Marian Keyes: 'From the age of 11, I felt guilt about every bite of food I put in my mouth'
The question, as Marian Keyes went to work on her new book, was: had she used up all her tragedies? She wondered it herself and it was a reasonable query.
Beneath the breeziness of her signature wit and perhaps obscured by her fondness for a happy ending, sadness has always been a key component of Marian’s magic, an indigo shadow behind all the sparkly jokes. And, inasmuch as she draws from her own life at all, depression was used up already – brilliantly described in The Mystery of Mercy Close. So was alcoholism – she tapped into her own recovery journey for Rachel’s Holiday, now an Irish classic. What was left for Grown Ups, her new novel about all the secrets, snobberies and resentments in one Irish family? She is already one step ahead of me.
“I know already what everyone’s going to wonder after they read this: is she bulimic?” she says, crossing her legs under her in a sitting room at the back of her house. “I’m not bulimic. But from the age of 11, I felt guilt about every bite of food that has gone into my mouth. I’m very porous and I absorbed messages from an early age. A lot of us can’t help it. If I’m in the company of goddesses – tall, thin women – I feel inadequate.”
Those feelings of inadequacy also afflict Cara, one of the central characters in Grown Ups. At the beginning of the novel a guest in the hotel where she works calls her “a fat bitch”. The insult is deeply felt, and Keyes skilfully peels back the layers of Cara’s insecurities about food, about her body, about the image she sees – and hates – when she looks in the mirror.
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It’s a nuanced and at times shocking depiction of an eating disorder: the binge eating, the purging, the secrecy and guilt, and Marian says that ideas of addiction and recovery helped her when it came to writing the character.
“As an addict, I know food is connected to the way I want to sidestep pain. Any addiction is about escaping pain, whether it is drink, food, gambling or sex. I think food addiction is trivialised not because it predominantly affects women but because it only kills at the extremes. An eating disorder can hide in plain sight more than a cocaine addiction, where things would fall apart very quickly.
“I’m happy to be an alcoholic: it’s a very handy thing, I just don’t have to drink – but everyone has to eat. That means you deal with the object of your head-fuck every day, and it’s challenging.”
Marian’s own salve for her insecurities about food has been some hard-won perspective about weight and body shape. “I’ve had to realise that I’m not defined by the length of my legs or the size of my waist; I have a kind heart and I can make people laugh. I’m 56 now, though, so that kind of perspective doesn’t happen overnight. And I still have to have a word with myself and say ‘knock off that nonsense, look at how well-intentioned you are’.”
And she is well-intentioned. She seems worried about saying too much or getting things wrong. She speaks in a careful, breathy voice that seems to implore you to understand exactly what she means. One of the themes of the new book is the sense that as adults we are faking our competence at life.
“When I was a kid I thought it would be incredible to be grown up because I wouldn’t be afraid any more then,” she says.
“I thought I’d be powerful and able to make my own decisions who to see and where to go. That never really happens for anyone; we remain afraid.”
What is she afraid of now? “I’m afraid of my mother dying. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night. I really worry about the state of the planet and the way we’ve abandoned the poor in our country. People will say I’m virtue signalling but I’m sincere.”
And when she’s being funny – which is often – this sincerity seems heightened. We meet in her home, where the hallway is strewn with what might be called her latest wild enthusiasm: painting. Huge colourful canvasses line the floor and walls, and she cannot get enough art supplies.
She says her commitment to painting is reminiscent of her alcoholism: “When I was drinking I’d go from off-licence to off-licence and when I started painting I went from zero to Picasso in 30 seconds.”
She offers me a canvas of my own (“Tony! Have we bubble wrap?”) And while he looks she leans in and tells me that the neighbours are worn out from her gifts of art pieces. “It was like the baking, they thought it was a joke at the start; they don’t think it’s a joke now.”
The house is beautiful and large and I wonder if it, and the love she gets from legions of readers, represent a kind of two fingers to those who dismiss her as chick lit?
“I can’t complain, I’ve got what I wanted, the lovely house, the relationship with readers,” she begins. “But I feel for the other women who are not getting what they deserve. Men will not read books written by women; statistically it just doesn’t really happen.
“Gay men will read my books sometimes, but it’s very rare for straight men to do so. If a woman writes about family it’s silly domestic concerns, but if a man does the same thing it’s a searing exploration of the dynamics of family.”
This calls to mind another recent quip. Last summer, in what was seen as a thinly veiled reference to Colm Toibin – who told The Guardian that he gets bored by genre fiction books – Marian tweeted: “Sez the lad who wrote a Maeve Binchy pastiche and managed to persuade people it was literary fiction.”
Did she mean Tobin’s Brooklyn? “The fact that I didn’t even have to name it proved my point,” she replies. “It’s a bit silly to be making fun of genre fiction when you’ve written a piece of genre fiction. That was the only point I was making. Literary authors do this from time to time – they think they’ve invented a genre. Like, Martin Amis wrote a crime novel and it was treated as a completely different beast to ordinary crime fiction.”
One of the characters in Grown Ups bemoans a journalist’s “shite-y attempt at psychoanalysing me”, but Marian herself gamely humours all attempts to extrapolate from her life to her writings. “I don’t mind the shite-y psychoanalysing and it’s not shite-y!”
She tries to avoid any kind of confrontation, even when provoked. “To be human is to be irritated irrationally. But you don’t want to be a hermit; you have to button the lip occasionally. Except the odd time. I told someone to f**k off on Twitter the other day.
“I said I’d give a signed copy of the new book to raise funds for victims of the fires in Australia. And a guy wrote ‘oh you mean to advertise’ and so I told him where to go. I mean, come on. How could you be so cynical?”
Her Twitter is somewhat compulsive reading, an endless feed of witty observations and exasperated conversations with her mother (“old vumman”). It was her publisher’s idea to join but she took to it. She has tweeted 105,000 times in eight years – an average of more than 30 times a day – and she says she prefers it to all other social media platforms.
“Facebook was people from years ago coming out of the woodwork and it was like ‘you were bitches in school so why would I want to be friends with you now?’ Twitter though: duck to water. It suits me in that my head works fast, thoughts occur to me. Yes I’ve had spells where I’ve thought I’m doing too much of it, I have to step back. I try not to be online as much now because it steals time and it steals words.
“Instagram is all envy. If you post a pair of socks on Instagram everyone will go ‘oh look at your lovely socks’, whereas if you post the same thing on Twitter everyone will say ‘you and your socks – would you ever think of the homeless people who haven’t had new socks in 20 years!’ It’s all the bile. And when it comes you’re actually relieved because you can say ‘it’s come now and I’m grand about it’.”
From the start of her career she was a genius at alchemising her personal pain into fiction. In her twenties, after a law degree at UCD, she moved to London, found work as an accounts clerk and started binge-drinking in earnest.
At her lowest point, around her 30th birthday, she found herself writing short stories in the sober interludes and submitted a few of them to Poolbeg Press. The publisher encouraged her to submit a full-length novel and Keyes began work on her first book, Watermelon.
The novel was published the same year. Since 1995, she has published 13 novels and four works of non-fiction and won a large, loyal readership – Grown Ups is a big release for the publisher, Penguin. She has always had a gimlet eye for the gleaming detail, particularly in her descriptions of depression: “At a party, everyone would be looking at the glittering chandeliers,” she once said, “and I’d be looking at the waitress’s cracked shoes.”
She has written openly about the condition, which at times left her unable to sleep, read, write or talk. Even now, she says, it requires constant management.
“It’s a real illness and I have learned to deal with it. I can’t manage too much fear or adrenaline. I can’t do travel the way I used to. I can’t handle too much of the adrenaline you need to do telly interviews. I can’t cope with too much airports. I don’t like crowds. I just do less and I’m lucky to have that luxury.”
Her father died at the end of 2018 and she was concerned that her depression would resurface as she mourned. “I was worried then that it would kick it all off again and it didn’t. It’s been awful and strange but it’s been within the parameters of normal grief. I know the warning signs. If I start to feel like I’m dreaming… it’s an actual thing called derealisation.”
She met Tony, an Englishman affectionately known as ‘himself’ on her Twitter feed, while she was living in London and they’ll be married 25 years this year. He is everything you could want in a husband: tall, handsome and very calm.
“Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and I have to put my hand on Tony’s tummy to make sure he’s still alive, still there. I touch him and I feel better.”
The setting for much of the drama in Grown Ups is a family get-together in a hotel, but Marian says that while she and her own family do organise similar country getaways, she drew her inspiration more broadly.
“There’s a group of us who have been friends for a long time and recently enough one of them has acquired a new partner who is tricky, to put it mildly, and just has this unerring ability to upset people.
“We all went away for a yoke and she didn’t come, and the next time I met her she made reference. She said how did you get on, and there was a split second where I nearly said it was great because you weren’t there. But we all have to finesse our way through life – it’s tact, it’s kindness.”
Writing has become more physically arduous because of the joint pain in her hands. “My hands are very bad at the moment. I am worried about physically being able to write. I’m going to have to move to voice-activated. It’ll be a big change.”
I murmur something about how well she looks, but she bats away the compliment. Danny DeVito is the person who would play her in Marian, the biopic, she says, as she explains how wrecked she would look if someone cut off her supply of hair extensions, expensive skincare and IPL (something to do with lasers).
Her editors talked her out of the title All Our Secrets for the new book – “she said it was too low-rent” and she says she can’t count the number of people who have taken her aside and asked her to “knock off the one-liners” but awards shortlists and critics be damned, she’s not for turning. “It’s an Irish thing, we use humour to make our misfortunes bearable. So for me that’s non-negotiable. That’s just the way I write.”
Speaking of which, she is rumoured to be working on a sequel to Rachel’s Holiday – is there any truth in that? “Well, I don’t believe in sequels,” she says.
“The Break was meant to be a sequel to Watermelon and I couldn’t do it in the end because most of my characters go through such an arc that if I were to waltz in a few years later and go ‘right lads, I’m going to make it all awful for you again’ that would be wrong. But… I have about 10,000 words written and it’s a Walsh book. But it’s tricky because Rachel’s Holiday was a special book to a lot of people and she was so me.
“Maeve Binchy once said that readers want you to be the way you were when they found you. This, if it is written, has to come with the caveat that I’m older, Rachel is older and my readers are older. So I realise it’s a dangerous thing to be doing, but my gut and my heart wants to do it. And those are the things I listen to.”
Grown Ups by Marian Keyes is published by Michael Joseph
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