By John Dicker
We should all be as lucky as Marian Keyes. The 38-year-old Dublin denizen works in bed five days a week. “Even if nothing’s happening, I show up for it,” she said, laughing. “People find it horrifying. They think I must not do very much.” While the best-selling author may not get vertical until 3 in the afternoon, she’s no lollygagger.
In the last eight years, the Limerick-born author has transformed herself from an alcoholic accountant to a habitual topper of the London Times best-seller list. One of her novels, “Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married” was made into a British TV series, while another was optioned by Universal Studios. She is currently blazing through 10 cities as part of her second American book tour, promoting her latest, “Angels,” a novel set in modern day Los Angeles. In it, Keyes returns to the Walsh sisters of her wildly popular “Watermelon” and “Rachel’s Holiday.” This time the story centers on Maggie, the family’s so-called “good girl,” who learns that her husband is having an affair, and gets fired from her job the next day. Her solution? An extended vacation where she stays with a childhood friend living and struggling as a screenwriter. In L.A., Maggie hobnobs with the glitterati, pitches scripts to studios, and learns her life has not come to an end.
“A lot of my books are about reinvention,” Keyes said, “about making peace with our past and moving on from it.”
The author mined her own experience of
being wined and dined in Tinseltown when “Rachel’s Holiday” was optioned. Though she expressed tremendous admiration for the determination of Hollywood aspirants, she found the industry’s values depressing.
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“I never really believed it when everybody was telling me how much they loved my book even though they’d only read a three-page treatment,” she said.
Keyes describes herself as an “accidental novelist,” as her success was not the result of any preconceived literary career plan. After earning a law degree from UCD, she found herself in the same boat as thousands of young Irish in the 1980s: all learned up with nowhere to go save the ferry or the airport. While Keyes intended to make it to New York, she found London “comfortable enough” and wound up staying for 10 years. A cruel post-colonial irony rendered her Irish law degree useless in England, and so she worked as a waitress and later as a restaurant accountant, which lad to years of accounting work.
“I suppose I can write convincingly about people stuck in jobs they’re not that crazy about,” Keyes said.
Perhaps it was the difficulties of being away from home and family, and doing something she didn’t like, as well as what she describes on her website as low self-esteem, that led Keyes to bouts of drinking. Then, a few months after she began staying late at her job to write stories, she tried to take her own life. She had been existing in a state of denial that she claims went hand in hand with her alcoholism. The tag team of drink and depression lead her to a Dublin rehab center.
“I was in such pain that I think it did trigger the desire to write,” Keyes said. “It was a very deep-seated attempt to find something to save myself.
“When I came out, I wondered if I’d still be able to write. And it was the most wonderful thing to discover that I didn’t have to be mired in active alcoholism to be productive, that the Irish myth that writing and drinking are two sides of the same coin was not true.”
Keyes’s publishing success came on the heels of her newfound sobriety. After rehab, she started sending her stories to publishers. Penguin asked if she was working on a novel, to which she quickly lied, and even more quickly got cracking on what became “Watermelon.”
Keyes says her work as explores the “emotional landscapes” of contemporary Irish women, whose problems are less endemically “Irish” than they are universal. She credits this in part to a new feeling in Ireland.
“In the last decade something has changed in our mindset, and we no longer feel trapped by our Irishness, or by living in the shadow of Britain,” she said. “I think we have become a country that regards itself as cosmopolitan and we stand on our own two feet.”
Keyes believes this new sensibility is nowhere more apparent than in the writing of Irish women. She cites as examples her friend Suzanne Power, whom she pegs as a future Booker Prize winner, and Irish Independent columnist-turned-novelist Martina Devlin.
“The sensibility is very different — it’s no longer downtrodden in a specifically Irish way,” Keyes said. “These women they’re writing about are contemporary women, with contemporary concerns: they’re not married, they’re not downtrodden.”
To Keyes, her work straddles the line between commercial and literary fiction. “I’d like to think that it’s well-written and intelligent enough that nobody would be ashamed to be seen reading my books on the subway,” she said, while acknowledging that the reception her novels have gotten from the literary elite has been quite a bit cooler than that of women’s magazines.
“I think people are afraid to be thought less clever than they’d like to think they are if they are seen to enjoy a commercial book,” she said. “It’s not the genre that defines the worth of the book, but the book that defines the worth of the book.”
When she returns home this month, Keyes will get back to work on “Venus Rising,” her next novel set in London and the once heavily Irish Inwood section of Manhattan.
“It’s about gender politics and the issue of glass ceilings in the workplace and childcare,” she said. “But it’s a comedy.”