Mary Beth Keane author photo
June 2023

This round’s on Keane

Interview by
When the world entered COVID-19 lockdown, author Mary Beth Keane (Ask Again, Yes) found herself yearning for the indoor camaraderie of a really packed bar. To compensate, she immersed herself in writing The Half Moon, named for the townie bar at the story’s center.
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Mary Beth Keane grew up around bars. “Most of my uncles owned bars or worked in them,” she says. Which is why, when the world entered COVID-19 lockdown, Keane found herself yearning for the indoor camaraderie of a really packed bar. But besides socializing with her husband and two sons, the best she could do was drive around Pearl River, New York—the town where she grew up and now lives—hoping to spot a friend to chat with from afar. 

To compensate, Keane immersed herself in writing The Half Moon, named for the townie bar at the novel’s center. The wonderfully unpretentious, gifted writer explains this by phone from Bozeman, Montana, where she’s researching her next novel. (Its Western setting will herald a marked change from her beloved 2019 novel, Ask Again, Yes, and The Half Moon, both of which are set in Gillam, a fictionalized version of Pearl River.)

Read our starred review of The Half Moon.

In the novel, Malcolm Gephardt has worked at the Half Moon for years, and now he finally owns the place, with dreams to update and transform it. Unfortunately, creditors are at his heels, his marriage is on the rocks, and in the midst of a blizzard, a patron goes missing—setting the stage for plenty of riveting internal and external drama.

“This is a COVID book,” Keane says, “even though it doesn’t seem that way.” The pandemic is never mentioned, and there are no masks in sight. But Keane poured her loneliness and isolation right into Malcolm’s character, and the winter storm that paralyzes the town for a week or so accentuates the fact that a number of her characters feel trapped in their lives.

When asked about the impetus for The Half Moon, Keane explains that, at age 45, she’s starting to see couples get divorced and then, 18 months or so later, share Facebook posts showing “a whole new set of people and a new life,” she says. “I was thinking about to what degree we can change our lives once we reach a certain point. . . . I’m a very working-class child, and I grew up in a very Catholic community, and I don’t know whether it’s just me and the way I was raised, [but] I literally do not know how to do that.”

Not that she wants to, she adds quickly. “I’m very happy with my life. But part of being a writer is observing and watching other people, and I guess I just like thinking about things that I can’t imagine.” A friend of Keane’s recently commented that her books “are an argument for staying together, over and over,” which surprised the author. “Although it’s so obvious when I think about it now,” she says.

In The Half Moon, however, the odds of an intact marriage seem low. Malcolm’s wife, Jess, a lawyer, has been dreaming of having a child, but after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, she has moved into the arms of someone else. Keane writes that Jess is weighed down by “Hormones. Grief. Boredom. The growing sense that life was passing her by and if she didn’t do something she’d leave nothing behind to prove she was even there.” Jess and Malcolm have had bitter disagreements over the financing of the bar, which she recognizes is his “baby,” his lifelong dream. 

“Every bartender in my family already thinks this book is about them.”

In crafting Jess and Malcolm’s rocky marriage, Keane had no idea what would happen between the couple, and she reported to her editors that she had “tried every [outcome] you could possibly suggest,” including some wildly dramatic ones. Such is the “jigsaw” style of Keane’s creative process. “It seems like a piecemeal, haphazard way to write, but that’s the way I do it,” she says.

In a 2019 essay for the New York Times, she describes growing up without books and how her earliest literary influence as a kid in the late 1980s was the Reader’s Digest column “Drama in Real Life.” In a way, Keane says, her upbringing was freeing, especially when it came to choosing books at the library. “Boy, did I learn a lot from those Danielle Steel books,” she says, laughing. She wrote her first stories on the back of paper plates, then read them aloud to her mom. Her first clue that she might have a talent came after writing a fourth-grade essay about a baked potato. Later, at age 13, she wrote a short story for a school literary magazine about a girl whose sister had committed suicide; it was so convincing that her mother began getting condolences from friends who said they didn’t realize that she had an older child.

“I knew [early on] that it didn’t have to be true; it just had to be good,” Keane says. “So I always leaned toward fiction. I felt in my gut that I was better at writing than I was at other things.” As she grew older, her childhood reading habits allowed her to remain free from the burden experienced by many writers who try to measure up to certain literary reputations. “I really don’t care what everyone thinks is good or not. I just read for myself. And I think that is a gift that not every writer has.” 

“As soon as I open a book and someone’s in therapy or playing tennis, I just don’t care.”

While Keane was at Barnard College, novelist Mary Gordon told her, “You have a subject.” At the time, however, Keane had no clue what it was. “Suddenly,” she says, “I was with people who’d been all over the world, and they had read everything. They were writing about things like anorexia, bulimia, sex—things that just seemed beyond me. But what was interesting to me then, and I think still is, is work and what people do for a living.”

Keane is the daughter of two Irish immigrants; her mother had various jobs, and her father was a “sandhog,” a New York City tunnel worker. For Ask Again, Yes, Keane interviewed members of the New York Police Department to collect accurate details for her police officer characters, but with The Half Moon, she simply turned to family, gleaning insider bar knowledge about things like jukebox earnings, free swag from breweries, beverage distribution and state liquor licensing authorities. Her cousins tended to be more helpful than her uncles. “Irish people, they clam right up if they think you’re asking too many questions, especially since I’m a writer,” Keane says. With a laugh, she adds, “Every bartender in my family already thinks this book is about them.”

The novel’s fictional bar takes its name from the ship that English explorer Henry Hudson sailed on his 1609 voyage to discover a Northwest Passage; a variety of places and products in the Hudson Valley share the Half Moon name. The moniker is apt, since readers will wonder whether Malcolm and Jess’ marriage is waxing or waning. “I also like that the name isn’t overtly Irish,” Keane admits. “It sort of bothers me when everyone describes [my work] as ‘Irish people’ and ‘an Irish novel.’”

Book jacket image for The Half Moon by Mary Beth Keane

The hallmark of a classic Keane character isn’t their background or heritage, but rather their inability to articulate what’s bothering them. “I’m more familiar with and more sympathetic to people who would sooner either tamp it way down and pretend it’s not there—or throw a beer bottle against a wall,” she says. Malcolm, for instance, can charm customers with his gift of gab for hours, but at home, he’s not so much of a talker. In fact, one of his truest, most memorable forms of self-expression comes when he throws a cup of coffee at someone’s car. “These are my people, I guess,” Keane says. “As soon as I open a book and someone’s in therapy or playing tennis, I just don’t care.”

Keane has spent a lifetime observing people in fiction and real life, and in both cases, she likes to keep things simple. “We’re just a disaster from beginning to end,” she says with a laugh. “Nobody gets any smarter. It’s just that kids look up to us. But I want to say all the time, ‘I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing, but I’m going to drag you along with me, and we’re going to do our best. You know, try to be kind to the people you love. And that’s about it.’”

Photo of Mary Beth Keane by Martin Hickey

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The Half Moon

The Half Moon

By Mary Beth Keane
ISBN 9781982172602

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