We’re utterly thrilled that the fabulous Marian Keyes is personally funding one place on our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course this Autumn, for a talented writer who needs financial assistance in order to be able to join the course. The Marian Keyes Scholarship is now open for applications, so do take a look. In the meantime, we chatted to Marian – one of the most successful Irish authors of all time – about how she found her writing voice, women’s fiction today, what she’s reading now and her motivations behind funding the scholarship …
Marian – we at Curtis Brown Creative are big fans of your books – and something we particularly love about them is the ease and warmth of the style. You have a really unique way of giving your novels a lively, chatty, funny surface – which draws the reader in and makes them feel you – and the voices of your novels – are their friend. How did you find and develop your writing voice? And can you give any advice to our students on how to find and hone theirs?
I wrote the way I speak because I didn’t know any different. It felt natural and right. And I think that’s the key – it’s got to feel natural and right. I was lucky (and lazy) to have found my voice early on. For those who are struggling, keep checking in with your ‘honesty monitor’ – that sense that’s in all of us which alerts us to inauthenticity.
For many people starting out, you might be tempted to emulate a writer you admire, but please, for the love of god, DON’T. Also, you might try to write in a ‘writer-y way’, using language and sentence structure that seems lofty and skilled. Again, don’t. It’s impossible to sustain and it’s soul-destroying.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping things simple, nothing at all.
The more you write your novel, the more you’ll get to know your character or characters and if you make them nuanced and believable, they will feed back into the voice.
No voice emerges fully-formed, from the word go. It grows stronger as the novel progresses and your characters become more rounded. In which case, it’s often necessary to go back and rewrite the earlier parts of the book, in light of the new knowledge.
And another thing that we massively love about your books is the way you take serious, weighty subjects – like addiction, domestic violence and depression – and give them a lightness and accessibility using the chatty, upbeat voice we’ve already mentioned – and characters that the reader can completely identify and sympathise with. Which of your books means the most to you, and why?
I honestly couldn’t pick any single one. Something I’ve heard many writers say frequently is that their favourite book is the one they’re currently writing, because while it’s a work-in-progress, it still has the potential to be perfect. Once any book is written and finished, it’s inevitably flawed (which is agonising but unavoidable.) But while it’s still hanging in the ether, I haven’t yet sullied or corrupted it.
It’s commonly believed that writing is therapeutic – but for many writers, depression and other problems prevent them from being able to focus on their work.
You’ve talked about how it was cake-baking that helped you through the depression you suffered from 2009 – and indeed you went on to publish Saved By Cake, which was both a recipe book and a kind of autobiography. What advice would you give to other writers who struggle with depression?
Take it day by day. There are some days when it’s simply impossible to try to write – but for me, the guilt of not doing any work was often as bad as the misery of trying and failing. So I made a contract with myself: every day for one hour, I’d try. I’d sit at my desk and read through what I’d already written and basically ‘spend time’ with whatever I was working on. That way, the connection was still there. It wasn’t as daunting as returning after a long absence. It meant the characters were taking up room in my head (a good thing.) And even if I just moved a couple of commas, it still meant I’d achieved something. Often by the time the hour had ended, I’d become involved and was able to keep going.
Another thing, if it’s too daunting to get out of bed and work at a desk, work in bed.
Various fashions have come and gone in commercial women’s fiction across the 23 years you’ve been writing and publishing novels. Lately we’re seeing a waning of the domestic noir novels that have been such a huge trend across the last few years, and the arrival of “UpLit” (exemplified by Eleanor Oliphant). As someone whose novels have endured and have ongoing popular appeal, what advice would you give writers who are trying to follow trend?
Yikes. I feel very VERY uncomfortable at the idea of someone writing to order. Personally it’s not something I feel I could do. A couple of reasons: I’ve found my lane and I’m not sure I’d be able to write in any other genre. Secondly, anything that feels inauthentic or cynical, anything that’s written from the head rather than the gut, makes me miserable. As a writer it’s soul-destroying and as a reader, you always suspect something is off.
However, not everyone is as stuck in their ways as me and if a writer feels they could tailor their work to fit into a trend, go for it.
But I have to end by saying that there’s nothing as glorious as reading an authentic, honest voice, which reinvents a genre or creates an entirely new one.
You are supporting a fully funded scholarship place for our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course. What made you decide to do this, and why do you feel it’s important to support emerging talent?
Emerging talent keeps everything fresh and exciting. As a reader it’s thrilling to discover something new. But even as a writer, reading excellent writers who create in a new way gives me great impetus to up my game.
I wanted to fund a scholarship because I remember what it was like, feeling that nobody would be interested in my little stories. Lack of confidence seems to go hand-in-hand with being a writer and if the scholarship gives one writer a boost, I’d be delighted.
What are you reading now, and what do you love to read?
I’m reading No Knives in the Kitchen of This City, a novel by a Syrian writer called Khaled Khalifa. I’ve some Syrian characters in the novel I’m writing and I’m trying to get a sense of what it was like there before the war. (I should add I’m also talking to Syrians here in Ireland. I don’t think anyone can research life by reading novels, it’s simply a way to augment facts.)
Mostly, I read just-published fiction and I read almost exclusively women. I’m very interested in what women are focused on (it’s a lot easier to discover what men are thinking about because male voices are amplified in every media.)
I’ll read anything – crime, thrillers, historical, family sagas, 1st person-confessional, science fiction, dystopian, YA.
Do you get to meet many of your readers? What sorts of book publicity activities do you most enjoy?
Around the time a book is published, I get to do readings and/or Q&As with readers and this is the part of my job I enjoy the most. I’ll never stop being amazed and very honoured that real people with choices, choose to read the books I write. It’s a real pleasure to meet my readers.
A writer is a writer, even if you are your only reader. But to have other, actual, live humans wanting to read the words you’ve assembled is surreal, gratifying and – sorry, that word again – an honour. I’ll never stop being grateful.
Finally, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you had just started writing your first novel?
Edit!!! Edit LOTS. Oh my god, it’s MORTIFYING how I indulged myself. I really hadn’t a CLUE and I’ve only learnt very slowly that it’s not always appropriate to throw every idea in my head into the novel I’m writing.
Also! The PUNS! Stop with the awful puns!
Marian Keyes’ latest novel, The Break, is published in paperback by Penguin on 31st May.
Find out more about the Marian Keyes Scholarship and how to apply – here.
For other affordable creative writing course opportunities, take a look at our six-week online courses: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel, all starting in June.