Marian Keyes is the best-selling author of books including Rachel’s Holiday, The Brightest Star in the Sky and Watermelon. The Master of Chick Lit now has her own radio and podcast series, Between Ourselves. She speaks to Stylist about oral storytelling, her favourite characters, feeling like an oddball and… Brexit.
A few years ago, after a breakup that left its sting of rejection and sadness lingering well into the summer months, my mum gave me her copy of Watermelon to take on holiday. It was in a sorry old state – floppy, dogeared and battered – which only proved how well-loved and reliable it had been.
Reading the book on a Santorini beach was like sharing a carafe of white wine while listening to a close friend telling me a hilarious, heart-breaking yet hopeful story. In fact, it probably comforted me more than the real-life friend who was snoozing and slowly growing pinker and pinker in the sun-lounger next to me.
From that moment, I knew I was a fan of the book’s author, Marian Keyes. She just… gets it.
From the nuanced light and dark of relationships, to dealing with mental illness and alcoholism, Keyes manages to use humour and conversational writing to explore the serious issues women face in life. Although there are times you just want to shake sense into her characters, their mistakes are what make them so damn relatable and loveable. The way they always see their personal journey through to the end has a powerful way of reassuring you that everything is going to be alright.
I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. When I told my friend from Galway that I was interviewing Keyes about her new radio series, Between Ourselves, she screamed in excitement and left me with ringing ears in the process. And Keyes remains one of Ireland’s best-selling authors, having sold a whopping 33 million copies of her 13 novels around the world.
Between Ourselves is a four-part Radio 4 series that will also be available as a podcast on BBC Sounds. Keyes hosts the show with friend and comedian Tara Flynn in front of a live audience. As well as chatting, Keyes reads out non-fiction passages that she’s written over the years. The first episode focuses on Ireland and the Irish and the second explores Family. You probably don’t need me to confirm that they are both very, very funny.
Here, Keyes discusses the show, along with her thoughts on telling a good story, revisiting old characters, escaping in crime novels and taking respite from Brexit.
We’ve enjoyed listening to you as a guest on podcasts before– Dolly Alderton’s Love Stories and Desert Island Discs were such lovely conversations – why have you decided to do your own series now?
It wasn’t even my idea! Steve, the producer, came across my non-fiction writing and thought that it could be a good idea to try it on the radio. He already knew Tara, and she’s a friend of mine. So, it’s just one of those incredibly - what’s the word, ‘synchronicity’ things - it all came together very well. Tara is so funny and so clever. And I feel very comfortable with it because I’m fine with conversation. I don’t think I could do a podcast where I interview people: I’m a bad interviewer, but I’m good at answering questions.
You’re clearly a natural storyteller in your conversational writing, and it’s obvious that you love oral storytelling too. What is it about sharing an anecdote that you enjoy so much?
I think anecdote telling is an art form. I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. Perhaps it’s a very Irish thing. You know, I grew up around hilarious stories being told. And my mother and sisters are fantastic raconteurs. You sort of just had to be good at telling a story in our house. And it’s such a magical thing to do, to just create imaginary worlds or to make people laugh or cry just by… talking.
When I began writing novels, I wrote as I spoke. I’m definitely rooted in oral storytelling tradition. And I love to make people laugh. I love a good turn of phrase, or nice alliteration that will make people smile. It’s something I take huge pride in and get an awful lot of pleasure from – to be there when you’ve made a person laugh.
Did you enjoy the instant reaction in front of the audience?
I loved it so much, it was absolutely fabulous having an audience. Because when Steve first came to me with the idea, I thought we’d just be sitting in the studio talking into mics. But to have people there and to see all their energy and to see if it worked for them was fantastic.
We’re constantly being fed bad news at the moment, especially with what’s happening over Brexit. Your series is like a breath of fresh air, with the sole intention of making people laugh. How important do you think it is to have that sort of respite in podcast libraries right now?
It has been gruelling, utterly exhausting and really frightening. I can only take so much of the news at the moment, so I need to just have some light relief. You can only take so much fear and doom and gloom; we burn out on it and we need to protect ourselves. I think it’s the uncertainty that absolutely does it for people.
And I think it’s important that, whatever happens with the backstop, it doesn’t colour our opinions of each other as nations. We’ve been friends and getting along so well for so long that, hopefully, we remember what’s good about each other. The first show is about Ireland and the Irish, so – I’m making a huge play here: ‘I’m gonna save Brexit’ [laughs] – maybe the show will be a reminder that we’re all just people.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to get into a Brexit conversation…
No, you’re right to mention it. In Ireland, we are just as worried as the UK, because we’re so closely linked with each other. Everything we do affects the other one. The short answer is that we do need to turn off the scary stuff more. There’s nothing like a belly laugh, lifting our mood and making things more hopeful. There are biological reasons behind it, the power and benefit of laughing.
So yes, I would urge everyone to listen me show and laugh.
During these anxiety-inducing times, do you have comforting books that you revisit?
I actually don’t. Instead, I favour certain authors and genres. I’m on a big Ann Cleeves crime novels binge at the moment. You see, crime novels are great because they all get sorted in the end. When I start a crime novel, I know that no matter how much is happening at the start, or half-way through, it will all be grand by the time I get to the last page. I know ‘safe’ is a funny word to use for crime, but it feels safe to me. Before Cleeves it was Michael Connelly. When I’m reading crime, I’m never thinking ‘Oh this could happen to me’. It’s so funny how I manage to detach, like ‘that happened, and it will all be sorted out and the bad person will be caught.’
You’re hilarious on Instagram and Twitter, which can often be considered negative online spaces. What are your general experiences of social media?
Instagram is quite sassy, and I love it. I’ve only really been on it properly for a couple of months and I’m so used to the cut and thrust of Twitter. So, when people are nice to me on Instagram I’m like, ‘Are they being sarcastic or are they being real?’.
Twitter has been mostly an incredibly positive space for me because I’ve found a like-minded community. Maybe you get back what you put out? I’d rather keep it light-hearted and funny. I don’t really tweet about politics. I tweet an awful lot about telly, because telly is my life.
But, at the same time, I know that Twitter can be such an ugly place. I think there is a community of people who are an argument waiting to happen. They’re perpetually enraged and they’re waiting for a reason. Even with the best of intentions you can fall fowl of them.
OK, we have to talk about your books. If you had to bring back a character and explore where she is today, who first comes to mind?
Oh, any of the Walshes. I had to reread Helen Walsh’s book, The Mystery of Mercy Close, recently and I’d love to give her another outing. And Rachel Walsh from Rachel’s Holiday. The funny thing is, I don’t believe in sequels, I just think that characters go through so much in my books that, to write a sequel, I’d have to go in and break up their happy ending. But I have been thinking about it and I’m definitely going to write another Walsh book soon. Probably the next one.
I’d like to see how Rachel is getting on because it’s been a long time. I care about all the Walsh sisters, I suppose probably more than the other families I’ve created. Because I’ve spent five books with them, or six if you include the Mammy Walsh’s A-Z of the Walsh Family e-book.
I think maybe I would like to revisit them if I didn’t make them very unhappy. But you can’t just write a book about happy things. If I was to go back to Rachel, something bad would have had to happen for her to have a story – that’s the unpleasant reality.
But Mammy Walsh, I’d love to write about her again.
Would you say that Rachel was perhaps your favourite character to write, then?
You know, I really like Anna Walsh. She is probably more similar to me than Rachel. And there’s Lola Daly in This Charming Man who I was very fond of. But, do you know what, I love them all because I have to. I know it sounds like I’m side stepping the question but I have to care about them all.
I’ve just finished a book and there’s a woman in it called Mel who’s 30 and she’s just really idealistic, a good person and really passionate about the planet. I love her, she’s my current love.
Amy, in the last book I wrote, The Break, isn’t dissimilar to me either. Having said that, I like the ones who aren’t like me, too. It’s great to create characters that are really different to me. You know, like the confident ones who say what they think and don’t care, and they wouldn’t cry if people were mean to them on Twitter.
My copy of Watermelon was given to me by my mum. I think your characters are still so relevant and engaging today and will continue to be so so younger generations. How does it feel knowing that your stories are being passed on?
It feels amazing, such an honour and a privilege. It’s 24 years since my first book was published. To know that the book I wrote when I was a very different person is still a sort of comfort to people or makes them laugh: I can’t put words on how lucky I feel, or how wonderful that is and how grateful I am.
The thing that I often say is that I spent a lot of my life feeling really disconnected, like an odd ball, not like other people, in a bad way. And the greatest gift that being published has given me is the feeling that I’m not that much of an odd ball. The fact that women identify and respond to the women I’ve created, makes me feel so different about myself.
I’m delighted to still be getting published, but it’s almost more lovely to know that the older books are still important to people.
Between Ourselves with Marian Keyes can be heard on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on Wednesday 11 September at 11.30am
Images: Getty, Dean Chalkley