Helen Walsh, the youngest of Marian Keyes’ fictional Walsh sisters, is a brave, scrappy, wasp-tongued slip of a thing who works as a private investigator, dates a “beautiful Viking” called Artie and is “abnormally, almost psychotically contrary”. She is also highly depressed.
On a Skype call from Ireland, Keyes explains why it was Helen, heroine of her 2012 novel The Mystery of Mercy Close, who had to wrestle the black dog. “People have been asking for a book on Helen, but I didn’t think it was possible,” says the best-selling author, whose books are, “always about women who go through something unpleasant and emerge different”. Therein lay the problem as far as Helen was concerned. “Helen has a core of steel. Nothing frightens her and I couldn’t imagine her heart being broken by a man. So, there had to be something almost outside of her that would be her story.”
Then, by the end of 2009, Keyes encountered crippling depression that lasted almost four years. “When I wrote the book, I was going through my own spell of horrible mental health, and it suddenly seemed right that Helen would be dealing with this, too,” she says. By February 2011, she had hit an all-time low, “an 18-month spell where everything plunged”.
- On being a feminist
- I am very aware of the power imbalance between men and women. And every book I have written, has addressed it in some way or another. I suppose I was a feminist without knowing that I was one.
- On the Walsh family
- We are five siblings with big personalities like them. And yes, Mammy Walsh is similar to Mammy Keyes.
- On the book she is working on
- I have just started a book about three brothers and the women in their lives. They all have secrets, something happens and many of the secrets unravel one evening. Hopefully, it will be received with warmth and people will laugh.
- On creating flawed protagonists
- I think absolutes can exist only in an unreal world. There are no entirely good people and no entirely bad people. We all do things that clash with our core moral values.
- On writing
- My writing connects me to people. I feel very lucky to have found what I was meant to do.
Suicide was on her mind constantly during this darkest phase, she remembers. “Planning it all in vivid detail, and knowing I could go and act on it when I needed to, gave me comfort. Paradoxically, it made it easier to live.”
Which is, perhaps, why there are instances in The Mystery of Mercy Close , which was written around this time, that feel almost autobiographical. For instance, there is an incident that sees Helen, who is trying to buy a knife to slit her wrists with, having a conversation with a man in the shop (He asks her what she wants to cut). “I had that conversation too,” she says.
Marian Keyes always loved reading and storytelling, but she never thought she could make a career of it. “Also, I thought because I was Irish, nobody would want to hear my stories. I didn’t think we were interesting enough,” says Keyes, whose soft, lilted voice gives away her Celtic roots.
Instead, she went on to study law and accountancy and take up a series of jobs, none of which gave her much pleasure. Alcohol seemed to, instead, and she soon developed a dependence on it. “I always felt different, like a bit of an outsider. But when I drank, I felt the way normal people feel all the time,” she says.
By 30, she was alcoholic and ended up having to check into rehab, like Rachel Walsh, protagonist of her second novel, Rachel’s Holiday . “I thought it was going to be very glamorous and full of massages and treatments and yoga. Instead, it was overcrowded and I had to peel potatoes,” she laughs.
Not just Irish Blarney
It was around this time that she started writing. “I do think the two were connected — I started writing in September 1993 and got sober in 1994,” says Keyes, whose first book, Watermelon , came out in 1995. A dozen or so more novels about other “ordinary women who go through extraordinary stuff”, soon followed. Her latest, released last year— The Break — is a humour-padded take on a marital crisis.
Her themes are serious — think addiction, rape, domestic abuse, serious illness, homosexuality, fractured marriages, abusive relationships…But there is also a slightly self-deprecatory wit at play here, which, when spliced with a multiple-voiced narrative, plenty of good sex, stiletto-wearing feminism, some brilliant one-liners, (Love is blind, there was no doubt about it. In Tara’s case, it was also deaf, dumb, dyslexic, had a bad hip and the beginnings of Alzheimer’s) and a guaranteed happily-ever-after ending, leaves you feeling all warm and happy.
“It is the way I was brought up, a very Irish thing,” says Keyes. Laughing at something painful, once you get a distance from it, is healing, believes Keyes. It is also a way of knowing how well you have gotten, “when you look back at something terrible and can raise a smile”.
Saved by cake
Keyes says that she tried a number of things including medication, mindfulness and exercise but help came from the strangest of sources: cake. Her book Saved by Cake: Over 80 ways to Bake Yourself Happy, a chatty, colourful recipe book of sorts, also offers glimpses of her struggle with depression and explains how embarking on this new hobby — baking — kept her going. “It is impossible to overstate how important it was; it literally kept me alive,” says Keyes. Weighing butter, sifting flour, mixing things together, working with colour and icing was an exercise in mindfulness, she remembers. “It was the only thing that calmed me back then.”
By 2014, however, the depression went away, just as suddenly as it had come. “The clouds parted and I could feel like I was coming up from a dark, dark place,” she says. She still thinks of it as an illness that both came and left very suddenly. “I never thought I would feel normal again. And that is why I love to tell people — anyone who is in the black hole now — to hang on.”
She is immeasurably better today, she says, adding, however, that “it is impossible to have come out of something as huge as this and stay the same”. She backs out of stressful situations, for instance, refusing opportunities or cutting back on work and travel if needed. “Earlier, I was always exhausted because I pushed myself. Now, I live my life and have more fun; I see the beauty and happiness in the small things,” says the writer. “My mental health is more important than anything else and I value feeling normal.”