How novelist baked her way out of depression

By Jennifer Dann

Best-selling author Marian Keyes tells Jennifer Dann why she hates the term chick-lit and how she baked herself out of depression
Internationally acclaimed and best selling author, Marian Keyes. Photo / Nick Reed
Internationally acclaimed and best selling author, Marian Keyes. Photo / Nick Reed

Irish author Marian Keyes was nervous about the long-haul flight to New Zealand just 20 months after emerging from a debilitating bout of depression that left her unable to write for three years.

The best-selling author of 33 million books, including Rachel's Holiday and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, is in New Zealand to promote her new memoir, Making It Up As I Go Along, and do a spot of hiking with husband Tony Baines, known as "Himself" to her legions of dedicated Twitter followers.

Since her mid-2014 recovery, Keyes has been writing monthly columns on beauty for the Irish Times and on wellbeing - Mind Your Head - for the Sunday Times, now syndicated to the Australian Women's Weekly.

The 52-year-old says her latest book is "lovingly curated" from these columns along with a selection of her travel writing, website newsletters and unpublished writing.

With her trademark blend of wit, wisdom and Irish idiom, Keyes muses on wide-ranging concerns from how you can be a feminist and love makeup, to finding the power of the word "sorry".

The latest collection of essays is Keyes' third.

The prolific novelist felt the need to offer fans something in between novels, which now take two years to write. She's also published a recipe book, Saved by Cake, about how baking got her through depression.

Does she know what set off such a severe bout?

"There was no obvious trigger. It was a real surprise. I did wonder if menopause was part of it. I had a gynaecologist alter my dose of hormones. I mean, I tried everything. Jesus, I was on every f***in' tablet going. I was hospitalised twice and there was fresh hope with every new combination of pills. I don't think there is a silver bullet. I just fumbled my way through and endured. Depression is the wrong word for what we go through. People think it must mean 'sad' or 'down' and that doesn't even start to describe the cauterisation and sense of alienation that goes on. It should be called something like 'disconnection syndrome'.

"Twitter helped me connect with people when I was feeling really isolated. When I've got insomnia, I can tweet and there'll always be somebody."

Keyes counts Twitter, upcycling furniture, sugar and Danish television among her addictions.

"It's something about the sound of the Danish language. I find it incredibly soothing."

But she has never used writing as a tool to work through her depression, saying she wants to give readers the the best possible experience and to do that she has to be in a "very sturdy, steady spot."

Keyes spearheaded the genre dubbed "chick lit" with her novel, Watermelon, 20 years ago and has bridled against the term ever since.

"Anything that helps women articulate their world has to have a reductive, pejorative label slapped on it," she says. "Men like Tony Parsons and Nick Hornby, who were writing similar stories at the same time, were treated as 'real writers'. It's demeaning to the concerns of women."

The 52-year-old says the genre is no longer in fashion, being replaced by what she calls "grip lit" - thrillers with able female protagonists such as Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins' The Girl On The Train. An avid fan, Keyes says she couldn't emulate their meticulous plots and terse, rapier-like prose.

"I simply don't have that skill, but I'm not going to chase a trend. I can only write from the heart."

Humour has a non-negotiable role in Keyes' books, which are selling as well as ever. She credits her enduring popularity on the fact her concerns change with her readers as they age together.

"We're the sandwich generation. Almost everyone I know has teenage children and at least one parent with Alzheimer's. The woman I'm writing about in my new novel, Time Off For Bad Behaviour, is 44, peri-menopausal and her husband wants to take a six-month break from the marriage. It's one of these things that's grown in popularity in San Francisco. They're always first at that lark, so it's only a matter of time before it arrives here. It's fun to write, although it would be my worst nightmare. I am never getting undressed in front of another man."

Keyes' story A Woman's Right To Shoes is being made into a short film in New Zealand in May, directed by Robyn Grace and starring Antonia Prebble. Watermelon and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married have been made into TV series and Last Chance Saloon a French film.

"Watermelon was nothing like the book. I never get excited because I will have no say in it." says Keyes. "I've had to sever myself from any kind of expectation or attachment because it's not mine anymore. I'm so lucky writing books because I'm communicating with the reader almost directly."

But she's not concerned about A Woman's Right To Shoes and wishes the film well. "I'm not worried, partly because it's New Zealand and you do things so well here, I loved Top of the Lake."

- Canvas

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 28 Apr 2017 08:18:12 Processing Time: 645ms