Marian Keyes: a life in books

'I would rather never be published again than write a downbeat ending'

Three years ago, Marian Keyes believed she would never write again. Always prone to bouts of depression – "on the spectrum of people, there's happy at one end and Beckett at the other and I'm down at the Beckett end" – she was plunged into something she describes as "catastrophic". She felt frightened all the time. She couldn't formulate sentences; her brain felt as if it had slowed right down. She spent time in a psychiatric hospital, and took every known variant, combination and dose of anti-depressant. Nothing worked.

"I don't want to sound self-pitying, but I felt the old me had been washed away, as if there had been an avalanche, and I'd come to and found myself in a totally different landscape, so I didn't know where anything was. I just felt the old me was gone forever," she says in the first interview she's given since it struck. She can pinpoint the moment when it happened: in September 2009 she had just done an eight-day residential self-help therapy course intended, she says, to "deal with your demons", involving early starts, late nights and a giving-birth-to-yourself process.

"I thought it would be a good thing to do, because of my habitual self-loathing and the kind of unpleasantness I put myself through with my own thoughts. I thought I might find some peace from it," says Keyes. On a freezing cold day in her turquoise-painted house on a hill snaking up out of Dun Laoghaire, she's as funny and warm in person as in her books. It's just that she's talking about a rather darker side of life than might be expected for a bestselling author often dubbed the queen of chick lit.

In her 20s Keyes was an alcoholic and, after trying to kill herself at the age of 30, ended up in rehab (she now divides her life into before and after drinking). The recent depression was worse. After the course, she had about a week "of feeling really kind of elated, and then the elation began to move into shimmering, strange, manic anxiety, and then into a catastrophic fear … People looked different to me; people close to me, like Tony [her husband]. I used to have moments of thinking 'I don't know who you are'. It was horrific, like a psychotic episode that went on for a long time. Whatever they did to me in that place, it brought me face to face with my worst fears."

She tried everything, from reiki to cognitive behavioural therapy to "vitamin supplements up the wazoo", and even going to mass with her mother. "That's how bad I was. I abhor Catholicism, but I was that desperate." In the end, it was the passage of time, plus the discovery of a new hobby/obsession, baking (which led to a book of recipes) plus the slow, painful emergence of the novel that would become The Mystery of Mercy Close, which pulled her out of the pit.

Helen Walsh, Keyes's heroine in the book, is self-reliant, mean, no-nonsense, and very funny. She employs a shovel list, "of all the people and things I hate so much that I want to hit them in the face with a shovel". She's a private detective, on the trail of a missing boy band member who needs to be found before his comeback gig in less than a week. She's also seriously depressed. During the course of the novel, she makes two suicide attempts, one written with Keyes's trademark black humour, as Helen climbs off Dun Laoghaire pier, pockets laden with cans of strawberries, only to be spotted by a bunch of dog walkers. The second is much more serious, and is drawn directly from Keyes's own experience: Helen buys a Stanley knife and makes an elaborate plan – a note in English and Polish to be stuck on the hotel room door, reading "Stop! Please don't come in. I have killed myself. You will be traumatised" – only to be talked down by her therapist.

"For a long time all I could do was read what I'd written," Keyes says. "Even when I couldn't write I'd read what I'd written and think 'how did those words come when I was feeling so bad?' It was very comforting, very encouraging … I really never thought I'd finish it, but it kept me going."

It's not the first time writing has saved her. Having studied law at university, Keyes ended up working in an accounts office in London. She started writing only in "the final few appalling dreadful months", before she gave up drinking. She began with short stories, funny, whimsical things, with no intention of showing them to anyone. "I think it was an attempt to save myself, even though I had no idea consciously what was going on, because I was heading towards some sort of terrible life-or-death choice." When she came out of rehab, she decided to try to make something of the stories. She sent them to the Irish publisher Poolbeg, adding – falsely – that she had also started work on a novel, which they asked to see.

"For the first time in my life I stepped up to a challenge. I had no idea what I was going to write. The start of Watermelon is very dramatic, I go straight into the action." The novel, told in the first person, is the story of Claire Walsh (Helen's eldest sibling; Keyes has written novels about all five of the Walsh sisters). Abandoned by her husband just after she's given birth to their first child, Claire returns home from London to Ireland and to the loving embrace of her rather eccentric family. Poolbeg gave Keyes a three-book contract.

"My confidence was so fragile that if she'd said feck off, I would have retreated into the shame of 'Jesus, who did I think I was, believing I could write a book'." She didn't think anyone outside Ireland would be interested in her stories, though, particularly when she realised that she was writing in an Irish accent. "It was very much my voice, and I thought will people outside Ireland even understand it? I thought it would be mocked for being parochial and boggery and unglamorous. I'd no idea people were perceiving it as Irish and charming, because I thought Irish meant shite, not as good as, less than."

None of her subsequent novels has come as quickly as Watermelon, and she rewrites and rewrites until she's happy. "It has been peaks and troughs and ups and downs, and sometimes it's been lovely and sometimes it's been like getting blood out of a stone, and actually constructing sentences is next to impossible," she says. "I feel like I've no way to talk about creativity because I'm not Salman Rushdie or a literary writer. When you're a mass-market writer, people think that you can just decide 'this happens, this happens, this happens', whereas with literary writers it's coming from their soul and their core. But with me it does come from my soul and my core, and my soul and my core often go awol, and then I've nothing to write."

Today, she has 11 novels to her name, and sales of millions around the world. If you haven't read her books, it'd be easy to dismiss them as frothy chick lit: after all, that's how they're packaged. Plus they're extremely funny, and always have a happy ending. But they all deal with difficult issues: Rachel's Holiday traces a drug addict's recovery in rehab; This Charming Man is about domestic violence; Anybody Out There bereavement; The Mystery of Mercy Close is a frighteningly real, humorous look at depression.

Keyes used to be outraged by the way her novels were lumped in with chick lit; these days, she feels much more pragmatic about it. "I used to feel misunderstood. There was one journalist, I remember her name, who described Rachel's Holiday as forgettable froth, and it's not," she says. "It's quite brutal. I thought it was a serious book. A comic book, but it was still a book about addiction and recovery."

The journalist, along with people who say "lay" instead of "lie", Ireland's abortion laws – an issue over which Keyes has marched – and the Catholic church are all on Keyes's own shovel list today, but she's no longer fussed about the genre thing. "There are so many bigger injustices than my little whingy thing of 'but I'm not really a pink writer, I'm not really a sparkly butterflies girl.' I've very much made my peace with it." She also believes the pink, sparkly side of life isn't to be rejected: on her website she lists her hobbies as "reading, movies, shoes, handbags and feminism". "I think it's quite OK to say you're a feminist who loves pink," she says. "Men can be men and still get excited about other men kicking a ball around and they're never mocked, whereas it's easy for women to take mocking on board, to be belittled. Because we're used to it. But I'm saying we can be all we are, we can like shoes and cake and complain about women's rights."

And there's no way she's giving up on happy endings, or comedy. "Jesus, life is hard enough. I mean, I need to have a laugh," she says. "I used to feel defensive when people would say 'yes, but your books have happy endings', as if that made them worthless, or unrealistic. Some people do get happy endings, even if it's only for a while. I would rather never be published again than write a downbeat ending. I couldn't have something permanent in the world like a book with something that accepted that life is as painful as it really is."

As for her own happy ending, Keyes seems, if not happy, at least content. "As I get older the stars have gone from my eyes more, and I see that life is just something that has to be lived with, that it's better not to struggle," she says. "I have had to lower my expectations and embrace the shiteyness, to embrace the fact that as a human being I'm nearly always going to be in a state of incompleteness or yearning or pain of some sort, or fear, because that's what human beings are … Joy is so fleeting – God, I sound such a misery guts – but for me it's not about chasing happiness or chasing joy, but to say, when it does happen, 'oh that's lovely'. To appreciate it, rather than to expect it."


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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