Lucy Sullivan Getting Married - Interviews
Love and pain and dangerous liaisons
Marian Keyes had recovered from alcoholism to write two novels that have been number one bestsellers in Ireland. Last autumn, Reed won a frenzied auction to buy both her novels, along with a further two, for £425,000.
"I read a short story in a magazine one afternoon in September 1993, and out of the blue I got an urge to write myself. I think its quirkiness was what sparked me off. Over the next few months I wrote about four more. This was at the worst time of my drinking; the stories were a way of clinging on to sanity."
"I decided to do something about writing in April 1994, when I came back to London after being in a treatment centre. So I gathered up the short stories and sent them to Poolbeg Press in Ireland. I was a bit cheeky and said I'd also written 15,000 words of a novel. Of course, I had no intention of writing a novel - my attention span was far too short."
"Kate Cruise O'Brien wrote back and said that she loved them, but couldn't do anything with short stories by an unknown - but could I send the novel? I thought, 'OH MY GOD'."
"But I recognised an opportunity. Within a week I wrote the first four chapters of Watermelon. The words flew out of me - it was as if it had already been written in some locked room in my head."
"It was published in Ireland in September 1994 and went straight to number one. Then it was picked for the W H Smith Fresh Talent award, the first book from an Irish house to be chosen, and that was just mind-blowing."
"Through Erica James, one of the other Fresh Talent authors, I met her agent Jonathan Lloyd. He felt I could do a lot better with a big UK house. It was a tremendously difficult, upsetting decision to make to leave Poolbeg, but we came to a lovely agreement, where I signed for five more books (following the initial three-book contract) with them, and they freed me for the rest of the world."
"In September, Lucy Sullivan came out in Ireland, went straight to number one and stayed there for nine weeks. Then the whole song and dance began, with publishers offering money that was beyond my wildest dreams. It was deeply frightening. In the end it was just Random House and Reed. We went to see both houses, and they were both so enthusiastic and full of ideas about the books. But I went with Reed. I suppose I was a little overwhelmed by the size of Random House."
"Lucy Sullivan is damaged, because she has an alcoholic father, and has learned how men behave from him. An awful lot of women seem to be drawn to dangerous men. I was a perfect case in point. It wasn't until I got sober that I was comfortable with a reliable man, who phoned me when he said he would, and who was interested in making my life happy (Keyes married in December 1995)."
"I know that a lot of readers will pick up on the frothy, light-hearted side of Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, and there were times when I laughed out loud myself - I know that sounds really show-offy. But I want there to be more to my books than romance. I want there to be pain, and real issues to be faced."
"I tried to walk a fine line between humour and telling quite a grim story. Because there is always humour. I've learned that myself."
Publication: Bookseller (UK) Date: 24/01/1997
Writing herself out of alcoholism
A few days after her second novel was published, Marian Keyes got a phone call from her sister. A friend at work had read the book, she said, she hadn't liked it as much as her first.
Watermelon, Keyes's first, had been no exception. Yet it walked out of the shops. In typical self-deprecating style 34-year-old Keyes, sparky, witty and 5'3" in her 3" heels, puts it down to the cover.
Something enough Irish women identified with to sell 35,000 copies. Then it was picked up by W.H. Smith for their New Talent promotion and sold another 65,000 in the UK.
Even after these incredible sales, with the exigencies of paperback publishing, Watermelon earned Keyes less than her job as an accounts secretary in London. Never mind. She could carry on writing at work, two hours a day, from 8 a.m. till the office opened for business at 10 a.m. And number two should be easy.
So the first four chapters ("present tense, breathless, exuberant") winged their way to her editor at Poolbeg, Kate Cruise O'Brien. Who sent them back.
So Keyes did what she had done many times before and took to her bed.
The "something darker" was a life-time of depression and half a lifetime of alcoholism. Now she is a "recovering alcoholic."
But it was not enough. The low self-esteem that had crippled Marian Keyes all her life led in January 1994 to an overdose. Her parents stopped in and she returned to Dublin and six weeks at a treatment centre for alcoholism.
Giving up was not easy. Keyes was in denial and could not accept she was an alcoholic.
The treatment consisted of people from Keyes's life, in a public setting, telling her exactly what she'd been like when drinking and drunk.
Back in London she wrote Watermelon after sending the short stories written when she was still on the booze to Poolbeg. Her motive then, as now, was to make people laugh. To entertain and not to patronise.
And Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married does not do that. It is perceptive, intelligent, truthful and very funny. Five days after publication it shot to the top of the Irish bestseller list, fully justifying Cruise O'Brien's decision ("I am forever in her debt") to "delve".
"I felt my way through it very gingerly. I thought it might be interesting to explore the life of a young woman living a supposedly joyous single life in London, carrying this massive baggage with her of acute depression."
Marian Keyes has experienced bouts of clinical depression since she was a child.
Keyes's heroine is not an alcoholic herself but she suffers from the lack of self-esteem brought on by what is known as co-dependency: her father is an alcoholic.
And for those who know that pain only too well, it's good to know there are such things as happy endings.
No longer. Last summer Marian Keyes got married. Next week she and her tall, English husband, Tony are off to Australia for a combined holiday and promotional tour. Then it's nesting time, in Ireland. A house. A family. And happily ever after.
"I wanted to go out into the road and wait for a truck to run over me. I felt absolutely naked, that my shame was going to be known to the nation of Ireland. I thought, they've caught up with me, they've run me to ground and I knew it would happen. It was that feeling of 'I'm a fraud and now they all know'."
"It was bright pink and the blurb was very kind of tongue-in-cheek and funny. You could tell it was going to be a laugh. The story was very simplistic really. Your man dumps you, you feel dreadful, you recover, he comes back and you don't want him anymore."
"I thought I'd write a light-hearted series of Irish Jilly Cooper-esque novels."
"She said: 'No. Try something darker. Delve. Go back into yourself. Pull out stuff that you're frightened off. Start again.' I was in despair. 'It's over. I'm mortified. I knew all along I was a fraud and it's just been proved to me.'"
"I haven't had a drink in three years" and writing has been part of the cure."
"In September 1993 I read a short story in a magazine that had won a prize and literally thought 'I could do that.' I was out of control. I didn't want people to see how bad my drinking had become. So I isolated myself so that it was me alone with my alcohol. And I wrote this short story. It was kind of an epiphany almost. I thought 'God, I can do this and it's wonderful.' In the next three months I wrote four more."
"I was very very angry. It was like the end of a love affair. My alcohol had been my lover, my confidante, my support, my closest companion. Then it turned on me. It destroyed an awful lot of my life. But I was so angry letting go of it. I couldn't image my life without it."
"It was excruciating for me. But tough love. In the could light of sobriety, away from the drink, away from the anaesthetic, I saw my life stretching back over the years and how I'd made other people's lives a misery. But there was another side. They were in tears saying 'you're clever, you're perceptive, you're witty and you're kind when you're not being a drunken, selfish cow.' And I took that and I was deeply touched."
"I hate Aga sagas. I think it's perfectly possible to be a mass market writer and still write books that do not insult people's intelligence."
"I used to feel these feelings - of acute desolation. Utter screaming despair. And the awful pressure when you feel the sky is two inches about your head. When the world is shrouded in a grey mist and you're walking with these heavy limbs through this awful landscape, this grey wasteland of a world."
"At 11 I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate this bleakness that I felt and of course I was desperately ashamed of it. And I knew nobody else around me felt like that. Other children, being ordinary. And I couldn't tell anybody how I felt. It has recurred at various stages of my life. And it would occur again, even though I'm not drinking, even though my self-esteem has changed."
"It was very painful to write. I was really talking about myself. Myself and other alcoholics I've met. (Neither of her parents drinks). It was me in a man form. His behaviour, his selfishness, his helplessness, his manipulative behaviour, his self-obsession was lifted entirely from my past, my behaviour."
"I don't subscribe to the thing about alcoholism fuelling great writing, but the feelings that drive people to alcoholism are also the feelings that drive people to write, the feelings of alienation, the sensitivity, that perception. It's painful to be that way but as a writer it's invaluable."
"For years relationships were a disaster. I was so broken I was incapable of having an adult relationship and compounded things by going after the wrong types, building in failure into the relationships before they even started, always choosing men who didn't treat me well, who reinforced my own feelings of self-loathing. I was in such pain the whole time."
Publication: Irish Times (Ireland) Journalist: Penelope Dening Photographer: Pat Langan Date: 23/03/1997