Last Chance Saloon - Interviews
For best-selling novelist Marion Keyes, 34, her 11 years in London was a time of ups and downs that ended with a suicide attempt and recovery in a Dublin clinic. Marian now lives in Dublin with her husband. Here she talks about her first London job and her current passion for shoes.
What's your first memory of London?
Arriving very air early in the morning at Euston station. It was February 1986 and it was freezing. I remember feeling I was at the start of a big adventure.
Where's the worst place you've lived in the capital?
The first place I lived in was a squat in Hackney. My friend, Conor found it before I arrived. It was fabulous fun though a bit grim in retrospect. We had one arm chair and took turns to sit in it.
What was your first job here?
I waitressed at a place called the Video Cafe in Argyle Street which is no more. It was fabulous and awful at the same time. Most of the people who worked there were resting actors. They were beautiful and skinny with loads of attitude. I was wide-eyed and innocent so it was a very good introduction to London. The man who ran the cafe was very volatile - we all quaked whenever he walked in.
Do you shop at markets?
When I lived in Gospel Oak with my husband we'd go down to Camden most Sundays. They had all these fabulous mirrors that I used to covet, as well as gorgeous pottery and wonderful antique ecclesiastic furniture.
Which is your favourite food hall?
Fortnum and Mason's. It so English and charming. They have lovely hand-made chocolates and champagne truffles are delicious.
What are you most please to see when you return?
Russell and Bromley. The shoe shops in London are so amazing and there's nothing to compare in Ireland.
Where is good for a first date?
The Ivy is the most beautiful place. They're so nice to you.
Where do you eat out?
There were some good locals in Gospel Oak. I used to like the Fleet Tandoori. They stop giving me the menu eventually because I always ordered the same thing. The poor man who used to run the place made all sorts of specials and would be nearly in tears trying to persuade me to try them. I'd listen, say they sounded lovely and still ordered chicken tikka masala.
Which is your favourite hotel bar?
The one in the St George Hotel. The top floor has the most amazing view. It's a real revelation because you don't realise from outside that it's going to be so special.
What's the last tourist attraction you visited?
When I lived in London my sister came to stay and she made us go to Madam Tussaud's. Oh, the dreariness of it.
Where would you take newcomers to the city?
Maybe to Parliament Hill - there's such a great view from there - or Kensington High Street.
When did you last go to a museum?
Last spring I went to an exhibition of clothing through the ages at the V & A. They had loads of couture, fabulous suits and handbags. I really enjoyed it.
What's your favourite exhibit?
I love furniture modern stuff with lots of chrome and wood.
Which is your favourite tube station?
It's either Arnos Grove, Wood Green or Southgate. Their Thirties, they're deco, they have those wonderful round glass brick exteriors and they're really atmospheric.
What's the last conversation you had with the cabbie?
I was going to a restaurant. There was a doorman waiting outside and the cabbie said, quite seriously, 'Look, love, there's your boyfriend waiting for you, all dressed up.'
Who writes well on London?
Jane Green, Isabel Wolff, Martin Amis and the bloke who wrote the A-Z.
Where would you like to be bought a present from?
Space NK Apothecary. I love their Kiehl's and Aveda stuff.
Who will replace the Bridget Jones generation?
I've read a couple of pieces saying there isn't an upcoming generation in which men will far outnumber women. So it will be the male Bridget Jones-men who are lonely and have to try harder. Roll on the day is what I say.
How would you change London?
The only problem I have is with the size. It's too big. It would be lovely to introduced teletransporters.
Publication: Metro (UK) Journalist: Victoria Moore date: 11/11/1999
Queer cat among the pigeons
In Marian Keyes's new novel, the gay best friend has finally made it to Ireland, via American sitcoms and Bridget Jones, but true to the Irish, and to Keyes, this gay best friend has a lot more to say for himself than his two-dimensional heterosexualised predecessors.
A few chapters into the Last Chance Saloon, the latest novel about the lives and loves of a group of Irish thirtysomethings living in London from Marian Keyes, queer alarm bells start ringing. Somebody observes that the main gay character is losing weight. A couple of pages later he develops a bit of a cough. All the signals are there to suggest that even now, when the gay-equals-AIDS-clich? has been trotted out in every literary genre on the block, Ireland's premier post-Binchy popular fiction diva is about to light-heartedly canter down that very same road. But then it emerges that Fintan doesn't have AIDS after all, he has lymphatic cancer. The alarm bells get louder. Is Keyes going to kill off her gay hero and so let her heterosexual characters go on to live "normal", fulfilled lives, redeemed by the fact that they once knew a wonderful gay man who was taken away in the prime of his life - without the AIDS clich?? You know the way it goes - like is short, kill the Queer and let the Straights learn from it. For a long time it seems as if this is the case all tied up with a glossy pink bow, but then Keyes subverts the maxim once more, and provides a happy gay ending.
In fact, if you look beyond the bubblegum packaging and nice "n" easy prose, you'll find that Marian Keyes likes nothing more than to use her oeuvre for a spot of clich? destruction, and even though her gay characters may exhibit lots of established queer comedic little foibles, they come out as the most interesting homosexuals to grace the pages of popular fiction since the gay best friend became de rigueur. Yet, she doesn't forget who she is marketing to. The Last Chance Saloon, like its predecessors, is primarily written for a 20 to 30-something female audience, and the protagonists here are the usual messed-up women who must grow in the story arc and learn to love themselves. That some of them do so, and also become characters who are not defined by the men in their lives, is a testament to what Marian Keyes is trying to do with the genre. Nowhere else in the proliferation of titles that have followed the Bridget Jones phenomenon you will find a female character who ends up happy to be single on the final page.
Likewise, Fintan, her first gay character since the two-dimensional friend in Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, challenges the genre pre-conceptions.
"In a way he is the central character," says Keyes, "and he's the only one with a stable life", blasting two of the gay best friend rules immediately. Usually the queer body is used as a fuck-ed up mirror for the female lead, and he is always doomed to stay firmly in the background. Keyes isn't too enamoured with this "gay best friend" clich? either. "A lot of people my age have gay friends", she says, matter-of-factly. "It's no big deal. There are straight people and there are gay people and they are friends with each other."
Of course, central to the placing of Fintan as queer cat among the straight pigeons is his illness. There's nothing new in the way Keyes uses it as a pivotal learning process for her straight characters, but the book goes on to take the notion one step further and explore pre-conceived notions that are written in stone around gay men and serious illness.
"My primary purpose is to tell a story," Keyes enthuses, never losing sight of her audience, "but I did feel irritated with this prejudice around gay people and AIDS. If a gay man gets sick, people automatically assume it's AIDS. It's so short-sighted. Straight people get AIDS, and gay people get sick and it's AIDS. I did want to challenge that way of thinking, in a gentle way."
Gently it may be, but Keyes effectively rams her message home. Even Fintan's boy friend, who has recently lost a lover to AIDS, suffers under the assumption. Only Fintan, himself, dares to challenge the gay-equals-AIDS prejudice. Early on in the novel one of the female protagonists suggests that he might be positive. "Tara implies that Fintan has AIDS," Keyes takes the story up, "and he says to her 'have you? Have you had a test? Has your fella had a test?' that's the case. Even today, straight people might often think they are the immune."
Not your usual airport fiction fodder, then. While Keyes is at pains to point out her easy-reading tone, she's not one to shirk off when a challenging concept presents itself through her characters. "I always recognise that my readers are intelligent people, so I'm not going to feed them writing-by-numbers," she asserts, belying an agenda that goes beyond the purely marketable. Most of her readers certainly won't have been faced with the issues around AIDS and homophobia before, but they're guaranteed to lap it up and empathise in their droves. Perhaps that what called changing things from the inside out.
Publication: In Dublin Journalist: 10-11/1999