I can’t help but notice that everyone connected with Mary Beth Keane’s new novel—the author herself, her agent, her editor, and her publisher—has Irish ancestry. It’s purely coincidence, I’m told, because although two Irish-American cop families are at the heart of Ask Again, Yes, the themes of relationships, dysfunction, and reconciliation are universal.
Nan Graham, senior v-p and publisher at Scribner, handed me the galley over drinks at a hard-to-find New York theater district bar where everyone knew her name and simply said, “You will love this book.”
Though all of Keane’s novels have Irish characters, each is significantly different. Her debut, The Walking People, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009, is about an Irish immigrant girl with a secret past. Her second book, Fever, is a historical novel about the notorious Typhoid Mary published in 2013 by Scribner; Graham bought it at auction for “well into six figures,” according to Chris Calhoun, Keane’s agent.
Ask Again, Yes, Keane’s third book, which Scribner is publishing in June, has autobiographical elements and is her most personal novel yet. She was researching another historical when, turning 40, she “noticed people struggling with divorce and addictions and illness.” She wanted to find her way through these things, she says. “And my husband’s estrangement from his family [the mentally ill mother in the book is based on Keane’s mother-in-law] became an issue when my children started asking questions about their missing set of grandparents. Figuring out how to bring everyone together is how the book came to be. I had an Oprah mentality that healing could happen and everyone could move forward, but it’s not that easy.”
Keane started writing short pieces and, about 75 pages in, realized she had a novel. Ask Again, Yes features two families of police officers living next door to each other, one of them deeply troubled. Over a span of decades, love grows between two of the children that endures throughout their lifetimes despite a terrible tragedy that rends both families. Graham calls the book “wise, mature, heartbreakingly beautiful.”
“The book was emotionally exhausting,” Keane says. She started writing in 2014 and in 2016 began sending pages to Calhoun. “I knew they were raw but he encouraged me to keep going,” she says. In early 2017, she showed Calhoun the finished manuscript, but he wasn’t convinced.
She did a second draft. Calhoun told her that he could go out with it, but added, “You can do better.”
Keane felt depleted, she says. “I didn’t know what else I could do.”
Calhoun remembers taking Keane out for lunch to tell her that “it just wasn’t there,” noting that “there was too much cop stuff.” He expected her to tell him that she was done and that she would find another agent.
But instead, Keane took the manuscript back. “I stopped working on it through the summer of 2017, and in September, it all fell into place”.
As for Calhoun, he has a long and sweet history with Keane. He was a partner and v-p at Sterling Lord Literistic when Keane was hired as the receptionist in 2001 on the recommendation of Mary Gordon. “She sat outside my office,” Calhoun says. He remembers her as shy and very conscientious, and after a few months she became his assistant. “She directed this guy to me, Thomas Heffernan, and I ended up selling his book to Norton for half a million dollars.”
“Telling Heffernan about the sale was, until this day, the best news I ever delivered,” Keane says. “He had written books before, but always academic. He was stunned at the numbers.”
Calhoun says that when Keane sent the third draft of Ask Again, Yes to him, it was so good he wanted to “run right up the stairs with it to Scribner.” Scribner had first right of refusal, and both Calhoun and Keane wanted to stay with Graham.
Kara Watson, an editor and associate marketing director at Scribner, had worked with Graham on Fever and acknowledges that Ask Again, Yes is a totally different book. Watson says she had been back from maternity leave for six months and hadn’t fallen in love with anything until Keane’s manuscript was delivered. “I read it over the weekend and went into Nan and said, ‘We should buy this.’ Nan said she was crying by the time she finished the manuscript.” Scribner bought North American rights in February 2018.
For Ask Again, Yes, Watson did the heavy lifting, Keane says.
“It was a wonderful relationship,” Watson says. “Mary Beth was a joy to work with. She’s so nimble and unprecious. Editorially, nothing was broken; we just did some cutting. I loved this book—young love maturing into a complicated marriage.”
With the editing done, Watson went into marketing mode. Keane went to the ABA’s Winter Institute in Albuquerque in January and will be signing at BookExpo in May. Blurbs came from Louise Erdrich and Meg Wolitzer. To date, foreign rights have sold in France, the Netherlands, and the U.K.
When I spoke with Keane, she was on a prepublication whirl of lunches and cocktail parties. “It’s a lot of socializing,” she says. “All the glamour of a book tour without worrying that no one will show up.”
And finally, I ask Keane about capturing the life of police officers. “I was always fascinated by the world of police work,” she says. “I grew up around police in Rockland County, north of New York City. Lots of my friends’ fathers were police officers—all these sweet teddy bear men, but with guns!”
Keane talked to both retired and active detectives while researching the book. “Cops will never tell the truth about how they feel,” she says. “It took a lot of plates of bacon and eggs to get them to reveal those feelings.”