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The king and queen of popular fiction: Marian Keyes and Richard Osman on their successes and struggles

Marian Keyes and Richard Osman photographed for the Observer New Review by David Vintiner.
‘You’ve got to write books you would read’: Marian Keyes and Richard Osman photographed for the Observer New Review by David Vintiner. Photograph: David Vintiner/The Observer

“So, how does it feel to be a publishing phenomenon?” the Irish writer Marian Keyes asks TV producer-presenter and now fellow novelist Richard Osman, over Diet Cokes and chocolate croissants. “A record-breaker of record-breakers?”

For once, publishing “phenomenon” (pronounced as four words by Keyes for emphasis) is no exaggeration: Osman’s first novel The Thursday Murder Club sold 45,000 copies in three days in 2020 and his follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice (released in paperback this month), was one of the fastest-selling novels since records began. Stats-wise he is up there with Dan Brown and JK Rowling: as Keyes points out, the sort of “event” that only happens every 15 or 20 years.

“I like numbers very much,” replies the king of teatime trivia, modestly. “But at the heart of it, I’m proud of the books. So the numbers to me just said: ‘Well this is a thrill.’ It must be the same for you. You’d always sold a lot of copies, but you went through a bit when everyone was saying, ‘You know what? This is actually brilliant literature.’ Suddenly you were elevated,” he says. “You became a super-brand.”

Interviewing Osman and Keyes is like being caught in a cuddle between two national treasures, albeit a slightly lopsided one. The photo shoot – Osman’s 6 ft 7 next to the diminutive Keyes with her dark fringe and spiky eyelashes – resembles one between Roald Dahl’s BFG and Matilda. Hair and makeup, let alone personal makeup artists, are not par for the course for author interviews, but this is the only sign of their super-brand status. At 51 and 58 respectively, they are as lovely (a favourite word for both) as everyone’s mum says, and they really love their mums (to whom their novels are dedicated). Happily, they are not too nice for a good gossip about certain high-profile figures.

Marian Keyes and Richard Osman
‘Make mainstream things as well as you possibly can,’ says Richard Osman. Photograph: David Vintiner/The Observer

They met on Twitter in 2014. Keyes hadn’t heard of Osman because she’d been “in the throes of a breakdown” for several years. “I can’t say anything to that, can I?” Osman quips. Recovering from depression, she thought a stint on BBC TV’s Strictly Come Dancing spin-off show It Takes Two might be fun. “They were ignoring my pleas, so I thought: ‘I will harness the power of Twitter.’” Osman sent her an encouraging direct message. Thirty seconds later – by coincidence – an email landed: “‘You’re in!’” Osman had long been a fan of Keyes’s novels. At the end of the audio book version of The Thursday Murder Club the pair have recorded a touching interview, discussing writing and their similar backgrounds. They both consider themselves introverts. Really? “A kind of alpha-introvert,” Osman clarifies. “You can function in a very demanding world,” Keyes adds. “Then I like to go and watch the snooker,” Osman finishes. “Ah, lovely!”

The author of 15 novels, most recently Again, Rachel, a sequel to the bestselling Rachel’s Holiday published in 1997, for many years Keyes was the queen of chick-lit (a phrase now largely retired, along with the pink covers). With a string of TV hits as a presenter (Deal or No Deal, Total Wipeout and 8 Out of 10 Cats as well as Pointless and House of Games) behind him and now two blockbuster books, Osman has been dubbed “the master of mainstream”. If there’s any snub intended in these middlebrow monikers, publishing’s royal couple couldn’t give two hoots. “Hilariously, it’s meant as an insult,” Osman says. “Like popular fiction is an insult,” adds Keyes.

“You’ve got to write books you would read,” Osman says. “I wanted to write an intelligent book that was very accessible. That’s not in a cynical way. I make television and if I’m proud of something I want the maximum number of people to enjoy it. My natural instinct has been to write something that people will take to their hearts.”

And take it to their hearts they have. For anyone who isn’t one of its thousands of readers, The Thursday Murder Club is a crime caper set in the upmarket retirement village of Coopers Chase. Starring four amateur sleuths – a retired MI5 agent, a former nurse, a psychiatrist and a trade unionist – it is a winning mashup of the Famous Five and the A-Team; both big influences on the young Richard. As Keyes observes, it is also a bit like Big Brother (Osman worked for Endemol, the production company behind the show): “These characters who may not have anything in common are thrown together until they are voted out by the grim reaper.” Film rights have been snapped up by Steven Spielberg. Keyes knew that she was in good hands from the first page, she says, which opens in the first-person with retired nurse Joyce. “She’s just talking to me. She’s Mrs John Lewis, she’s Mrs Middle England. I thought: ‘I know you, I love you.’”

***

You don’t go to Keyes or Osman for grit or gore. In an unlikely meeting of romantic comedy and comic crime, they have each created a feelgood fictional universe, made real by moments of sorrow and tenderness. “I find the world incredibly sharp and pointy, especially at the moment,” Keyes says, “and in [Osman’s] books I just feel happy and safe. Yeah, there are murders, but it’s about the people.”

Osman is a big fan of Agatha Christie, whose spirit looms large over The Thursday Murder Club, and Dorothy L Sayers, as well as contemporary crime writers Val McDermid and Mark Billingham; it was Billingham who encouraged him to start writing over lunch one day, giving him two crucial tips for a successful crime novel (and no, he’s not telling). But it was Keyes, with her conversational tone and gentle comic touch, even when dealing with dark subjects, to whom he looked in searching for his voice. “When you write your first book, you think ‘What the fuck is this?’” he says, as his novel didn’t fit the conventional crime format. “I thought ‘Hold on, that’s what Marian does, perhaps it’s OK.’ She gave me permission to carry on.”

Marian Keyes accepting the Sainsbury popular fiction award at the Galaxy British book awards 2007.
Marian Keyes accepting the Sainsbury popular fiction award at the Galaxy British book awards 2007. Photograph: Joel Ryan/PA

From her first novel, Watermelon, in 1995, Keyes’s fiction, despite her chatty style, has dealt with difficult issues including addiction, divorce, depression, eating disorders and grief. Yet despite such a long writing career, her work hasn’t been given the same critical attention as male comic writers such as Nick Hornby or David Nicholls. “Maybe if I was Martin Keyes my books would be regarded differently,” she told me in a previous interview. Over the years she has honed her answer to the inevitable question as to whether this bothers her: not any more (she’s sold more than 35m copies, after all), but there’s a bigger economic point to be made. “Power and money are lovely. Men have a lot more of it than women. And they are going to protect it,” she says. “You can’t go round telling women that they are good at stuff, because they are going to get ideas above their station! Women will expect to be paid more, they will expect crimes against them to be taken more seriously, they will expect to be helped with their share of the emotional labour in the home.”

Literary snobbery has always had more than a whiff of misogyny about it. “It is also very effective to tell women who like the books that they are reading rubbish,” she continues. “Because it is incredibly humiliating to be told: ‘Jesus, you’re not reading that shit are you? And you went to university?’”

Osman suggests that this finally seems to be changing. Grown Ups, Keyes’s most ambitious novel, which was published in 2020, was given proper – and overwhelmingly positive – reviews. “A kind of a gradual accretion of affection or mild respect has built up,” she concedes.

“Let’s not wait 50 years to reassess funny female writers ever again,” chips in Osman, citing the example of the 1950s comic novelist Barbara Pym. “You had to wait years before people went ‘Oh actually … ” And thank goodness, because 50 years ago we’d still be waiting for… ”

“For me to pop my clogs,” Keyes finishes for him.

1963

Born on 10 September in Limerick, Ireland and raised in Cork, Galway and Dublin. Studies law at University College Dublin and moves to London in 1986.

1995

Publishes her first book, Watermelon, about a woman who is abandoned by her husband after giving birth to their child; it is a runaway success. Marries Tony Baines (above); the following year quits her accounting job and the pair move to Ireland.

1999

Her bestselling second novel, Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, is adapted into a TV series, and in 2003 Watermelon is made into a TV film starring Anna Friel (above). Keyes’s books go on to sell more than 35m copies worldwide.

2009-21

Wins the Irish popular fiction book award for This Charming Man; in 2016 wins popular non-fiction book of the year for her memoir Making It Up As I Go Along. In 2021, she is named author of the year.

2022

Publishes her 18th novel, Again, Rachel, a sequel to her 1997 hit Rachel’s Holiday. The Observer review praises her “trademark wit, humour and whip-smart dialogue”.

“I’d be at your funeral saying, ‘You know what? She wasn’t a bad writer,’” he laughs.

Take John Grisham, says Osman. He may not have the prose style of Julian Barnes “but no one else writes a John Grisham book as well as John Grisham. You have to be the best person at writing the type of book you write. My view is – make mainstream things as well as you possibly can. Make it better than people think it is going to be.” For the record, the contemporary novel he thinks pulls off great storytelling and stylish prose is Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill – “best book of the century”.

***

Class, they both agree, is everything, especially when it comes to comedy. They each describe themselves as coming from “lower-middle-class” backgrounds. Having “a fairly good grasp of where you are from and where you’ve ended up” is useful as a writer, Osman says. “You are sort of on the battlements looking at everything.”

Growing up – Osman in West Sussex, Keyes in Dublin – it was all about the television. (When he is reading, Osman says, he can always spot the writers who didn’t watch TV as kids.) For Keyes, “TV was how we bonded, it was the time we spent together. We didn’t go on middle-class rambly walks,” she says, swinging her arms.We never went out to the garden because the lead for the telly didn’t stretch that far. We would go to my granny’s house for a week, there’s wasn’t a telly and we were a bit anxious.”

Osman’s love of TV extended right up to the end credits. “I’d have a Rolodex in my mind as to why I liked certain programmes and why I didn’t.” He never imagined he might one day work in television, but on his first day at Channel 4 after graduating from Cambridge, he realised he had been in an apprenticeship for 15 years. “Of course this is my job!” he thought. “My first years in telly were great because it was full of people who didn’t watch telly. So I knew stuff.” Presenting Pointless for 12 years has shown him where British culture is really at. “People think people listen to Radio 4 and they don’t,” he says. “I’m not knocking Radio 4. It’s brilliant. But it’s a really small group of people and that’s fine. People watch telly.”

Osman presenting Pointless with Alexander Armstrong in 2009, the year it first aired.
Osman presenting Pointless with Alexander Armstrong in 2009, the year it first aired. Photograph: Guy Levy/Brighter Pictures

Osman credits his mother, Brenda, for giving him and his brother, Mat (the bass guitarist in Suede), the freedom to do what they wanted growing up: she never made them go to classes or play the piano, or pushed them to go to university – “Obviously she’d have been furious if we hadn’t”. Instead “she was bright enough to let me sit and watch TV,” he says. “You have to let your kids be whatever it is they are and my mum worked that out many years before the self-help books.”

“God, you were blessed,” Keyes interjects.

“Definitely blessed,” he replies. “With my dad, less so.”

Osman’s father left when he was nine. Everyone was very “English” about it; the first he knew of any difficulties was when his father called him into the living room and told him he was leaving. His mother became a primary school teacher: people still call out “Hello, Mrs Osman” when they walk around Haywards Heath. She would stuff envelopes in the evenings to bring in extra money, but shielded him and his brother from any sense of financial hardship or sadness.

It is now part of Thursday Murder Club lore that it was inspired by the retirement village in Sussex where Osman’s mother, Brenda, now lives. She was interviewed by the Sunday Times saying that she thought the prose was “quite staccato”, but she’s got used to it now. “Only your mum could do that, right?” Osman laughs.

Brenda Wright celebrated her 80th birthday recently and came up to London to visit her sons. “She said: ‘I will turn up at 12 and I will be leaving at 4.30. All I want is a Chinese takeaway.’” Which is exactly what happened.

“A Chinese takeaway!” Keyes exclaims. “My mother wouldn’t ever chance it!” Keyes is forbidden from revealing her mother’s age. “She’s a very powerful figure,” she says of her mother, who has her own notoriety as the inspiration for Mammy Walsh and the “Old Vumman” of Keyes’s lively Twitter presence. “She’s the size of a fork. She has a handbag and cauliflower perm. And she’s beautiful, she really is.” It is from her mother that Keyes inherited her gift for storytelling, along with “a strong seam of bleakness” and “a capacity for great joy”.

Both writers agree that the best part of being successful is being able to treat their families, especially their mums: second only, because of his height, to always travelling business class, Osman jokes. “I’ve sort of lived my life in the perfect order,” he says. “When I grew up we had no money but we didn’t know. I didn’t have a clue. Now every single pound I earn, I’m like ‘Ahh, isn’t this great!’ Every single thing I buy, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m buying it.’”

***

But the craic notwithstanding, these writers have more than whopping sales figures in common: Keyes was an alcoholic; Osman suffers from food addiction. As he says, “You are either controlling it or not controlling it.” There hasn’t been a day Osman hasn’t battled with food since he was nine (no surprise, the time his father left), around the same age that Keyes just knew “something was wrong, something was broken. Something needed painkilling.” At first it was sugar for her too, then books. They both mainlined Enid Blyton for a while. “But then alcohol was the big one,” she says. “The drug of choice. It was the thing that helped me cross over from feeling like a defective human being to being able to pass myself off as normal. But it was a problem immediately because I always wanted more.”

When she was 30, before she began writing, Keyes was sent to a rehab clinic by her family after trying to kill herself. “You’ve always got to go one further,” Osman deadpans. His wake-up call was slightly less dramatic. But when he finally realised that his behaviour was “bizarre” and harmful, he confided in a boss at Hat Trick who found a therapist for him immediately. Both Keyes and Osman are evangelical about therapy. Keyes has been seeing the same therapist for 12 years. “She has saved my life, literally. And it just keeps me steady. It keeps me accountable”. Osman checks in with his only every six weeks or so these days. It is no wonder therapists pop up in their novels.

1970

Born Richard Thomas Osman on 28 November in Billericay, Essex and raised in Cuckfield, West Sussex. Studies politics and sociology at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1992. Now lives in London with actor Ingrid Oliver (above).

2009

Creates BBC game show Pointless, in which contestants attempt to find obscure answers to general knowledge questions.  Co-presents it with university friend Alexander Armstrong (above). Writes a number of quiz books between 2012 and 2019.

2017

Presents Richard Osman’s House of Games, in which celebrities compete to win prizes such as cushions or bread bins. Also appears on shows such as Would I Lie to You?Have I Got News for YouQI and Taskmaster.

2020

Publishes fiction debut The Thursday Murder Club, currently being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment.

2021

Publishes the sequel, The Man Who Died Twice, described by author Kate Atkinson as “a thing of joy”.

2022

Announces he is leaving Pointless after 13 years to concentrate on writing. The third book in the four-novel series, The Bullet That Missed, will be published in September.

Part of Keyes’s affinity with her character Rachel is that they are both addicts, she says: Again, Rachel sees our heroine back at the Cloisters, the rehab clinic of the earlier novel, but this time as head counsellor. Cara in Grown Ups is struggling with bulimia, and Osman’s small-town detective Chris is always one Costa double-chocolate muffin away from starting a diet. But in some ways everything they write is seen through the prism of addiction. “If you are any sort of addict it is very hard to be judgmental,” Osman says. And it is this empathy and forgiveness that has won over so many readers. “Too many people regard addiction as a moral failing or as almost a choice, or a weakness,” Keyes adds. “It is absolutely not. It is an attempt to self-medicate. Every addict I’ve ever met, and I’ve met many, has had something in themselves that is very uncomfortable to live with. It comes from all kinds of trauma.”

And addiction comes in many guises, Osman stresses. “It can be work or power. It is whatever you need to cover up your shame and to run from your trauma.” Having accepted your own vulnerability, he says, “you see it everywhere. You see shame everywhere … You see it in other people all the time. You can see it in leading politicians.” Any time anyone does anything weird, his first thought is not, “you are a terrible human being”, but “you are an addict. You have shame. You have trauma… I see an awful lot of pain in the world and it makes me feel very compassionate towards people.”

Osman wrote The Thursday Murder Club in secret over 18 months when he had a gap in his filming schedule. He writes for no more than two hours, aiming for 1,000 words a day, except when he’s on set. “I can’t be TV head then book head.” Once he had 10,000 words it was easier to carry on than give up. “It’s like going to the gym. If you go for an hour every day for a year then you’ll be fit. If you write 1,000 words a day for 90 days then you’ve got yourself a 90,000 word book.”

***

But even Osman is finding it tricky to juggle presenting a daily quizshow and his new career, and recently announced that he plans to step down from Pointless. “People always said ‘How do you fit everything in?’ but actually, I just didn’t have enough time.”

He shows us a photo of his desk at the top of his house in Chiswick, adorned only by his tabby Liesl Von Cat. Keyes also works in the spare bedroom, back in Dún Laoghaire, looking at a blank wall, although she has finally invested in a cork board and index cards because of the knotty timelines in Again, Rachel. Of all her novels that book “gave me the most warmth”, she says. She wrote it during lockdown, and while it wasn’t quite the same as seeing her own family, returning to the Walshes gave her “a feeling of safety”. Having always resisted writing a sequel (the Walsh books are all standalone novels), she is now reluctant to stop.

“If people loved season one of something, the thing they will want most in the world is season two, season three, season four. So long as you refresh it,” Osman insists. The pressure of writing a second novel might have been too great had he not been staying at Coopers Chase. The Man Who Died Twice barely misses a heartbeat before picking up where the first book ended – you can’t hang around if your characters are in their late 70s. He is weeks away from completing the third – “I’m on train tracks, I know where I’m heading” – with a fourth all lined up. After four books in four years, he plans on taking a break to write “an airport thrillery-type novel”, before returning to the Thursday Club. “You can say anything you like about me but I’m quick,” he quips. He likes to imagine a future in which he will be on book number 25.

“Is there a point that you think one day you’d like to stop writing?” he asks Keyes.

“Absolutely not. The thought horrifies me,” she replies.

“I have a question for you”, she says in a low voice, after a long pause. “Would you do Strictly?”

“No. I wouldn’t have time to do all the training and have the affair,” he fires back, a line he may have used before.

“But you are brilliant at everything.”

“Ballroom dancing less so. Would you do Strictly?”

“Noooo! I am so clumsy. I only want to do something if I can be really good at it,” Keyes admits. “And I love that show with all my heart.”

They both love the show.

Keyes has a final question. “Is it true you are getting married?” Osman met his partner, Doctor Who actor Ingrid Oliver, during lockdown.

“Yes. Exciting, isn’t it?”

As Keyes says of her fondness for happy endings: “I always like to finish at the good bits.”

  • The Man Who Died Twice is published by Penguin (£8.99) and Again, Rachel by Michael Joseph (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply