When people ask me what I do for a crust and I tell them that I’m a novelist, they immediately assume that my life is a non-stop carousel of limos, television appearances, hair-dos, devoted fans, stalkers and all the glitzy paraphernalia of being a public figure.
It’s time to set the record straight.
I write alone, in a darkened bedroom, wearing my PJs, eating bananas, my laptop on a pillow in front of me. Occasionally – it usually coincides with promoting a book – I am led, blinking, into the daylight, and when I try to talk to people, discover that I’m not able to, that I’ve become completely desocialized. And as for being mobbed by adoring fans – I’m never recognised. Once I thought I was, but I was mistaken. I was in a shoeshop (where else?), and when I asked one of the girls if she had any of these sixteen shoes in my size, she looked at me, put her hand on her chest and gave a little gasp. ‘It’s you!’ she declared.
It is, I thought, thrilled to the marrow. It is me – I’m famous!
‘Yes,’ the girl continued. ‘You were in the pub last night, you were the one singing, weren’t you?’
I was so disappointed I could barely speak. I’d been nowhere near any pub the night before.
‘You’ve a great voice’ she said. ‘Now what size do you want these shoes in?’
Even the day a book comes out isn’t as life-altering as I’d once anticipated. The morning my first book Watermelon was officially published in England, where I lived at the time, I half-expected that people in the street would look at me differently as I went to work. That they’d nudge each other and mutter, ‘See her, that’s that Marian Keyes, she’s written a book.’ And that the bus conductor might let me off my fare. (You’re OK there, Writer-Girl, this one’s on me.’) But, naturally, no one paid me the slightest attention. At lunchtime I was rushed to the nearest bookshop, my heart aflutter, as I expected to see my beloved creation in a massive display. Instead I found the latest John Grisham novel piled high where my book should have been. I looked for a smaller display of my book. None to be seen. Mortified, I went to the shelf and searched alphabetically. And found it wasn’t there. So I went to the counter and got the girl to look it up on the computer.
‘Oh, that,’ she said, eyeing the screen. ‘We’re not getting any in.’
‘I can order you a copy, though,’ she called after me, as I slunk away to shoot myself.
For a couple of weeks afterwards, whenever my boss wasn’t left the office I grabbed the phone and systematically rang every bookshop in London, pretending to be a customer, asking if they stocked Watermelon. And if they hadn’t got it, I rang again a few days later, hoping they’d changed their minds. In the end, I’m sure they recognised my voice. I imagined them putting their hands over the mouthpiece and shouting, ‘It’s that Keyes one again. Have we got her bloody book in yet?’
As well as expecting glitz and glamour, I used to think that an integral part of being a writer was lying around on a couch, eating chocolate raisins, waiting for the muse to strike. And if the muse hadn’t struck, I might as well be watching Jerry Springer while I was waiting. So it came as a nasty shock to discover that if I was waiting for the muse to come a-calling, it would take several decades to write a book.
So now, muse or no muse, I work eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, just like I did when I was an accounts clerk. The main difference is that I work in bed. Not because I’m a lazy lump, (OK, not just because I’m a lazy lump), but just because the idea of sitting at a desk daunts me and frankly, I’m daunted enough. So the bed it is and it’s worked out nicely so far, especially since I started turning myself regularly to avoid bedsores.
Most days I start work at about eight o’clock – kicking the day off with a good dose of terror. Today is the day, I usually think, when I run out of ideas, when the inspiration packs its bags and goes to find another accounts clerk and transforms their life.
People often ask me where I get my ideas from and, God, I wish I knew. All I can say is that I find people fascinating, and seeing as I write about emotional landscapes, this can only be a good thing. I think that on a subconscious level I’m taking in information constantly, and in case I come across extra-specially interesting people or funny sayings, I carry a notebook with me at all times. Well, actually I don’t. I’m supposed to, and when I give advice to aspiring writers that’s always what I tell them to do. But somehow when I forage around amongst the sweet papers and lip glosses in my handbag the notebook is never there. So my ‘office’ (ie. the floor on the side of my bed) is littered with bus-tickets and pastille wrappers with little notes to myself scribbled on them.