In Ask Again, Yes, her third novel, Mary Beth Keane tells a wise and searching story of two families who are neighbors in the suburbs north of New York City. Over the course of 40 years, the families are riven by a mother’s violent act and brought back together through the enduring bonds that link two of their children. The author touches on profound questions of contemporary family life.
Could you tell me about the seeds of thought and feeling from which this novel grew? What interests led you to the story you would eventually tell in Ask Again, Yes?
I had an idea for another historical novel, and I thought I was working on that, but the issues I was facing in daily life, either at home or vis-à-vis my friends and family, kept interjecting, so I put that novel aside and went with this one. It was as if I turned 40 and everyone around me suddenly went a little nuts, so I started writing as a way of finding my way through the things I was having to face on a daily basis anyway. The fictional town in this novel is based on the town where I grew up (and where I currently live, once again), and the themes of family estrangement, mental illness and even violence are based on people in my life. Like Kate and Peter, who are the central love relationship in the book, I met my husband when I was very young (I was 14). We lived in neighboring towns instead of neighboring houses. Like Peter, my husband was estranged from his mother and father for many years. We thought when we were married we were putting an end to one story and starting one of our own, and in some ways that was true, but that old story has followed us and had a much greater impact on our married life than I ever imagined it would.
I’m also curious about the book’s title. Did it leap to mind immediately, or did you struggle to find it? What does the title signify to you?
It didn’t leap to mind immediately, but I didn’t struggle either. I like to title things early because titles help me focus. I knew I wanted to end the book on a note of optimism. I knew that these characters would go through a world of heartache, but the whole point, for me, was to say that life, love, whatever—it’s all worth it. But at the same time I wanted the book to be honest. And I wanted it to be totally unsentimental.
Reading is a key part of my process, and I usually begin my writing day with reading something I’ve already read, something really good. It helps me transition away from the chaos of domestic life to writing, which has to be quiet (the opposite of our usual weekday mornings around here). Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses was one of the things I turned to many of those writing mornings. By the end of Ulysses we know that Molly and Leopold’s relationship has become petty and cynical, but in that chapter, when she reflects back on their beginning, the reader can see that there’s real love there, and that the beginning still matters.
Your previous novels feature Irish immigrant characters. Here, two of your main characters are also immigrants from Ireland. What is it about the Irish immigrant experience that interests you so much?
All immigrant stories interest me. The notion of the American dream is something I’ve been thinking about my entire life. It’s not fashionable, especially now, and it’s certainly far more difficult for some immigrants than it is for others, but I still believe in it. I write Irish characters, I suppose, because my parents are Irish-born, so it’s the immigrant story I feel most comfortable writing about. Half my family stayed in Ireland, and half ended up in the United States. I spent my childhood either planning a next visit to Ireland to see my aunts and first cousins, or hearing about Ireland constantly. But as much as I knew that I was supposed to love and feel connected to Ireland, it always confused me a little. Ireland is so often recalled with such warm, sentimental feelings—think of the songs!—and yet so many stories of “home,” especially in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, were truly brutal. There’s a reason so many people left.
I remember one particular Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house here in New York. Angela’s Ashes had come out that year, and there was a heated argument about it. I was a sophomore in college, and it was the first book I read about Ireland that didn’t seem washed with fiddle music and clinking glasses. It was truly, brutally honest. I loved it. Most of my aunts and uncles of McCourt’s generation were deeply upset by it, but I remember realizing that no one was denying that what McCourt wrote was true. They were just upset that he wrote about it. Some things should never be spoken, and that, in a nutshell, is the Irish character. I think I’ve been trying to buck that my whole life.
In your acknowledgments, you thank NYPD officers “who answered what were probably very dumb questions without flinching or rolling their eyes.” What were two or three key things you learned from them that helped shape your narrative?
I can’t identify two or three things. I needed to know everything! Things that I couldn’t look up anywhere. When a patrolman gets dressed, in what order does he or she clip things to the belt? What parts of a uniform are uncomfortable? What did people gossip about at the station house? What’s allowed while on patrol? What’s not allowed but snuck in anyway? Can an officer on duty get a cup of coffee? A sandwich? Did they talk about their spouses with each other? Their children? Affairs? Or are some subjects untouchable?
I wasn’t interested in particular cases (which was confusing to some of the cops I spoke with, as they all LOVE talking about their craziest cases). I was only interested in how they felt in different moments and how those feelings might be surprising. Were they actually nervous when they appeared confident? Eager? Afraid? Proud? Getting cops to talk about feelings takes a while, but one big thing I learned was that they carry really deep guilt when things go wrong. At least the good cops do.
Four of your characters at one point or another work in the police department. Yet the novel is far from a police procedural; it’s more about their lives away from work. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?
Police work is really interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but I was never interested in writing about cops on the job. We’ve all seen that, haven’t we? I spent my early ’20s watching “Law & Order,” and any scenes I wrote of cops on the job felt like a “Law & Order” episode to me. Plus, the book was always meant to be about love, what these cops are like at home, how they might carry what they see and do on the job into their domestic lives, how the job shapes them as men.
While your character Anne apparently performs well as a nurse, she is pretty clearly mentally unbalanced from early in the novel. This raises a lot of questions, such as: How could people around her—her husband particularly—do nothing until things got clearly out of hand?
From what I’ve seen and read, the way things go for Anne is not uncommon. Denial is a strong feeling, and we’re all guilty of sinking into that feeling at times. When we hear cases of extreme mental illness we think, well, if my loved one were like that I would have done something. But we only ever hear the ends of stories. When we’re in the middle of it, I think we often fail to recognize something for what it really is.
I also read case after case of people who were able to keep their debilitating mental illnesses private for a remarkably long time. Our work lives are sort of a performance, aren’t they? Most people have a role, they play it, they go home. And at home, the people there might not want to face the thing that’s happening. I think Anne’s trajectory isn’t all that uncommon. Isn’t this why we’re all fascinated and shocked when otherwise normal-seeming people commit heinous acts?
One of the great pleasures of the novel is your depiction of the growing bond—a lifelong bond, it turns out—between the neighboring children Kate and Peter. Where did that come from? Were there similar loving friendships in your childhood circle of friends?
I met my husband at 14, and we started dating at 15. We got engaged when I was 25. We literally grew up together. I’m still close with a lot of my childhood friends, many of whom I’ve known since first grade. There’s something magical to me about being friends with someone now who I knew as a child. It’s as if we know each other’s most essential selves, and so when we accept each other for who we are, we really know what we’re talking about. In a lot of cases in my own life, people may look and appear like confident, competent adults, but I still see the child in there, and some of those basic fears and insecurities are the same now as they were back in grade school.
The story you tell here spans four decades. I have to say that it is masterful. But I wonder what led you to tell in a comparatively brief novel a story that covers so much time?
I wish I knew! Thank you for describing it as a brief novel. At 400 pages I often worry it will be considered too long. I didn’t know at the outset that this novel would cover so much time. I wanted to write about a mother and a son reuniting, and about forgiveness after a trauma and childhood love, but I didn’t know the shape the story would take for a long time. Structural problems emerged quickly. In order to appreciate the forgiveness that takes place for these characters in the present day, the reader would have to know the past. I didn’t want to bog the book down in backstory, so I couldn’t begin with Kate and Peter married. I couldn’t begin with the two of them in crisis and then pull from the past to enrich it. I had to write my way there. So I divided the book into sections and made each part speak only for itself. And the more I committed to that, the more it made sense. It’s not as if anything we do is in service to any other (future) part of life. Mostly we’re acting for now. The problem with THAT was that each section meant a myriad of possible rabbit holes I had to resist traveling. For example, I couldn’t have Francis or Anne think TOO MUCH about the old country, because then it would quickly become a sentimental Irish immigration novel. I couldn’t show Peter and Kate TOO MUCH in the mundane early marriage years because although it was important for these two in particular to have ho-hum years (like every other couple), it would bore the reader. So I was constantly overwriting and then cutting way back to keep the book on track.
The book has its share of sorrow and loneliness, but it is redeemed by love and forgiveness. I’d like to know your thoughts about forgiveness.
This is complicated for me. Forgiveness is good and healthy and right. We all know that. But what does it mean? If there’s trauma in a family, does that mean forgiveness will lead to Christmases and birthdays together? I don’t think so, personally. I think it only means finding peace, somehow, and moving on, but there are people in my life who disagree with me. I forgive when I believe someone is sorry for something, when I see someone is struggling or has regrets. I think I’m capable of forgiving almost anything if a person cops to the thing they’ve done, and I always try to call myself on my own mistakes in the same spirit. But there are people who create narratives for themselves in order to see their own participation in a mistake as justifiable, and it’s hard for me to forgive a person like that.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ask Again, Yes.
Author photo by Nina Subin