Marian Keyes has made a career of writing about brilliant young Irish women who pass through fire on their way to a richer life. In The Mystery of Mercy Close, her long awaited fifth chapter in the Walsh sisters’ series, Keyes has found a new way to blend reality and fiction, resulting in the most urgent and funny novel of her career. She talks to Cahir O'Doherty about her ridiculously entertaining new book.
Call it your Ultravox moment. You’ve reached middle age, and despite yourself you’ve somehow achieved the global domination that you secretly hoped you would.
You’re world famous and you’re really rich. But it means nothing to you.
That, rather roughly, is what happened to Marian Keyes, 49, in 2009. The wisest and wittiest of Ireland’s writers of her era, she’s certainly made good on her early promise.
Published in 29 languages, she’s sold 23 million books since her debut Watermelon turned her into the successful writer she never quite planned on becoming.
It had all gone about as well as she dared to ask. Back in the early 1990s she had sent her short stories to a publisher, casually adding that she was working on a novel.
Show us your novel came the answer. That meant she had to sit down and write it.
Fast-forward 20 years later and Keyes surpassed every goal she ever set for herself. But it was all a terrific accident, she insists.
A child of recession era Ireland, Keyes did all the sensible things the country demanded, studying law and accountancy and inching toward the stultifying professions. Then she took a sideways step to a career that allowed her to express herself and it actually made her more successful.
But in recent years something wasn’t working. One day in 2009 she found herself becoming acutely anxious at a family gathering. That fear then began to slowly spread outward, poisoning her life.
“I used to think that if I worked very hard for a very long time I’d get to the point where I was fully formed,” she tells the Irish Voice.
“I would be always happy. I’d be on the top of the mountain being completely Zen. The only feelings I’d have would be a calm, numb bliss. But if I live to be 116 that won’t happen. That came as an awful shock to me,” she laughs.
Instead, she was startled to find herself entering the cruelest and most disorientating depression of her life.
“I tell you, I was beyond reach,” she says. “I know that sounds incredibly ungrateful. I really did want to write another book and people were so nice and they encouraged me. I did feel very appreciated.
“Maybe if I’d been on Twitter when I was going through my depression I would have had a better idea of the support.”
Keyes wasn’t just down. She was despairing and suicidal. In fact she contemplated suicide up to 40 times a day she says.
The experience shook her to her core, and in her new book The Mystery of Mercy Close (Viking), Keyes has found an opportunity to blur the lines between her creative and her personal life, in a book she has called a comedy about depression. “People won’t be bothered by the serious subject if the book makes them laugh,” she adds.
But how do Irish doctors and Irish people generally respond to the problem of depression? “Prayers are the first point, get scuttered is the second, hang yourself in the barn is the third,” she laughs. “If they get to the fourth, which is see a psychiatrist, they’ll say, “But begod, my hopes aren’t high.”
In her new book Keyes tackles the fifth and final Walsh sister, Helen, who may be the toughest nut to crack of all. “I was afraid of writing about her because she lacks emotional intelligence,” Keyes reveals. “Helen was always grand as the funny sidekick and she was always people’s favorite because she was always so fearless. She cropped up in all the other Walsh sisters novels. But I didn’t think I’d be able to write a novel about her.”
Helen is difficult, Keyes admits, and she confesses she admires her steeliness. “But I didn’t want to discover that there wasn’t a core of steel with her. People kept asking for a book with her and I thought I’m never going to be able to write it. But then a combination of things happened.”
First and foremost was Keyes’ journey through crippling depression. After it, when she regained some equilibrium, she began to realize that it might be a journey Helen could also take.
“I thought that this could happen to Helen with her still being her essential self. At the end of it she’s not necessarily wiser or softer,” Keyes said.
“She’s still kind of the wise cracking, cynical person that she always was. I think she’s become more likeable because she has gone through so much.
“Fortunately or unfortunately many of the things that happen to Helen I went though,” Keyes also reveals. “At least it has the ring of authenticity and nothing is funnier than the truth really.”
Fans of Keyes’s Walsh family series will be delighted to hear that poor Wayne Diffney, the fourth luckless member of Laddz, Ireland’s biggest fictional boy band of the 1990s, is back. In fact it was Keyes’ close friend, the writer and journalist Anne Marie Scanlon, who successfully canvassed for Diffney to play a bigger part in the new book.
“Poor Wayne has appeared in many of the other books I’ve written as a kind of a bit part. Anne Marie always felt very sorry for him, having hair that looked like the Sydney Opera House and the fact that his wife left him and ran off with one of Bono’s friends,” Keyes laughs.
“Anne Marie was always saying, ‘Lookit, Wayne needs his own book.’ And I thought there’s no way, how? But then Helen’s working as a private detective and Wayne’s gone missing...”
We live in the era of god-awful boy band reunion tours, Keyes realized.
“The idea of a reunion tour for Laddz seemed very plausible to me. How mortifying it must be to have to go back and sing the songs you sang when you were 17 and now you’re 39,” she says.
“And having to the do the dancing. And just the f***ing shame of it. I mean, you have to pay your mortgage. I felt so sorry for them.”
Inspiration struck when Keyes saw the very real Irish boy band Boyzone reunion on TV.
“They were singing the songs and doing the moves but they weren’t putting much effort into it. They were sort of tongue in cheek about it,” she says.
“And I mean this in a very loving way. I thought, God love them! I’m with you, lads! Don’t put the effort in! Don’t make a show of yourself more than you’re already having to do. And the weight loss and having to get back into the old costumes? It would be hellish.”
Keyes isn’t sour on boy bands though, she clarifies.
“I am very fond of One Direction. I watched The X Factor when they were being picked. I always loved Zayn Malik, I always though that he was a bit of a rebel. My feelings toward him are very maternal. Boy bands are a necessary evil.”
Meanwhile, Keyes has once again found pleasure in the day to day. Crucially she’s enjoying being creative again too. “Nobody gets through life without lots of shocks and unexpected pain,” she says.
“What we are is the sum of our experiences. My women and I go forward with more wisdom and are more clear-sighted about things. I’m changed. But I suppose that’s what is constantly happening.
“There’ no stop point. What I went through was horrible but I’m not bitter. If you manage to not be bitter you’re grand. Be still in the game, that’s all you have to do.”