Sushi For Beginners


The name of the prose

Four million copes of her five novels have already been sold in 35 countries and Marian Keyes has three years to go before she is 40. Bess Twiston-Davies finds the author who once swore she would never return to Dublin living happier than ever within the Pale.

Marian Keyes has been called the Irish Helen Fielding. Like the British creator of London's most famous spinster, Keyes's humorous and well-written romances about single girls and disastrous men are best-sellers. One was turned into a TV series last year.

Sweden has just voted her first novel, Watermelon, best paperback of the year. In New Zealand, her new book, Sushi for Beginners, now only available in hardback, is number one in the best-seller lists. In Britain and Ireland, over 140,000 copies have been eagerly devoured by her fans.

Keyes heroines are single girls mired down by dead-end jobs, struggles with weight and hangovers. But they inhabit a darker universe than the Londonite bubble of Bridget Jones, a Chiaroscuro tableau where glitzy fashionistas and trendy restaurants blend in with drug addiction, alcoholism and Aids.

Sushi for Beginners is a witty fable set in the offices of a Dublin Magazine shaken up by a sophisticated editor from London succinctly described "as shiny and hard as an M&M." The accuracy I can testify to - she was terrifyingly similar to my former boss, a magazine editor.

The focus however, is not the editor Lisa, but her deputy Ashling, who is mousy, ultra-organised, and depressed. She has a stand-up comedian for a boyfriend.

Ashling befriends a young homeless man who later finds himself involved in a fashion-shoot for the magazine before acquiring a job in the media.

The trigger was the homeless men who lived near Keyes's former flat near St Stephen's Green in central Dublin.

We meet in the living room of her Dun Laoghaire home, shared with her English husband Tony. Marian is smaller and prettier than the publicity shots in the back of her books. She has delicate features and a fine complexion framed by a ruffled brown fringe and watery eyes. She's also a little older (37) than I expected, deceived by her young girlish voice on the telephone.

Today she wears a long dark skirt, high-heeled ankle boots and a matching purple jersey cardigan. Keyes is heartily sick of her books being interpreted solely within the context of her well-documented recovery from alcoholism

"It's the most covered aspect of me," she says, while refusing to reveal the details of her drinking. "I sometimes feel frustrated because it is only a part of me. I was on a television programme in Belfast last night with three other authors and the TV host starts with me...'Right then, so, you and drink!' I am embarrassed because it has been covered so exhaustively that I feel readers would feel 'Oh, here we go AGAIN!"

Seven years ago, Marian sought help with her drinking and she is still attending a self-help group.

Rachel's Holiday, a cleverly written story of an Irish girl with a drug problem, is "usually assumed to be autobiographical though Rachel's a lot feistier than I am. But it meant that I could write with integrity about the whole process of addiction, denial, acceptance and rehabilitation. It's very honest and it seems to have struck a chord."

According to Rachel, at the start of the book, her only problem is everyone else.

"Her perspective is very warped but it is something she's clinging onto, because the whole point about any addiction is that the addict will do anything to protect it," explains Keyes. "The denial is always bigger than the problem. The whole process of addiction is constantly normalising the abnormal. So it seems fine. Of course, you would take cocaine before going to work. How else would you work?"

Rather than Rachel, Keyes relates to Lucy, in Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, a blockbuster spun from the unlikely premise of a fortune-teller predicting that single Lucy will wed within the year.

But feistier characters like the bitchy mag editor appeal to Keyes "because I spend my life in dread of giving offence, of hurting somebody. I just loved the way she just didn't give a shite. I was very interested in how it would be to be that unconcerned about other people, their feelings or their reactions to you. It's very interesting writing about people because I can explore what it is like to be different to me."

Speaking of which, Keyes mentions Catherine in Last Chance Saloon, her penultimate book. "She's a snappy well-dressed accountant control freak. In a parallel universe I would be her. I loved her organised approach to everything, the way everything was so compartmentalised and controlled because I feel very chaotic really."

But when I take one of the biscuits offered on a plate with our tea, Keyes scuttled off to the kitchen quickly to get me a plate.

It's a minor miracle she's writing at all. Her career as a writer suffered a grave setback after she was turned down for a post-graduate journalism course in 1986.

Instead, Keyes moved to London and worked as an accounts clerk, and started to qualify as an accountant.

For nine years she slaved away at accounting, until one afternoon reading a short story in a magazine prompted her to write her first story, about an angel who descends to earth.

Four stories later, she progressed to a novel, Watermelon, about how a married woman recovers from her husband leaving her, just after the birth of their child.

Three and a half years ago Keyes returned to Dublin, despite once swearing she'd never return.

Although her work tends to be pigeon-holed in the Bridget Jones's Diary bracket, Keyes had published two novels before Fielding's comic masterpiece came out.

Sushi for Beginners gained adulatory reviews in British broadsheets.

Uniquely for a writer of fiction that's big on shopping, Keyes has ethical doubts about purchasing designer clothes. "I know about designer clothes but I don't buy them myself. I think it's immoral, though obviously it's an individual choice, I have one Prada hand-bag and the guilt of that nearly killed me!"

She confesses she has "an overdeveloped social conscience" and is definitely "left of centre".

Keyes frequently reiterates the face that she is "very happy," and exudes a dreamy feminine serenity, but you can sense that reaching contentment has not been easy. Her former desire, however, to abandon comedy in favour of writing a "very serious, grim dark tome" has evaporated.

The eldest of five, Keyes was an "an anxious worrier," as a small girl, when her father, a local Government employee moved the family around Ireland from Cork City to Cavan and then Galway before they settled in Dublin.

As a result Keyes "always felt like an outsider. I still do. It is a feeling that I have never lost. It was not pleasant then but it is something that I really value now, as a writer. I've come to terms with it."

She was passionate from childhood about English writers:

Keyes writes from half-seven in the morning until half-three in the afternoon on her laptop in bed.

"I suppose I could try sitting at a desk," she says rather doubtfully "but it's not something that makes me happy. I've written all my books, since I gave up work, in bed. I know that probably makes me sound really lazy, but I like the idea of the cocoon."

At present, she is crafting novel number six, which focuses on one of the sisters who appear in Watermelon and Rachel's Holiday.

Both books are currently under option with British film companies who have purchased the right to consider making them into films. At present Keyes is cautious.

Ideally, would she have any ides for casting?

She had no say on the adaptation of her book Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, which was shown on ITV last year.

I felt it was presented as a shallow girly drama, that bypassed the novel's treatment of depression and alcoholism. "It's hard for me to comment because I am so intimately involved with the book but I felt that they jettisoned some things that I would have kept. It's a tough call because most writers are very territorial about their own creations but I didn't have the time or inclination to start butchering my own book with another medium. I don't think I would have had the talent. The whole visual thing. I don't think I'm good at it."

"I get asked to write sit-coms, plays and adaptations but I am just happy writing novels, perhaps because they are mine alone." Keyes has contributed a chapter to a collaborative thriller entitled Yeats is Dead edited by the writer Joseph O'Connor which is published by Random House in March. Profits go to Amnesty International.

"Figures in Ireland show that only 20-30 per cent of homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts which leaves 70-80 per cent of people who don't. I found out that most of the homeless people were disadvantaged from the word Go.

Many were brought up in foster homes or in orphanages so that they never had any kind of stability in their lives."

"It wasn't so much that my life began to disintegrate, but my emotional state deteriorated. I was very depressed, paranoid, lonely, and felt trapped. That kind of hellishness in my head is what I don't want to go back to. I was incredibly lucky."

"A lot of the other heroines are a lot feistier than I am. I liked Lucy's rueful melancholy. That is very me. When I wrote about her depression I was able to write to honestly about it because that is how I have felt."

"I made the shortlist but I didn't get a place. I was so upset that I just completely closed the door on that part of me."

"London seemed such a lively buzzy place compared to Ireland. At the time everything Irish seemed like a poor imitation of British things. I loved London's anonymity because you could be free to be whoever you wanted to be. You were unfettered by the expectations of others. It was a place of infinite possibility."

"I never thought I'd write a novel because I just couldn't bear the waiting for it to be finished. But once I started Watermelon I couldn't stop. It was the easiest book by far to write because it felt like it was already written. I remember typing and not being able to keep up with the speed of the ideas that were coming. Most writing comes from the subconscious rather than the conscious, so on some level I was storing things up through my twenties and it was all ready to come out."

"For so long I just couldn't imagine it - ever. But I changed and Ireland changed. We met each other half-way. Dublin's brilliant because it has changed but not too much. It's still very small, it's a million people, but it does feel like its only 13 and they do the rest with mirrors. I always bump into people when I go into town. I find that immensely charming now, but that's what drove me out of here in 1986, that goldfish bowl feeling."

"When I started writing Watermelon there were no books that were humorous and about women that I identified with. But I feel like I have moved on now."

"Now I don't feel like that at all. For a long time I had an uneasy relationship with what I wrote, but now I am really proud of what I write, of my voice."

"The books I loved were all by English upper-class people. It was amazing the grip that Enid Blyton had on my imagination. I know she's been derided now as being racist and class-ist but my God I loved her books. Then I progressed from her to PG Wodehouse and Jilly Cooper. I also love Flann O'Brien and Maeve Binchy."

"Only about one in 20 books that are optioned become films"

"I probably wouldn't get any say, but Dervla Kirwan would be fabulous for Rachel. She's edgy and beautiful."

"15 people have written a chapter each including Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt, Conor MacPherson, Pauline McGlyn and Joe O'Connor."

Publication: The Independent (UK) Journalist: Bess Twiston-Davies Photographer: Tom Burke Date: 20/01/2001

Thoroughly Modern Marian

You have become one of Ireland's biggest young popular authors, second only to Maeve Binchy. How did you manage that?

Gosh, I haven't a clue! That sounds disingenuous but I don't. When I started writing, I was writing only for myself, for my own entertainment, and that is all I have ever done. I do not worry about readers, and will they like changes in style, changes in voice, but I think if you try and second-guess what people will want it starts to become contrived or dishonest in some way.

When you write your novels you are not looking at a particular readership. Did you plan when you wrote your first or even your subsequent novels?

No, it was always for me. When I came to write Watermelon, which is a very straightforward love story, the voice was quite subversive in a way, because I was talking about families that weren't as functional as they might be, and that was very risky for me because I was wondering, would anyone identify with this? But it resonated with me, and I had to go with that. Maybe it won't always work. I have people coming up to me saying: "Watermelon was my favourite book, why are the rest of them so dark?" But I don't want to write straightforward drama.

You have a track record of tackling quite difficult issues in your novels, such as depression and homelessness in your recent release, Sushi for Beginners. You seem to use comedy as a way of discussing those issues.

Absolutely. I think it is a very symbiotic relationship, comedy and darkness, and in my own life, comedy has got me through. I have a very dark sense of humour, but a very light side too. I come from a very funny family - My mother is hilarious and my sisters are very funny. Comedy is a survival mechanism for me, but I think too much laughter can become cloying. The best comedy comes through in darkness or in human emotions that are not always palatable. When I was writing Rachel's Holiday, which was a very difficult book to write, the comedy kept me going. I was able to keep writing it. I would write a really painful chapter or painful scene and then I'd be able to follow it with levity of some sort. It actually propelled me forward.

It is a cathartic experience for you?

It has always been a part of my life. My granny, my mother's mother, was hilarious. She was a very simple country woman, but incredibly bright and sparky and hilariously observant. She came from Clare. That is where my mother was from and where I have spent a lot of time. We used to spend all of our summer holidays there. I grew up in Cork until I was eight, and then moved to Cavan until I was eight, and then moved to Cavan and then to Galway, and then to Dublin when I was 11. My dad was in local government and kept getting promoted. Some people handle that sort of thing very well but I didn't, and since then I have always felt like an outsider. Even now, when I am a lot more at peace with myself, I still don't really know where home is. It's great, as a writer, to feel like that, because it gives you that distance, that perspective.

Are you writing from experience?

I am writing from experience. It is common knowledge that I am a recovering alcoholic, so I have come through the mill. When I write about depression or addiction I know what I am talking about. I am also on a bit of a mission to open up subjects like that. There is a terrible stigma attached to them, particularly in Ireland and particularly with women. If you broke your leg, you wouldn't be ashamed of it, and you wouldn't struggle on. There is a terrible feeling that with depression you must pull yourself together. Depression is an illness and if people have it they have it. I would like there to be more compassion and more understanding and more openness, although I don't want to bludgeon people over the head by making my point. You have to be very careful when you are writing fiction not to go on polemic rants. It has got to be subtle, it's got to be within context, and it's got to be appropriate.

In Sushi for Beginners, when the character of Lisa Edward comes to Ireland form London, she hates it. It's a cold, wet place where nothing is done on time. Is that what you found?

I lived in England for 11 years, so when I moved back, I found that when people invited me around for dinner at half-eight, I'd arrive at twenty to nine and they'd still be in the shower. It was a real shock, but I loved it too. I like the way people talk here, which I'd forgotten, because in England people convey information in very efficient ways. But I love the way Irish people talk in convoluted, back to front, round about sentences. I find it immensely charming. We are rich with words.

What made you go to England?

It was 1986, Ireland was in a deep depression, I had a law degree but couldn't get apprenticed, so I went to England, but my law degree was no use to me there either. So, I ended up working as a waitress. I love it. It was a really cool job, a really cool place, full of out of work actresses, and unusual people like jazz musicians and people of all nationalities. I worked there for about six months, when it was taken over, but I had decided at that time to become 'respectable' anyway. I had worked in accounts in Dublin, so I got a job doing accounts again, until I started writing.

When did you start?

Seven years ago. I started writing short stories, and then in May 1994 I started writing Watermelon, which was published in September 1995. Mercifully, the reaction was incredible. It has been above and beyond my wildest dreams. Miles beyond them. I still can't believe it. I often think, is this me? I think, what have I done to deserve this good fortune, and people being so kind to me? I am still in the gratitude mode.

You don't put that down to the fact that you are an extremely good writer?

All that I can say is that I work very hard, and it matters to me that I get it right, but at the same time, lots of people are hard workers and good writers. It's a team thing -people were kind enough to publish it, people were kind enough to see the books. It's never down to must one person, it is a huge dynamic.

You also came in at the right time, with the boom in Irish women's writing.

At the time I had not idea that the whole Irish psyche was on the verge of clicking into place in a way. There is a huge confidence in Ireland, especially with women. God forgive me for saying this, but apart from the wonderful Maeve. We are blessed to have her. Suddenly, however, there are a lot of us and we have something to say and we are confident in the way we say it. I think we have come of age as a nation, and in particular the women of Ireland have suddenly found their voice and found their voice and found their feet.

Are there really people like Lisa Edwards out there?

When I lived in London I knew more people like that than in Ireland. I don't think you can get away with that sort of thing in Ireland. People are not forgiving of that sort of naked ambition, you've got to pull back a bit in Ireland and pretend you don't care. It is coming from some kind of woundedness; I mean it isn't healthy. For a woman you have to work so much harder. There are glass ceilings. It is harder.

Do you plan a book before you start it?

No, I start with one character. The main character in Sushi for Beginners was always Ashling. The magazine milieu came about because a friend of mine. So Ashling was the first character, and because I hadn't written about really tough women, I wanted to write about someone who is terrifying, so Lisa came about. And then with Clodagh, I just thought, what would it be like to live a charmed life, not to be tormented with angst? Clodagh is just so utterly devoid of angst. The characters are the starting point, although having said that I did have some scenes from my research that I thought "these have to be used." But the characters are first, and if I put them in a scene which doesn't work it has to go.

What is your writing day like?

I write in bed. I start very early, about half-seven. I don't do anything else, I go straight into it because I am easily distracted. I think I have discovered that the best writing comes from the subconscious, so if you start when you are half asleep, you are still in there. You are still accessing that part. I write until about half-three and then I stop and deal with admin and other things that need to be done. I'm not good with disruption.

Does your husband work?

He doesn't, he works with me, doing the peripheral work. That was never part of the plan, because when we moved from England he was the one with the great job. He was a computer analyst. Then when we moved here my books started being bought in foreign countries, and so the idea was that he would tidy up my affairs and then get a "proper" job. But it has never worked that way. We work in the same house but in different rooms. He is very good, and I imagine that a lot of men would have trouble with not being the head honcho, the main breadwinner. He is very egoless about the whole thing. My husband is English, but he was instrumental in moving us back to Ireland. He finds it charming in the way I do. Touch wood.

Are you as superstitious as Ashling?

Not nearly as bad as that, but I don't take anything for granted!

Publication: Irish Farmer's Monthly Date: January 2001

Keyes to success

On the face of it, you'd be forgiven for thinking Irish author Marian Keyes writes mere out-and-out girlie fiction. OK, so its pretty girlie stuff, but pick up one of her novels and you'll find there's a lot more beef to her 'chick lit' bestsellers than you'd expect.

Rachel's Holiday dealt realistically with themes of addiction and denial and, despite being set in the glamorous world of magazines, Keyes fifth novel, Sushi for Beginners, tackles depression and homelessness.

As a reformed alcoholic, she's writing from personal experience. There's no doubt that having been there and done that adds fuel to her writing fire.

The "hottest female author in Britain" shared with me the very modest secret of her not-so-modest success.

"It's about three women. Lisa, the editor of a glam UK magazine, is sent to Dublin to set up a new Irish women's mag. She hoped to go to New York so she's furious. Her marriage to the beautiful Oliver has broken up because of her ambition and she's lonely and - worse still - badly dressed in Dublin.

Ashling, is a much gentler soul, with a homeless man living in her doorway and a needy stand-up comedian boyfriend. She's Lisa's assistant and is thrilled to be working on the magazine. Clodagh, the third woman, is Ashling's oldest friend. She's the type of person you'd look at and think, "lucky cow": good-looking, a handsome, devoted, well-paid husband and two gorgeous children. But she's bored out of her mind. There are lots of laughs, plenty of romance and some poignant moments.

How did you start writing?
"I read a short story in a magazine which had won some short of prize and it suddenly occurred to me that I might be able to do something similar. I sent some short stories to a publisher, with a covering letter saying I'd written part of a novel, in the hope they'd take me seriously. They wrote back and said sent the novel. I wrote the first four chapters of Watermelon in a week and sent them off. Now comes the divine intervention bit. That weekend my mother went to Knock, a holy Catholic place in the West of Ireland, and lit candles and said lots of rosaries in the hope that I'd get published. So you see, it's all down to her, really."

Has your success surprised you?
"Completely. I was very honest when I wrote Watermelon and was quite worried that anyone who read the book would think I was a total nutter, but so many people have told me they've taken comfort from the book. I've sold about three million books to date and my brain short-circuits when I think about it.

Tell us about Sushi for Beginners
"It's about three women. Lisa, the editor of a glam UK magazine, is sent to Dublin to set up a new Irish women's mag. She hoped to go to New York so she's furious. Her marriage to the beautiful Oliver has broken up because of her ambition and she's lonely and - worse still - badly dressed in Dublin.

You've had you own share of troubles. Is writing about other peoples' problems a form of therapy?
"I've certainly had my dark times, but I think it's more a case of write what you know. Three years ago I moved to live in the centre of Dublin and got to know some of the homeless in the area. The main reason I write about afflictions is because I'm a comedy writer.

What horrors did your researches into the magazine industry reveal?
"No horrors, just the fact that people work very hard and get a lot less freebies than I'd imagined! Proof reading was a bit nerve-wracking because I was told a story of a magazine which printed a recipe for Christmas cake which should have said ? lb of butter but went to press saying 12 lb of butter and the magazine ended up paying tens of thousands in compensation."

What's your latest project?
"A new novel about one of the sisters from the family in Watermelon and Rachel's Holiday. This time it's the turn of the good sister, Maggie, who transpires not to be so good, after all. She leaves her husband and goes to Los Angeles to stay with her friend Emily. I'm not that far into it, but I'm having a lot of fun with it."

Publication: The Mirror (UK) Journalist: Andrea Henry Photographer: Katz Date: 27/11/2000