Lauren Keenan tells Eleanor Black how she finally found the confidence to claim her place as a writer
Lauren Keenan's first book is a small miracle, picked up off the slush pile in a busy publishing house and turned into a pretty paperback with a marketing plan and a follow-up already in the works.
This almost never happens. The slush pile is where unsolicited manuscripts typically go to curl up at the edges and expire. Keenan never expected her draft of The 52 Week Project (Allen and Unwin, $33), pitched as a light-hearted pursuit of life's meaning, to go anywhere further than the recycling bin.
"I just sent it off because I didn't know what else to do with it," she says. "I thought slush piles were akin to shouting into the void."
Writing the manuscript had also been like shouting into the void. When Keenan, 40, came up with the idea of doing 52 new and challenging things in a year, she was desperately sad and lonely. Her marriage was in trouble, she had two small children who needed her, it was winter in Wellington and she did not really like herself all that much. She needed an assignment to force herself to refocus outwards and upwards.
Having kept a journal since she was 10 - a series of notebooks she describes as "horrible and embarrassing and amazing all at once" - she naturally wrote about each new thing as she tried it, from a treetop confidence course to performing stand-up comedy.
Some of the new things have been incorporated into her ongoing routine (mountain biking), some she wishes never to do again (feeding lions, swimming with sharks) and others were unexpectedly significant (being a parent-helper at school and eating a vodka-infused doughnut with her mother, who has since lost her stomach to cancer).
The book is, as promised in promotional material, funny and joyful but it is also unexpectedly tragic and insightful, an appealing mix of memoir and psychology. A fan of American researcher Brene Brown, who has made vulnerability a cornerstone of her work, Keenan fearlessly shares the depths of her loneliness and despair. She doesn't try to be cool or likeable, although her honesty makes her very likeable.
"There's a massive stigma attached to loneliness - it's hard to cold-call someone," she says, recalling her disappointment and embarrassment when she asked 27 different people to accompany her to a movie and got 27 rejections. "When I was a teenager I had all these people I could pick up the phone and call. Now it's bad etiquette to call somebody, so you message them and you see their three little dots and maybe you get something really short back and you don't know if it's a conversation or not. There's no space in those interactions to be vulnerable."
Early in the book, Keenan challenges herself to wear red lipstick in public, a personal act of bravery and is surprised and relieved to realise that no one cares whether she has "party lips".
She remembers: "I'd been insecure for so long, I'd turned something really simple - wearing red lipstick - into this massive psychological barrier that was disproportionate to the actual facts of the matter."
Keenan writes of being voted the third-ugliest person at her school when she was 15 and the lifelong consequences of this categorisation. She has since seen herself as the funny one, the self-deprecating sidekick, the person who doesn't stand up for herself.
"It's actually been hard to get out of that dynamic with some people," she says. "I have one friend who always makes fun of me. I've known her for 25 years." When Keenan pushed back, "She said to me, 'You just need a sense of humour.'"
Keenan (Te Atiawa ki Taranaki) grew up in Palmerston North and has lived in Wellington for most of her adult life. In February she and her family moved to Honolulu, where she works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has used Covid isolation and the distance from family and friends to concentrate on her writing, which is diverse: a kids' time travel adventure based on her whakapapa, self-help, short stories about "little problems that are actually big problems" and a rural crime novel.
"When I was at university everyone had the great unwritten novel in them," she says. "I wrote in secret. It's hard to explain but I think it's because I didn't want to seem like a knob. When my oldest son was a baby I was veering on the edge of postnatal depression. I started writing a book to stop my rumination loop."
The book was chick lit and "incredibly mediocre" but it helped her think about something besides how awful she felt. She started writing a motherhood blog when her daughter Lily was a baby, in which she applied the 1945 Plunket book Modern Mothercraft to her 21st century life.
The first short story she ever wrote was included in Huia's 2015 collection. She was selected for the Te Papa Tupu Incubator for Māori writers in 2016 and was mentored by Renee, writing a collection of short stories, many of which have since been published by Huia.
She says finding a writing community and accessing the wisdom of writers like Renee and Whiti Hereaka was invaluable, giving her the confidence to call herself a writer and claim time for her work. She says that now she feels she is racing to capture all of her ideas on paper.
A year after Keenan completed her 52 new things, her son Amotai, now 9, was in a bad accident. They were at the park together - her son on the playground, her in the grass with a book. A teen was riding through the park and knocked him over, sending him to hospital and Keenan into a period of intense worry and fear. She got PTSD.
Once again, Keenan turned to writing to make sense of it. "Sometimes life gives you lemons and you don't have the recipe to make lemonade. All you can do is not drown."
She hopes that her experiences, as shared in that forthcoming book and in The 52 Week Project will help others struggling with trauma, loneliness, depression.
"Going through these hard times really sucks and I want it to be worth it," she says. "I am incredibly delighted to see the book published, and not just from a personal ego point of view. I hope it lands with people. I really want to hear about what new things people are doing - that would give me so much delight."