Talking Love and Longing with Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s “The Break”. Image sourced from Marian Keyes’s page. 

Marian Keyes is a bestselling Irish novelist — the prolific author of sixteen books of fiction, well regarded for titles like Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, and Last Chance Saloon. In her latest novel, The Break, Keyes continues to build on past themes, exploring relationships from female perspectives, and tackling difficult topics with a characteristic sense of humour and wit.

Amy’s husband Hugh has decided he needs some time off from their marriage — no, it’s not a divorce, but a break. Hugh will travel Southeast Asia while Amy remains at home with the kids, working her PR job and sorting through understandably muddled emotions. Amy has her own desires, feelings that tempt her to stray from her commitment to Hugh. Keyes works through a series of questions. Is Hugh a bad guy? Is Amy guilty of emotional unfaithfulness? Is their relationship built to last? She’s not quick to jump to conclusions. Instead her characters learn to accept messiness and to simply find comfort in companionship.

“I used to think the line dividing sane people from insane people was entirely black or white – sane or insane – with no grey area.,” thinks Amy, “but suddenly I see now that the grey area is enormous. It spreads far and wide and into every part of life.”

Last month, I had the opportunity to ask Marian some questions about the book. Take a look at our conversation for insights into characters and thoughts on what makes or breaks a satisfying relationship.

Rachel Gerry: Your style of writing is truly funny; Amy is full of one-liners and witty observations. What is the value of presenting serious content in a lighthearted manner?

Marian Keyes: Hello and thank you! I always write about issues that impact the lives of women and they’re often serious things. Using humour is a trick to keep the reader reading despite the subject matter being uncomfortable or challenging. I think it’s probably a way to also keep me writing. However, I’m very careful to never use humour to undermine a serious subject.

R: Social media plays a significant role in this novel. Facebook helps Amy to keep an eye on Hugh when he is away and to monitor peoples’ reactions when he returns. Do you believe that platforms like Facebook have a negative impact on modern day relationships?

MK: I’m not really on Facebook for the very reason that I find it unsettling and sometimes actually upsetting. Seeing other people out ‘Living their best life’ and being on amazing holidays etc. makes me feel like my own existence is pretty pathetic. I guess I see how good it can be in staying in touch with loved ones who live far away but by presenting an idealized picture of other lives, Facebook can erode the value we put on our own less-than-perfect relationships.

R: Amy’s affair with journalist, Josh Rowan, is strictly emotional before it becomes physical. Is there an important difference between these forms of infidelity?

MK: I don’t think I’d be too happy if my husband was emotionally infatuated with another women. But I think I’d be far more distraught if it was physical. Up to a point I think flirtations are okay, I mean we’re all human. But in Amy’s case, it was a bit more than that, long before it got physical.

R: At times, the children seem to have it more together than the parents. “We’ve been chill about this,” reminds Amy’s daughter, Kiara. Where do they derive their strength and maturity?

MK: Kiara was very much inspired by my beloved niece Ema, who is amazing. She’s an old soul even though she’s only 17. Also, I think modern kids have been given an education in emotional intelligence that I never got. They have the language to express how they feel, they have labels to hang their emotions on. Schools are so pro-active in trying to prevent mental health issues that it’s made a difference to how teens view the world. As a caveat though, I should stress that while they can be wise about other people, they still find their own feelings confusing and sometimes overwhelming.

R: Many chapters begin with the announcement of the weekday, often a Monday. What does this say about Amy’s routine? Her feelings towards it?

MK: It’s predictable, it’s tough and there aren’t that many opportunities for fun. Like, so many people, poor Amy has a lot on her plate.

R: “I feel like I need to hurt you,” says Amy when Hugh returns. Is it important to feel even in a relationship?

MK: I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand the question. But I totally understand Amy wanting to hurt Hugh because he’s hurt her so much. I think it’s a natural response.

R: Amy realizes that no relationship is black and white. “Life is all about the grey”. When you began to write this book, were you aware of its ending? Or were you unsure of how to navigate through “the grey”?

MK: I had NO idea how it was going to end. It was only through the writing of this novel that I realised just how much of life is ‘grey’. Every relationship is nuanced and now I feel that no-one has any right to comment on another person’s relationship: the people who are living it are the only ones who truly understand its unique complexity. So yes, I was very uncertain about navigating the nuances. All I knew was that there were no goodies and no baddies, just flawed humans trying to do their best.

R: What do you believe is most important quality in a long-term relationship?

MK: Tricky one. I was going to say Kindness because it’s what I look for in everyone. But I guess for a longterm relationship to survive, it means the 2 people have to learn to forgive each other for their fallibility. Holding each other to impossibly high standards is going to fail. From time to time, even when we love someone, we’re all going to make mistakes, get things wrong, be thoughtless, selfish, foolish. To recognise that your partner is just a flawed human being, just like you, instead of a perfect saviour, can be disappointing but it also provides a realistic view of things from which to work.

R: (With reference to the above.) Do you think that your characters ever find it?

MK: Absolutely!

Thank you very much, these were great questions

Marian Keyes’s “The Break” was published earlier this year by Penguin and is now available online and in store. Find out more about the author here.

Writing to a Resolution: A Conversation with Jen Waite

Cover design by Jason Booher, art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

Text: Michelle Cheung

What happens when the love of your life — the best friend who’s also sexy, funny, tall with slicked back black hair, the kind the casting agency sends over when asked for “the One” in a romantic comedy — turns out to be a series of lies weaved together into a shape of a man? What does it say about who you are? And what kind of a life can you lead afterwards? These are the central questions in Jen Waite’s raw memoir, A Beautiful, Terrible Thinga gripping account of her marriage to and freedom from ‘Marco,’ her husband and father to their newborn daughter. When Waite discovers an email that suggests her husband is having an affair, she tries to rebuild their relationship. Instead, what comes to light in her search for the truth are more irreconcilable lies, betrayals, and deceit.

Aside from the riveting narrative of the destruction of her marriage, Waite’s memoir is remarkable in its immediacy of feeling; she is unafraid to show ‘Marco’ at his worst or to reveal herself at her most vulnerable. That she started writing what would become the memoir soon after leaving her ex-husband perhaps lends to its undiluted quality, something often lost in memoirs written in retrospect years after. A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is triumphant in spirit as it chronicles not only the loss of faith and destruction brought on by ‘Marco’ but also Waite’s rise from its wastes.

Novella had a chance to meet and chat with Ms. Waite regarding her memoir and her creative process.

Michelle: When did you start writing?

Jen Waite: I have always loved to write ever since I was a kid. In college I took a creative writing course and wanted to major in it but ended up spending a year abroad in France, which led to me majoring in French. I didn’t write professionally until I wrote my memoir. I started writing it soon after I discovered the email that set things in motion in January of 2015. I moved home to Maine in February and I was writing by May or June. At first, it was about getting everything out on the page because I felt that I needed a release. Then after probably a month of writing, I realized that I was writing a memoir.

M: Tell us about the writing process. Was it a cathartic/healing experience? 

JW: Definitely, it was extremely healing. I’ve come to the conclusion that even if I didn’t sell it and decide to share my story, it would still be healing. Writing it in and of itself was a huge thing — everything else is kind of like icing on the cake. The writing process was like an exorcism. It helped me understand everything that was happening and what I was dealing with, what I was going through.

I think that my particular writing process is pretty atypical from what I’ve heard from other people in the industry. I sat down that first day to start writing and didn’t stop for four months. My daughter was three months old when I started and seven or eight months old when I finished. There was editing left, still, for another couple of months, but otherwise it was a really quick process.

I just wrote feverishly for about five months and every sentence, every scene — I felt like it was already in my head and I just needed to get it down on paper. People ask, ‘Was it in the editing process that you went and did the before and after structure?’ The structure came out completely naturally, not that I had experience writing a book or a thriller before.

M: Was it hard for you to write your book while you were taking care of your daughter?

JW: Practically speaking, I remember there were some times when it’d be difficult. She was a pretty good napper, so she would nap for a couple of hours and I would write then. Sometimes I’d hear her waking up and I’d be in the middle of a scene, so most times I would try to finish before she woke up. And after she went to bed, I would be pretty exhausted from the day but still feel the need to just get some stuff out. Physically and mentally it was a bit draining but I felt so compelled.

“Ultimately, that was what allowed me to become
resolved with the whole relationship:
figuring out the thing inside me that needed healing.”
Jen Waite, author of ‘A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal’

M: What advice would you give to someone in an abusive relationship?

JW: First thing first, if you’re planning to leave or if you’re seeing these signs that you are in a relationship with someone who is somewhere on the psychopathy spectrum or with a narcissistic personality disorder, you’re not dealing with a ‘normal person.’ If you can, try to get a support network in place. I am extremely fortunate to have really supportive parents, so I was able to leave and move in with them. I know that is not an option for a lot of people, but if you have any kind of support network, try to get that in place. And if you can, go no contact and be as boring as you possibly can. I think that is the smartest advice I can give. I know from my own experience that being boring is what made my ex-husband stop wanting to bother me because he wanted to move onto something with more drama or more excitement.

When you are going through the kind of heartbreak and devastation after this kind of betrayal, be really gentle with yourself. I was really judgmental about my own process. I just wanted to ‘get better’ and go through the process and was angry with myself for not being ‘recovered’ — whatever that means — sooner. You are dealing with your reality getting completely shattered, so don’t judge any feelings that you might have, be it of anger, grief, sadness, etc — feel whatever you have to feel.

I had an amazing therapist who helped me figure out what drew me to someone like Marco (that’s the name I use in the memoir) and what insecurities and issues I had. It wasn’t about how I was to blame but about the issues that we all have, like the need for validation, ignoring some red flags because we want to be a part of a fairy tale romance. Ultimately, that was what allowed me to become resolved with the whole relationship: figuring out the thing inside me that needed healing. It led me to feel that I was really well equipped to move forward and not have it happen again. When people go back out the gate ready to find someone again without doing the inner work, that’s when really bad patterns can form and you can end up getting back into the same kind of relationship as before. But it takes a long time to get to that point and it’s really scary to look into yourself.

M: What was the most difficult part of writing A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal?

JW: Editing it after I sold the manuscript to the publisher because I was in a different place then than when I was writing it. I had to go back, especially to the “Before” sections. When I was writing it, I was still very much in love with my husband and I hadn’t been able to separate my emotions from what I knew logically because it was almost a real-time process. I wrote it at a point where I could go back to the first time we met and when I truly believed that he was who I thought he was. I found that editing the before sections was very difficult because now I was much more resolved and I completely understood what my ex-husband was, a black void of a person. It was hard to take myself back to that place of being in love with this guy because now I saw through him so clearly.

M: What do you want your readers to take away from A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal?

JW: It depends on the reader, but I hoped that anyone who has experienced this kind of relationship before feels like they are not alone and maybe has some comfort in that and some validation.

It depends on the reader but I hope that anyone who has experienced this kind of a relationship will feel like they’re not alone and maybe find some comfort and validation in that. It happens all the time and this is a common story, which I myself did not know before I wrote the memoir. The people who end up in these relationships tend to be very empathetic, kind people. It is not their fault. Yes, it is very important to do some inner work, but at the same time, just know that usually you have been preyed upon because of your empathy and because of your vulnerabilities. Psychopaths and narcissists are extremely manipulative and charming. And I hope that a reader who has not been in this kind of a relationship before could maybe pick up on some the red flags and avoid that type of relationship in the future.

Jen Waite is a former New York City actor and model and her book ‘A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal’ was published on July 11th. It is available in all major bookstores and online through Plume and Penguin Random House

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