4 weeks ago

Writer’s Block with Mary Beth Keane

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Mary Beth Keane is an international bestselling author of three novels, starting with The Walking People (2009) and Fever (2013). Born in New York to Irish parents, her most recent work, Ask Again, Yes, contains a cast of beautifully drawn characters who reflect her Irish-American roots. We follow two New York City cops Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope and their families over four decades; from their rookie years in the 1970s to present day. When Francis marries Lena and Brian marries Anne, the quartet find themselves nesting in the suburb of Gillam, with houses right next door to each other. What could have been an idyllic setup of play dates and BBQs was doomed early on. When Anne gives birth to a son after many maternal challenges, she coldly asserts no interest in forging a friendship with Lena, despite the latter’s acts of kindness. Anne becomes increasingly withdrawn and displays erratic, alarming behaviour – sometimes violent. The narrative takes a sinister turn when Peter Stanhope and Kate Gleeson begin a star-crossed teenage romance, and tragedy alters the course of their lives forever.

There’s a good reason why Keane’s work has achieved widespread recognition. One instantly dives into her characters’ many complexities and motivations, the secrets they harbour, the inner worlds they can’t seem to share. The author has carved out an unprejudiced study of mental illness, trauma, estrangement, and the challenges of long marriages. Are we our parents, and to what extent do our children pay for our mistakes? Can our beginnings leave indelible marks, or do they wash away with time?

Ask Again, Yes was a New York Times bestseller, and Keane recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon after her book was voted the show’s Summer Reads winner for 2019. Fallon strongly identified with the story because of his own Irish heritage, and the fact that his grandfather was in the NYPD.

Keane attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia where she completed her MFA in 2005 with the English department’s Creative Writing Programme. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 and in 2015 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction writing.

Fever is in development with BBC America (Killing Eve), starring Elizabeth Moss as Typhoid Mary, and producers Bruce Cohen (American Beauty, Silver Linings Playbook) and Scott Delman (Book of Mormon) have optioned rights for Ask Again, Yes

Mary Beth Keane lives in New York with her husband and their two sons. She is currently working on her fourth novel.

Ask Again, Yes (€16.99) is published by Penguin Random House and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in a town called Pearl River, New York, which is about twenty miles north of Manhattan, with my husband and our two sons, ages eleven and eight. I grew up here, actually, and it’s always been a very Irish town, full of first generation families. The path for most is Ireland to the Bronx or Queens, and then to Pearl River. It’s a mix of white collar workers and blue collar, just like it was when I was little, and I love that my boys are in school with kids whose parents do a real range of things for a living – from police officer, to financial planner, to doctor, to plumber. It’s a practical place. There’s not a lot of tolerance for naval gazing here, and that’s a quality that was written into my DNA, I think. I was the type of kid who declared loudly and often that I’d leave home for good one day, and yet here I am.

On roots

I grew up about forty feet from where I live now. When we bought our house in 2011, after having lived in other states for about ten years, I was seven months pregnant with my second son and I think some part of me (the hormonal part) was buying into my own childhood quite literally. It’s the same style house as the one I grew up in, and it hadn’t been renovated since probably the 1970s. In those first weeks after we moved in I’d wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I was waking up inside my own history. Then I’d realise I was the mother instead of the child, and that was scary. Every tree, every crack in the pavement on this street is familiar to me. The kids on the block still leave their bikes in a heap on the grass overnight and so far no one has ever touched them.

On early reading

Truthfully, no one read to me. We told stories at home, but always sitting around tables, over food and drink. I soaked up the stories the adults told and I could tell who was good at holding the audience’s attention and who wasn’t. Books weren’t big in our house and I really think the only reason I started reading and writing was because there wasn’t anything else to do. My parents were fairly strict – typical for recent immigrants, I suppose – so we weren’t allowed to wander the neighbourhood, nor were we allowed to watch television except at very specific times (Little House on the Prairie, 5pm on weekdays). We were allowed to go to the library, however, but I think I was too shy or awkward to ask for guidance. The first book I remember reading over and over was Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink.

On Ireland

My mother is from Louisburgh, Mayo, and when we visited Ireland growing up we’d spend most of our time there. My father could never get a full month off work – he was a sandhog (a NYC tunnel worker) – so he’d fly over and join us only when we went to Connemara, where he’s from. My mother gave my sisters and I a lot more freedom in Ireland than she ever did in New York, and I liked seeing her with her sisters – she always seemed younger and more fun. My sisters and I would walk to Old Head with our cousins, swim, wander back through town, go to discos at night. It was paradise. My father is from a Gaeltacht in Connemara, but I admit that I didn’t appreciate the specialness of that place until I was in my twenties. We loved seeing our grandfather, but after a day or two with no other kids and the vastness of Connemara before us, we were bored stiff. When people visited my grandfather’s house they only spoke Irish, so we couldn’t even eavesdrop. My next oldest sister and I would go on long walks and try to drum up interesting things (trouble) but after several weeks of fun in Louisburgh we always resented being there a little. Now I see it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.

On creating

I have a lovely office in my home that has all the right things – an ergonomically correct chair, a desk, my books, a small couch, my little accolades framed on the wall along with some photographs, a window that looks out on our front yard. But the odd thing is that I almost never write in there. Instead I bring my laptop to the kitchen table when the house is quiet and do my best work there, or even weirder, I sometimes go to the darkest room in our basement, turn on a reading lamp, and write as if I’m in a cave. I don’t know why. I’ve never been all that precious about writing space. When I lived in Manhattan I’d write in any coffee shop that didn’t seem overly crowded, and when my boys were babies I used to drive around until they were asleep and then write in the front seat of the car with the car running (or else they’d wake up). My father used to call this the most expensive nap in the world. If I’m editing – as opposed to generating new pages – I like going to a local coffeeshop and setting up there for the day. I like seeing the people come in and out and hearing what they order, whether they’re rude or kind, etc.

On bookshops

There’s a shop called Pickwick Books in Nyack, New York that I like a lot. It’s an absolute mess, piled floor to ceiling with books, and finding anything specific takes a lot of patience. Also, the owner seems very grumpy and judgmental of the books people choose to buy, which I find hilarious. He’s scary enough that I’ve never introduced myself in case he tells me that he hates my books. I also like Books & Greetings in Northvale, New Jersey. They’ve hosted several of my hometown events and I like the community vibe there.

On her “To Be Read” pile

Next up is Expectation by Anna Hope. We’re doing a few events together when I go on tour in the UK early next month so I want to read her book. I’m only twenty pages in but so far I’m absolutely hooked. After that I really want to read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It’s been at the top of my pile for months now. Right under it for even longer is The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Sometimes the novels I really want to read get bumped for books sent from publishers for potential blurbs. I don’t blurb a lot, but when I really love a book I’ll clear everything to read closely and write a few sentences about it. And I like discovering new writers that way. I just finished a debut by Elizabeth Wetmore titled Valentine, and holy cow, what a novel. It comes out in the US in April 2020.

On escapes

My favourite place in the world is Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. My husband and I started going there when we were broke in college, and we’ve gone every summer for the last 20 years. There are stretches of beaches there up-island where you don’t have to run into any other people if you don’t want to. Every time I’m there I believe the light looks different, the air feels different. Everything is better. It’s a place where it feels wrong to look at a phone or a device. The weather can be brutal there in the off-season but even that feels cleansing.

On Ask Again, Yes

An old writing teacher once told me that I shouldn’t ever begin to write until I feel like a pot about to boil over, and that might be the best advice I ever got. The seeds for Ask Again, Yes were sewn so long ago that it’s hard to pinpoint a precise beginning. As I approached my fortieth birthday a few years ago there were problems and issues lurking on the sidelines of my life that suddenly stepped into clearer focus, and because I’m a writer I felt moved to write my way through them. How does love change over time? What do we owe ourselves and the people we love? Is it possible to ever be truly disconnected from a person you used to love? And so on. The hardest part of this was actually writing it – finding the right structure, figuring out which characters to give voice to and when, finding point of view and authority. It took many, many drafts and there was a time when I believed I’d never finish. The most rewarding thing about writing this is the response I’ve gotten from strangers. People who these characters would seem to have nothing in common with have reached out to say how they identified with them and all they went through.

On what’s next

Another novel! I’m feeling that pot beginning to boil over and though I have lots of notes and thoughts, I am very much looking forward to buckling down this fall. All of the nice press and fun events I’ve been doing for Ask Again, Yes have been a dream, but I don’t feel myself when I’m not writing fiction every day.

@SophieGrenham

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