1997 was the year that changed my life. It was the year that I held my first baby in my arms and I knew that being a mother was always going to be the most important thing in the world to me. Having worked long hours in a busy job for years, suddenly being at home full time with my little boy was all I wanted to do. It’s also the year I fell back in love with reading. Having a child that slept a lot gave me lots of quiet hours to catch up on my favourite authors and find some new ones. I remember buying Cathy Kelly’s debut novel, Woman to Woman, and it blew me away. She wrote like nobody I’ve ever read before – with wit, heart and superb story telling, and I was immediately a fan. Twelve best selling books later, Cathy is still one of my favourite authors, so imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to interview her!
And so I’ve finally met my match! I’m known to be a bit (okay, a lot!) of a talker but Cathy Kelly can talk… and talk… and talk…!
Cathy was born in Belfast but has lived in Dublin most of her life. She’s currently living in County Wicklow with her husband, John, her twin boys, Dylan and Murray and her three Jack Russell Dogs (who she refers to as her ‘puplets of loveliness’) Scamp, Dinky Star and Licky. On meeting Cathy, I immediately felt that same warm fuzziness that we read in her books. She’s bubbly, warm and welcoming and I couldn’t wait to get chatting to her.
I wanted to know a little about Cathy’s early life – whether writing was something she always wanted to do or something she discovered later on. “Oh I can’t ever remember a time that I didn’t want to write,” she said. “I was already reading books when I was three! My brother was two years older so I was probably copying him. My grandmother thought it was hilarious that I could read when I was barely out of nappies so when I’d go to visit her in the west of Ireland, she made me read the Western People to anyone who’d listen. That was my party trick! But I just loved books and the fantasy world they allowed me to live in. I’d make up my own little stories in my head but to me they were real. Does that make me sound a bit unhinged?”
I was going to answer but there wasn’t time – she was off again! “I loved writing essays in school too. I didn’t like the really formal or difficult ones we used to have to do in secondary but loved when we could use our imaginations and write more freely. Oh and poetry – I wrote bad poetry when I was a teenager. But I suppose every teenager does that!”
So it seems that Cathy always knew that writing would eventually be her job. “Gosh, no,” she said! “I honestly never thought of doing it as a job. It sounds weird to say it, but I never made that connection. Maybe it’s because I didn’t think you could actually do something you love as a career. When I was in school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I briefly toyed with the idea of doing art or physiotherapy and when my brother went on to do science; I thought maybe I’d do that. On my application form for college courses, I eventually put law, journalism and science. I didn’t get enough points to do law but was offered science and realised I just didn’t want to do that. I was actually thinking of going back to repeat my exams so that I might get offered law (can you imagine me – the mad lawyer!) when I got a call to go and do an interview for journalism. So I suppose that was the start of my writing career. I did that for two years and got a certificate out of it – I never went on to do a degree – and then got a job with the Sunday world as a news reporter. I enjoyed the job but it was hard. In the late 80’s and early 90’s there were a lot of drugs on the scene and a lot of poverty. I was always interested in the stories about women and children so I was always given the domestic abuse, child abuse and prostitution stories to do. I’m quite a soft, empathetic person and related to those stories and people well.”
I’d heard that Cathy also did a stint as an agony aunt for the newspaper. Surely this was a perfect job to give her ideas for a novel? “Honestly, being an agony aunt was like getting a PHD in human behaviour. There was so much pain in the stories I heard during that time – people just wanted somebody to listen and, being a people person, I was ideal for the job. I never used any of those stories but it did teach me so much about human beings and helped me to build characters.”
I was curious to know at what point those characters found their way from head to page. What made her eventually begin writing a novel? “When I was younger, I tried my hand at writing a book but I just couldn’t do it,” said Cathy. “It just seemed like far too big a task. But when I was twenty-seven, I decided to give it a real go. I know it sounds disingenuous to say, but I honestly wasn’t thinking of it from the point of view of getting published. It was just something I had to do. I bought myself an old computer and put it on my old round dining table. I sat there night after night and soon fell in love with creating this other world and it went from there. When I had half of it finished, I decided I’d chance sending it off to a publisher and to my surprise and delight, I got a publishing deal with Poolbeg.”
Woman to Woman was initially published in Ireland and it immediately shot to number one on the best-seller list and remained there for eight weeks. It must have been an amazing feeling. “When I got the news that I was number one, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Cathy. “But it was also happening at the same time that my father was going through dementia so those years were a mixed bag. It was a difficult time but there was also a lot of joy. It may sound funny to say but sometimes I even felt a little embarrassed about my success. I remember being in the canteen in work and somebody would ask how the book was doing and if it was still at number one and in a typically Irish, self-deprecating style, I’d mutter a ‘fine’ and put my head down, mortified! God forbid I’d be boasting! Honestly, I find it so difficult to take praise. I take criticism to heart in an instant and want to go away and sob but when somebody gives me a compliment, I just don’t believe it!”
Having hit the best-seller slot for every book she’s written, I wondered if it’s something she now takes for granted. “Gosh no, never,” she said. “As a writer, I’m always insecure. It’s not exactly that I’m waiting for rejection but you just never know. People might get bored with my books and lose interest. I’m forever questioning myself and wondering if I’ve done the best that I could. Having people read my books and getting on that best seller list is a gift that I’ll never take for granted.”
So where does Cathy get all her ideas for stories from? “I love this information age,” she enthused. “We have so much information available to us through newspapers, tv and the net. Even the smallest of things can spark an idea. Sometimes the idea may not be enough to become a whole book but that’s why I loved writing the book of short stories so much. I could take all my little ideas that would never become a novel and make a short story from them.”
As a writer myself, I’m always curious about the writing process. Everyone seems to have a different approach. I asked Cathy about the process. “Well firstly, I really don’t plot it all out,” she said. “I think if I was to sit down and plot a book meticulously, chapter by chapter, I’d never write it. There has to be room for movement. It’s a bit like a suspension bridge that sways in the wind because the story changes as you go. I always have a fair idea where I’m going but allow myself to go with the twists and turns during the process. And as for research – I love it! Honestly, in an ideal world, I’d take two years to write a book and spend one whole glorious year doing research. I just get lost in it and have to drag myself away to actually write the book!”
I know it’s a question that most authors find difficult to answer but I wondered about Cathy’s favourite authors and books. “Oh gosh, it’s really difficult to narrow down,” she said. “When I’m writing my own books, I tend to stay away from women’s fiction. I adore crime novels and I’m reading a fabulous one at the moment. It’s called Ashes to Dust and it’s by an Icelandic lady called Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It’s a brilliantly plotted book and has me completely hooked. Laurie Graham is another of my favourite authors, but honestly there are just so many.”
Cathy has a reputation for being generous with her time and more than willing to help aspiring writers. So what’s the best piece of advice she can give to somebody starting out on their writing journey? “You have to write what’s in you,” she said, without hesitation. “You can’t sit there and look at what’s successful and try to write to fit in with that. Publishers get so many manuscripts from people trying to be like somebody else and not just being themselves. It’s so important to find your own voice. And read, read, read! It’s amazing the amount of people who come to me and say they want to write and in the same breath they say: ‘I don’t read, you know!’ I find that startling. If you send a manuscript to a publisher and it’s the most fabulous story but your grammar and spellings are all over the place, that’s going to stop them appreciating your story. If you don’t read and try to apply some of the basic principles to your work, then you’re not doing yourself any favours.” Cathy gets a fit of giggles at this point. “Am I coming across as all school marmish? But seriously, what’s the point of not giving yourself the best chance?”
Cathy’s twins, Dylan and Murray, will soon be eight years old and Cathy seems to juggle her life as a mother very well with her writing. “It’s the most enormous privilege to be a writer and it has to be one of the most perfect jobs for a mother who wants a career,” she said. “I get the boys up in the morning and drive them to school. I go straight home to write so I’m always there if there’s a problem and I need to go and pick one of them up. Yes, it’s like any other job in that you have to get your bum on the seat and work when they’re at school but really there’s great flexibility. I just love the whole motherhood thing. You never know how you’re going to take to it before it happens but I just adore being a mum. I mess up all the time – it sure isn’t The Waltons at our house – but we muddle through and are thankfully very happy.”
Cathy is an Ambassador for UNICEF Ireland and has a real passion for the charity. Her enthusiasm and compassion shine through when she speaks about her experiences. “I’ve been out to Rwanda and Mozambique and it’s really overwhelming. But I can come back to a normal life afterwards. I’m always really humbled by the amazing workers who dedicate their lives to it. I just take malaria tablets, get a few jabs and head off for a few days whereas they’re out there all the time really making a difference. Nothing can compare to the poverty they have in Africa. It’s really overwhelming. When you go there and see how little they have and how little hope, it’s heartbreaking. I’ve met mothers with HIV and they’re there with their children and they know they’re going to die. It’s the most shocking thing you’ll ever see. I’ve always had an interest in the Second World War and the holocaust and even read a lot about it as a child. But I wasn’t prepared for the Genocide Museum in Rwanda. It’s built on skeletons of a quarter of a million people. They even have a children’s room, which is the most awful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. There was a picture there of a little boy called David. He was best friends with his mum, his favourite food was ice-cream and he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. His last words were ‘Mum, where can we hide’. I just cried the whole way around. People over there are trying to get their lives back on track and we desperately need to help. It’s our duty – I really believe that!”
It’s clear why Cathy is so loved here in Ireland and around the world. Not only is she a brilliant writer, but a wonderful and warm human being. So her fans must have been singing for joy when she decided to check out all the hype and join the twitterverse (@cathykellybooks). “Oh I love it,” she enthused. “Although I really have to discipline myself. I have to keep the ipad switched off during the day or I’d be tapping into twitter the whole time. I’ve built up so many lovely followers already and I love hearing what they have to say. The direct contact is fantastic. I love all the mad, funny stuff too. Steve Martin is a genius and I love his tweets. I love all the news sites too – it’s amazing that we can hear all the news instantly. I think what makes twitter work so well is the feeling it gives us that the world is actually very small and people are wonderfully the same no matter where they live. I love that. I’m hugely into the idea that we’re all the same. It’s what I love about writing novels too: that someone in India or Australia or Greece or Brazil can empathise with my characters because we all share the same hopes and dreams.”
On 6th May last, The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV in conjunction with Harper Collins launched a competition to find a new writing talent. As if Cathy isn’t busy enough, she’s going to head the three person judging team. “I’m really excited about it,” she said. “There are so many marvellous writers out there who are just waiting for the chance to be published. This competition will give somebody the wonderful opportunity to have a novel published in 2012. I can’t wait.” You can read more about The People’s Novelist Competition here.
Sadly, it was almost time to say goodbye but I had one last question for Cathy. I wondered if she plans to continue writing books. “Forever!” she grinned. “Honestly, it’s in my heart and my soul. If I won the lotto millions tomorrow, I’d be delighted and look at who I could dish it out to. Then I’d put my head back down in the computer and write the next book.”
And without a shadow of a doubt, we’ll continue to read them!