Best-selling author tackles life head-on in The Break
BEST-SELLING author Marian Keyes has never been afraid to tackle life and its issues head-on.
And while her protagonists may be slightly older, that is just as true in her latest novel The Break.
"When I started writing at 30, I was writing about people in their 20s. Now I'm in my 50s, I'm writing about people in their 40s because, of course, as I get older my concerns are going to change entirely - the way I view things and the things that are affecting the people around me," Marian said.
She hinted that menopause, with its associated anxiety, sleeplessness and questioning of life for many, would play a part in her forthcoming novel.
"The whole issue of menopause has not been written about to my satisfaction. It's infuriating that these women are not treated with any compassion," she said.
"I want to write about that honestly, so people say, 'Oh, thank God, it's not just me!'"
The Break deals with a couple in their 40s who are facing their own mortality, fading love and attempting to rediscover themselves as individuals.
After 22 years of her own marriage, Marian said she believed change was inevitable, but keeping the lines of communication open was the key to remaining happy together.
"I think if you're with any person for any length of time, you are going to live through serial relationships. That crazy love of the early days isn't sustainable.
"But you've got to keep making sure you're on the same page, or at least communicating.
"It's easy to get lazy in a relationship and just think the other person will always be there.
"You have to keep connected with who you are, and who they are, and what your unique bond is."
In The Break, Amy is gobsmacked when her husband of 18 years, Hugh, who has been grieving the loss of his father and a close friend, announces he needs six months to go off alone and "find himself" - and he doesn't rule out sexual encounters.
"I was so bored of reading about midlife crises where the man was painted as a complete arsehole without any sort of sympathetic features and the woman was some sort of sappy martyr," Marian said.
She wanted to create a realistic portrait of life in those years when you become "almost viscerally aware of your own mortality".
She also wanted to challenge the idea that "people of a certain age no longer have sex".
"It annoys me that, especially for women, people believe when they get to a certain age that they are just sexless - that's codswallop!" she said.
While she admits some people are quite happy for that area of their lives to diminish, some are still excited by the idea of being found sexually attractive. "Why shouldn't they? And no one, especially young people, has any right to pass judgment."
Marian said while she had always found it "mortifying" to write sex scenes, it was no more difficult for older characters, and she wanted to ensure they could enjoy "properly raunchy sex" too.
"I was very much making a statement," she said.
In The Break, Amy discovers that she has lost herself in her marriage and family, something Marian said happens all too often.
"Especially now for 'the sandwich generation' - people who have the worry of elderly parents with illness as well as the demands of children.
"Life is hard, work is hard and money is short and often it's easy for women to come last."
As is characteristic of Marian's novels, Amy and Hugh do not operate in a vacuum, but are surrounded by family ... however dysfunctional. In The Break, that includes Amy's father who has dementia, something Marian has personal experience of.
"Dad has Alzheimer's and the hardest part was when it began," she said.
"It's really frightening when you realise it's happening. My family's response was to go into denial, but now that it's full-blown, it's become normalised - he's still Dad."
"It's ridiculous that spouses and kids are just expected to be able to take care of these people," she said, hailing her mother as a superwoman.
"It's awfully hard work. It's like child care in reverse, but it's different because they can be really obstreperous, and of course they are fully grown."
Marian has always spoken openly about her own battles with depression and alcohol and proudly states she has been sober for nearly 24 years.
She said while she felt alcoholism was "just very much a part of my story", something she understood was an illness, not of her choosing and would not be shamed for, when depression hit, she did feel ashamed.
It brought her to the lowest of lows, terrified of the world and spending hours each day considering how she would kill herself.
"Society is very quick to blame the person with depression, as if they caused it themselves, or it's just self-pity. But this is something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy."
She said it took her a long time to realise that depression, too, was a disease and that how she was feeling was not her fault.
"Even with cancer, people talk about people's 'battle with cancer', and if they die, it's as if they didn't battle hard enough. It makes me so angry that the onus is being put on the sufferer - not only are they ill, but they are responsible for their own cure."
As a result of her illness, it's been 11 years since Marian was last in Australia, but she said "from the word go, from my first book, people in Australia understood, they got it."
She believes this is due to the similarities between the Australian and Irish personalities.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously," she said. "Humour is important to us and we have the ability to laugh at ourselves and at misfortune."
And that, of course, is a characteristic of Marian's books, that even - or perhaps especially - when dealing with the darkest subjects, there is always humour not too far away.
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