Mary Beth Keane attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA. She was awarded a John S. Guggenheim fellowship for fiction writing, and has received citations from the National Book Foundation, PEN America, and the Hemingway Society. She is the author of The Walking People, Fever, and most recently, Ask Again, Yes, which was an instant New York Times bestseller.
Follow her at @marybethkeane
Girly Book Club: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?
Mary Beth Keane: I don’t remember a time before wanting to be a writer. When I was really young I had imaginary friends who used to get up to some crazy dramatic antics (one attempted suicide; I was 3), and all of that was probably related to wanting to write, tell stories. I remember their names and their characteristics. I also remember a very specific moment in fourth grade when everyone in my class had to write about a favorite food and then read our paragraphs aloud to the class. I didn’t have much confidence in general at that time, but I remember listening to my classmates read and realizing mine was much better than theirs were.
But wanting to write and deciding to really BE a writer are two different things. My parents aren’t readers and my very large family is made up of mostly bartenders and construction workers. There were no footsteps to follow. Going to college – specifically going to Barnard College – was life changing for me. It taught me that there is a way if I’m smart about it and work really hard.
My parents’ immigration story and the immigration stories of my aunts and uncles, that whole generation of Irish in New York, inspired my first book. I spent a lot of my young adulthood thinking about the fact that each of my parents had come from places where their families had been for a millennia– literally the same square mile – and then all of a sudden one day they up and moved to New York City. How much of our histories do we carry? I grew up being told I’m Irish. Ireland was discussed and referenced all day long in my house. Yet whenever I went to Ireland I felt so American. My first novel came out of that complicated relationship with “home.”
GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?
MBK: Immediacy of voice is maybe most important to me, a sense that I want to stick with a story even if I don’t have any idea where it’s headed. As I get older I see the value of plot in a way I didn’t twenty years ago. I’m still not interested in novels that are entirely plot-driven, but I’ve learned that plot is a great way to see characters surprise themselves, and for the author to access parts of those characters that wouldn’t emerge otherwise. As a reader I want to feel sort of inside a story. I don’t want to feel as if I’m watching it unfold from a distance. Some writing is so technically perfect but ends up feeling hermetically sealed, and so it leaves me cold. I welcome messiness, unevenness, if it means the author is getting at something really honest.
GBC: What are you doing if you’re not writing?
MBK: When I’m in the middle of a difficult section I prefer to stay close to home, hang out with my family, go for long runs or walks. I count thinking about writing as actual writing sometimes. I read a lot. I’m a loyal fan of certain podcasts. But sometimes I really crave a big night out, maybe as an antidote to the loneliness of writing fiction, I don’t know. This strange time is hard in that sense. I’d love to be in a crowded bar with a bunch of friends, good music, good food and drink, laughing, maybe dancing. I know everyone probably feels that way right now. Not doing those things is fine, feeling limited is fine, until I consider that we not ever have those things again. Then it feels like grief.
GBC: Name your favourite bookshop in the world.
MBK: Oh wow. I was only there for a few hours to do an event and record a podcast, but I fell in love with Books & Books in Coral Gables, Miami and since then I’ve thought a lot about how lucky the locals there are to have it. It’s big but not overwhelming. Cozy while also having plenty of space to move and breath (some bookshops are so cramped). I like the way they display their books. I felt like I could see all my options, whereas in some bookshops so many books seem hidden. There are nooks and crannies to read in, but also a café and bar to be social if you’re in the mood. I liked everything about it, the movable stairs to get to the very top shelves (very high ceilings), the lighting, the mood, the people who work there.
GBC: Physical book, e-book, or audiobook? – and why.
MBK: Physical! I don’t really know why. I don’t care how heavy it is in my bag. And if I like a book I want to look at it on my shelf like glancing over at an old friend.
GBC: What was your favourite book as a child?
MBK: Anne of Green Gables. I probably read it 10 times. I won my copy in a fire prevention poster contest in 6th grade. I got a trip around town on the fire truck, and a fancy copy of Anne of Green Gables. The edges of the pages were gold and it had a gold ribbon bookmark sewn into the binding. I was so careful with that book, which is funny because I can be a little abusive to my books now.
GBC: We’re always on the hunt for our next great read. Recommend us a book to add to our TBR pile!
MBK: You have to read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I think it comes out in the U.S. in July. It’s phenomenal. One of the best novels I’ve ever read.
GBC: What is one movie, TV series, or podcast that you’re loving right now?
MBK: I’ve been listening to Conan O’Brien’s podcast, Conan Needs a Friend. He’s such a total nut but also so smart. He interviews fellow comedians a lot and there have been times when I’ve been running when I have to stop because I’m laughing so hard.