Aspiring writers are usually advised to write about what they know, and most successful ones usually do start off on that basis.
What happens, though, when you’re on your 20th novel, as is the case with successful popular-fiction author Cathy Kelly? Cathy’s background is in journalism and the main character in her first novel, Woman to Woman, was a journalist, but one can’t keep rehashing the same scenario.
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Fortunately, Cathy is so good at this that now, for her, much of the fun in writing a new novel, as well as dreaming up the plot, is summoning up new characters and giving them interesting jobs and names. “I never base my books on real people. I don’t like writing about real people,” she says.
Her latest book, The Family Gift, has, as its main character, Freya Abalone – “I love Nordic names,” Cathy enthuses. Freya is a celebrity chef, not a profession Cathy initially knew too much about – she got technical advice from Catherine Fulvio – though she says herself she’s not a bad cook when she gets the chance to do so properly.
However, with her family, making a meal is something of a challenge. “John, my husband, is a coeliac, I’m a vegetarian, and we have two 16-year-old boys,” Cathy, who has a big range in the lovely kitchen of her Arts and Crafts-style house in Wicklow, explains. She adds: “Sometimes I feel like a short-order cook.”
However, with every good writer, there is something of themselves in their characters, and Cathy is no different. Freya, her heroine, has an inner voice that she calls Mildred, and this voice is constantly dissing Freya, making her anxious and insecure.
“The internal voice was never that intense until Freya got mugged,” Cathy explains. “It was a terrible experience, and she was totally wrecked by it. But because she’s a real coper and there’s a lot going on in her family – ailing parents, her husband’s ex-wife turning up, etc – she’s trying to handle it all herself. It’s about our internal voices, about coping, about letting others help; it’s about letting people in.”
Though the Freya character in her engrossing new novel is a total fiction, it’s clear that the anxiety and inner voice is something all too real for Cathy herself. Like Freya, the petite blonde gives the impression of someone who has it relatively easy – Cathy is witty and self-deprecatingly entertaining – but it’s not the case. She says she has always suffered from anxiety, and two events in particular in the course of her early career exacerbated the anxiety.
A Dublin girl, and one of three children, Cathy studied journalism, and after six months in pirate radio, she got a job with the Sunday World, a job she loved.
“I always loved writing, and journalism seemed like a way to write, because I had never connected the dots between loving writing and writing a book – and anyway it would have seemed very daft,” the bestselling author says, adding in a fake uppity voice: “I’ve left school now and I’m writing a book.”
She was initially hired as a news reporter, which, on reflection, Cathy says she finds hilarious. “Me as a news reporter? I mean, I’d be the one going, ‘Nothing happened – just the bishop fell into the swimming pool’, that’d be me. I did not have a nose for news, and I lived in constant fear of being found out as appalling at my job. A desperate way to live.”
At the time, the paper didn’t have a features department, but Cathy loved feature writing and started to write articles about issues of the day, basically creating her own features department. She also did the film reviews for the paper, and she got the position of agony aunt, which she did for five years. “I was getting people’s pain and hurt,” she says. “I learned a lot, but I wasn’t qualified to deal with it.”
She experienced a lot of pain and hurt herself when, in her 20s, she had a ‘MeToo’ experience at the hands of a man she knew. “It was horrendous; it destroyed me. I was anxious before that but, after it, I had years of absolute horror. It was hideous, and I totally hid all of that. I couldn’t talk about it, the shame I felt, and I didn’t want anybody to pity me. It spiralled me into a whole different ball game,” she says. “I’m good-humoured and I love a laugh, but the two can exist together. If I go through a dark anxious bit, I go to ground, really.”
She adds: “I’m one of the most functioning people I know, but I have that thing going on all the time.”
Despite this, Cathy managed to keep going and wrote the first of her novels; it, and her subsequent books, were an immediate success. She wrote three while still holding down a job; she couldn’t afford to give up work, as she had a huge mortgage. She stayed 13 years in total in the Sunday World. Then she had no choice but to leave. “I didn’t actually give up. I was fired,” she recalls, baldly. “They brought me into a room and said, ‘Would you go’. I was at a point where I was doing much less for them. And they were like, ‘You’re too expensive’. They could have said, ‘We’ll renegotiate your deal’, but they didn’t. I’m not bitter, but at the time I was upset. I collected my things and went home. I didn’t feel empowered enough [to fight]. There’s a book in the number of times I haven’t felt empowered,” she explains sadly.
“It was personally devastating. I probably would have hung on for another couple of years. I had friends there; I’m very sociable. But the publishers wanted me to travel to promote the books, so that was a plus.”
Suddenly, she was working from home, and from then she started building a writing community for herself. “People always think we’re making this up, but there is this lovely writers’ community in Ireland,” she says, name-checking Marian Keyes and Patricia Scanlon and the late Emma Hannigan.
She goes on to ruminate about the fact that people think there might be too much rivalry among writers for them to be able to be friends, but Cathy says they are all very supportive of each other. “There’s a lot of pie out there and hopefully everyone will get a piece of pie. You can’t be there thinking, ‘I didn’t get my slice of pie’. If that’s the way you live your life, you will be consumed by hatred, and I don’t want to be that person,” she says. “There would be lots of younger writers I don’t know, but we can say hello on Twitter and get together after that.”
Apart from her great community of writers, she has, of course, her husband John Sheehan, a retired music-industry executive whom she’s been with for 20 years, and her 16-year-old twins, Dylan and Murray. They share their home with triplet Jack Russell sisters – Licky, Dinky and Scamp, aged nine; she calls them ‘the girls’.
“John and I got married nine years ago and we always forget our anniversary, except the girls were born on the same day that we got married. I’m hopeless with dates and what happens is, I say, ‘Oh, we forgot the girls’ birthday’; then I think, ‘Oh, we forgot our anniversary’.”
They bought the house 18 years ago, but only moved in two months before the twins were born. “We spent the first year looking at it, then the second year doing things,” she says.
Dating from the early 1900s, it’s a detached dormer bungalow on one acre. “It was smaller,” she says. “Sometimes I look at Dermot Bannon and I think I know what he’d say. He’d say, ‘Open it up’, but I like it.”
Over the years, they’ve added bits, with the result they now have a spacious home that is cosy yet elegant. It has two living rooms, a dining area, a kitchen, a study for Cathy on the ground floor, a study for John and a gym in the basement, five bedrooms, three of which are en suite, and they also added a den for the boys.
When Cathy talks about her boys, her face lights up. “We’re very close. Sixteen is a lovely age; teenagers have their things going on and at times your heart breaks for them, but they’re lovely. When people ask what are you proud of, I always say, ‘My boys’.”
The boys were involved in some of the colour schemes and Cathy herself is very active when it comes to home maintenance. “I’m a great woman for the screwdriver,” she explains with a laugh.
With the boys, the girls and the writing, she obviously has her hands full, but she always makes room for her work as a Unicef ambassador. Where possible, she spreads the word about abuse of women in countries like Mozambique and Rwanda where she’s travelled and met many women who’ve suffered at the hands of powerful men, often leaving them with permanent scars. “The Unicef work is so powerful. I feel a huge draw to talk to the women and help them,” she says.
Cathy has learned how to deal with her own scars; therapy has helped, and meditation. “I should meditate every day. RPM – Rise. Pee. Meditate. That’s it. I try and have a 10-minute session several times a week, it works for me,” she says.
You will need to read The Family Gift to find out how it turns out for Freya.
‘The Family Gift’ by Cathy Kelly, published by Orion, is in the shops now
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by David Conachy
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