Looking at the Bright Side

Marian Keyes answers the phone with a cheery attitude and a lyrical Irish accent and informs me that she’s in her pajamas, ready for a party that starts in one hour. Keyes, the bestselling author of comic (yet often poignant) women’s fiction such as Sushi for Beginners and Last Chance Saloon, is in New York City at a promotional event for her collection of essays, Under the Duvet. In a nod to Keyes’ peculiar writing style–she does most of her writing in bed, the laptop propped on a pillow–her publisher is hosting a pajama party open to members of the press and book editors. Keyes will be interviewed throughout the day, and in her free time she’ll mingle with party-goers. Pajamas are optional. The sunny, good-natured Keyes is game and seems to be looking forward to the event.

Yet Keyes’ life hasn’t always been bestsellers and quirky launch parties. In fact, she didn’t even start writing until age 30, at a terrible time in her life when she was battling alcoholism and contemplating suicide in London. After an attempt to kill herself and a stay in a Dublin rehab clinic, Keyes sent a few of the short stories she’d penned off to a publishing house. “I felt as old as the planet,” she recalls. “I felt there was nothing hopeful in my life at all, and I think it was that crisis that made me realize I’d like to write stories. Out of that terrible misery, something lovely came.”

That “something lovely” was her first book, Watermelon. Hoping to seem more marketable, Keyes fibbed in the cover letter she’d sent with her short stories, saying that she’d also written part of a novel. The publisher, Poolbeg Press, called her bluff, and expressed interest in the novel–which she then completed in nine months.

Since then, Keyes has written six more novels; her latest–just out this past April–is titled The Other Side of the Story, and it follows three women whose lives intertwine. Here, Keyes talks about crafting her characters, completing a novel and becoming a writer.

Do you ever base a character on yourself?
Of all the characters I’ve created, the one in Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married is almost identical to me. But no matter how dissimilar any character is to me, at some stage they’ve been channeled through me. So they’re always going to take on something of mine, even though it’s probably unconscious and unplanned. All my characters are slightly bleeding-heart liberals like me, even when they don’t articulate it. I have to like my characters before I can write about them with kindness. And if they’re expressing political views that are at odds with mine, it means I don’t have that sympathy.

Have you ever used the same character in a subsequent book?
I feel that when I get to the end of a book, the character or characters have gone through what they need to go through, and now they’ve arrived at a place where they’re able to take care of themselves. If I revived the same character in a subsequent book, it would mean that I’d been lying to the reader; that the character hadn’t been OK when we left her.

I’ve written a series of books about the Walsh family, which includes five sisters. One of them is in Watermelon, one is in Rachel’s Holiday and one is in Angels. The book that I’m just about to start writing is about the fourth sister. None of them are sequels, and you don’t have to read them in any particular order, but they do share several characteristics. And I have to say, it’s always a real pleasure to revisit them. I suppose I’m indulging myself by going back to see how the sisters are doing and meeting the other sisters I haven’t written about. I’m also meeting the parents, whom I adore.

How do you start a new book?
I’m always terrified before I start writing a book. It’s the feeling that this is the book where the ideas run out, where it just doesn’t happen. So I have this terrible anticipation feeling at the moment.

My next book is set in New York, and because I don’t live there and the book is about things I haven’t experienced, I had to do a fair amount of research. I knew where I was going for maybe the first 10,000 words.

That’s what I’m going to do; I’m going to write those words and get to know my main character in that time. And then, hopefully, she’ll lead the story after that point, or she’ll indicate where it’s appropriate for her to go.

I never do a synopsis in advance; I never do a planned narrative. I think that’s because I explore emotional landscapes. For me, the development of the characters is more important than the actual sequence of events. Luckily, it’s all worked out OK so far. The important thing for me is to get to know my character extremely well. After that, it does get easier.

Every writer works differently. I know some writers who know exactly what happens from start to finish in a very short space of time and are able to write a very quick draft. Then they’ll spend a long time polishing and filling out characters.

But I don’t like to work like that. I would rather not know what happens next or how it ends. I think it keeps it more interesting for me. And I think if I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end, then hopefully the readers won’t know either. If, as a writer, you know what’s going to happen and you want to hold back the information from the reader, it’s still hard not to let little things slip here and there in terms of attitudes.

How has your writing evolved from book to book?
When I wrote my first book, I hadn’t a clue. I’d never been to a writing group, and I hadn’t read any books on writing. But I’d read a lot of novels.

So I felt I had some idea of how a narrative arc should be shaped, but I just wrote and totally indulged myself. I didn’t edit anything, and I went down all kinds of side roads and tangents, and I had a blast.

But that wasn’t entirely appropriate. With each subsequent book, I learned a lot about the craft of writing, about tidying things up and reducing the number of words it takes to say something. I had to realize that something might be very entertaining for me, but not necessarily for the reader. Also, I’ve become more mindful of who’s going to be reading this. And I suppose that’s the big thing–with each book I’m trying harder to keep it tighter and cleaner.

On the artistic side, I’ve had more fun with characters. In my first book, Watermelon, the characters weren’t terribly complex. But they’ve become more complex as I’ve written more books because I’ve learned how human beings are. You can love people and still find them repulsive in some areas.

What’s your writing process?
I write for myself. If I find it boring, then it has to go. If I find it interesting or relevant or if it touches me in some way, then I think it’ll work. I think if you start trying to second-guess what your audience wants from you, then you become dishonest as a writer. I don’t mean to sound like I’m dis-regarding my readers at all, but I feel it works best for them if I try to write in a vacuum.

I also edit all the time. I’m not a quick first drafter. I write very slowly and edit, edit, edit as I get to know my characters in the very early stages. So the first part of a book is always really slow for me because I’m trying out my characters in various aspects of their lives, seeing who they are and trying to get to know them. I con-tinue to edit throughout the book, and I hope that what I’m leaving behind is as perfect as it can be.

It’s nice to know that there are very different ways for everybody to write, and they all work. There are no rules as a writer.

How did you become a writer?
Both my parents thought that the way for a happy future was to get some kind of professional qualifications. I studied law and studied accountancy, and I just never thought I could write. But I really loved books and reading. And narrative and storytelling were a part of me. My mother did an awful lot of storytelling. She was very funny and entertaining.

I didn’t start writing until I was 30, and it was the biggest surprise of my life. I didn’t have a lot of half-finished novels under my bed or in my bedside drawer. It just came out of the blue.

I think mine is really a hopeful story for anyone who thinks, Oh, maybe I’d like to write, but I’m too old, and I’ve never done it before. Because I’d never done it before, and it still worked.

What do you think makes your novels resonate with your readers?
People say my books are warm, and I think it’s because I genuinely love my characters, and I don’t want anything too terrible to happen to them. I think it’s important that they go through something, but that they’ll always be OK. And I’m honest about relationships and the feelings we have. When I first wrote that you can be jealous of your best friend, I thought I must be the only person in the world who feels like this. But so many people responded, saying, “Oh, thank you for saying that because I love my best friend, too, but she’s lost 10 pounds and now I’m so depressed!”

I’d like to think that it’s possible to write about love without insulting anyone’s intelligence. It doesn’t have to be ribbon-and-chocolate-box perfect. Relationships can be written where they aren’t perfect, but they can still work.

Who are your favorite authors?
I think absolutely everyone I’ve ever read has affected me in some way. At the moment I’m reading Raymond Chandler, whom I’m enjoying so much. He’s nothing like what I write–his characterizations, his mis-ogyny–it’s very interesting. It’s hard to pick out any one person because everybody from James Joyce to Jackie Collins has influenced me.

Do you intend to stick with this genre?
I do plan on writing romantic comedies because I enjoy it so much. In the beginning I used to say, “One day I’ll write my really bleak, depressive book.”

But now I don’t think I will. There’s no shame in writing romantic comedy. I enjoy it. I’ll put the depressive book on hold for a while.

Christine Mersch is an assistant editor of Writer’s Digest.

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