By Leslie Lindsay
What does it mean to forgive? That’s the overarching question of this blistering good family saga encompassing friendship, love, mental illness, violence, estrangement, and more.
I love this book, ASK AGAIN, YES (Scribner, May 28 2019) by Mary Beth Keane, a stunningly ambitious novel of epic proportions, spanning the lives of two families over 40 years. Plus, oh, my gosh—that cover—which could be just about Anywhere, USA. Or Anywhere, Period.
Mary Beth Keane is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and author of the highly acclaimed novels THE WALKING PEOPLE and FEVER (optioned for screen by Elisabeth Moss)—and also one I happened to love.
In ASK AGAIN, YES, Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are rookie cops in the NYPD. They live outside the city in cozy suburban area in the 1970s where they’re married and starting young families. But—each home has different stories. There’s the Gleesons—fresh from Ireland and the Stanhopes with a bit of instability, grief, and more, setting fertile ground for an explosive neighborly connection.
This is a gorgeous book in scope and practice—begging questions of forgiveness, past mistakes, family bonds, and those mundane, ordinary everyday moments that at first glance seem segmented, fragile, but also make momentous explosions in the grand scheme.
The writing is razor-sharp, perceptive, and moves powerfully through the narrative in a sweeping arc, covering so much ground. I am in awe.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Mary Beth Keane to the author interview series.
Mary Beth, it is such a pleasure and delight. Thank you for taking the time. I love this book. It has a haunting, melancholic feel and it’s so perceptive. What was your ‘jumping off’ point for ASK AGAIN, YES?
Mary Beth Keane:
Thank YOU for reading and for having me! I agree that it’s melancholic, but redemptive, too, I hope. I don’t mind a sad book. I love them, in fact. But in my own reading these last few years I find myself craving an undercurrent of hope, and that’s what I tried to keep my eye on while I was writing.
I always begin with a single character, usually in motion. There’s a scene in this book where two main characters, Kate and Peter, find a grasshopper together as kids. I knew they’d still be in each others’ lives as adults but it took me a long time to figure out how, exactly. One of the things I thought a lot while writing this book was whether knowing someone as a child means knowing their truest selves. We learn to hide so much as adults. Kids really KNOW each other.
There are so many real-life issues in ASK AGAIN, YES—and I think that’s what makes it shine. It’s fiction, but oh—how there’s truth in fiction. It’s authentic. These characters will stay with me for a long time. Can you give us a peek behind the curtain—who are these characters? Were they based on a kernel of those close to you?
Mary Beth Keane:
Perhaps kernels picked up from here and there, but really not more than that. My husband was estranged from his parents for a long time, and had a particularly difficult relationship with his mother, though I know he loved her. That estrangement was something I thought was well behind us by the time we married, had our children, but it’s always there. Even now, eight years after his mother’s death. A mother and father are always the people who made us, and even when they’re not in our lives they’re in our lives, if that makes sense. We got married young, despite a lot of objections (like Kate and Peter) but we thought we’d triumphed over the cards we were dealt. What we didn’t realize at 20, 25, 30, was that we still have to play those same cards for the rest of our lives. The things that happen to all of us as kids have reverberations for the rest of our lives, and writing this book was my way of deciding whether I think a person can ever get past his or her own history.
The other things – struggles with alcoholism, mental illness, even just the idea of openness about what we want and feel – yes, those come from life. I think I hit age forty and realized that the day is never going to come when I know what I’m doing. None of us never really know what we’re doing, or so it seems to me. That’s both scary and exhilarating. We’re all just trying our best.
So many themes in ASK AGAIN, YES are ‘hot topics,’ but the one I connected with most has to do with mental instability. I saw myself in Peter Stanhope in many ways—a daughter of a mother with a severe mental illness. It seems mental illness appears in more and more fiction (or maybe I just happen upon them serendipitously). Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about how this found its way into the narrative? Also, did you know May is maternal mental health awareness month?
Mary Beth Keane:
I didn’t know May is mental health awareness month until this May. That’s the sort of thing social media is good for, and I’m glad to know that.
Some of seeds of this story are deeply personal, either for me or for people close to me. Mental illness runs in my family, like it does so many families, and certainly in my extended friend network I’ve known people who have really, truly suffered. People who are still suffering. My parents (and my husband’s parents) are Irish immigrants, and perhaps because those stories are the ones I’m most familiar with, it seems to me that the Irish get hit particularly hard in this department. In the 1960s, 1970s, 80s… there was so little recourse for a person who needed help. Where could a person go? A working class person who had maybe not been to college, didn’t know where to even find the kind of medical help he or she needed. A lot of Irish ended up going to priests, and I think recent revelations have taught us how helpful that probably was. Not only was there no assistance available (mostly), but the people who sought help were stigmatized to a degree that’s almost unimaginable today.
I had a person in my life who was terrifying to me as young teenager. She hated me, used to harass me, I was terrified of her. Anne is largely based on that person and at first I made her a villain, because that’s how I thought of her when I was growing up. But as I kept writing, especially when I was inside her point of view, I realized how much she must have been suffering, and she ended up being the character I had the most sympathy for.
As I’m reading, I detected some similarities between some of my favorite authors and books—J. Courtney Sullivan for the sprawling Irish family, Celeste Ng for the suburban connection, the secrets; a bit of Caroline Leavitt’s style, and also Katharine Weber’s STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY, about a terrible accident. Also, Lynda Cohen Loigman’s THE WARTIME SISTERS. I’m curious, how you keep the saw sharp, who—or what—you look to for inspiration?
Mary Beth Keane:
Great question. I read widely and constantly to keep myself on track. I don’t usually abandon books midway but if something is so-so I’ll power through it quickly and sort of forget it. When something is good – there’s nothing like it. I’ve read Elizabeth Strout’s books with goosebumps up and down my arms. Louise Erdrich is another favorite. Mohsin Hamid. Peter Carey. Elena Ferrante. I read a lot of debut novels, too. And poetry. I really believe that everything comes down to sentences. Making them sharp and right and lining one after another in the right order and rhythm, choosing the right detail, making sure that every single line does a job of some sort, earns its right to be there. Because it’s not a beauty pageant. Nothing is allowed to be there simply because it sounds good. When I feel I’m starting to be a bit lazy, I stop writing for a day or two and I read. Poets are really the best at this, paring whatever they want to convey back to individual words and turns of phrase. I read “The Continuous Life” by Mark Strand almost every day while writing this book. It’s taped to the inside of the kitchen cabinet where I store my coffee mugs.
“I devoured this astonishing tale of two families linked by chance, love, and tragedy. Mary Beth Keane gives us characters so complex and alive that I find myself still thinking of them days after turning the final page. A must-read.”
—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Saints for All Occasions
Because ASK AGAIN, YES revolves around some weighty issues, a giant span of time, multiple characters, and even more…I am curious what challenges you found when writing? And how did you overcome them?
Mary Beth Keane:
Oh God. I can’t even begin to answer this question in a timely manner. To put it in perspective, I write about 1000 words a day, roughly five days a week. I spent 4 years writing this book (with some off periods, granted) but I ended up with a 400 page book. 140,000 words, roughly. That’s A LOT of discarded pages. I abandoned the book twice: once for just a week or two, but the second time for a whole summer. I struggled with the structure of this book for YEARS. At some points I began in the middle of the story and sort of drew in backstory as I went. For a long time I began where the book ends now, and wrote it as sort of a loop. In the first draft, I wrote about 150 pages in the first person, from Kate’s point of view, but it felt like writing while wearing a straightjacket. Every option resulted in the present of the action getting bogged down with flashback. I’m okay with flashback when I barely notice it in something I read. But if half a book is flashback, why not just go back there and live there for a bit? Set a scene THERE instead of some future time full of nostalgia and rumination. So ultimately I realized the best way to tell this story was chronologically, for the most part. There is some flashback but only to enrich and shine a light on whatever the characters are thinking in the present.
I also find so much of writing a story is gut instinct. When I felt myself itching to be with a character, I went to that character. When I felt myself growing bored as I was writing, I told myself the reader would feel bored, too, and I ditched it. I think fiction writers in particular have to listen to their bodies as they go. It’s not a logical pursuit. I made zero effort to keep stage time even between the main characters. I think the evenness readers feel comes with weight (or something), not necessarily time on the page.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
Mary Beth Keane:
During the school year my day is very regimented. I usually wake up early – around 5:15 – and workout. I find running or cycling goes really well with writing. When I get home I get my kids up and out to school (they’re ten and eight). Once they get on that bus I write for a few hours, usually until around 1:00 or 2:00. After that I answer emails or follow up on things I owe people or am supposed to be doing. I have to be really protective of that schedule because I work from home, in the town where I grew up, and if I loosen my grip even a little, next thing people are stopping by, expecting me to chat on the phone, etc. My mother suggests I go to Costco with her almost every day, and every day I disappoint her by saying no. Once the kids get home I switch into domestic mode when I can. That’s when I close my laptop and catch up on laundry, unload the dishwasher, that kind of thing. The kids do their homework, I shuttle them to their activities. Often at night I read over what I wrote that morning and make small tweaks.
There’s a bit of obsession in ASK AGAIN, YES. There’s Peter and Kate’s relationship, the situation with the neighbors, the addiction, and more. What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Mary Beth Keane:
I can’t tell you what I’m obsessed with now, Leslie! But I do agree that there is obsession in this book. No one else has said that. I think I get obsessed with certain topics, or ideas, or people, and often that means I’m on my way to a new book.
Mary Beth, it’s been such an honor. Thank you, thank you. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Mary Beth Keane:
Not that I can think of–thank you!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of ASK AGAIN, YES, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary Beth Keane attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35,” and in 2015 she was awarded a John S. Guggenheim fellowship for fiction writing. She currently lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons. She is the author of The Walking People, Fever, and Ask Again, Yes.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Scribner and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this]