Marian Keyes and husband Tony Baines speak candidly about their relationship
The novelist Marian Keyes, 52, and her husband, Tony Baines, 53, talk about her breakdown and alcoholism, and how they came to terms with not having children. Interviews by Clare Conway.
I met Tony at his 30th birthday party. I actually gatecrashed it. He’d invited my friend Susanne, who in turn brought about 27 of her nearest and dearest. It sounds vomit-inducing, but I fancied Tony before I met him. I’d heard he loved Irish music and writers, and that he was a member of the Labour party. He was my perfect man, except he had a girlfriend and I was mired in alcoholism. I was 29 and at my very worst.
At the time, Tony was living in London. He was born there, had gone to Cambridge and worked in IT. I was born in Limerick, studied law at Dublin University and moved to London aged 22. I was living in a squat in Hackney with a gay friend and was having a fabulous time. While Ireland was still very traditional and controlled by the Catholic church, London was just the opposite. I’d sleep all day, go out clubbing at night and worked in a trendy café in Soho.
I was also drinking. I was a maudlin, really teary drunk. I also had no self-esteem, so I’d always end up picking boys who weren’t really interested in me. By the time I was 30, the drinking had got so bad, I went into rehab. I thought the best of my life was behind me.
But I got better, and when I came out of rehab, Tony and I started seeing each other. Initially, it was only as friends, but 11 months later we got engaged. As they say: “When you know, you know.”
We’ve been married for 20 years now, and Tony handles my media requests, proofreads my chapters, helps me with contracts and taxes. A lot of men have a problem with women bringing home the bacon. Tony used to be the breadwinner, but he’s totally at ease with being a dogsbody, and I respect him for it.
Fame didn’t change us, mainly because at first I didn’t make any money. With my first royalty cheque I bought a couch, but kept my day job in a clerk’s office. It was only when I was doing my third novel, Rachel’s Holiday, that I got a big advance and gave up my job. We also moved back to Ireland, which I’m ashamed to say was partly because writers didn’t pay taxes there – I’ve now been paying them for a long time.
We bought a big house in Dun Laoghaire, not far from Dublin, and the plan was to have lots of children. It didn’t happen. All I’ll say is, it doesn’t hurt too much any more and I know Tony would have been a wonderful dad. Now we’ve filled our lives with other people’s kids and our nephews and niece.
Then, six years ago, I had a breakdown. I felt disconnected from the world, afraid of stuff I couldn't articulate. For 18 months I was suicidal each day. My only job was to get up and not kill myself. Even Tony, who was my safe person, couldn’t reach me and I felt I was making him miserable. I told him to go, but he stayed. Four years later, I started to come out of it.
The best thing about Tony is his kindness. It’s a quality that in anyone I love the most. He also has a gentle, loving way and has always been supportive of me. I feel superstitious talking about him because I don’t want to jinx it.
I know God doesn’t do bargains, but I’d happily live in a shoebox with Tony. I’d happily lose absolutely everything to keep him.
STRANGESTHABIT Marian on Tony: He’ll eat anything. He once ate a cockscomb, the top of a chicken’s head. I had to close my eyes.
Seeing someone you love suffer so much with depression is horrible. Throughout Marian’s breakdown, I honestly thought that suicide was a serious possibility. Every single time she went out, I would worry. I found myself turning into this controlling husband, constantly needing to know where she was and when she’d be back.
Because we are each other’s best friends, if ever I had a problem,
I’d talk to Marian. When all this happened, I knew I couldn’t put any pressure on her. If she realised how hard it was for me, there was a risk that it would make suicide even more likely. She’d often speak about killing herself so that I didn’t have to be stuck with her. But always, hidden underneath it all, the real Marian was still there.
When I first met Marian, she was living in London. We were both in our 20s and she already had a problem with alcohol. She then went into rehab and wasn’t meant to get into a relationship for at least a year. That was fine with me, I was happy just being friends, but in the end we only managed about eight months before we started going out.
Our engagement also happened quickly – three months later. It wasn’t grand, there was no ring. We were just in my flat, I didn’t even go down on one knee. We then got married at the church by her mum’s house in Dun Laoghaire, where we now live. It was a wonderful day. It was also a great time because her first novel, Watermelon, had just been published.
Her recovery from this last breakdown was slow. She still finds everyday life more stressful than before. She’s happiest when we’re sitting on the couch watching TV. When it came to having a family, we did initially want kids, but in the end we couldn’t have them. No one ever told us we couldn’t – it just didn’t happen. We thought about adoption, but Marian said she only wanted my children. We have a lovely life, I can’t complain.
If Marian is writing a novel, it becomes a huge part of her life. She’ll think about it all the time, and want to discuss it. I’ve just read 25,000 words of her next one, Time Off for Bad Behaviour, about a woman whose husband wants to go travelling for six months and have affairs.
I’d say I’ve helped her work out some of the plots, but mainly I’ll deal with her tax returns, post and so on. I’m really just happy being in the background. I hope Marian carries on writing. I know she finds it stressful, but it also makes her really happy. And that’s the one thing I want more than anything.
STRANGEST HABIT Tony on Marian: She wears a shower cap when she’s cooking, to stop the smells getting in her hair.
“For 18 months I was suicidal each day. My only job was to get up and not kill myself. Even Tony couldn’t reach me...”
Above: Marian and Tony on their wedding day In 1995. Above right: Marian and Tony at home in Dun Laoghaire. “She’s happiest when we’re sitting on the couch watching telly,” says Tony.