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Marian Keyes: The stroppier, the better

Thanks to her romantic comedies, Marian Keyes is one of the queens of chick-lit. But that doesn't mean she has to conform to stereotype, she tells Emma Hagestadt

04 June 2004

Like Dame Barbara Cartland, the bestselling novelist Marian Keyes produces her finest work from a recumbent position. After breakfast in bed (porridge and coffee brought to her courtesy of her attentive husband, Tony) she sits in her "PJs" and types away for six hours straight, pausing only for the occasional banana. Now at work on her eighth novel, Keyes is one of the richest women in Ireland. Catherine Zeta-Jones wants to make movies with her; and she is the only Irish writer, aside from James Joyce, to be published in Russia. No wonder the grande levée doesn't take place until two in the afternoon.

Not that Keyes gives any indication of being remotely diva-ish. Cuddled up on the couch in her airy London pied-à-terre, she's every bit as warm, Celtic and "roundy" eyed as her books might lead you to expect. Cries of "Surely to God!", "eejit!" and "shite!" tumble, Father Ted- like, from her lips. Upright, she's disarmingly small. Her books, whichever way up, are alarmingly large. Too big to fit into any earth-sized handbag, too huge to prop up in bed. "I just have too much to say," she offers in her defence. "There's not the room - even for sex."

Keyes is a writer of feel-good fiction, but not of the kind of escapist scenario that involves trips on private jets or clinches with farm-hands who turn out to be aristos in mufti. While her novels follow a traditional transformation script - a loveable heroine muddles her way into the arms of Mr Right - the journey there is paved in ordinariness. Keyes's talent is to write about real women with real problems: women who get drunk, depressed, scream at their kids and battle to maintain shiny hair. That they are finally rewarded - with either an old flame or "sexy sexy" new man - seems only fair.

Brilliant at dialogue, funny about family life and insightful about loss and disappointment, Keyes has a weakness for the happy ending that might mean she's never shortlisted for the Booker. It's not something that keeps her awake at night: "In the overall scheme of things, I've been so fortunate it's not a complaint that takes up a lot of my time. There are bigger injustices in the world."

Like her dysfunctional heroines, Keyes knows what it's like to have been in a "very bad place". Her best-known novel, Rebecca's Holiday, about a young woman's drug overdose and stint in rehab, was inspired by her own battle with alcohol and a failed suicide attempt.

"I used to get fed up talking about those years," says Keyes. "It was what was defining me as a writer, but now I'm happy to talk. If I'd known when I was in the throes of my horrible, horrible drinking that it could happen to people like me, I probably would've got out sooner. I hate the secrecy that surrounds any addiction."

According to Keyes, she was an alcoholic long before she had her first drink. "I think it's a congenital thing," she says. The eldest of five, Keyes says she grew up an anxious and depressed child - hating the way she looked, jealous of her younger siblings. She drank her way through a law degree, moved to London, decided not to become a lawyer, and continued to drink her way through a job in the accounts office of a small architectural college. "By the time I was 30," says Keyes, "I had the infrastructure of a middle-class life. I still had a job and a flat, but in my head I was on skid row. My life was refracted through a prism of self-disgust. I was just wretched."

She started writing short stories four months before she stopped drinking. After six weeks in a rehabilitation centre in Dublin, she sent them off to a publisher, mentioning that she had started work on a novel. When the firm wrote back asking to see it, she dashed off four chapters of what would be the opening section of her first novel. For once in her life, says Keyes, she managed not to shoot herself in the foot. First published by Poolbeg (a small Irish press), Watermelon was snapped up in the UK and made its way on to the bestseller lists.

Published in the same year as Bridget Jones's Diary, Watermelon secured Keyes a place on the chick-lit bandwagon. Along with Helen Fielding, she was singled out as the acceptable face of froth - reviewed in the broadsheets and optioned by Hollywood. Ten years on, she still speaks up for the now tired-sounding genre.

"In 1994, when I first started writing, there was no mainstream literature that articulated the unique concerns and confusions of the post-feminist woman. I think chick-lit really helped define who we were. It focused on huge concerns about body image, and talked about our relationship with food, money, and work."

Interestingly, despite the confessional nature of much of her work, Keyes doesn't buy into the idea of writing as a form of therapy. "I really don't feel comfortable with the idea of writing as a cathartic experience," she says, emphatically. "In fact, I think it's a bit creepy. When I wrote Rachel's Holiday I was on extremely solid ground. I want to be on extremely solid ground with everything I write."

It's noticeable that as Keyes has matured as a writer (and a person), the subject matter has become less introspective and more universal. Perhaps it's something to do with her own relief at having escaped the rat race, but Keyes's more recent novels have been rooted firmly in the world of work. She has written about life on a glossy magazine (Sushi for Beginners) and life on the Hollywood lot (Angels). Her new novel, The Other Side of the Story (Michael Joseph, £12.99), is set closer to home in the offices of a London literary agency.

In classic chick-lit style, it is structured around the lives of three very different women: Jojo (an American agent), Lily (a published author) and Gemma (Lily's one-time best friend). This comic take on the writerly life - the horrors of being reviewed, not being reviewed, bidding wars and embarrassing book signings - is, says Keyes, her most technically ambitious book to date. "I usually write about emotional landscapes," she says, "but this time I wanted to write about gender politics." The salutary sub-plot about glass ceilings and discrimination in the work place is all very well, but what we really want to know is whether Gemma will ever forgive Lily for stealing her man.

It's the kind of novel that would not have been written 20 years ago. Following in the footsteps of Maeve Binchy and Patricia Scanlan, Keyes is part of a new generation of Irish women writers who have replaced country girls with a new breed of urbanites - young women who think nothing of trailing their emotional baggage between London, New York and LA. Religion is dead, though Keyes's best heroines still have something of the convent about them.

Seven years ago, Keyes and her English husband, Tony - who works as her assistant - moved back to Ireland. They live in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin, in a lilac-painted house with views ("if you stand on tiptoes") of the sea. Her parents are just up the road.

One of the first things Keyes did on getting out of rehab was learn to drive a car. She now owns a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle ("very statementy"). Nuns in Nissan Micras are the bane of her life. "They're feck' eejits who drive at 28mph in the outside lane. I go right up to them and gesticulate, but nothing can penetrate their force-field of righteousness."

At this point in her life, Keyes says that she no longer has it in her to write about twentysomethings who wake up "scuttered" with an unknown man beside them ("Gone are the days!"). Her next book, she says, somewhat unexpectedly, will be about death and grief. "We're just not hard-wired for it," says Keyes. "Every time the phone rings late at night, I worry. It sounds bleak, but there will be a lot of humour."

It's not her own mortality Keyes seems to be brooding on. At 41, she says, she has never felt better. "Turning 40 was the best thing. I look at my weight and think I'm a 40-year-old woman. I'm supposed to be this size. On the day itself, though, it was like the ceiling had fallen in. It was like, Good God, how did I get so old? I had about half a day of shock and awe. And then I thought, I'm grand."

Meanwhile - somewhere between middle age and death - it's back to the business of publicity and promotion for the current novel. Like the young hopefuls in her latest book, Keyes hates being photographed.

"I particularly hate the young blokes who think they're being arty. The ones I like are those old boys who've been working as press photographers for 60 years. They couldn't give a shite; they take two pictures of you and they're gone." Last week, when in Canada, she was photographed draped along a raised flower bed.

"From now on, I'm going to be a stroppy cow," she says, her round eyes narrowing. "I didn't used to want to be known as a tricky author, but now I'm quite happy if people think I am. The stroppier, the better." This doesn't sound like Marian Keyes at all. She has probably had to get out of bed too soon.

Biography: Marian Keyes

Born in the west of Ireland in 1963, Marian Keyes was the oldest of five children. Convent-school educated, she put her law degree to good use by going to London where she worked as a waitress. She later worked in an accounts office for 'a long, long time'. After a spell in rehab, she wrote her first novel, Watermelon, which was published in Ireland in 1995. A year later she gave up the day job to write full time.

Her novels include: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married (1996), Rachel's Holiday (1998), Sushi for Beginners (2000) and Angels (2002). Her most recent novel, The Other Side of the Story, is published by Michael Joseph this month. Keyes's worldwide sales are estimated at 10 million, and she regularly tops the UK bestseller lists. She now lives in Dublin with her English husband, Tony. Close to her niece and nephew, she has offered to buy them for cash.


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