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Author Talk: July 9, 2015

Marian Keyes is a celebrated author with a loyal (and vocal!) fan base and two #1 Sunday Times bestsellers under her belt. Her latest book, THE WOMAN WHO STOLE MY LIFE, introduces Stella Sweeney, who becomes a newly minted self-help memoirist when she learns that her doctor compiled and published a memoir about the illness for which he was treating her. As things become more complicated, Stella must learn who she was before her illness --- and who she is now. In this interview, Keyes reveals what inspired Stella’s journey and shares details of her own journey as an author (and, believe it or not, how the two overlap!). She also talks about auctioning off her character’s name, and why she believes films are lovely but books are and always will be enough.

Question: Your portrayal of the publishing industry and its players is sharp and funny. Are any of the details drawn from your own experience?

Marian Keyes: Thank you! I’ve been very lucky in that from the word go, my books sold, so I didn’t have Stella’s experience of things not really working out for her. But I’ve been on countless hellish book tours --- I’ve gone on breakfast telly in New Zealand feeling genuinely afraid that I was going to vomit after a jetlag-induced sleepless night. I’ve done a few three-week tours, where I averaged four-and-a-half hours of sleep a night. I can’t tell you how many times delayed flights have made me late for literary breakfasts/lunches/dinners and where the crowd turned ugly! I’ve done book “signings” where literally not a single person has turned up. I’ve had missing luggage and had to show up at events with entirely the wrong clothes. Oh yes, plenty of my own experiences went into writing Stella’s book tours. 

Q: How have you grown as a writer since your first book was published?

MK: I’ve become so much better at editing myself. My books are very conversational and chatty, but I’ve managed to rein it in a bit. I’ve become a tidier plotter --- things that are set up or promised early in the book need to be threaded through to their completion, they can’t just slip off the radar. I’ve never done a creative writing course, so I’ve learnt the craft of writing on the job and with the guidance of an intelligent, sensitive editor. Writing is like anything else --- the more you practice, the better you get.

Q: Guillain-Barré is an extremely rare disease and is likely unknown to most readers. How did you discover it, and what made you decide to use it as the launching point of Stella’s story?

MK: Yes, Guillain-Barré is an extremely rare disease, and I knew nothing about it until about 12 years ago when, over the course of a single weekend, two people I knew contracted it. One of them lived in Chicago, the other lived in Dublin, so it wasn’t as if they were part of a wider epidemic. The coincidence was startling --- and the syndrome itself is a strange, unpleasant one, where the patient becomes paralyzed, often losing the use of all their muscles, even their ability to speak and breathe. However, perhaps unusually for such an extreme condition, it’s fully recoverable from.

I thought I’d forgotten all about it until I was writing this book and it resurfaced from my subconscious: I needed to write about a debilitating illness that tests Stella’s endurance, but I also needed the illness to be one that it’s possible, indeed typical, to recover fully from.
Q: Part of Stella’s appeal is that she has a very realistic balance of strength and vulnerability. How fully formed was she when you began this novel?

MK: Before I wrote a single word, I knew that Stella was going to be an upbeat character, a straightforward human being, a grounded person, a realist who accepts that sometimes bad stuff happens to good people. It was a real pleasure to spend time in her head --- I found her very uplifting!
Q: Zoe, Georgie, Gilda and Karen reflect a wide spectrum of female relationship dynamics, yet each woman --- in drastically different ways --- helps Stella along on her journey. What does Stella gain from each woman? Have you had any friendships or family dynamics that are similar to hers?

MK: Zoe shows Stella what a person becomes when they succumb to bitterness, so even when things get very bad for Stella, it’s a road she refuses to go down.

Karen is Stella’s brutal voice of reason --- telling the truth, even when Stella doesn’t want to hear it.

I love the relationship between Georgie and Stella --- they simply couldn’t be more different. Georgie is wildly solipsistic, everything centers around Georgie and she regards humble, uncomplicated Stella as an exotic creature. And Stella “steals” Georgie’s husband. Nevertheless, they bond.

Stella’s relationship with Gilda is extraordinarily complex. When they meet, Stella is vulnerable and lonely, living in a foreign country and has lost sight of her usual markers. She’s so afraid (of failure, of looking “wrong”) that she loses her sense of judgment. And Gilda isn’t a bad person, she’s simply an ambitious one. Stella might have been wrong to trust her, but that’s life, isn’t it? We’re human, we make mistakes --- we can’t know everything.

As for me, I have a variety of female friends, and as I’ve gotten older, I see how some people --- like my character Zoe --- let a loss or betrayal define them. I think it’s perfectly normal to be wounded by events, but I like to carry my scars and move forward, rather than staying stuck in my grievance. 

I don’t have anyone as brutally honest as Karen around me --- I’m a gentle person and I couldn’t cope with her brand of bruising truth. My friends are frank, but if they have to criticize me, they couch it in kindness.

Yes, I have a couple of Georgies --- women who are so glamorous and fabulous that they dazzle me. I find them hugely entertaining, extremely interesting and I’m very, very fond of them --- and I think they are of me also. We have absolutely nothing in common, but I still love the time we spend together.

And do I have a Gilda? Well, I’ve certainly been wrong about people. Who hasn’t? Yes, I’ve found myself in “friendships” where I realized that I no longer liked the person, or I suddenly realized that they wanted me for the wrong reasons. However, I’m still open, and I’m still willing to give people a chance.
Q: You have a very loyal fan base. Do you receive a lot of feedback from your readers? Does that influence your writing in any way?

MK: Yes, I do have a very loyal fan base, which I’m profoundly grateful for. And yes, I do receive all kinds of feedback --- mostly extremely positive (thanks, guys!) --- but what has become more and more clear to me over the years is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and that everyone is entitled to her opinion.

Nevertheless, I try to write without taking account of the opinions and asks of others. This sounds extremely arrogant, but I can explain: I wrote my first book for me --- I didn’t think anyone was ever going to get to read it --- so it was written honestly and entirely without self-censorship. And it worked. So I think I best serve my readers by still writing that way. I ask myself, “Would I want to read this book? Would I be convinced by it?”
Q: What was the inspiration for Ryan’s Project Karma?

MK: I think I must have read about something similar. Often I read or hear about things, and they plant themselves in my subconscious and emerge when I need them. The whole notion of divesting ourselves of all material goods in a quest for happiness is a very old one. I’m sure you know the saying “Possessions possess us.” But for most people, the idea of giving away every single thing they own fills them with horror. And so it proves for Ryan.

Q: You mention in the acknowledgments that you named a character after a bidder in a charity auction. How did that come about?

MK: Oh, that happens a lot. Many, many authors are asked to contribute a name in their next book as a way of raising money for charity.

Q: The book ends with a series of beginnings --- a new baby, a new stage in Stella and Mannix’s relationship. Could you see revisiting any of these characters in a future book?

MK: In general, I don’t believe in sequels. It’s flattering when people finish reading my books and they want to know more about the characters and how they fare. But I like to think that each of my books is a completed journey --- that the characters have been left in a positive place, with the tools to go forward in their lives.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I’m working on an SOS (sort of sequel) to the very first book I wrote 20 years ago, WATERMELON. Because so much time has passed since I first wrote about Claire Walsh, it feels almost like an entirely new book.
Q: If THE WOMAN WHO STOLE MY LIFE was adapted into a film, who would be your ideal actors?

MK: I’m sorry if I sound snippy, but I get asked this question a lot (about all my books), and it drives me mad! It feels to me that films are regarded as culturally superior to books, or that a book isn’t fully validated until it’s been made into a film. Well, I totally disagree --- I love books. Books are great, you’re never alone with a book and books are enough. So please indulge me if I don’t answer this question.

Q: You’re an incredibly prolific writer. What is your process? Are you currently working on anything?

MK: Funnily enough, I don’t feel prolific at all. But as I said before, I’m currently revisiting Claire Walsh, with the added bonus that I get to revisit my beloved Walsh family, who’ve appeared in five of my novels so far. Claire and her husband decide to take time out from their long marriage --- this is a notion that’s currently having a moment. As we’re living longer, our expectations about what we want from marriage seem to be changing. Claire and Adam don’t want to split up, but they still have some living they want to do and the current working title is “Time Off for Bad Behavior.”

My process is I always start with the voice. I usually have a vague idea of what I’d like to write about, and I play around in my head with location, age of my character, situation in life, et cetera. Then sooner or later, a voice speaks in my head, usually what feels like an opening sentence. (It rarely survives, but it doesn’t matter --- basically, it’s a way in.) I write slowly, I proceed at a glacial pace, perfecting as I go. I never have any idea how the book is going to play out. It might sound mad, but I let the characters tell me.

I know lots of writers do one breakneck first draft, then go back and write and rewrite until it works. That’s not how it is for me, but there are no rules in writing. Whatever gets the book written is fine with me.

Thank you for your interest, for reading the book, and I very much hope you enjoyed it.