“It’s five years since I’ve been able to do a public reading event.” Those were Marian Keyes’s words as she settled into her chair for a Q&A with Sunday Times columnist India Knight at Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly this week. The event marked the publication of Keyes’s 12th novel, The Woman Who Stole My Life, and when she saw the sell-out audience in front of her she admitted: “I’m overwhelmed. I could cry with gratitude. To be sitting here with this amazing woman – I’m living the dream.”
Marian Keyes is a remarkable writer. I became addicted to her books after an eye operation, when I had to lie on my side for a month and couldn’t read or watch TV. My daughter downloaded a stack of books for me to listen to and the author who got me through it was Marian Keyes. Last Chance Saloon, The Other Side of the Story, Sushi for Beginners, I listened to all of them, laughing at the brilliant repartee and weeping at the sad bits. Since then I’ve devoured every subsequent novel, marvelling at the unique way Keyes blends humour with serious issues. As I wrote in my review of The Mystery of Mercy Close, “what sets her apart is that even when she’s writing about hard-hitting subjects like depression and bankruptcy, she’s perceptive and funny – never preachy or pious.”
In person Keyes is charming, self-deprecating and laugh out loud funny. She insisted on answering all the audience’s questions (“you can ask me anything – there are no off limits”) and even my sceptical husband, who’d agreed to accompany me when my daughter had to work late, was won over inside 60 seconds.
India Knight, who’s a fan of Keyes’s writing and devoured her new book in a weekend, said she was “hysterically excited to be sitting here.” The conversation that followed covered everything from Keyes’s devotion to Strictly (especially the devastating Pasha Kovalev) to her Irish Times make-up column (she loves Bobbi Brown Art Sticks but has only got the Electric Pink shade so far – “though I’ve got my eye on the Raspberry”).
At one point, after experiencing major depression, she feared she might never write another book, let alone promote it at an event like this. “It has been a very strange five years,” she said. ”I thought I would never write again. I thought I was so broken I could barely construct a sentence.” The first book she wrote afterwards was Saved by Cake – “it got me through hell.” It’s clearly served its purpose because she doesn’t bake at all any more and has given away all her baking equipment.
Keyes is a prolific tweeter and she admitted that Twitter helped to bring back her love of writing – “it’s much more of a force for good than anything else,” she said. “I find people to be incredibly funny and nice.”
These days Keyes doesn’t watch the bestseller lists like she once did and says that she’s “a lot less driven, a lot less dark and a lot more grateful.” She tries not to hold grudges – “because I hate feeling angry” – although she’s still livid at a critic from way back who described Rachel’s Holiday as “forgettable froth.” The Waterstones audience was so outraged at this that a gasp of indignation filled the room. Actually, Keyes tries not to read reviews at all these days because “they can wreck your head, whether they are good or bad.”
A member of the audience asked whether Keyes minds being called a chick lit author and she revealed that she hates it. “The word ‘chick’ is pejorative,” she said. “There are men who write the equivalent of chick lit and their work isn’t called lad lit…” “Or dick lit,” quipped somebody.
Other questions included whether Keyes would ever go on Strictly and it emerged that she was actually asked four years ago. “But I wouldn’t do it in a trillion years. I would be the Ann Widdecombe of the show. I’m beyond clumsy.” Someone else, knowing that Keyes’s husband is a Watford FC fan, asked whether she understood the offside rule. The answer was, despite her husband’s best efforts, no. Keyes is far more interested in details like the cars players drive, why football managers get sacked – “the human aspect of football.”
Several of Keyes’s books feature the exuberant Walsh family, but asked who was her favourite, she said she was “very fond of all of them.” The great news is that her next book is going to be about Claire Walsh – the one who is “great fun and would always have some fake tan you could borrow.” Like millions of other Keyes fans, I can’t wait…
The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes (Penguin, £18.99)
Image: Iain Philpott