Article published on November 16, 2015.
There are some authors you can’t help but fall in love with and Marian Keyes was a case in point at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Weds 7th Oct. Bubbly, effervescent and warm, she immediately lit up the room as soon as she came in, before launching into a vibrant reading from her latest novel The Woman Who Stole My Life, which had the audience in stitches. Though her novels are customarily not all rainbows and butterflies, rather a mixture of darkness and light, in which she admits to putting her characters through a lot.
Indeed, her plan was to go easy on her latest heroine, Stella, but that wasn’t quite the case! Talking about the possibility of sequels, Marian admits that by the end of her books her characters are in a good place equipped to go forward and continue that life. A sequel would mean putting her characters back through it again and she simply cares for them too much to do so, although she suggested that perhaps the next generation may be a way forward.
As to what she’s currently writing, she gave a brief synopsis of two people who’ve been together a long time and decide to press pause on their relationship and all that ensues. Keyes has made her name as a writer of popular women’s fiction – the often titled ‘chick lit’ – and whilst she wanted to write love stories she admitted to initially feeling mortified about being called a romance writer, begging her publishers not to use a pink cover on her debut novel (they didn’t, it was blue!), but she is glad to have her readers – the self-proclaimed marianettes – and the chance to reach the widest possible audience. She has continued to write about women and their lives because it is what she knows and enjoys and as she gets older she notices her place in the world shifting. But she acknowledges the continuing way in which anything written by women for women is automatically denigrated, pointing to sexism and the way society functions as a cause of this.
As a youngster, Keyes had absolutely no thoughts or ambitions of writing. It simply wasn’t seen as a viable option. She says that in her family it was all about getting a ‘permanent and pensionable profession’ and so she went into law – being the first one in her family to go to university. But life in London in her twenties proved to be a low point for Marian, which she describes as a ‘black and empty’ period, ‘without hope’, struggling with alcoholism and chronic low self-esteem. During this time she read a short story and had the sense that this was something she could do and after a spell of treatment, writing was the first thing she wanted to reconnect with.
She wrote a short story and surprised herself, taking pride in something she had created and since then she has published over fifteen books in 33 languages. Whilst she acknowledges taking characteristics and small things from real life, she never uses real people, admitting she’d hate to see herself in a book because it would be like overhearing a conversation about yourself you weren’t meant to hear. She’s nonetheless hugely interested in people and is eager to get to know who people are, acknowledging that though we each take up only a small place in the world, there’s a ‘whole universe’ going on behind us all.
And she has found Twitter a particularly important conduit for communicating with the world. Indeed, whilst it is the bane of many authors’ lives, Keyes was gushing in her love for the social media platform, which gave her back her confidence in the ability to communicate when she was very ill with depression and has allowed her to feel a connectedness that she has struggled all her life to achieve. And even though she is one of the best-loved and most successful contemporary authors, what came across repeatedly was her genuine gratitude to her readers and supporters and how lucky she feels to have the job she does. But luck, I’d argue, has very little to do with this lady’s success – and long may it continue.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin