Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Two families, a tragedy that impacts them all over decades, and profound questions about what it means to forgive, to be decent, to grapple with being human. ASK AGAIN, YES is phenomenal and the equally phenomenal Mary Beth Keane is here to talk about it.

 Of course I had read all the raves about Ask Again, Yes. Of course I had it on my pile to read and I knew about Jimmy Fallon's show selecting it. And of course, when I started Mary Beth Keane's extraordinary novel about two families, two young lovers, and a tragedy that spans decades, I was reading until four in the morning. It does what you want a novel to do--immerses you in a whole other world so you fully expect to see the characters. It makes you see the world differently. It's profound and gorgeously written and when I was finished, I knew I HAD to talk with Mary Beth.

So let's look at just some of the raves first: 

Mary Beth Keane takes on one of the most difficult problems in fiction – how to write about human decency. In Ask Again, Yes, Keane makes a compelling case for compassion over blame, understanding over grudge, and the resilience of hearts that can accept the contradictions of love."
– Louise Erdrich, winner of The National Book Award for Fiction

“Mary Beth Keane looks past the veneer that covers ordinary moments and into the very heart of real life. There’s a Tolstoyan gravity, insight, and moral heft in these pages, and Keane’s ability to plumb the depths of authentic feeling while avoiding sentimentality leaves one shaking one’s head in frank admiration. This wonderful book is so many things: a gripping family drama; a sensitive meditation on mental illness; a referendum on the power and cost of loyalty; a ripping yarn that takes us down into the depths and back up; in short, a triumph.”
—Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves

“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

“Mary Beth Keane is at the height of her powers in this novel about the sacrifices we make when we choose to build a life with someone. In Ask Again Yes, Keane tells a story about the fragility of happiness, the violence lurking beneath everyday life, and, ultimately, the power of love. If you’ve ever loved someone beyond reason, you will love this wise, tender, and beautiful book.”
—Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints

“Mary Beth Keane combines Joan Didion’s exacting eye for detail with the emotional wallop of Alice McDermott. From the ache of first love to the recognition that the people closest to us are flawed and human, Ask Again, Yes is a moving testament to the necessary act of forgiveness. It is heartbreaking, hopeful, and honest.”
—Brendan Mathews, author of The World of Tomorrow

 Mary Beth Keane is the the author of The Walking People, Fever, and I am so thrilled to host her here. Thank you, Mary Beth.

 I always believe that novels are the result of something haunting the author, some question you just had to explore to try and make sense of it. What was haunting you when you were writing Ask Again, Yes?

I believe that, too, though for me I first have to figure out why I feel so unsettled, and sometimes that takes quite a long time to pinpoint. And then it takes even longer to figure out how to write about whatever I’ve figured out. With this book, I was mostly thinking about love, how for some people it seems easy to nourish even as people age and life changes, but for some people it’s not so easy. I wondered why. I was also thinking about how much we owe our partners and ourselves within a love relationship that is tested. Who do we protect first, and most fiercely?

What I so admired about the novel was how seamlessly it moved forward even as you were using myriad points of views. Are you the kind of writer who maps things out or did the story come to you organically? (Or as organically as any story can come to a writer…)

No, I don’t map anything out. I’ve tried outlining but it feels like writing with a noose around my neck. The prose ends up completely lifeless. I know writers whose work I admire do incredibly well with an outline. With this book, because I didn’t know quite how long it would cover or how much it would pull in, I’d sort of begin a writing week with a scene that felt like it would have some energy, write through it until it felt complete, and then stand back and try to figure out where it fit. I probably had half the book and a lot of discarded pages before I began to see the shape. For me the first half of a book usually takes YEARS to get down, but then the second half comes quickly.

This incredible story flowed mostly chronologically, and as I was reading, I wanted to ask you how you feel about backstory and its uses and discontents?

It took me such a long time to figure out that telling this story chronologically would be the way to go, and it’s sort of funny that a most traditional approach ended up feeling revolutionary. In the first few drafts, I began almost everywhere else. I began with Peter in crisis in the present day and then circled back to indicate what sort of childhood he had. At one point I began with Kate and Peter reconnecting in college, and sort of moved backward and forward simultaneously. I tried writing in the first person from Kate’s point of view, beginning on the day she meets up with Anne for the very first time after everything that happened. But every way aside from the one I ultimately went with relied far too heavily on backstory. I don’t mind a little backstory, but whenever I stay in a flashback for too long – both when I’m writing and when I’m reading – I wonder why the story isn’t just set back there. With this story and these characters, I felt like I had to bring the reader through their lives in order to feel the full impact of the end.

The challenge with that, however, was how to guide the reader through the mundane years without losing their interest. Peter and Kate have two babies, they buy a house, they pick out Christmas trees and tend to their lawns and balance their checkbooks. I wanted the reader to see that they do these normal, domestic things, but on the other hand too much of that is boring. Once I figured out we could see them moving through time sort of vis-à-vis Anne, it was lock unlocking the solution to the story.

My mother was perhaps bi-polar (she never got diagnosed); one of my best friends moved to Los Angeles and had a psychotic break and has been in and out of mental institutions. So I was acutely interested in your portrayal of mental illness and how you got it just right. The stunning surprise of a cruelty, the way the dots never quite connect, and of course, the stigma, especially back then. And though Anne is responsible for terrible, tragic happenings, we still feel incredibly sympathy for her because I think you’ve rendered her so exquisitely. (That scene with her in trying to order food was sensational.)

What I also loved was how every event had ripples like skipped stones, impacting every character in profound ways, through the years. Is it right to say that everybody is a part of everything everywhere? (I fear I am quoting Donovan, but no matter…)

Yes, I think so. And that’s both incredibly moving (to me) and frightening. We work so hard in this life and yet so much of it seems determined completely by happenstance. Who we meet and when and how. There were several important poems and passages that I read almost daily when I was writing this novel, and one of them was “The Continuous Life” by Mark Strand. That line, “…one thing leads to another, which leads to another” and that the luckiest thing is having been born. He’s right. That is the luckiest thing.

I absolutely love the syntax of the title! Somehow adding that Yes at the end and the comma before the “yes” layers on the meaning for me and makes it unforgettable. I know that titles can be marketing decisions, as are covers, but what does this title mean to you?

This title was always the title, and I worried I’d have to fight for it but I really didn’t. It’s from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. As I wrote in the previous question there were several touchstone passages that I returned to over and over whenever I felt myself getting off track, and that was one of them. I read Ulysses in college, and it was one of those lightning strike moments. I understood that book right away, on what felt like a cellular level. And something magical happens when it switches to Molly’s point of view at the end. It feels to me that so much of their story, their marriage, their love, is completely run out. They’re petty. They’re cynical. But at the end, when Molly remembers their beginning, it was like someone turned a light on in the room and I found a piece of the story that was missing. Their history is long and the beginning still matters. Their love is stronger than we think it is up until that moment. Even though their story is quite different, that’s true for Kate and Peter, too. The comma is mine.

You’ve written two previous remarkable novels, The Walking People, and Fever, which I raved about for the San Francisco Chronicle. Do you feel that every book progresses your writing, that there are definite lessons you can use, or do you, like me, feel that as soon as you start a new novel you have writers’ amnesia and it’s like writing your very first novel?

Oh, I’m totally with you on this. I compare it to raising children. One would think that having one kid would teach you how to raise another but so far it really hasn’t, at least for me. They arrive so completely different from one another that you have to start from scratch with each one. I struggle so much with time and structure and each story demands it’s own. On the other hand, I do think that I’ve grown less tentative with each book and I think that must come from experience. There really is something to a woman approaching (arriving at?) middle age and not giving a shit anymore. When I wrote The Walking People I was so conscious of my parents potentially reading it, that whole generation. I felt like I was sort of looking over my shoulder and wondering what people would think. Now I don’t think that way. I write what I want to write, and that’s been a powerful thing for me. I just feel sure someone out there will connect with it as long as I’m honest and sort of lay myself bare.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Midlife crises. Are they real? Am I having one? What are they really about? How are they expressed from person to person. In my twenties and thirties I sort of rolled my eyes at the whole idea, but now I don’t. (In general, I think I’m getting less judgmental as I get older). Even the classic old guy in a Masarati mid-life cliché – I think there’s possibly real pain there, and grieving of a sort, and maybe joy, maybe freedom. I don’t know, yet, but I’ve been thinking about it.

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