Marian Keyes: Chick-lit maverick

She writes about drug addiction, grief and cancer, yet her books are produced prettily in pink and usually filed under 'R' for romantic fiction. Katy Guest talks to a novelist who refuses to be judged by her covers
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When I meet Marian Keyes in her flat overlooking Covent Garden in London, she is about to rush off to film a documentary with the "Bee Bee Cee". She is so delighted that she drops out of her soft, west coast of Ireland accent and pronounces the words in her best Queen's English, to show how "honoured" she is to be treated with such gravitas. But she is "bristly" about it, too. "It's some documentary about the history of the romantic novel," she explains. "I'll be like, 'I don't write romantic novels!'" She has already insisted, quite a number of times, that she thinks they are mostly a load of "co-dependent nonsense". But people have their fixed ideas about Marian Keyes's books.

Mostly, they blame the pastel covers. When Keyes appeared on Radio 4's Start the Week last Monday, fellow guest David Baddiel said that in promising satisfaction, the publisher's blurb on her latest book, Anybody Out There?, made her sound like a Hoover. Another guest, the former ambassador Rodric Braithwaite, "hesitated before reading it on the Tube". "I don't read chick lit," he said. Does the woman who has sold millions of books in 35 countries care?

"It saddens me," she says, "because I want us to embrace the totality of womanhood, to say that we can wear make-up and high heels and pink, and still have very complex understandings of issues that impact on our lives. I don't like this idea of division: that if you're a clever woman then you've got to be a particular way. Because men don't. Men please themselves."

In her previous nine novels, Keyes has tackled some notably un-pink subjects. Rachel's Holiday described the drug addiction of its heroine: a story that echoed her own alcoholism. Last Chance Saloon was about cancer. In Anybody Out There?, her heroine is wiped out by grief, a subject she says has enraged some of her regular readers.

So, if a brazen publisher took a Marian Keyes book and put it in a Zadie Smith cover, what would happen? She pauses, before saying frankly: "I think an awful lot of people would stop buying it. Maybe I should get more upset about the criticism than I am. And I suppose I do feel it's unfair my books are denigrated by people who may not have read them. But in terms of terrible injustices in the world, it's so very, very small."

Keyes talks as she writes, widening her startled, blue eyes as if to italicise every other word. In her defiantly un-chick lit way, she is passionately, vehemently, angrily feminist, and gesticulates wildly as she drops statistics about rape cases, plastic surgery and "the atrocious messages about body image". "I tried to do a women's studies degree in Dublin and they don't do them any more; there isn't the demand," she says. "Isn't that terrible!" She is currently devouring the Germaine Greers and Naomi Woolfs that she missed out on as a teenager.

It is clear that she feels she is writing very much in a tradition of women's literature. "My mother is the best storyteller," she says. "And her mother was too. I never thought I could write, because my parents were very poor and a huge emphasis was put on education. And because oral storytelling was all around me it was something I put no value on." Her father was an accountant, a "scholarship boy" with a work ethic that he carefully instilled into his children. Her mother had to resign when she got married. "I really feel that she missed many vocations," she says. "She could be a writer too, but her generation was brought up to know that you weren't seen and you weren't heard. There was nothing more inappropriate than an Irish woman with high self-esteem."

It is obvious that she feels huge affection for her family. The acknowledgements in her latest book are filled with Keyeses, and her sister Caitriona is credited with inventing the term "feathery stroker" for a particular breed of oversensitive man. But her father doesn't read her books. "He read my first and he was appalled," she recalls. "You know, because there's sex in it, he was horrified!" Her mother, on the other hand, is her best critic. She's brutally honest, with "a good instinctive understanding of a narrative arc", but "she has a particular thing about blow jobs ... She doesn't actually believe they exist."

This raucous, at-home Irishness has been both a blessing and a curse for Keyes. She is sure that the Irish gift for conversation has informed her chatty authorial voice. But she also identifies with the tradition of Irish writers who have felt the need to escape. "Ireland was such a different country [when I was growing up]," she says. "It was a horrible time to be a woman. I felt claustrophobic. Every time I thought of going back I used to have a physical sensation like I was choking. It was a visceral response to that jackboot."

But go back she did, twice. "I was living in London throughout my twenties. When I turned 30 my relationship with alcohol got destructive. I didn't make a logical decision to come home to Ireland, but that's what happened. I attempted suicide, which I think in retrospect was just an attempt to blow everything up in my face - to make me have to accept help." She underwent intensive rehab and another six weeks at home. Her second return to the old country has been a lot more considered. She now lives there with her husband, Tony, who works as her PA and is "a right feathery stroker" - in the nicest possible way.

Not only has he changed her view of men, but Tony was also behind her return to her parents' town. "Ireland had changed an awful lot, but I had changed as well," she says. "An awful lot of my life as an alcoholic was about having a trail of destruction behind me that I was constantly on the run from. I had to go back and heal things."

So, with one foot in her flat in London and the other in a house in Dublin, Keyes continues to write her pink-covered books. The next one will take on the un-chick lit subject of domestic abuse: a subject she feels intensely about. "I am hoping to work more with Women's Aid," she says. "And I'm very proud of my work with Amnesty, and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture."

Her own latest favourite authors are David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro and Alexander McCall Smith. "What would Kazuo Ishiguro say about my books? He'd say, 'Those silly books about chocolate and pinkness!', and wouldn't bother to read them."

If he's man enough for the stares on the Tube, perhaps he should give them a try.