For many people looking to find a good read, they commonly say, “I would love to read, but there’s just too much to choose from!” or “I’m picky about what I read, so it has to be good” or “I saw that on Instagram! Is it good?”
Over the last few months, our Instagram feed has been flooded with images of Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes and its eye-catching, sleepy blue and green community cover. We thought, “Well, we simply have to read that. It’s everywhere!” And friends, we are so glad that we did.
This family drama that unfolds over decades starts with two men who meet in the police academy and could never imagine the way their lives would intertwine so deeply and for so long. Francis Gleeson and his wife Lena wed and move to the town of Gillam, the town that his partner Brian Stanhope suggests to him, and start their family of three daughters.
When Brian and his wife Anne move in, Lena can tell there’s something off about Anne. No matter how hard she tries, she can never break through to her. When they have their son Peter, Anne shuts herself off even more. As Peter and the Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, grow up and close together, things take a nasty turn and the lives of both families will never be the same again.
The story was oftentimes intense to read and left me sad more than once, but it kept me invested and I absolutely loved it. I was so happy it came across Instagram so much because now we get to share with all of you our interview with the delightful author, Mary Beth Keane!
Congratulations! Ask Again, Yes has finally been released! How does it feel?
It feels a little surreal! This book took so long to write and now people are taking pictures with it in places I’ve never been. It’s jarring.
What was the catalyst for this story?
The story of these characters was inspired by the struggle I was noticing in my friends and family to face (or to continue avoiding) various traumas that had followed them all their lives. People around me were dealing with aging parents, family estrangement, alcoholism, marital problems, etc. By our forties, I think most of us expect to be long past our childhoods, and yet it seemed to me that reverberations from the past were only becoming stronger. I began writing this book as a way to find my way through some of these issues.
What made you want to create a character like Anne; a woman who lived with mental illness at a time where it was very poorly diagnosed and taken care of?
There’s some mental illness that runs through my family, and my husband’s family. One person in particular was quite a destructive force in a lot of the lives she touched, and I spent most of my late teens and early adulthood really despising that person. As I got older, however, I found myself considering how much she’d missed out on, how she’d made her own life miserable in so many ways, and how things could have been so different if she’d gotten the help she needed early on. I wanted to capture the impression a person like Anne might have on strangers and neighbors, but I also wanted to get within her point of view so that readers might understand the pain she was in. We’ve come a long way with mental health awareness in this country, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Something that I really loved about the first 90 pages or so was that it seemed like a quiet, suburban family drama. There was something odd about Anne and we didn’t know exactly what and then POP! Total twist before “Queens”. Did you want the momentum to go that way?
Yes! Because that’s part of the point. Mental illness, that potential for violence, that silent suffering, is happening all around us and it’s likely we are totally unaware. I worried through the first few drafts that what happens wouldn’t be believable, and then almost every week I’d read a story in the newspaper or on the internet about a seemingly normal person, or a normal family, where a shockingly violent thing takes place.
Did you always know that she was going to shoot him? I assumed it was going to be her husband or Kate, but definitely not him.
No. I knew she was going to shoot someone, but for a while it was a different character. But I knew the story partly belonged to Francis, and I felt like he was the one who should be put in a position of whether to forgive her or not. I also wanted to see how he’d cope – as a father, as a man – when his life gets thrown off track. Up until that moment he’d sort of been a model citizen. A pure victim. And writing a pure victim – someone almost sainted by what happens to them – is not interesting to me.
From what I gather, Anne is bipolar. She seems fine when Lena gives her the swing, but then loses it. She loves that Peter loved the ship, but then broke it when she found it in the garage. What do you hope readers take away about mental health when they read your book?
There have been different names for bipolar disorder since the 1970s, and when I described Anne to a psychiatrist friend she suggested she also had Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD). But the thing I’ve learned about mental health diagnoses is that they’re fluid, one thing bleeds into another, and no two cases look exactly the same. I suppose the main thing I’d want people to take away is that when they interact with a person who is suffering from a mental illness, that person is receiving that interaction in an entirely different way. Approach with sympathy, with empathy. One huge problem that has not been solved in the treatment sector is how to treat a person who is an adult, who has not committed a crime, but who clearly needs serious help but refuses to seek help. Laws about involuntary commitment seem to vary state by state, and even in cases where it’s possible, stays are usually far too brief to be helpful.
I love the very Montague and Capulet vibe of it all. Even when Kate and Peter still hold onto those feelings and come back together, they still don’t want to tell their families. Was that faint echo intentional?
I was aware of the echo as I was writing, but I certainly didn’t chase it. I often thought of Peter and Kate’s story, especially in the “Muster” section, as Romeo & Juliet except if Juliet had awoken in time and neither of them killed themselves and instead they had to live together for the next twenty-five years and deal with the mundane, exhausting details of building an actual life together.
We learn as the story goes on that there’s so much more going on in all of their lives than any of the others know. For instance, everything with Anne started when she was 12 and she was abused. It seemed like they were all hiding the most broken parts of themselves or what brought them shame. Was that something you knew you wanted the characters to keep from each other? What did they gain or lose in doing so?
This is harder to answer than it may seem. I don’t know whether it’s part of the Irish character, or the Catholic character, or maybe a working class thing, but it seems totally normal to me that people hold private the most terrible things that have happened to them. I never imagined Anne should or would share what happened when she was a child in Ireland. But it’s there with her, every step she takes, and it is part of what made her who she is. One of the most challenging things about writing this book was handling the backstories of the older generation. I have two people – Francis and Anne — who left Ireland quite young to arrive in America more or less on their own. My own parents came to New York from Ireland around the same age. But if I’d weighted the book differently, or if I’d given the reader that backstory even just a little bit earlier, it would have been a different book. I didn’t want to write an immigration story. Or a story about haunted, broken Ireland of the 1960s. I wanted to write a story about those people, now. I guess I was also trying to say something about trauma in general. The book focuses on Peter – if it “belongs” to any character, it belongs to him – but any one of these characters has a long and complicated story inside them.
“They’d both learned that a memory is a fact that’s been dyed and trimmed and rinsed so many times that it comes out looking almost unrecognizable” is one of the most profound and powerful aspects of the book. How did it feel once that sentence was written?
The subjective nature of memory was something I thought about a lot while writing. I do think that’s one of the few sentences that made it through every draft!
What was the process like writing this book?
It was long and emotionally exhausting. This is by far the most personal of my books, and it was partcularly difficut to find detachment within these scenes and themes so that I could really observe them and take in all the details.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes, always, but I have a long rumination period before I really get going. I don’t like to talk about new books too early because they’re so fragile at first.
If this were optioned and turned into a film, who would be your dream cast?
It has been optioned! The paperwork just got finalized last week (press release to come!). And for that reason I don’t want to name my dream cast in case the people who DO get cast read this and feel sad that they weren’t my number one choice (unless they end up casting my number one choices for each role, in which case I’ll regret the way I answered this question).
Writer’s Note: I had no idea that this had been optioned at the time of the interview, so I was clearly ahead of my time! This is going to make such a great movie or series!
And finally, what was the last great book you read?
Normal People by Sally Rooney. It was phenomenal.
We want to thank Mary Beth Keane so much for not only writing such a deeply intimate and profound novel, but also for allowing us to interview her about this amazing work. Ask Again, Yes is available now! Follow Mary Beth on Instagram!