Message From The Author
On the Town With Marian Keyes
Talking shoes, shopping and sequels in oh-so-hip SoHo
with Ireland's warmest and wittiest bestselling author.
By Tara Gelsomino
Going shoe shopping with Marian Keyes is a humbling experience. Humbling because the Irish author of a handful of simultaneously deep and hilarious Chick Lit novels is not quite the shoe-crazy sophisticate one would expect from reading about the swinging single heroines of her novels.
Proof: Our first stop is the too-cool-for-school Prada store on lower Broadway. The cavernous interior is dominated by a curved structure that looks suspiciously like a skateboard ramp. Pairs of tottering heels are artfully anchored by hefty prices on scattered polished wooden platforms. It's just the kind of place that say, Rachel Walsh, the title character of Keyes's third novel, Rachel's Holiday, could really be at home in. "Ah now aren't these just gorgeous," Keyes coos in a lilting accent, picking up a pair of skimpy sandals with hand-cut leather flower-bedecked straps. She carefully inspects them, then with one last longing glance at the three-figure tag, places them reverently back in their spot. "But I could never buy them for that price, the guilt would just kill me."
Fans of the author, who's been known to slip iconic pairs of shoes into her books (the aforementioned Rachel is fond of a pair of lime-green mules, while in her newest release, this month's ANGELS, turquoise sandals signify an important plot point), might be surprised to find Keyes—who dubs herself an "Imelda" after the infamous first lady of the Phillipines who once owned 1,220 pairs—has a mere 12 pairs in her own closet. More would be wasteful, she points out, and this tidbit just seems to further the idea that this bestselling author is nothing less than a good Irish Catholic girl at heart.
The Business of Growing Up
Mary Catherine Keyes (the nickname Marian is a family
tradition) was born in Dublin some 37 years ago, the second of five siblings in a perfectly normal, if riotous, Irish family. At 22, Keyes, restless by nature, moved to London and dabbled in various pursuits, including law, accounting and waitressing, before nine years later finally trying her hand at fiction. "I began writing short stories after I read this delightfully wacky tale that
just enchanted me. It broke all the rules, and that was the first
time I realized you could do that. You could write whatever you
wanted." Her tales were light, magical yarns "full of fairies and
mystical creatures"—rather ironic, considering Keyes' personal life had at the time fallen into a rapid downward spiral.
The social drinking that went hand in hand with being twentysomething in a big city had turned into something far more serious. The feelings of alienation Keyes had harbored since childhood helped to fuel a serious battle with alcoholism, which culminated approximately six months after she began writing. To overcome this struggle, Marian first survived a non-successful suicide attempt followed by a six-week stint in rehab. In her 2001 collection of non-fiction essays (not published in the U.S.), Under the Duvet, Keyes plainly describes this harrowing period: From September 1993 to January 1994 was the most bereft time I ever lived through. I had a bare bed, in a bare room, with a bare window, in a bare, bare life. … I began to have suicidal fantasies. When I closed my eyes, I was overwhelmed by a picture of me blowing my head off with a gun. Before I went to sleep at night, I used to pray not to wake up. For every moment that I wasn't unconscious, I felt as though my head was a war zone.
It is nearly impossible to reconcile the woman who wrote those words with the cherubic-faced and warmly maternal lady who insists on forgoing the trendy cafe this afternoon and invites you back to her spacious sublet for lunch and a more comfortable chat. The woman who asks her equally benevolent husband to cue up the camera and show you home video of her family (who visited for two weeks prior) simply because you curiously wonder how much they might resemble the zany Walsh clan who has recurring roles in many of her books.
But of course, it is that very duality that makes her novels such satisfyingly complex reads. The turmoil of post-partum depression and the agony of divorce blend beautifully with saucy sarcasm and pointed witticisms in Watermelon. The realization of a parent's long-denied alcoholism is balanced deftly with blind date hijinx in Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. The slow self-awakening of a drug addict's life is sweetened by a tender love story in Rachel's Holiday. In Last Chance Saloon, Keyes skillfully juggles three storylines (weight problems, control issues and cancer), never letting a single plot point—or punchline—even skim the floor.
Her newest novel, ANGELS, is a bit of a milestone for Keyes. It is the first novel that will debut here in the U.S.—her previous books have always been available abroad about a year prior)—and a crucial step in ratcheting up her surprisingly low profile with American readers (one suspects the curse of "Bridget Jones Backlash" is to blame for the lack of buzz on this European bestseller).
Set in the shade of Hollywood's glittering hills, ANGELS revolves around Margaret Walsh (the "lickarse" sister who made brief cameos in Watermelon and Rachel's Holiday). "I wanted to write about a woman who had always been good and was breaking out, but nobody is really that good when it comes right down to it. That's just how she is perceived. So it became a kind of conjuring act to get inside her head and show how she was seen through others' eyes." Margaret's marriage has been slowly eroding for some time, but the final straw comes when she discovers the husband she always thought was so devoted has cheated on her. Awash in pain and confusion, she retreats for a short time to Casa Walsh, but soon sets off for a recuperative summer in Los Angeles at the home of her best friend, a struggling screenwriter. Soon the sister whom everyone always expects to trod the straight and narrow is plunged into a series of wild parties and exotic flings. Will all end happily ever after for Margaret? "Oh, I could never write an unhappy ending," Keyes swears passionately. "T'would just kill me to do so."
Fluff and Nonsense
Literary snobs often nonsensically assume a happy ending signifies a lightweight read. But Keyes's novels defy expectations of both the literary elite and the genre enthusiasts. The author's willingness to take risks was well-proven when she switched from a single narrator's stream-of-consciousness tone in her first three novels to the more complicated three-heroine, third-person narration of Last Chance Saloon and Sushi for Beginners (which is available abroad and likely to be a U.S. release next year). Her next book, VENUS RISING, on which she is currently at work, will further push the envelope. It again features three heroines: JoJo, a Queens native and tough-as-nails literary agent; Gemma, an events organizer, who gets stuck organizing her own mother's life after her parents undergo a late-in-life divorce; and Lily, an inadvertent man-stealer and struggling novelist. Lily and Gemma's stories will both be in first-person (alternating chapters), while JoJo's is told in third-person, and a fair amount of the novel is related via e-mails, book reviews and newspaper articles.
It's clearly an ambitious project both in technique and in subject matter. "I wanted to look at three different types of feminist issues," explains Keyes. "Like in JoJo's case, it's the glass ceiling. In Gemma's case, it's her mother and the fact that women can be thrown on the scrap heap because the dad now has a 36-year-old girlfriend and I wanted to look at the unfairness of that. In Lily's case, the issue is childcare and that when two parents are working, the woman ends up being the one that does the majority of the childrearing."
Serious matters aside, the novel is sure to be overflowing with Keyes's trademark wit and humor. And for those who enjoy the more zany antics that were characteristic of Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and Rachel's Holiday, the author promises that the two remaining Walsh
sisters will also get their own novels in the coming years. Though she hasn't yet plotted out a story for ethereal youngest sibling Anna, hers will be the next Walsh tale, and the take-no-prisoners Helen (a favorite of many readers, no doubt) will have to wait, as Keyes has special plans for the outrageously blunt character and is saving the best for last. "Yes, Helen, as you'll see at the end of ANGELS, is going to become a PI," she confides, adding that
if Helen's story is well-received she may turn it into a continuing series (in which case, Stephanie Plum better start getting nervous). "I think she's too feisty and resilient a character to go through the largely emotional journey most of my characters go through, although there will be 'stuff' in it. I think
that I could have a lot of fun with her; she's fearless."
"Fearless" is a word that certainly describes the author herself. Though her books are not necessarily autobiographical, in each novel, Keyes shines a spotlight on pieces of her life (from her depression to alcoholism to a yet-unfulfilled desire to have a child), pieces that many people would prefer to keep in the dark. "The issues I write about, it's pointless trying to keep them private if they are part of me also. Like my alcoholism. I've written two books about addiction and I will write more I'm sure. I think it would be unfair of me to write about it, then refuse to talk about it."
Of course, that sort of self-effacing generosity is indicative of Keyes's warm and nearly over-accommodating nature. Proof: Before departing the Prada store on this fine afternoon, we decide a photo among the gorgeous and not-at-all-affordable footwear would be the perfect souvenir to commemorate our outing. Just before the picture is snapped, guilt overwhelms our subject and she asks a passing salesgirl for permission. The snooty staffer says no and the chagrined author begins apologizing immediately. "Oh, I'm so sorry! That was so silly of me. We should have just snapped the picture. That's just like me to have to ask," she sighs, shaking her head. All in all, hardly a lickarse, but just what you'd expect from a nice Irish Catholic girl from Dublin. G
Don't miss Marian's appearance on "The Today Show" on June 3. Visit Marian's website www.mariankeyesbooks.com.You can also write to Marian in care of William Morrow Publicity, 10 East 53 Street, New York, NY 10022.
ANGELS: AN EXCERPT
As I arranged my towel on the sand, I suspiciously watched other people on the beach. Two Scandinavian-looking girls took up a position far too near for my liking. Immediately I wondered if either of them were divorced; I was driving myself mad speculating about the marital status of everyone I met…
They whipped off their shorts and tops to reveal tiny bikinis, effortlessly flat stomachs and golden thighs, shaped and curved with muscle. You never saw two people more comfortable with their bodies; I dearly wanted to shoo them away.
Their arrival meant that I couldn't remove my sarong. Time passed and when I managed to convince myself that no one had any interest in me,
I slid it off. I held my breath, convinced that the lifeguard would jerk with sudden shock and break into a slo-mo, red-rescue-pack-under-his-arm, pounding-rock-soundtrack run towards me and order, "I'm sorry ma'am, we're going to have to ask you to leave. This is a family beach, you're upsetting folks."
But no drama erupted and I slathered myself in factor eight and prepared to bake… It was actually quite pleasant until I turned over onto my stomach and found there was no one to put suntan lotion on my back. Garv would have done it. I suddenly felt very lonely and the feeling hit anew my life is over.
As I'd packed the night before I left Ireland, I'd told Anna and Helen the very same thing.
"My life is over."
"It's not." Anna had been visibly distressed.
"Don't patronize her," Helen had urged.
"You'll meet someone else, you're young," Anna said doubtfully.
"Ah, she's not really," Helen interjected.
"Not at thirty-three."
"And you're goodlooking," Anna struggled on.
"You know, she's not bad," Helen admitted grudgingly. "You have nice hair. And your skin isn't bad. For your age."
"All that clean living," Anna said.
"All that clean living," Helen echoed solemnly.
I sighed. My living wasn't that clean, it just wasn't as unclean as theirs, and my good-for-
my-age skin was thanks to slathering on so much expensive night cream that I used to slide off my pillows, but I let it go. …
Then I heard something which catapulted me right back to the present.
"Ice cream sandwich!"
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