’s got to be 150,000 words long, and that if it’s not, I’m short-changing my readers. I felt really embarrassed that this is only 135,000 words.”

She certainly does feel a sense of responsibility to her fans, who flock to her frequent appearances, such as during her recent three-week tour of Australia. Those public readings and television slots force her to create an exterior persona, which is often linked to the bubbly personality that people associate with her characters.

“The difference between the public Marian and the private Marian is that the public one does feel the need to be entertaining,” she says. “I feel like I can’t let people down, that people come and they expect me to be funny because my books are funny. That if I was in one of my black days, that I have to fake it.

“I can’t be a whinger. I am subject to extreme bleakness at times, and very much in touch with despair. I always feel on the brink of toppling into the pit. And when I do topple, I can’t show that side, because people don’t want that, and that’s fair enough.”

And if that cheery facade contributes to her being labelled as the exemplar of women’s popular fiction, so be it. In fact, Keyes is happy to defend the genre that she helped create with her first novel, Watermelon, back in 1995 — the year before Helen Fielding published Bridget Jones’s Diary.
“I am a chick-lit writer,” says Keyes. “I think it’s actually a very important genre, because it’s about the conflicts and confusions of our post-feminist world, where we’re told we’re equal, but we know we’re not. After the first wave, an awful lot of crappy people who missed the point and thought it was about romance and pinkness came along. I have no problem with romance and pinkness, so long as it’s balanced with something worthwhile.”

Publication: Sunday Times Journalist:Brian Lavery Date: April 2006