Marian Keyes' new novel, her 12th, The Brightest Star in the Sky was inspired, she says, by Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series— "I loved the way he wrote [about] the massive cast of characters and the way we all intersect, and the impact that we have on other peoples' lives without even knowing it."
The novel revolves around the inhabitants of 66 Star Street, Dublin, who are introduced by a mysterious narrator whose identity is not fully revealed until the end.
"Most people don't guess until a good way in," says Keyes with satisfaction: "They think: Is it death? Is it an angel? Is it a ghost? What can it be?" In the top floor flat lives Katie, a record company PR celebrating her 40th birthday. Living below Katie is angry, spiky cab driver Lydia who flat-shares with two Polish men. In the flat below them is elderly Jemima and her dog and in the ground floor flat Matt and Maeve— a young couple seemingly very much in love. But, this being Marian Keyes, the story goes much, much deeper than tangled love lives.
Trial and error
Previous novels have touched on domestic violence, addiction and bereavement and the characters of The Brightest Star in the Sky have some dark struggles of their own. Keyes says: "For me, it's all about the characters. I'm very slow at the start of the book because I don't know who my characters are. They don't come fully formed. I only get to know them by trial and error. Lots of error." The book also reflects modern Dublin, with Polish, Nigerian and Ukrainian characters and she comments how thrilling immigration has been for Ireland "because for so long we were mono-ethnic and insular."
And so to the vexed question of "chick lit". Keyes is often saddled with the chick lit tag, used within the industry and more broadly as shorthand for a genre (it's certainly a lot quicker to say, and type, than "young female commercial fiction"). I wonder if she finds this annoying? Her response is thoughtful: "I suppose it should annoy me as I suppose I feel misrepresented... I feel that what I write has genuine worth. I've been writing for 14 years so inevitably I have matured, my style has matured, my concerns have matured and the writer I was 14 years ago, I'm not that person any more. But at the same time, I've always felt that I've written about post-feminist women.
"I've always felt that I have tried to give women of a particular generation a voice. I do think chick lit has potentially been very powerful as it has looked at things like our awful relationship with our bodies, our relationship with food, with the beauty industry, our relationship with work—the fact we're still not equal;. So I don't think chick lit is always as fluffy as the title implies.
"Nevertheless, I sort of feel disloyal to say I've transcended it, I've evolved and so have my readers. I still think there's a place for the fluffy. I do think it's another form of misogyny, to denigrate books that are written for women by women about women."
She would describe her own books as "comic contemporary women's fiction" and says the comic aspect is very important: "I have always used humour to survive my many, various forms of darkness. Things are really funny when they cut to the bone [when they cover] what it means to be human, and to be mortal, and to be fragile and imperfect."
Keyes' own battles have been well documented. Born in 1963 in Limerick, she graduated from University College Dublin with a law degree and moved to London in 1986 for a succession of low-level jobs. She's very precise about when she first started to write—September 1993—as she went into rehab in January 1994 for alcoholism and depression.
She describes the time in between as "four of the most desperate months of my life". The short stories she wrote then were not cathartic she says, but, feeling suicidal and "overwhelmed with hopelessness" rather "an attempt to keep me alive, and I know that sounds very dramatic".
After leaving rehab she was feeling sufficiently positive to send the stories to the Irish publisher Poolbeg. Editor Kate Cruise O'Brien asked to see a few chapters of the novel Keyes had claimed to be working on. In fact she hadn't even started but rattled off four chapters in a week. These eventually became her first novel Watermelon, published in 1995 in Ireland and in the UK by Reed in 1997.
Keyes followed her UK editor Louise Moore from Reed to Penguin, which has published her ever since. She has seen many changes in the industry over the years: "It's become a lot more brutal. I see it with first-time authors, there's far less opportunity to build an author any more. You're straight out of the tracks and if you're not a big success on the first book there isn't the same kind of loving care. I hope I don't sound disloyal saying that, but that is the reality."
Keyes has sold going on for five million copies of her books in the UK and of her success she says: "I think all I can try and do is write the best book I can write, and to try and write a book that I would like to read and hopefully if I'm honest, and as authentic as I can be, then it will resonate'"
"I think the human condition is a painful one. And I think the pain manifests itself in different ways but you know we're never without a burden and it's just what version it is today, or this year. And I don't mean that to sound really grim... It's just the way it is. As I move through the years different forms of challenges will come at me. It's grand. We're all struggling, we're all doing our best."
- John Lanchester | "We don't live in communities; our lives barely interact, barely intersect."
- Eowyn Ivey | "We can't reinvent endings, but what we can do is express the joy as it is there"
- Claire Freedman and Ben Cort | "We work well together and seem to be on the same wavelength"
- Onjali Q Raúf | 'All of our deepest discussions start off with a very simple question'
- Jojo Moyes | "It's not enough to put out a good book. You have to put out the best book you've ever done."