Our May/June 2020 HPB Book Club Pick is Ask Again, Yes, by New York Times bestselling author Mary Beth Keane. Ask Again, Yes is a profoundly moving story about two neighboring families, the friendship between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades and the power of forgiveness. Mary Beth Keane provides us with a closer look at the inspiration behind her latest novel below!
What made you want to write about these two families and the far-reaching consequences of shared trauma?
I didn’t know it would be about two families, or really anything at all about the shape of the book or the themes it would bring in until I was well into a draft. I usually start with a character, usually in motion, and I saw Peter pretty fully before I started writing.
Francis, too, but what they meant to each other was a mystery to me for a long time. Part of the reason I felt moved to write this book was reaching my forties and finding myself surprised that our childhood traumas are still there, following us. They’re there when our own children are looking at us and assuming that we are wise and sanguine, and though sometimes that’s true – once in a while I feel wise – most times it’s not. When I was in my twenties, I think I looked at people twice my age and assumed they were long past their childhoods, and when I got there I realized that’s probably never true. I also think this book came out of me wanting to find out my own thoughts on forgiveness. I knew what I thought I thought, but I wanted to know what I really thought.
Can you tell us more about the relationship between Peter and Kate? What made you decide to write a story about this couple? Did you base their relationship on anyone in particular?
I’ve always been interested in the difference between friendships made in childhood and those made in adulthood. I think knowing someone as a child is to really, really know someone. By adulthood we learn to perform who we want to be to an extent, but children, especially young children, don’t do that at all. I wanted Kate and Peter to know each other that well. To an extent, their relationship is based on my own relationship with my high school boyfriend, who is now my husband. We lived in neighboring towns, not houses, and met when I was fourteen, not an infant. In most important ways, we grew up together. His upbringing was difficult, and he was estranged from his parents for many years. When we got married despite a world of objections we really thought we’d won, that we’d beaten all the odds against us. What we didn’t realize is that we’d still be dealing with that difficult childhood twenty plus years down the road.
What kind of research did you do for this book? Did anything in your research surprise you?
I did a lot of research into the NYPD, both in the 1970s and the present day. I read memoirs and tried to interview a lot of retired and active police officers. The lingo scared me most. The PD has its own language and I knew if I got anything wrong a certain reader would be thrown out of the story. I also did a lot of research into mental health, and how attitudes have changed over time, both in the general population and the medical community. I read about all the different trajectories people with the same diagnosis might take, and how diagnoses change over time. I wanted to feel confident enough to write from Anne’s point of view, and that took a lot of reading.
What made you decide to incorporate the themes of alcoholism, mental illness, love and tragedy into this novel?
I don’t believe any writer sets out to write about certain themes. At least I don’t. I see only a character, and then the things he or she is struggling with become the theme of the book. I think reaching my forties prompted me to think about a lot of things that I’d never really thought about before. Drinking is big in my community, my family, my culture, I suppose, though I’m sure some people will be angry with me for saying that. I had my first drink when I was twelve. My idea of a perfect day is a cocktail on a deck somewhere, either with friends or a good book, but definitely the cocktail. But I know I don’t have a problem with alcohol. I don’t know why or how and I suppose I’ve been puzzling over that for a long time. It’s just not that important to me. And yet I have friends who grew up the same way I did and they definitely do have a problem with alcohol. It was like the road we were all on forked at a certain age and some people went one way, and some went the other. As for mental illness – my parents are Irish born, definitely of an old-school mentality when it comes to mental illness, and the same was true for our whole circle when I was growing up. There’s still a stigma attached to seeking help of a certain kind and I wanted to explore that, what a tragedy that is, how much hurt might have been avoided. As for love, what good book doesn’t explore love at least a little?
What does your writing process look like?
It’s both very disciplined and very haphazard, I suppose. I don’t outline. I don’t try to see the end of anything until I’m writing it. I don’t write scenes in order. I write to where I feel the energy of the story is on a given day. I have to write an entire draft of a book before I know what it’s really “about” and then when I find out, I have to write it again. If I find the prose starting to get flat then I just put the characters somewhere else, maybe at a different age, with a slightly different experience of life. It makes for a nightmarish round of rewrites and revisions, but I’ve learned that’s just the way it has to be for me. What I am strict about is protecting my writing time as much as I can with two kids and a partner and aging parents who live next door to me, and a global pandemic, and on and on and on. I write from once my kids get on the school bus until about 1:00pm, and everything else I have to do: exercise, grocery shopping, answering emails, all comes after that. I’m also strict about what I read when I’m writing. I have to read fiction of the same quality I hope to write, otherwise that dead feeling I get when I read prose that’s flat starts to infect my own writing.
Tell us about a challenge you faced in writing this novel.
By far the biggest challenge was finding the right structure, and second to that, finding the right point of view (or in this case, points of view).
Who is your favorite character in this book?
George. No question about that.
What has been the most difficult part of writing this book?
All books take an emotional toll, but this one definitely left me more depleted than the others. Maybe because it’s the most personal of my books, closest to my actual life.
What has been the most rewarding part of writing this book?
By far the most rewarding thing has been hearing from readers whose backgrounds are nothing like mine or these characters, but who identify with this story. People from all over the world have gotten in touch to say “this was my mother” or my father, and so on. While writing this book, one of my main fears was that no one would care about these people except for me.
What can we expect from you next?
Another novel. It’s the only thing I know how to do. Don’t ask me when, please! I’m working on it.
Mary Beth Keane attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA. She was awarded a John S. Guggenheim fellowship for fiction writing, and has received citations from the National Book Foundation, PEN America, and the Hemingway Society. She is the author of The Walking People, Fever, and most recently, Ask Again, Yes, which spent eight weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. Both Fever and Ask Again, Yes are in development to become limited television series. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook.