“I’ve just finished a book and instead of being in celebratory mode I’m in agony and anxiety mode,” she said, speaking to the Irish Echo from her home in Dublin, where she is taking a few days off before touring starts to promote her new book, “Cracks in My Foundation.”
“Everytime I start something new I go through the horrors, thinking its all over, I’ve used it all up I’ve nothing left to tell.”
Since publishing her first book, “Watermelon,” in 1995, Keyes has written six bestselling novels. Last year she published her first non-fiction work, a collection of essays entitled “Under the Duvet.” “Cracks in My Foundation,” which comes out next week, features a mix of non-fiction essays and short stories.
“My editors say it’s more revealing than the first volume, which I thought was pretty revealing,” Keyes said, her girly voice sounding more like that of a schoolgirl than that of a 43-year-old woman.
As with “Under the Duvet,” this book sees Keyes talking about personal issues with a humor and honesty that that has won her favorable comparisons with “Bridget Jones,” author Helen Fielding.
One essay explores Keyes negative self-image, which has plagued her since childhood. In another essay, she talks candidly about her battle with alcoholism. At her lowest point, Keyes attempted suicide while living in London and subsequently spent time at a rehab clinic in Dublin. She has been sober for more than 10 years.
“I’m crap at being any other way than honest,” she said.
“I find it exhausting telling lies. It takes less energy to be honest about my self-image and that. And maybe other people might get help from that, because I’m sure I can’t be the only one who feels like I feel. And other people might go, ‘Well thanks be to Christ, I thought it was just me.’ Especially about the alcoholism.”
“I feel really strongly that we have to talk about it — there’s still such a taboo about alcoholism,” she continued, “especially amongst women and I think it just makes it so much harder for women to say that they have a problem and to get help.”
Keyes puts a lot of herself into the characters she creates; her third book, “Rachel’s Holiday,” gives an accurate account of an addict going into rehab, while Margaret, the heroine in “Angels,” suffers from an irrational shoe-buying fetish (Keyes admits she has not yet overcome her two main addictions; shopping and chocolate).
Nevertheless, she does not see her writing as therapy or catharsis.
“I actually feel a bit uncomfortable with writers using their job to sort out their own stuff,” she said.
“I suppose I see myself as an entertainer and as someone who hopes to give comfort. My personal experiences come to bare less and less with each book. “Rachel’s Holiday,” was the third book I wrote, and by then I think I’d used up all my dramas and traumas. I’ve had to research every book since.”
Like her characters, Keyes admits that humor is sometimes a shield for her.
“I use humor to get through things, that’s the kind of person I am,” she said.
“I feel I can write about things that are dark and painful if I do it in a funny way. I suppose that’s a very Irish thing too. There are a lot of people who think that by writing comedy, I’m kind of demeaning myself. They sometimes say ‘would you not just, write a novel that’s completely serious?’ And actually, I don’t think I will. I know they mean it kindly, but its very patronizing, you know? I feel like telling them to shag off.”
Keyes is no stranger to negative reviews; many critics have dismissed her work as commercial, predictable and lacking in substance. Indeed, the entire chick lit genre, of which Keyes is a pioneering writer, has endured many of the same criticisms. She sees this as indicative of the battles modern women face.
“We live in a patriarchal society where men control just about everything. One of the best ways to keep women down is to make fun of them,” she said.
“I am thrilled to be considered a good writer of chick lit. I think it’s a fantastic genre. It’s writing by women about women and for women. Post-feminist women have all these dysfunctional relationships with ourselves and our own bodies and our attitude to exercise. There was nothing in popular fiction that was addressing those issues. Chick lit has done that, and it’s done it wonderfully.”
Would she ever consider branching into a different genre?
“Although I like to think that all my books are very different, there’s no denying that they all deal with the kind of realities of the post feminist world,” she said.
“This is what interests me and what I like writing about. But I suppose if I turned around and did something hugely different from what I’m doing, my editors might be a little bit anxious. I had talked about doing a comic novel with a character I’ve had in other books, Helen Walsh. It would be something slightly different; a crime, sort of thrillery thing. There hasn’t been huge enthusiasm from my editors. I think they’re a bit afraid. We’ll see.”
Keyes studied law in college before moving to London, where she worked as a waitress and accounts assistant. Her first piece of writing was a short story she composed sitting at her kitchen table when she was 32. However, she has no regrets about being a late bloomer.
“I’m glad I didn’t start writing younger because I’d nothing to say,” Keyes said.
“I was such a mess and I didn’t know myself. I hadn’t suffered enough. Every writer is different; some people are very young and very perceptive. But what I went through the alcoholism and the depression and the rehab the coming back to life and that really helped me in loads of ways. It gave me so much insight into other peoples’ darkness and how human beings are great survivors. It made me quite hopeful at the end of the day.”
Dublin has been home for Keyes since 2001, when she moved back with her husband, who also works as her assistant.
“I was actually really anxious about moving back. You know yourself, Ireland is so small,” she said.
“You’re always meeting someone who knows your cousin. You can’t do anything or you’ll get caught. After living in London, the thought of living in Ireland made me feel like I was choking. The first six months were tricky but I settled down. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else now.”
With a film version of “Rachel’s Holiday” in pre-production (with Catherine Zeta-Jones in talks to play Rachel), and a new novel due out next spring, who knows when Keyes’ next holiday will be — not that she is complaining.
“It is all so mind-blowing,” she said.
“When I get fan mail from people around the world, its so weird. I always felt so disconnected, that was part of my trouble. I always felt like the odd one out, the weirdo. When I started writing, I wasn’t sure that anyone would get what I was writing. It’s so lovely to know that I’m not alone.”