Q & A with author Mary Beth Keane about her gripping new novel, Ask Again, Yes.

Ask Again, Yes book cover

My Review:

I loved this moving story of young love, family trauma and the aftermath…mental illness, addiction, forgiveness and the power of love kept me engrossed until the very last page.

Two young policeman work together in Brooklyn in the 1970s.  To distance themselves from the job after the workday and to start families they both move to the suburbs with their wives and end up living next door.  Francis and Lena have three daughters, one named Kate, and Brian and Anne have a son, Peter.  Kate and Peter have a strong connection and become very close, yet the families don’t socialize, mostly because Anne’s behavior is a little odd.

A tragic event occurs…no spoilers here…and relationships become strained and crumble under the stress.  Can we find the way back to the people who are important to us?  A gripping new novel with deep characters and an accurate portrayal of the working class, Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is a must read!

Mary Beth Keene, Jennifer Gans Blankfein, Lauren Blank Margolin

Mary Beth Keane, Me, and fellow book blogger friend Lauren Blank Margolin (Good Book Fairy)

Q & A with author Mary Beth Keane

Can you tell me a little about your process of writing and organizing this novel.  Did you know the path each character would take individually or did it come together as you wrote?

I started the novel seeing only two of the characters. Francis, and Peter. I knew Peter was a child and Francis was new to the NYPD, but I didn’t know what they had to do with one another for a long time. I began by writing them separately, and then placing them alongside each other, if that makes sense. Eventually it became clear how these families would have an impact on one another. I never write my books in order, from beginning to end. For example, there’s a scene where Peter slides down a telephone pole. In the final draft, it’s a memory being recollected. But that was one of the first scenes I wrote when I began this book.

Two neighbors have a childhood friendship that ultimately turns to love, and even though they are kept apart for some time, they find each other again.   What inspired you to create this relationship the reader is hoping for?

I knew that they would be childhood friends, and I knew they would find each other again as adults. I also knew they had quite different approaches to life thanks to the environments in which they were raised. I don’t outline, but I did know that much. I did NOT know what form their reconnection would take: whether they’d just meet up once and move on or what. The point of the book, if there is a point, is about the randomness of life, and how our lives touch and change other lives even when we don’t mean them to.

Anne Stanhope’s erratic behavior was due to mental illness, and her husband Brian, his brother George and her son Peter battled alcohol addiction.  Their struggles were painful and actions seemed realistic…how did you prepare to write such complicated characters?

I pull partly from life and partly from my imagination. By middle age most people know someone who has struggled with addiction, whether they know it or not. All I need is a spark from real life and then I can run with it and imagine all the possible outcomes. The thrill of fiction writing is following one possible outcome to its conclusion.

Peter is estranged from his mother – how did you research this idea of being out of touch with a parent?

My husband, who I met when we were in high school, was estranged from his parents for many years. His mother died during that estrangement. Explaining that break to our children, who never met their grandmother, was part of the reason I was driven to write this particular book. Is a parent always a parent? Does being someone’s mother or father or child always have particular meaning, or does that meaning get lost when the relationship is severed?

Guns and unnecessary shootings are in the news all the time; do you think Brian, a police officer, was careless or did he consciously make the decision to be lax?

No, he was just being careless. These were the years before Columbine, so even when that gun showed up where it shouldn’t have, people didn’t yet think immediately of a mass shooter like they would today. I talked to a lot of police officers while writing this book and that was something that came up more than once, stories of off-duty police officers losing track of their off-duty weapons, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

Did you know how the book was going to end when you started writing it?

Ha! No. Not even remotely.

Did you change anything significant during  the revision process?

Oh yes! So much that I couldn’t possibly answer fully here. I started the book from Kate’s point of view, written in the first person. I scrapped that after about one hundred pages. I changed the structure many, many times. I spent a very long time starting with Peter and Kate as adults, and then looping back to their childhoods, but that felt impossible to pull off without bogging down the narrative with flashback. It took a long time to figure out how to best tell this particular story.

Can you share any information about Ask Again, Yes for TV and Film?

Just that I’m thrilled, and that it’s happening. Right now it seems most likely to be a limited mini-series, and I’m delighted by that. I love that a limited mini-series will provide enough room and time to really tell this story in detail.

What have you read lately that you recommend?

I just finished All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan and I’m completely gutted. It was devastating and brilliant.

Goodreads Summary

Mary Beth Keane

About the Author:

Mary Beth Keane’s first novel, The Walking People (2009) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her second novel, Fever (2013) was named a best book of 2013 by NPR Books, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2011 she was named to the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.” She was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction and her new novel, Ask Again, Yes, was published in June of 2019.

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4 Benefits of Reading… This Is What I Know.

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Reading helps us to examine our world in new ways.  It provides us with opportunities to become more educated on an infinite number of topics and allows us to look at issues ways we may never have before.  Reading gives us insight into relationships and helps us understand people, teaches us empathy, and presents opportunities to ask questions.

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Here are 4 benefits of reading, and 30 book suggestions for you to enjoy!

1.  LEARN ABOUT INTERESTING TOPICS

Exploring places around the world and going back in time through reading gives us access to infinite knowledge.

Different Aspects of World War II

At The Wolf's Table

Women were chosen to be food tasters for Hitler in At The Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino.

Challenges of Assimilation

A Place for Us

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza explores a Muslim Indian American family and their religion and traditions.

Performance Art at MOMA

The Museum of Modern Love

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is a fiction story centered around Marina Abramović and her performance art exhibit in 2010.

South Africa and Apartheid

Hum if You Don't Know the Words If You Want to Make God Laugh

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais tells stories of women and family brought together through tragedies.

Rwandan Massacre

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya is a memoir about a girl who survived the genocide in Rwanda and the aftermath.

Death Row and Prison Life

The Last SuppersThe Sun Does Shine

The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak and The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton give a dismal picture of what goes on behind bars and the strength needed to overcome.

The Korean War

PachinkoIf You Leave Me

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim teach us about the lives of Korean refugees.

AIDS in the 1980s and 90s

The Great BelieversNow Everyone Will Know

The AIDS crisis devastated so many and deeply impacted families in the  The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and Now Everyone Will Know by Maggie Kneip.

Famous People

LittleWhite HousesSong of a Captive Bird

Little by Edward Carey is a story based on the imagined life of Madame Tussaud, Eleanor Roosevelt and her unconventional relationship is depicted in White Houses by Amy Bloom, and the life of the strong female poet, Forugh Farrokhzad is revealed in Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik.

Strong Women That Were Wronged

Lilac GirlsRadium Girls

These are devastating stories of women in the past who were not protected by the government, like the rabbits in The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly,  and the factory workers in The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.

Grand Central Terminal History

The Masterpiece

Fictitious stories about the actual art school located above Grand Central Terminal are depicted in The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis.

2.  EXAMINE COMPLEX RELATIONSHIPS

Reading can provide different prospectives, helping us see a story from all sides.

AsymmetryThe Only Story

Loosely based on the author and Philip Roth, we read about a young girl in a relationship with an older male in Asymmetry  by Lisa Halliday. 

A look back on the memories of the narrator’s first love, there is a young male in a relationship with an older female in The Only Story by Julian Barnes.

The Sunshine SistersThe Husband Hour

Complex mother, daughter and sister relationships play out in Jane Green’s The Sunshine Sisters and Jamie Brenner’s The Husband Hour .

3. LEARN TO EMPATHIZE

People are always saying reading encourages empathy and it is really true…When you are reading you are made more aware of other people’s feelings and given the opportunity to understand people that are different.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineThe Extraordinary Life of Sam HellA Boy Made of BlocksWe Loe Anderson Cooper

Eleanor Oliphant by Gail HoneymanThe Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Bob Dugoni and A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart are about those that just don’t fit in; similar to the characters in the short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper by R.L. Maizes.

4. EXPLORE THE UNKNOWN

Some books provide opportunities to ask ourselves WHAT IF? 

The CircleReady Player OneThe FarmVox

The Circle by Dave Eggers examines the power of social media.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline shows the future of video games.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos explores surrogate farms.  

Vox by Christina Dalcher takes a dystopian look at government control.

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Learn about interesting topics.  Examine complex relationships.  Learn to empathize.  Explore the unknown.

 What are you reading today?

5 Tips For Keeping Your Book Group On Track.

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Interesting book club choices.

So your book group is a little lax and needs some shaping up, but you are not quite sure what to do.   The meeting dates keep changing and the endless emails to reschedule are cluttering your inbox.  When you finally do meet, all anyone cares about is the food and wine and half the people haven’t even read the book.  Finally, when one person recalls the purpose of the get-together and announces how it is getting late, and maybe you should talk about the book, the momentum shift to intelligent discussion feels like a chore and the book conversation is forced, aimless and short.  From someone who has been in many book clubs over the years, I would like to offer you some advice.

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Assign a leader…someone needs to be in charge.

The leader of the book group is responsible for communications; she should ask the group for book suggestions, evaluate the responses and choose the winning book.  Ask the group for volunteers to host, assign the host, agree on the date with the host and communicate to the members, the host, the date and the book.  The host can then reach out to the group asking what they would like to bring and letting them know the address and where to park.  The leader of the group does the administrative job to keep the group moving forward.

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Pick a date…and stick with it.

The sweet spot for book group meetings is every 6 to 8 weeks.  This gives slower readers a chance to finish in time and everyone has the chance to plan their schedule.  Not everyone will be able to make every date so consistency is helpful.  If you can plan the year’s meetings ahead of time this could work too.  I am in one group that provides all meeting dates and book titles at the beginning of the school year.  Everyone is invited to bring their lunch, cookies are served, a moderator is brought in to help the leader lead discussion, and there is no nonsense.  This group’s focus is more serious, similar to a class due to the learning and enrichment, and the set schedule, in depth content discussion and book choices reflect those values.  This orderly routine works well for this group.

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These books generate good conversation.

Choose the right book…it must satisfy the needs of the group.

All members should suggest several books they want to read and most likely there will be some overlap. The book chosen should meet the needs of the group.  Does your group like to read mainstream, popular fiction that focuses on relationships? Mysteries? Historical fiction?  One of my book groups chooses well known titles (Reese Witherspoon and Oprah picks) and we have had smart discussions.  We have read An American Marriage, Little Fires Everywhere, and most recently we discussed Educated and The Great Alone together, as there is so much to compare and contrast.  Another group I am in read Song of a Captive Bird, a fictional account of a real Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, and most recently, Asymmetry, a debut written in three parts about love, luck, life and art, and both of those discussions were informative and educational. With Asymmetry, so much learning occurred and hidden meaning was revealed at our round table discussion in a Japanese restaurant’s Tatami room one evening…we continued talking about that book for days!  My advice is to choose a book you can sink your teeth into and do some extra research on the topic, author, time period or characters. 

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Size doesn’t matter…agreement on the format does.

Contrary to much publicized book club advice, it is possible to have a successful book group with as many as two dozen people, or even just a few people.  As long as your group has some structure and everyone is respectful and willing to follow the format, great fun can be had.  Smaller groups have an easier time agreeing on a date, finding a place to meet and everyone has more of a chance to speak out.  On the other hand, one of my groups has over 20 members and most of these women have been reading together for 20 years.  For them, the meal on book club night is important as many of them enjoy hosting a dinner party, so we always enjoy a beautiful meal and wine for an hour or so before we get down to business.  We tend to have more emails back and forth about the date, but if everyone can’t make it, that is ok. We still enjoy thoughtful discussion.

Regardless of size, it is important to have a moderator.  The moderator should come to the meeting with discussion questions that usually can be found online;  some local libraries will provide them if you put in a request. The moderator can kick off the meeting with a short summary of the book to get everyone on the same page and then can use the questions to stimulate conversation.  She is in charge of keeping it civilized!  If nobody takes the lead, too many people try to talk at once and the group tends to break up into smaller side conversations.

Lilac Girls Book Group

My book group meeting Martha Hall Kelly, author of The Lilac Girls, after a speaking engagement.

Go the extra mile…there is added value to be had.

This is where you can make your meetings interesting, and everyone can bring something to the party.  This is what I do. Once the book is picked, I like to follow the author on social media.  This gives me the opportunity to connect and ask questions.  Most authors are excited to hear what you think about their book and I always leave a review on Goodreads and Amazon.  This helps them with their rankings and can impact sales so why not help an author out!  They also could be willing to visit your book club or Skype with your group and that can be really exciting and different. 

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FaceTiming with Fiona Davis, author of The Masterpiece.

One of my book groups FaceTimed with author Fiona Davis when we discussed her third novel, The Masterpiece.  In addition to the book and the writing process we talked about artists that were named in her book, actors who we would want to play her characters if the book were made into a movie, along with the architecture and special floors and rooms of 1920s Grand Central Terminal.  We also had photos one of our members took of places in the current Grand Central Terminal which enriched our discussion and made it oh so much fun! 

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My book group meeting with Heather Frimmer, author of Bedside Manners.

A different group I am in welcomed author of Bedside Manners, Dr. Heather Frimmer to join us and talk about her mother-daughter medical fiction debut.  As a radiologist, she talked to us about the realities of breast cancer and how her medical knowledge helped her write an authentic book.  

And of course, Google is a wonderful thing…I always research the author and the book, and if I am the moderator, I download discussion questions.  When I moderate a group I like to read a short summary of the book to get everyone in the right frame of mind.  Everyone can find something interesting to contribute; it is nice to show a video or pictures (someone showed photos of locations in Spain when we discussed Dan Brown’s Origin), read an interview (I read a transcript of a conversation between author Tara Westover and Bill Gates when discussing Educated), and in another group one of our members referred to her copy of Alice in Wonderland when we examined the writing of Lisa Halliday (at our Asymmetry discussion).  There are so many author interviews on youtube and author websites to share.  Another fun thing to do is to choose a book where you and your group are able to go hear the author speak at a local library or bookstore. If you can, connect with the author on social media and ask to meet for a drink with your book group after the event.  

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Controversial themes and unusual settings make for interesting discussion.

If you want to get together with friends, drink wine and have fun after reading the same book, that can be easy to do.  If you want your book club to be a little more intellectually stimulating, everyone needs to be in agreement and effort must be put in.  Follow my 5 tips for keeping your book group on track, and you should have some success.  I am enjoying each of my many book groups for different reasons, but most of all, I am happy to connect with friends over books and learn something new.  

Assign a leader…someone needs to be in charge.

Pick a date…and stick with it.

Choose the right book…it must satisfy the needs of the group.

Size doesn’t matter…agreement on the format does. (Assign a moderator!)

Go the extra mile…there is added value to be had.

Let me know what your book club is reading and if you need a suggestion, please ask!

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Photos above include:
Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing
Jenna Blum, author of The Lost Family
Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko
Fatima Farheen Mirza, author of A Place For Us
Lynsey Addario, photojournalist and author of Of Love and War
Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One is Coming to Save Us
Katharine Weber, author of Still Life With Monkey