21 Questions

‘Books are not a duty’: 21 Questions with Marian Keyes

The Irish wit and beloved author of Again, Rachel on the books that made her, having forks and knives flung at her at her day job, meeting Ali Smith, and why tea drinkers are just a bit… slow

There are few authors as universally beloved as Marian Keyes – but then few write as well, for as broad an audience, as her. In her works, primarily fiction, she balances a literary knack for emotional nuance and character interiority while making even the very personal feel refreshingly universal; it’s one of many reasons why, in 2022, she was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards following the release of Again, Rachel, the unexpected sequel to Keyes’ heart-wrenching 1998 classic, Rachel’s Holiday.

To celebrate the book’s release, we spoke with Marian about why she felt compelled to return to Rachel, what she’s been reading lately, her biggest fears, and the superpower she wished she had.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

That's a really hard one. I mean, it's impossible to pick one. There’s an Irish writer called Doireann Ní Ghríofa – she wrote a book called A Ghost in the Throat, which is about a poem, a really long, kind of epic Irish poem about a relationship between a man and a woman. It was written in Irish and that whole book – the book plus the poem, ‘Eibhlín Dubh’s lament’ – together is just incredible. It’s like a book within a book or a poem within a book. She's just this incredible woman, just really alive, and young, still in her thirties. She’s just incredibly guileless, and earthy and just somebody who's properly alive. She fell in love with this poem, which is so powerful; it's based on true events that happened in West Cork, at least 200 years ago. There's not much in Irish history that survived in Irish, rather than English, so it's like she was translating the poem from the original language to English so that it could be passed down to the likes of me, because I'm not fluent in Irish. It was just such a noble thing to do.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

That’s easy: It was The Twins at St. Clare’s. It's by Enid Blyton, and it changed my world. I was about six, and it saved me. I've often said that reading was my first addiction. I found life incredibly hard as a child; I never knew where I belonged, I always felt wrong, like I was standing, kind of watching other people for cues. I found other people exhausting. But I could go into a book, and I would just disappear, it would take me away from the uncomfortableness of being me and this world where I didn't understand the rules. I know what they say about Enid Blyton – ‘Oh, she’s a racist’ – but she was a product of her time, as we all are. At the time, it really helped me.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Jesus, probably Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell. I mean, it's tragically predictable, I know. But you know, you’re a teenager, you’re learning about injustice for the first time. And it’s still a great book. It’s like [teenage mind-blown voice] ‘Oh my god!’ It politicizes young people, which is great. It opens minds; it opened mine. I think I probably carried Ulysses around, but I never read it. I still haven’t.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. It's nonfiction, and I read it in the late ’Nineties, early 2000s. I knew nothing about feminism, but both being brought up in Ireland and the age I was – the second wave of feminism was over – we were just told, you know, ‘be beautiful, be skinny.’ Creating  myself in a way to meet, you know, the kind of the imaginary male gaze was something that I spent so much time and money on. She’s gotten into trouble in recent times, but that was such a well-intentioned book. I had to really entirely recalibrate my relationship with skincare, and hair dye, with the fact that women spend X percent of their salary on beauty that men don't; it was it was very, very, very educational. And it has stayed with me. I've made more peace with myself, knowing what I know now, because of it.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I was a strawberry picker. I lived in Dublin, myself and my boyfriend and some other people. We went to a county in Ireland called Wexford, which is famous for its strawberries, and we were hired to pick them. But the strawberry fields backed on to a factory that made cutlery – you know, knives and forks and stuff – and the locals didn’t like that we were there, so they welcomed us to the area by flinging the misshapen knives and forks over the walls. You know, like, ‘Oh, you city slickers down here, thinking you're so much better than us.’ So we lasted about three days. It was all a bit Deliverance.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

I mean, it's very, very dull stuff. Just keep at it; just keep at it. People think writing is a kind of mystic art. It isn't; nobody's book will get written if they don't sit down and write it. There is no magic formula; sit down and write it. Do it at the same time every day, if you can. Be prepared to cut things out of your life. To make time to do it. I think people think that the book is already written somewhere else in the universe, and then the magic channel opens up and you have eight days typing like a lunatic in your room while someone slides food under the door. It’s humdrum, day after day, quotidian stuff. I take a long time to write a book, and that's why. It's a job. Just do it.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

'People think writing is a kind of mystic art. It isn't; sit down and write it!'

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It's an absolute masterpiece. It's about an American missionary who goes with his wife and four daughters to pester some poor misfortunates in the Belgian Congo, I think in the Seventies, maybe late Sixties. The four daughters tell their stories, and every one of them is so different, their voices are unique. As a writer it’s a very interesting exercise in seeing how the voice has to be so careful. You can't just kind of give a generic voice to all your characters. It’s also a really fantastic political book.

It's a real epic. One of the girls, this clueless American girl – well, they're all clueless American girls – she falls in love with one of the rebels. It’s a great story from that point of view, but it’s also the way it's constructed: four different voices, four different experiences, four different versions of the same thing. I recommend it a lot, so I have to go on shows and talk about it, so I always have an excuse to reread it.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I don't feel guilty about anything when it comes to books. Books are there to be enjoyed. I have no problem with reading 50 pages of a book then flinging it at the wall and saying, ‘Take this rubbish away from me.’ Books are not a duty. There's no such thing as a guilty pleasure in a book. If you’re having sex with a sheep, that's a guilty pleasure – you should feel guilty about that pleasure. But books, if it's not making you happy, don't bother.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

Dead. Quite sincerely. Probably, yeah. My life is kind of divided into two: before I got sober and after I got sober. When I was 30, I stopped drinking and went to rehab. And just before I went to rehab, I started writing short stories in this desperate attempt to save myself. But if I weren’t to have died… I mean, I was training to be an accountant. Maybe I'd be an accountant, or maybe be a nail technician. I like working with coloured paint.

What makes you happiest?

My husband and my family, watching telly in the evening. I mean, this is tragic, but at 6:30 every evening, in Ireland, we have our dinner and then – if we're not doing stuff – we lie on the couch and we watch shows about people being murdered in cold places. I love Swedish murders, Danish, Icelandic ones. If there's snow and dead people and a dysfunctional cop, I could not be more delighted.

Also, I have a big family with brothers and sisters and kids and everything, and often on a Sunday, we meet up and I like when there's lots and lots and lots of us together. I like noise, I like chaos, I like people talking over each other. I like grabbing the child as they run past and squeezing them and then letting them go. That really, really, really makes me happy.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

This is going to sound weird but: championing other writers?

(Is that surprising?)

I met Ali Smith, and she knew who I was. I find that very hard to believe. She's Ali Smith!

Well, back in the days when I was a drinker, I was very spiritually unwell. I felt that other people's good fortune meant that there was less for me, it felt like the world was like a zero sum game, and if somebody got happiness, it meant there was less happiness for me. And it took me a while to shake that, even after I got sober, even after I got published and everything was so lovely. I'm so grateful that I didn't stay that way. You know, there was a time that I would have been really threatened by younger writers than me, who wrote the kind of book that I would want to write.

And now I think fuck it – it's fabulous, people should know, I have a platform, I'm going to tell them. It's the biggest surprise to me, I think. Maybe the biggest surprise to other people is that I love driving. I didn't learn until I was 36, and I still think, every time, ‘Jesus, I’m fantastic!’

What is your ideal writing scenario?

To have a lovely idea; to have a great plot, and some characters that come ready-formed. I can just kind of start sit down and start, knowing a lot of what's ahead of me. Writing fiction for me is like, you build your own road, you know, as you walk. It's not an easy process. So I would love a great plot.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I met Ali Smith a couple of weeks ago, at The Bath Festival. Now to me, she's a goddess, an absolute utter goddess. You know, she has an intellect the size of a planet. I met her, and she knew who I was, and I found that mind blowing. Then I met her again today, and she was so warm and lovely, and we're going to be swapping details so we can message each other! I find that very hard to believe. She has no reason to be nice! She doesn't have to be nice! She's Ali Smith!

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I wouldn't have anyone over for dinner really, because it makes me too anxious having to cook for people. But okay, Sue Townsend. She was so, so funny. She's dead now, but she was very political in a way that you kind of wouldn't see commonly. She did it in such a fabulous way, and she was such a warm, lovely woman. Such great fun, wrote such great books. My editor was her editor. We’d have to Deliveroo it; probably pizzas with coleslaw. Have you tried it? Don’t slag it off ’til you’ve tried it!

What’s your biggest fear?

Bats! It’s the whole vampire thing. But I’m afraid of everything: dogs; abandonment; the usual. But bats, their scary little malevolent faces. And they fly!

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

'I shower myself because I know I have to as a member of a civilised society, but I do it reluctantly and with great rancour'

It would be something po-faced, like introducing socialism across the world. Making sure people are okay. Social democracy, because the enormous inequality between the rich and the poor in our world, which is getting worse and worse and worse, is crippling. It's agonising to me. I’d nationalise everything. I would. Social democracy across the world: let everybody have enough to eat, somewhere to live, some nice things. You know, people don't need to have 14 jets and to own a chain of hotels. They really don't!

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

I was recently sent a book called Really Good, Actually by a young Canadian author named Monica Heisey, about a millennial who is so incredibly funny about herself, what she wants from life, and her relationships, but she feels incredibly dislocated from herself because she’s only 28 and she’s getting divorced, and finding the divorce hard. But she [Heisey] is just so honest about shameful feelings, about bad behaviour, about families and friendships, and even though I'm so much older, I identified hugely; it made me feel seen and made me feel forgiven. The story ends in a hopeful place, but not in a saccharine way. It shows that we change, you know, that we can be terrible, and we can outgrow us. There's redemption in it.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

No, because I hate baths. I hate water, I hate wetness in any way. I shower myself because I know I have to as a member of a civilised society, but I do it reluctantly and with great rancour. I don't like swimming; I don't like sea swimming. I'm kind of jealous and resentful of all those sea swimmers.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Oh Jesus, coffee. I despise tea drinkers – I'm really sorry. I've said this before and I've got into trouble: tea drinkers are just a little bit slower than coffee drinkers. It's awful to say it – it’s bias, blatant bias.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Okay, just because it meant something to me at the time: it’s a book called Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch, an Australian writer, and I read it like 35 years ago. I swear to God, it's just the funniest thing. It was a long time after that that I came to try and write, but the voice stayed with me; I knew that that was the kind of thing I wanted to write. It’s set in New York. She lives in New York and works the door at a club, but gets sacked when she refuses Jackie O entry – she doesn't recognise her because she's got the wrong clothes on. It's just very, very, very, very funny. It's about being poor, and glamorous, and striving, and young.

What inspired you to write your book?

I missed the characters. The character Rachel – 25 years ago, she got clean in rehab, and I thought, nobody really writes books about addiction long-term. You know, in addiction movies or stories, you either die or you get clean, the end. But how do you navigate it 10 years on, 20 years on? That was the real impetus: I wanted to check in and see how she was, and how her relationship was doing.


Again, Rachel is out now.
Image at top by Victoria Ibbetson

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