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Interview: May 7, 2004

May 7, 2004 contributing writer Bethanne Kelly Patrick talks to Marian Keyes, whose latest novel THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY introduces readers to three women who each encounter problems with the men in their lives. Keyes discusses why she chose to write a book about the publishing industry, her thoughts on the Chick Lit genre and her involvement in a Russian children's orphanage.

BRC: You've said that JoJo was the character you originally planned to write about. At what point in your writing process did the idea for this novel "hatch?"

MK: It hatched when I was writing ANGELS, and what happened was I have two good friends who are lawyers: one in LA and one in Britain who both hit glass ceilings at work. There were different circumstances. One was on the fast track to partner but was instantly sidelined when she got pregnant. The other was bringing in more money than a male colleague, and the guy got promoted and she didn't. This really does happen! Allegedly we're all equal in these post-feminist times. But this really opened my eyes to how unequal the world still is! Sexism is still rife in the marketplace. It politicized me. Then, I went to Ethiopia for a charity called Concern. There, no matter how poor the people are, the women are the poorest and they do all the invisible work. The statistics are horrific worldwide: women get paid 1/10 of the wages, own 1/100 of the property and do 2/3 of the work. So between my friends and those stats, seeing that women are the lowest of the low reawakened my feminist side.

BRC: What did you find most challenging in telling the stories of three different characters?

MK: I wanted their voices to be very distinct and to tell different sides of the story. So I told the stories by using very different voices for each character. JoJo's sentences are shorter; she's much more abrupt and quicker. Gemma is very chatty and conversational. Lily's sentences are more thoughtful and meditative. She doesn't use ellipses.

It was challenging --- making them all likeable and still so nice, especially with the history behind Gemma and Lily. I wanted Lily to be as likeable as I could.

BRC: Explain what the phrase "the other side of the story" means to you, or what it meant to you in terms of this particular book.

MK: It means that the truth is never absolute in human relationships, no matter how you feel wronged by somebody. There are always three sides to a story: your side, their side, and the truth. It was such fun to write about friendship, both the misunderstandings and the reconciliation.

BRC: Did you deliberately set out to write about the publishing industry, or did that just work for your characters/story? Are any of the three characters' experiences ones you've had personally, or have heard about from others? If so, please dish! If not, please talk about how you created that world for Gemma, JoJo and Lily.

MK: What motivated me was gender politics --- I wanted to write about women in the workplace. I thought about setting it in the legal world, as two of my friends (who I mentioned before) are both lawyers. But I felt uncomfortable about it --- like I was cannibalizing their lives. So I looked around for another industry. Publishing was a good one because I know it so well and I didn't need to do as much research.

The experiences that the characters had were ones I'd experienced, especially Lily's! Having a reading where no one comes. Hell on earth with photographers. Having my photo taken is the worst part of the job! The photographers are always young guys who want to make the photos so arty. It's dreadful --- I'm so un-photogenic and no matter what pose they put me in I feel like I'm still going to looking horrible! Also, Lily getting stitched up by journalists with an agenda --- that has definitely happened to me. And when Lily goes to the bookshop the day her book goes on sale and couldn't find her own book --- that happened to me when I was first published!

Other things have happened to friends of mine. One was a writer who got a massive advance and huge expectations for her book. But publishing isn't an exact science, and her book didn't perform as expected. It was excruciating for the author, her friends, family and the editor and publisher. They were all so disappointed.

I love publishing. I think people who work in publishing are a lot more idealistic than in other industries. It's not all smooth sailing. So I thought book publishing was perfect for this story --- there was plenty to draw on. I did have to do research on agents; I spoke to a lot of friends to get the feel for agency life.

And I did get to hang out with firefighters in New York to get a good idea of who JoJo is and what formed her. They were all so good-looking and so nervous with women in the firehouse!

BRC: Gemma and her mother have very different visions of happiness. Tell us about Gemma's mum; put her in context for American readers.

MK: Gemma's mum is very unreconstructed, a pre-feminist. Her world is very retro: the men go out and work, pay all the bills, drive the cars and do all the official stuff, while the ladies stay home and cook the meals, keep house and make everything lovely. So when her husband goes, her defining characteristics are taken away. When she says it would have been better if her husband had died, she wasn't joking. The shame of being abandoned at her age was just too great.

BRC: It must have been rather fun writing Gemma's long emails, interesting to delve into JoJo's world, and painful to experience Lily's anti-nesting angst. What was it like to dip in and out of their lives? Did you try to write most of one character's story before going on to the next, or not?

MK: I actually wrote the different character's stories as they appear in the book, in that order. I would do a big chunk of Gemma, then JoJo, then Lily and then back to Gemma. Funny, it never occurred to write all of Gemma first! Some people have told me they read all of Gemma and skipped the others, then went back to read the other characters' stories in order.

It was great checking up on them (as I wrote) to see how they were getting along --- although it was a bit of a jolt to get into a new mindset as I came to each character again.

It was a very interesting book to write. It did stretch me, but I enjoyed the challenge. In trying to keep all the lives moving forward at the same pace, I couldn't spend too much time with one character.

BRC: You write about dark places with humor, and you've discussed how that comes from your own life experience, as does the redemption that most of your characters experience in one form or another. Is there a situation you don't think could be approached this way? Why or why not?

MK: There are some situations that I feel unworthy to write about. I just feel that trying to approach them with humor would be inappropriate. One is rape --- I wouldn't dare insult any woman who had been through such a horrible experience. Another is domestic violence --- there is nothing funny about it; it's hideous and grotesque. I feel some things are just beyond my entitlement to write about. I'm not going to judge anyone who writes about the issues if they feel it's appropriate for them, but I have a fear of getting it wrong, adding to others' pain or giving offense.

BRC: What do you think about the proliferation of so-called "Chick Lit?" Do you believe there's such a thing, and if so, what do you think defines it? Do you believe your books fall into the Chick Lit category?

MK: The title is meant to be demeaning, but it's a very important genre. It articulates (or it did in beginning) our post-feminist world, which is all contradiction and the choices inherent in that. Today women are independent --- they have money and jobs, and all are equal in the workplace, except that it's the guys who get promoted. It also articulates our obsession with body image and food, and our anxieties --- career vs. motherhood, career vs. relationships. My generation is the first generation to benefit from what the feminists had done in the '60s and '70s. We believed everything was perfect and that everything was done with feminism. And it articulates our addictions --- exercise, spending too much, etc. Chick Lit uses humor to reflect life back to us. It's a very comforting genre, and it's the first time our generation has had a voice. It's a very important genre for all of those reasons.

Yes, my books do fall into this category. Of course, the genre (like any genre) has writers of varying qualities. But the way it sells shows how important it is, how comforting women find it.

BRC: You work in bed --- this sounds heavenly to many people out there, of course, but tell us about how you began this out-of-the-ordinary routine and a bit about your daily regime.

MK: When I used to go to a real job in the office, mornings were very difficult (although maybe that's because I'm somewhat prone to depression). I never thought it would happen, that I'd get to work in bed. As soon as I was able to write full time, I thought why would I get up? Isn't this the best place to be?

I have a very ordinary routine: Monday through Friday I start writing when I wake up, say around 8 am. Then, depending on energy levels, I write (on my laptop) about 6 hours on average. Then I get up, shower, get dressed, answer my emails, return phone calls, all the administration stuff. I have to be disciplined about it, which is such a disappointment. I wish it were all free and easy, but my books don't get written if I'm not disciplined.

BRC: Out of bed you're quite happily addicted to shoes, handbags, shopping in general and M&Ms. Where is/are your favorite place(s) to shop?

MK: I'm really bad with handbags now, worse than shoes! They've overtaken where I was with shoes before. New York is the best place in the world to shop. Right now I'm very taken with Henry Bendels --- there is so much quirky, fun, unusual stuff. I love cosmetics, especially at Sephora. And I love thrift shops! And, of course, I love bookshops! I've never met a store I didn't like.

London is also good to shop in. Dublin is okay but very bad for shoes. OH! And the Internet! is a great website --- they do gorgeous stuff and then send it to you. It's just like Christmas!

BRC: You married an Englishman and several years ago moved back to Ireland, "importing" him as you say. What's it like being back home, and close to your family again? Has it given you material enough for a slew of books?

MK: I love it. I didn't initially, I was very anxious about being back. Dublin is so small after being in London for such a long time. But I'm five minutes from my parents and my brother and sister are nearby, which is great. I love being close to my parents! I'm phenomenally lucky.

I don't think it's given me new material, but it has resuscitated my language. Irish people speak English in a different way than English people. The Irish use more interesting phrases, they're much more colorful. The Irish love language, words, storytelling. It's a good environment to be in.

BRC: What do you read (busman's holiday!) when you have time for pleasure reading? Are you Catholic in your tastes, or do you have a favorite genre?

MK: I read a lot! At the moment I'm reading a lot of crime. It used to be that I could only read lighthearted stuff --- anything too much into the dark side of humanity and such horrible things would distress me terribly. But I've run out of lighthearted stuff. So now I'm reading slightly darker fiction, like Harlan Coben and Val McDermid. I still enjoy comedy, or Chick Lit --- I do like Sophie Kinsella. I tried to expand recently and read Phillip Roth for the first time. I didn't want to because he's so misogynistic --- after reading him I realize he's still a misogynist, but so brilliant and so talented. I also really enjoy travel writing. I just read a great book about going to India, HOLY COW. I don't have a favorite genre (it moves around a lot) but reading is still a great pleasure. Sometimes reading Chick Lit is hard because I find I'm so analytical --- "ooh, I love what has been done here", "oh, I wish I'd thought of that", etc.

BRC: You are the patroness for a Russian children's orphanage. How did that come to be? Tell us about the orphanage and what you hope you can give to the children there.

MK: Yes, it's called To Russia With Love. It came about because they just approached me. I've always been very much a bleeding heart liberal; for years I was a member of Amnesty International. One of the nicest things about being published is that I can actually raise the profile for different charities. I've worked with the homeless in Ethiopia.

The woman who started To Russia With Love was an ordinary Dublin housewife, and then she took two orphans into her home for a summer holiday. After a while she missed them, so she tracked them down in Russia. Their orphanage was a nightmare --- it was filthy and freezing, and the kids received no affection and were dysfunctional. There were no mirrors, so the kids didn't know what they looked like --- they had no identity. Before she left she took a photo of the group of kids and left the picture with them. It was the first time they could see what they actually looked like, but they cut their heads out of the picture because they were so uncomfortable with seeing themselves. They had so little to define themselves.

I went to visit in January. It has changed a lot since Debbie first went (she's the Dublin housewife who started the charity). She's done so much work to rebuild the physical structure of the orphanage. It is in a very pretty, homey, forested part of Russia. The harder part is rebuilding the children. They have had shocking backgrounds, with parents murdering lovers, alcoholism rampant. But they are such dignified little creatures. There were definite bonds formed when I was there. By the end the affection was as much from me as from them --- it was very genuine. We had no language in common, but we still managed to communicate.

Now I've written articles about my visit and the orphanage, and loads of money have been raised. There's even a dentist in the U.S. who has offered to come to the orphanage to take care of the kids' teeth. There are others who are going to come to help --- the practical help given helps so much.

Visit ToRussiaWithLove --- you can see some of the work done. It's so exciting.

BRC: What comes next for you? Will you be writing more on the Walsh sisters? Which one(s)? Will you write in new genres/styles, as well?

MK: The next book is hopefully going to be called MAGICIAN'S GIRL, and will be all about Anna Walsh. It will be told using a lot of email, which is just a different way of conveying information. I'm already about 30,000 words into it, and when I'm done with my tour I will settle back into it.

I also have plans for a Helen Walsh book, possibly a comic detective novel. The character of Helen is so tough --- if she was human I'd be devastated! She's tough, doesn't care who she offends and is emotionally impermeable.

I hope to experiment with different narrative forms in my future books.