Photo credit: Nina Subin
Describe your latest book.
Ask Again, Yes
is a novel about two families who live as next door neighbors in a working class suburb of New York City. The fathers in both houses are NYPD officers, and met as rookies in 1973. They end up in different precincts, but in the meantime, back at home, the only son in one house — Peter Stanhope — and the youngest daughter in the other house — Kate Gleeson — become best friends almost from the moment they can walk and talk. In their 8th grade year a violent event divides the families and Peter and Kate think they’ll never see each other again. Of course they DO see each other again (not a plot spoiler, the reader will sense this), and the book is really about how much of what happens to us as children continues to matter when we’re grown. The novel covers 45 years and it examines how different things look from the distance of years and experience, and how powerful love can be when it’s nurtured and not abused.
What was your favorite book as a child?
. I must have read it a dozen times. I loved that she was always outside, running around, climbing trees, and doing things she wasn’t supposed to be doing.
When did you know you were a writer?
My first memory of coming up with a story was probably when I was around five years old. I could write a little, but not enough to keep pace with what I was thinking, so I used to ask my mom to write for me as I dictated, and then she’d read it back and I’d make edits. I don’t remember any of the plots, only how aggravating it was to not be able to write quickly or know more words.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have an office in the basement of my house, but most days I end up writing at the kitchen table. I like being near the snacks and the kettle. I’m not precious about a writing space. I’ll write anywhere. When my kids were younger sometimes I’d drive around until they fell asleep and then I’d write in my car.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
When my last book came out — a historical novel about Typhoid Mary called Fever
— I was doing an event in Nyack, New York, when a woman in the audience stood up and told me what I was doing was illegal, that it was against the law to enter a a historical figure’s point of view, give her thoughts and feelings, etc. I pointed out that I certainly wasn’t the first person to do this (I told her to think of Shakespeare and all the English kings he portrayed, as one example) and she got so upset she had to be escorted out by security. That was a weird evening.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m terrible at grammar. I’m actually not all that embarrassed by that.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
In particular, anyone who is harboring ambitions of writing fiction should read William Trevor’s short stories. I love his stories more than his novels, so I recommend the gigantic Collected Stories.
His prose is restrained and totally objective. Here’s a detail, and there’s a detail, but whatever synapses are firing are inside the reader’s head, not Trevor’s (well, Trevor’s too, no doubt). Never once will you feel instructed in how to feel, and yet you’ll end up exactly where Trevor wants you to be (gutted, if you have a heart). His work is a study in how to implicate the reader in the story without the reader ever smelling the oil in the machine. I’ve read “Mrs. Silly” maybe 50 times and it only gets richer and more complex. I think it’s the perfect short story.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I worked at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello after finishing my MFA at the University of Virginia. I thought it would be this weird, fun job in a beautiful setting, but it turned out to be one of the most intense jobs I’ve ever had. I lasted six months.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Whenever I walk around Dublin I look out for places Leopold Bloom or Stephen Dedalus also were. But I’ve never done the formal tour.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Being terrible. Not being honest about my writing, out of fear.
Describe a recurring nightmare.
This is a weird one: my mother has a bunch of pantyhose with an artificial butt built in. Are you familiar with these? For women with flat asses, I guess, who want to fill out a pair of pants. This isn’t a betrayal of her privacy; when she wears them she tells pretty much everyone to please notice her butt. Anyway, I’ve had several dreams where I’m rushing to get ready for something I’m nervous about, and for some reason I decide I must wear stockings but I don’t own stockings so I borrow hers. Then when I’m walking onstage I realize with horror that I borrowed the butt pantyhose. I’m sure this says something superficial and terrible about me.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
When people say or write “that” instead of “who.” As in: “Is Blanche Taylor Moore the North Carolinian THAT killed her boyfriend by slipping arsenic into his food?” It should be WHO killed her boyfriend. It’s possible that both are considered correct now, but I still find it so annoying.
Do you have any phobias?
I’ve diagnosed myself with misophonia, which I suppose is more of a hatred than a fear. It’s literally “hatred of sound.” Like when people eat cereal loudly, or the way people tentatively test-slurp coffee or tea when they’re unsure if it’s too hot, or if I’m alone in a car with someone and that person decides to eat an apple, or if I’m on the phone with someone and I suspect that person is eating. Certain sounds really, really bother me and send me into a legit rage. Non-eating sounds, too, though that rage is at more of an 8 than a 10. Like a dripping faucet if I’m writing at home, or someone at the library tapping a pencil. I know this is my problem and no one else’s fault. I’m trying to work on it.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I spend way too much time on Instagram. And I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones
. How original.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was expecting my first child I was reading all these books and blogs and articles and getting more and more overwhelmed. My mother said to me, “Stop reading, none of it matters, the baby will teach you.” The baby! But she was right. Sometimes I think of that same advice as applied to writing a novel. Each novel demands its own scope, its own structure, and writing one doesn’t help at all in writing another. That used to frustrate me, but now I see it as a good thing. Each novel teaches me what it wants to be as I go along.
My Favorite Five Books of the Last Decade
These are my favorite five books of the last ten years. If I ever read a few disappointing books in a row, I go back to one of these to remind myself of where the bar should be.
by Louise Erdrich
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My Name Is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
by Mohsin Hamid
by Sally Rooney
÷ ÷ ÷
Mary Beth Keane
’s debut novel, The Walking People
, received a PEN/Hemingway Award, and in 2011 she was selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.” Her second novel, Fever
, was named one of the best books of 2013 by The San Francisco Chronicle
, NPR Books, and Library Journal
. She was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction and her third novel, Ask Again, Yes,
is forthcoming in June.