Inside home of author Marian Keyes- 'When we first moved in there was an awful lot of brown - it was grim'
Marian Keyes says she's such an eejit she never checked the aspect when buying her house and so it's north-facing, but she has created a lovely atmospheric home.
Whatever it is about the human psyche, we have a habit of putting people who excel in life on pedestals and investing them with all sorts of superhuman qualities.
Somehow, we really don't expect our top writers, our high achieving sportspeople, and our multi-talented entertainers to have the same mundane preoccupations, foibles, and flaws as ourselves. Even with Twitter and Facebook, many of them give us such a curated, highly selective version of themselves that they remain mysterious, unknowable, not quite one of us.
Best-selling author Marian Keyes is a rare exception. She spills out all her faults, her insecurities, her embarrassing moments on Twitter, on her blog and in her various columns, and she has now brought them all together in her latest book, Making It Up As I Go Along (MIUAIGA)
In her introduction, Marian describes herself as "an eejit who was off buying shoes the day Life's Rulebook was given out", but if that's the case, we all were, as her tales will resonate with a lot of Irish women. These are tales of shoplifting as a teenager for cosmetics, bad experiences with fake tan, embarrassing moments when she bumped into a face off the telly and greeted him like an old pal, families who madden - and gladden - her. We all recognise the same feelings of inadequacy - not being stylish enough, not being thin enough, our Irish inability to feel comfortable in very exclusive surroundings.
Of course, the important difference between Marian and the rest of us is her consummate skill at turning the embarrassing encounters and the dire experiences into beautifully honed and hilarious anecdotes for her columns and for the many highly entertaining books she has written.
Starting with Watermelon, the effervescent brunette has written 12 novels, the most recent of which is The Woman Who Stole My Life. To date her books have sold 40m copies internationally. Being no slouch, she's currently working on her 13th, called Time Off For Bad Behaviour. It's about a marriage that has hit a midlife crisis; the man still loves his wife but he decides he wants to press pause on the marriage for six months.
"It's a bit of a phenomenon in the west coast of the States, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore in relation to here," Marian explains. "It's a bit of crack; they're all very modern, huge blended families, left, right, and centre, casts of thousands, and I'm enjoying writing it. I like my female character, she's also allowed to have six months off, but initially doesn't want it, which is understandable. I'd be very sad if Tony announced that he wanted to be off."
Tony is of course Marian's husband whom she describes in the foreword to MIUAIGA as "himself, who is always my first reader, the voice of reason, a stalwart support and the best colleague in the whole world".
Tony is not only Marian's husband, he's as important to the Keyes enterprise as she is. The Englishman and the Dubliner (she was born in Limerick but grew up in south county Dublin) met when she worked in London in her 20s, and they've been together ever since. Tony was an IT professional at the time, but he gave it up to work with her full-time. They married 20 years ago and he's been with her through all the highs - the literary success, the awards, and the financial prosperity - as well as the lows. Marian, an alcoholic, gave up drink 20 years ago and recently suffered crippling depression.
Both Marian and Tony, in the early years of their marriage, always described his role as that of secretary, and she says that the description is still valid. "I know it sounds incredibly disrespectful; it's not meant to be," Marian says. "So many people called him my manager, so it's a feminist stance we've both taken. If he was the writer and I was the person who worked with him, no one would call me the manager, I would definitely be the secretary. I believe the writer Ian McEwan's wife travels with him, not that I'm comparing myself with Ian McEwan [author of Atonement]," she hastens to add, "but I bet no one calls her the manager. Anyway, it's far more relaxed than that, it's more collaborative, it's team work, completely back and forth-y."
Marian's a great one for adding a 'y' to words to make them more emphatic; another favourite is boast-y, which she uses frequently. She's unbelievably self-deprecating, seems thrilled with the slightest compliment and she'd hate that anyone would think her boast-y.
Tony doesn't just look after her diary; he's very definitely a partner in her creativity. "I'll always talk story ideas out with him. I'll say things that might sound implausible or ridiculous and by letting me talk, that will make me think more. He's not a plamas-er but he is encouraging. I ask him to read everything. I never give him anything until I'm fairly comfortable that it's good. He's always positive but he'll ask questions so I'll know I haven't fleshed things out properly".
In the early days, Marian used to write in bed. "It was lovely writing in bed but those days are over," she notes, adding, "my back isn't able for it now. Anyway, it's better to demarcate the enjoyable part of my life and the work part".
She says her stamina isn't what it was and these days she limits creative work to four hours in the morning. She dons trackie bottoms and heads into the spare bedroom and starts the same routine daily. "I have a ritual - I light a scented candle, and I ask the universe or whoever is in charge to give me some ideas".
In the afternoon all she can manage is some research or one of her columns. "After four hours of actually sitting down and making something out of nothing, I'm used up. But look, I'm grateful to be able to do it all," she notes, referring to her breakdown, when she found it hard to do anything.
However, she feels well now and wants to spread the word that it is possible to come back from such depths that she even contemplated suicide. "I'm great, thank God, I'm so happy. I'd love to tell anyone who is struggling that I never would have thought I'd feel as well as I do. It's joyous. If you've been in the horrors and then you're not, the joy of that, the huge comfort of no pain, the absence, becomes a positive," she says, searching for the right words.
"I still have days when I think, 'Oh fuck, it's starting again', but it never really has. I'm always going to be a catastrophiser, but I'm so like the old me. I'm not saying it in a boast-y way, but for people to know it can get better even if it's really bad."
Marian's books, like the novel she's working on, are mostly set in Ireland, because she feels rooted here. "I like writing about Irish people because I like living here. At the start of the year we went to Australia and New Zealand for a month and I felt very far from home. I was very glad to be back".
Home is in south county Dublin, near her parents and some of her four siblings - she has two brothers, Tadhg and Niall, and two sisters, Caitriona who lives in New York, and Rita Anne - and their various offspring. It was a great sadness for Marian and Tony that they themselves couldn't have children, but she clearly adores all the nieces and nephews who call regularly.
The couple live in the same house they bought when they first moved back from London 19 years ago - a double-fronted period house that dates from the 1840s, which, according to Marian was in terrible decorative order. "It was a bed and breakfast and so the one nice bedroom was split in two and all the loveliness had been made small. There was an awful lot of brown. Tony's office was where people had breakfast and there were all these brown tables and brown paper napkins. It was grim."
According to Marian, the back garden was particularly manky. "It's north-facing and the garden was like a swamp, like the bog of Allen. You could have gone out for turf. It was very dark. Because I'm such an eejit I knew nothing about north-facing aspect. Only when we moved did it dawn on me what north meant".
When they moved in they had to do lots of renovation and even deal with basics like putting in mantelpieces where they had been ripped out. "There was a marble mantelpiece in the front room but after we bought the house and before we moved in, someone broke in and neatly almost surgically removed the mantelpiece and legged it. They didn't wreck the house - thanks for that, lads."
Marian and Tony had the back of the house renovated in the early days and put in a lovely Poggenpohl kitchen, which is still pristine, mainly, according to Marian, because it's used so little. Marian, as she'd say herself, is prone to obsessions and some years back in the throes of the depression she threw herself into baking and even wrote a gorgeous book entitled Saved By Cake. However, just as she started baking quite suddenly, she stopped just as abruptly.
"The baking got me through an awful time but it left me. I gave everything away and I hope I never have to bake again. People say, 'Will you bake a birthday cake for so and so?' but I can't even look at a baking tin, without it all coming back to me," she notes.
A more recent obsession was painting furniture, which she started the summer before last. "I was looking around for a hobby, all I seemed to do was work and sleep and eat, and I needed something. Then myself and my sister-in-law Liljana did an Annie Sloan painting course. It was instant falling in love," Marian says. "You don't have to sand the furniture, you just paint it and it's shabby chic. It's perfect for lazy people like me who want instant gratification."
When an obsession seizes Marian, she goes all-out. "I was full of stars and happiness. I started going to hardware shops, I bought rollers, rag rollers, paints, trays. It was like visiting a foreign country, you don't know what the men are saying but they're very flirty," she says with a laugh.
She found the furniture painting very soothing and even therapeutic. "I lose all track of time, and I remember things about my life, even painful things, and I'll work them out."
Soon she was getting orders from friends to paint furniture for them, particularly for the pieces she painted to look like Volkswagen cars. "Anyone with children or grandchildren wanted them. After my sixth or seventh, I thought, 'Feck it, my problem is I got too good'."
Never one to do anything by halves, as she says herself, she got immersed in decoupage and finishing the pieces with unusual knobs, bought online.
That particular obsession is waning and she has found homes for most of her painted creations, but she kept a few pieces; one beauty in particular has pride of place on her landing.
Over the years they've tackled different parts of the house. Ten years ago it was the turn of the garden. They knocked a lot of walls and built a whole glass extension that in turn fed through to the outside, which is now a Zen-type garden, all gravel, granite, bamboo and lots of hardy greenery. It's all very clean and modern and the only nod to the rest of the house is the colour scheme; some of the exterior walls are painted pink and purple.
"Peter O'Brien from Eden designed it all. It's mathematically perfect and because of the palm trees and the water feature, it feels like somewhere not in Ireland," Marian notes, adding that they still don't actually sit in the garden but she loves to sit inside and look out. "I like walking through the glass area; it gives me bursts of happiness," she says.
Inside the house, the couple have decorated the rooms several times over the 19 years they've been living in the house. At the moment bright purples and pinks abound as well as turquoises and greens. "I've no fear of colour, I have a fear of beige - it would make me miserable," she notes. There are luxurious swathes of curtains everywhere, gilt mirrors and lions and satisfyingly deep sofas. "I feel this house is very Noughties excess. It's peak Noughties," Marian bubbles, adding, "I feel it's dated but I love it. I'm the one who has to live with it and I love living in it."
The front room is furnished in various shades of maroons and greens and old golds. "I wanted to create a Victorian feel, a feeling of Gothic, I wanted foliage, flowers, opulence and unapologetic mixing of patterns," she enthuses. This room is home to two very significant pieces of furniture. One is a purple cabinet bought in Portugal one summer and brought back to Ireland; it was meant for a new house they were planning to buy in Delgany in August 2008.
"We had everything picked out for the house which was really, really expensive. We went in to the solicitor's office to sign for it and suddenly I had this powerful feeling not to sign, and we didn't. It was very weird but I went with my gut. Two weeks later the world went into meltdown," Marian recalls. The room is also home to a squashy sofa covered in Designers Guild fabric. "It's the first thing I ever bought and I bought it with my first ever royalty cheque," Marian says. "I would never replace it."
Maybe that's another reason we identify with Marian - she remembers who she is and where she came from.
'Making it Up as I Go Along' by Marian Keyes is published by Penguin. Marian is donating all Irish royalties from the book to the Save the Children/Syrian fund. See mariankeyes.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine