Mary Beth Keane Explores the Enduring Legacy of Violence

Posted by Cybil on May 1, 2019
Mary Beth Keane
Does tragedy lose its sting through the lens of years? How much do we change as our lives stretch on?

With Mary Beth Keane’s new novel, Ask Again, Yes, the characters look into themselves after a violent act tears deep bonds apart. The story takes place across four decades. Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope become partners as rookie NYPD officers, and their first assignment takes them to the Bronx. As time goes on, their lives intertwine and their families become inseparable—until tragedy strikes. Years later, their children reexamine the past in a story that explores time, family, and friendship.

Keane's first novel, The Walking People (2009), was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her second novel, Fever (2013), was among the best books of 2013 on several notable lists. In 2011, she was named to the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35," and she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction in 2015. Her past work focuses on history, but Ask Again, Yes takes a turn for the present. Keane talked to Goodreads contributor Rebecca Renner about her latest novel. Their conversation has been edited.


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Goodreads: What inspired you to write Ask Again, Yes?

Mary Beth Keane: A lot of things. I was starting a new historical novel, and I kept getting sort of interrupted by real-life concerns, and there were some things in the books that are sort of drawn from autobiography.

It's not nonfiction by any means. It's a novel. It's totally made up. But I had just turned 40, and friends and family and people dear to me were starting to struggle with things like alcoholism, infidelity, just general dissatisfaction, midlife crises of all different kinds. I started writing to find my way through those things and to kind of decide what I thought about them.

I didn't really realize that it was going to be a novel until I had quite a lot of pages. I guess that’s what was behind it. And then I abandoned the book that I thought I was writing and wrote this instead.

GR: In your writing, you touch on acts of violence in a way that's very nuanced. How do you handle writing these difficult scenes?

MBK: I guess I'm like everyone else. When I read the paper and something happens, I feel scared, you know, because so many times reports of people who are violent—either to themselves or to other people—seem so normal. I just can't stop thinking about how there are, like, potential monsters among us sometimes. I think about violence cropping up all the time.

Violence is dramatic. And so there's no need for the writing to be dramatic. It's something I return to a lot. It exists in the act itself. It doesn't have to exist in the sentences. Whether it's violence or other dramatic acts, the more drama there is in the interaction between your characters, the less drama there can be in your sentences. They have to disappear in a way.

GR: Your writing is also very character-driven. How do you give your characters such depth?


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MBK: Well, character is always the first thing I see. Whether that's in a short story or novel or a scene or anything. Because I think that's the thing that makes me want to write in the first place. Why does an otherwise decent person do that thing? You know, I don't really care about the bad thing.

I think a gunshot could be replaced with a punch in the face could be replaced with cheating on your spouse. The thing is in the person, him or herself. I think that's the whole point of writing and reading—to find out what's inside of another person.

I like to put myself in a character’s shoes, and also I have a lot of sympathy as I get older for people who make bad choices and who aren’t bad people. Actually, I think there are probably very few bad people. It's just a series of bad choices you get caught up in that can make you look like a bad person.

GR: Do you have a character who was your favorite to write?

MBK: In this book, George was my favorite for sure. He was like everyone I knew growing up. He sort of encompasses what's held holy in my own background and sort of in my hometown still. He's a working-class guy, not highly educated, necessarily, but he has a lot of sense and his instincts have guided him. He's messed up, but he calls himself on it. He's just good, you know, without being pious or without being sanctimonious. He's just a good person, and he's going to do what he thinks is a good thing. And if he's wrong, he'll call himself on it and he'll adjust.

GR: What is your writing process like?

MBK: Like I said, I always start with character, and I just begin, usually, by putting them in a situation and seeing what happens. I waste a lot of pages. I don't outline. I start everything in the first person. I don't know why I do that. It's such an incredible waste of time in the end because I always ditch it. But I don’t go into it thinking that. I always start, thinking, "This is going to be my first-person novel."

Three times now, I’ve stuck to the first person until around page 150 and had to start over. But I'm now realizing that I think that's it, that is the process, it's me getting inside, in a first-person point of view, and then I'm able to step out and see it more clearly. And then I switch it to third person.

For people who don't write, switching from first to third is not like replacing pronouns. It's like a whole different book. But it allows me to see everything really intimately. Then when I switch to third, I can really look closely at everyone. I think you can get a lot closer to character in third person than you can in first, but it sort of reminds me of what actors do, you know. I'm just, like, sort of trying on their clothes for a while and seeing how it feels, and then I feel comfortable. And then I can write what I was always going to write, which is going to be in the third person.

GR: Was your process different when you were writing Ask Again, Yes as opposed to your historical work?

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MBK: I think you have to research any book where you don't know one of the angles that you're writing about. If there's a profession or a way of living, even if it takes place in 2017, you have to, like, really, really research that to write with any kind of authority.

The world of police work—I really didn't expect it to be as hard to access as I did. I think because it's part of a cop's nature to kind of keep themselves buttoned up about how they feel. It also took a lot of time to get used to the way they speak. It’s like a whole other language. When cops would talk to each other and use all the lingo, I would have no clue what they were talking about, and then they’d have to translate for me like I would have to translate from any language.

The other thing was about mental illness, you know, like I had to see what was possible for Anne Stanhope, recovery-wise, what she might have been diagnosed with, what could have happened to her. The good thing and the bad thing is that it could have gone a billion different ways. It seems like a lot of mental illnesses, even though they sort of have the same label sometimes manifest themselves in a whole myriad of different ways. So I kept running by symptoms, and the way she was feeling, with a couple different people. And I've read a lot of memoirs. I was probably most worried about getting that wrong, and so I guess I paid extra attention to that.

GR: What do you do when you're not writing or reading?

MBK: There isn't a lot of time that I'm not writing or reading. I have two little boys; one is ten and one is eight. I'm with them a lot. We have projects. I cook with them. I drive them to baseball. It’s like usual mom stuff.

But I also run, and I think that running really helps my writing. Like if I'm really struggling with something, or if I've even had a great writing day and then I go for a run, it's like everything kind of falls into place. But that's it. I mean, there's no time for anything else. I have a stack of books that doesn’t ever seem to get any smaller, and I do want to read everything. And now I’m following all of these bookstagrammers on Instagram, and that’s only making it worse because I see what’s out there and I think, "Oh gosh, I gotta get that. I gotta read this." So I really try to read all the time. There are some great books that are coming out this summer.

GR: Which ones are you anticipating most?

MBK: I’m looking forward to Lisa Taddeo’s book, Three Women. I could not put that book down. I think it's going to be a huge conversation piece. I just finished Sally Rooney's book that everyone is talking about, Normal People. It was every bit as good as everyone said. I also really enjoyed This Is Not a Love Song by Brendan Mathews, Milkman by Anna Burns, and Stay Up with Hugo Best by Erin Somers.

I’m still looking forward to reading a few more good ones that are coming out soon: From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, Naamah by Sarah Blake, and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

GR: What are your favorite books of all time?

MBK: I really loved Jane Eyre. She was—and that whole story, really—really subversive. And it still is. You read it again. I guess I've read it most recently four or five years ago. But I've read it three or four times. Gatsby's another classic that only gets better. I can't believe we make 16-year-olds in high school read that book. They don't get it at all.

William Trevor’s collected stories was sort of a Bible for me for, like, 20 years. And still is. But I think in terms of craft, he is the best. He's written some of my favorite stories. There's a story called "Mrs. Silly" that I think is probably perfect. It's like if the whole point is to implicate the reader in the story and remain objective, you know, so the reader feels like they've come to their own conclusions and they're feeling the things they're feeling, you know, without being manipulated by an author, he is the absolute master of that. It's remarkable.

I mean, also, this is such a cliché, but Dubliners by James Joyce, especially for an Irish girl, was a pretty life-changing reading experience. This is, like, a thing that young people say now, but, like, I really felt seen by a lot of Irish writers. When I was reading in school, you know, people I didn't quite identify with, and then I'd read sections of Ulysses that people had trouble with at college, I would think, "This is how we speak. I get it!" Like all the turns of phrase that just keep going and going. It felt like I could have been at my own Christmas gathering or something.



Mary Beth Keane's novel Ask Again, Yes will be available in the U.S. on May 28. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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