'I wanted to portray a different type of Irish America' - Mary Beth Keane on her new novel Ask Again, Yes
Mary Beth Keane was keen not to romanticise Ireland in her story of New York emigrants and parental forgiveness, she tells Joanne Hayden
Just hours before we talk on the phone, Mary Beth Keane has had news. Good news. So good, she's reeling. In the US, her new novel, Ask Again, Yes, is the Tonight Show's summer book club read. Almost a million votes were cast in the contest to select the winner and the implications for the book and its writer are monumental. Soon after the show's host, Jimmy Fallon, revealed the result on air, Ask Again, Yes, jumped up Amazon's bestseller list. Keane is very grateful. She's also "in a total fog".
She never shows how rattled she is on the outside, she says, from her home in Pearl River, New York, but her mind has been in a "weird place" lately.
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"I went to the dentist yesterday. I left my car on the entire time I was in the dentist, with the keys in the ignition, and then I came out with my purse and I'm looking all over for my keys and then I noticed the car is vibrating."
Her "slow motion shock" is understandable. Ask Again, Yes, is her third novel and was a struggle to write and get right, but even before the Tonight Show it had been doing extremely well. A miniature epic, it follows the Gleeson and Stanhope families - next-door neighbours in upstate New York - over 40 years.
Francie Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are police officers. Their wives have no relationship - Anne Stanhope is paranoid and aggressively antisocial - but their children, Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, are inseparable until a tragedy engulfs them.
Like Elizabeth Strout, Keane is good at creating distinctive characters - flawed, empathetic men and women whose inner landscapes she captures in powerful pared-down prose. The novel is a nuanced portrait of the impact of mental illness and addiction, the limitations and endurance of love and of how "we repeat what we don't repair".
It's also an emigrant story, opening in 1973 - around the time Keane's own parents arrived in New York from Ireland. She was born in the Bronx and later her family moved upstate. Her father was a sandhog or urban miner, but there are lots of police officers, past and present, in her "very Irish" community. She'd take them to the diner where they'd tell her extreme stories, less ready to open up about their feelings.
While she didn't want to overlook the tensions between the police and the black and Latino communities in the US, she was trying to write about essentially good cops; Francie Gleeson in particular is a good, if imperfect, man.
He and Anne Stanhope are first-generation Irish yet Ireland is almost an absence in the book; none of the characters go back. She wanted to represent "a different type of Irish America or Irish American".
"There's a lot of fiction about being Irish in America that I just don't identify with," she says. "You all over there, the writers over there, are writing firmly out of a post-Catholic Ireland. And here... we're still hanging on, just as we were in the 70s and 80s and 90s, to an Ireland that doesn't exist anymore. So when I read an Irish character, written by an American, who's going to her rosary beads, I have a physical response in my body. Those are not my people anymore."
Her determination not to romanticise Ireland in the novel pays off. One of the strongest scenes - worth a thousand drunken renditions of 'Galway Bay' - is when Francie allows himself to remember saying goodbye to his parents in Connemara, promising them he'll be back. "Arrah, why would you?" his father says.
As a child, Keane visited Ireland a lot. Her mother is from Louisburgh in Mayo, her father from Rosmuc in Connemara.
"My parents thought of us as Irish children," she says. "I was born here, I have a New York accent but when we would go to Ireland, strangers in Louisburgh would say 'welcome home.'"
In Louisburgh, she'd stay in her grandparents' house and hang out with some of her 59 first cousins, her mother's usual strictness disappearing. "We could hitch rides, we could go to discos late. I mean, here we couldn't even go to the mall. I think it's because she thought really nothing bad could happen to you there."
But Ireland was "not kind" to her father who had to leave for work. "He's appreciative of America," she says. "It's almost like Irish Americans are apologising for being American. They're a bit embarrassed or something and everyone's trying to claim heritage. And I claim it too, but I also want to say that we're lucky we came here and we were able to make a home here."
The idea of the American dream is more problematic than ever these days but all of Keane's books investigate the Irish-American experience; they are her way of addressing the complexity of feeling bound to two places thousands of miles apart.
Her first novel, The Walking People, spans 1950s Ireland to modern-day America. Her second, Fever, is based on the story of Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid who infected many people through her work as a cook in early 20th-century New York. Keane thinks of the three novels as "close siblings" and while she says Ask Again, Yes is not autobiographical, it overlaps with her life in certain ways. Like Peter Stanhope, her husband was estranged from his parents for many years. She met him when she was 14; they married early and have two sons.
"His mother passed away several years ago and she never met our children," Keane says. "She didn't come to our wedding... She wasn't in our lives so I didn't think about her very much but sometimes, when I was holding my own baby, I would think, there is a woman who did this for this man that I love and I like how he turned out.
"So I found myself thinking about her a lot and how much she missed, and I guess I found myself having more sympathy for her than I ever expected to have."
Destructive, resilient and deeply traumatised, Anne Stanhope is vital to the novel's theme of forgiveness. Keane wanted to avoid sentimentality but end on a note of hope - and she pulls it off.
"I like a dark novel, a dark movie but I want to feel something," she says. "Like, is it worth it, all this shit that we go through? And I really think it is ultimately."