‘I think we were both born porous,” Marian Keyes says.
Flimsy,” Tara Flynn adds, nodding in agreement.
We’re sitting on an L-shaped couch in Marian’s colourful south county Dublin home.
Up the hall in the living room, there’s another couch. That’s where Marian, one of Ireland’s best-loved novelists, and Tara, prolific activist, playwright and comedian, morph into agony aunts to record their hugely successful BBC podcast Now You’re Asking.
With the second season about to roll out, we are talking about empathy – a quality both women have in abundance as they respond to questions from their “askers”. That’s what they call the listeners who write to them, asking questions about everything from parenting to romance.
Were Marian and Tara born this way, with a huge capacity for empathy and for helping askers find a solution to life’s endless problems? Or was it their own personal experiences that made them this way?
“We’re very good at picking up on things,” Marian says. “It’s not always pleasant to be that way. And then we’ve both had bumpy spells of poor mental health.
“I’ll only speak for myself now – but having gone through that, it really opened my eyes, even though I would’ve thought up to that point that I was pretty good at knowing when people were feeling bad.”
She is talking about the severe depression she experienced from 2009-2014, which she has written about and talked about so openly.
“I mean, I prefer the word ‘breakdown,’” she adds,“because that was what it feckin’ felt like.”
“I’m glad you said that,” says Tara says, leaning in towards Marian. “I often describe mine as a breakdown as well. It might not be politically correct, or up to the minute – but it works for how it felt.”
“Neither of us are experts. We’ve just lived our lives,” Marian says.
Marian and Tara met in 2014, but both “knew of” each other for years beforehand.
“It was around the run-up to the marriage equality referendum,” Marian recalls. (Tara had appeared in the media supporting a Yes vote in the 2015 referendum.) “I just found Tara really charming. So likeable. So sound. And so brave.”
Tara speaking out gave Marian herself the courage to vocalise her own support for the campaign, she says.
“Because she was being so brave. I think it’s just very hard in Ireland to be a woman and to be opinionated.”
Tara says she understands when people can’t speak out on such matters, because they have a career to protect.
“I didn’t have a ton of things to lose,” she says with a smile. “I didn’t have a big celeby career to protect. But there were certain things in jeopardy. Like individual gigs, and I was just too mouthy.”
Their online interactions, where they were both openly mutually supportive of one another – at a time when the stakes, Marian says, were quite high – came to the attention of podcast producer Steve Doherty. It was he who approached the women, suggesting they host a podcast together. And it was the BBC who suggested that they adopt the agony aunt format.
“We thought that sounded great!” Tara exclaims. “We love problems.”
“I was worried, to be honest,” Marian admits. “I thought: ‘Jesus, what if we gave the wrong advice?’”
They still worry about that with every show, Tara adds.
Above anything, Now You’re Asking is a hugely comforting listen, and the two friends confess to finding huge support in each other at times.
One occasion was in the aftermath of the 2018 campaign to repeal the Irish abortion laws. Tara had spoken out about her own abortion and found herself at the centre of much online abuse. At the time she was also dealing with the loss of her father, with whom she’d had a complicated relationship.
“Just after repeal, I was not very well,” says Tara. “Marian was amazing. She was brilliant at naming it, when I couldn’t.”
Tara has since mined that difficult period of her life for her new solo stage show, Haunted – which opens at the the Peacock Theatre in Dublin next month.
“It’s about discovering that I had tried to repress the grief from the death of my dad, which had happened three years earlier, just before I spoke out.”
She describes the whirlwind aftermath of the Yes vote.
“There are layers to every grief. The grief at the end of a campaign, something you’ve been pouring your life into. The loss of your dad. And on top of that, lots and lots and lots of my work went away.
“As we were saying earlier, it’s not just the thing you’re talking about, it’s the speaking up – you’re difficult, you’re mouthy.”
“You’re trouble,” Marian says drily.
Tara nods and smiles ironically.
“And showbiz doesn’t reward that.”
Tara once said that those experiences of being on the floor can be creatively very powerful, as they can entail a process of finding your way back to yourself.
“The journey back, I guess, is the interesting part,” she says now. “Because I think we often find ourselves on the floor. And also, the show is called Haunted – and that’s a Cork phrase, which means you’re really lucky. You’re haunnnnttteed,” she says with a smile, exaggerating her accent.
“So it was very important to me to focus on how lucky I am, to have had the support – my friends, my family – to help me to get back. And to work in an industry, where now that things have died down on the horrible chatter, the horrible abusivey front, the doors are opening back up again. So I know how haunted I am.”
In the podcast, she talks about the death of her father, which she describes as feeling like the the sky had come off.
“The sky analogy comes from the fact that losing a parent, no matter what your relationship with them, is awful. It’s difficult whether it’s sudden or whether it’s been years coming.
“My dad had dementia for years before he left us. And our relationship was really complex and tricky. It still opens up a massive ravine of grief when they go, although we butted heads. Less so as he got the dementia and became a lot softer. But he was tricky. And I’m tricky,” she laughs.
“You’re not,” Marian says stoutly.
“I kind of am. You’ll see, you’ll see,” says Tara with a grin.
Marian also lost her father, Ted, in 2018. He too had dementia.
“And he was so sweet at the end. Which is not everyone’s experience of a parent with dementia.”
She describes her father’s hopes for his children. “It was that Irish thing of you have to be good at school; he was all about the academics.”
Marian is the eldest of five siblings. “We were all big personalities. He was like a sheep dog trying to corral very bold sheep. And he was always worried.
My dad had dementia for years before he left us. And our relationship was really complex and tricky
“He wanted me married and working somewhere permanent and pensionable. When I gave up my job to be a writer, he was really worried. All he could see was disaster. But that was just the way he was.”
In the last few years of her father’s life, Marian would spend Mondays with him.
“It was really lovely. I saw what he was like as a little boy. It’s that thing, where we spend our entire lives knowing it’s going to happen but dreading it – and then it happens, and we’ve got to still keep functioning. And you do.”
The strength comes from somewhere, she says on the podcast. “Somebody said that to me. You won’t be given it until you need it.”
In an interview in The Guardian earlier this year, Marian described how, having had “a robust relationship” with her mum Mary, in the last few years she has fallen in love with her.
“I mean, my mother is gas,” she says now. “You know, she should never have had to give up work when she got married. She’s clever and witty, she’s astute, she’s hilarious. She’s great on people.”
They had, though, knocked heads over her mother’s “devout Catholicism”.
“It’s just a way that I suppose I’ve always defined myself in opposition to her. But then, during the pandemic, she was living on her own. She had – gasp! – no wifi.
“I mean, first-world problems, but you know – again gasp! – no Netflix. Then she got a cataract in one eye, so she couldn’t even read. All these endless hours. But they had mass on the telly every day, and I realised that was her lifeline.
“And also she remained upbeat and hopeful. It was such a strange, depressing, weird scary time. She never acted like any of those things.”
Her mother would have gone 17 months without a hug, she reflects. “And I just thought: ‘My god, she’s so strong.’”
In one episode of the podcast, Marian describes attending a course on dysfunctional families, and learning about the roles we take on, based on our family of origin. I wonder how they were shaped by their own families.
“I’m the eldest of five. I’m the controller. I’m almost literally standing with a clipboard at the bottom of the stairs yelling: ‘Come on, we’re going to be late.’ I need to know that everyone is safe and that everyone is coming,” she says briskly, laughing. “And I’m the only one who can take care of people.”
Tara is the eldest of two, with a younger sister. “I guess my role in the family flipped around a little bit. Dad and I butting heads often meant I’d constantly be trying to make things right. Because I’d done something wrong. And sometimes I would have, sometimes I wouldn’t.”
She had an “idyllic” childhood, growing up in a rural area near Kinsale.
“We weren’t farmers – the farmers were the skilled people who lived near us. We spent loads of our time together, myself and my sister. Always out on our bikes, up the fields.” It’s this childhood she attributes her “wild imagination” to.
How did her father feel about her career choice?
“Oh, I think he probably wept,” she smiles. “I did English and French at UCC. He really wanted me to be a French teacher.”
That said, she says her father might have understood her desire to act.
“There was part of him that had wanted to be an actor when he was younger. He wouldn’t have known anyone who was an actor. He used to go to loads of plays when he lived in Dublin and was working for Guinness. But there weren’t even classes you could do at the time.”
When his mother died still quite young, he helped his own father take care of his younger sisters.
“So that dream was gone. I often wonder how much of his sternness, his wishing for us to have security, came from fear of what happens if something goes wrong, because something will go wrong?”
Menopause and perimenopause are also topics that come up regularly during the podcast. It is something they both feel strongly about. During one episode Marian declares “I will not be shunted aside.”
Marian is 59 and Tara is 53 and both women agree that society has shifted in the past few years and that menopause is now widely talked about.
“Isn’t it incredible?” nods Marian. “There has been some enormous sea change in the last two years.”
It started with the Botox chat. I decided I wasn’t going to lie. I wasn’t going to be on telly saying: ‘I drink lots of water and I stay out of the sun’
Tara agrees and says she was ‘delighted’ to be able to talk openly about her own perimenopause.
“I was kind of going: ‘This is something that’s happening to me. It’s part of my body. They’ve heard about all the other bits; they might as well hear about the same bit as it changes.’”
They both mention the anxiety that goes with it, what they call dread days. That there is so much more than the symptoms you hear so much about.
“The sweats and your period stops,” Tara says.
“And you grow a beard,” Marian adds.
Now that is true, they both say together, roaring with laughter.
Marian says that she was initially uncomfortable talking about menopause.
“I was afraid, that people would…” she pauses.
“Joke?” Tara suggests.
“Be more disgusted,” her friend replies, pointing out “how menopause-phobic we are. Or were. I felt as a woman that I would be regarded as really unattractive. And that was interesting. And shaming, and difficult, and then not difficult. Because, you know, I was told always as a woman, I am really only about my looks.”
It started with choosing to talk about getting Botox.
“And then I thought, sure feck it, as I’m on the Botox chat, I’ll talk about the HRT,” Marian says. “I kind of had this thing of I wasn’t going to lie. I wasn’t going to be on telly saying: ‘I drink lots of water and stay out of the sun.’
“And that whole thing of feeling ashamed by being defined by appearance, and wanting to look… I won’t even say younger, but wanting to look… There’s probably some euphemism. Look well.”
“Fresh,” they say in unison, both women laughing.
“But now I don’t care,” Marian adds.
There is strength in people joining in these conversations, Tara says.
“I’ve just always been a fan of bucking shame. I’d rather go: ‘I’m having a hot flush right now. I need some water, and I need to get my fan out of my bag.’ I wanted to talk about it. I just thought I don’t want ageing to have the power.”
“The hold,” Marian agrees. “And for it to be another secret.”
In the course Marian attended about dysfunctional families, the idea of each person having a survival mode they enter during difficult times arose. Tara describes how, in the cacophony of noise that erupted on social media during the repeal campaign, the multiple false narratives put out about her, she “lost (her) voice completely.”
“It was like, well I need to step out of this, I’m not needed anymore.”
For a time, her anger sustained her. And then she crashed, massively. “And it lasted a very long time. I was very, very lucky to have a family that helped me through it. The thing that was useful in survival mode for me was just taking a step back, and not trying to pretend anymore that I was fine.”
“I needed to find out who I was again. And when I’m that depleted, I don’t know who that is. So that stepping back, and letting it just rebuild, relying on the kindness of the friends and the family support, all the stuff I know I’m haunted to have.”
Marian recalls her own survival mode during her breakdown. “What’s important is to absolutely step back from all the noise. And to find out what’s literally touchable. What’s literally real.”
For her, it was often family members.
“My nieces and nephews, like their physicality. I’m very close to my husband, the smell of him.”
She made the world as small as she could manage, because she could manage so little, she recalls. “Try not to think that everyone else is living these amazing lives where they have no pain. Everyone does. Every single one of us,” she adds.
“Most of us will have one or two people who we love, and that love us back. Grab onto them. That’s actually the most important thing in our lives. In the world. It’s not further, it’s not beyond them. It is them. Them and us.”
She turns and grins at her friend and co-host, Tara smiles back.
“I’m after getting all carried away again,” Marian says, and they both laugh.
Now You’re Asking can be downloaded from the BBC Sounds app
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/its-hard-to-be-an-opinionated-woman-in-ireland-marian-keyes-and-tara-flynn-on-empathy-ageing-and-being-mouthy-42068049.html ‘It’s hard to be an opinionated woman in Ireland’– Marian Keyes and Tara Flynn on empathy, ageing and being mouthy