Last November I spoke with bestselling author Cathy Kelly, about writing, women and having a PhD in People.
Since publishing her debut novel, Woman to Woman, in 1997, Cathy Kelly has become Ireland’s most successful female author. Having previously outsold J.K Rowling and Dan Brown, the 48 year old is undoubtedly the nation’s sweetheart.
As a child Cathy was a self-confessed bookworm, so it is of no surprise she has reached such dizzy heights of acclaim both in the literary and commercial sense
“I was a huge reader as a kid”, begins the mother of two in her warm-hearted tone “There are very few writers who start and who haven’t been enormous readers. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of Malcom Gladwell’s work’s, but one of his book’s, Outliers, looks at people succeeding in particular areas and he talks about the 10000 hour rule. People like Bill gates who get really involved in something spend an awful lot of time at it”
“Not that I’m comparing myself to these people”, the author is quick to point out “But I read hugely as a child. People who want to write have to read because if you’re not a reader it is very difficult to become a writer, it’s not impossible, but it’s like saying I want to be a dress designer and never having seen a dress!”
Having worked as a journalist for the popular Sunday World, in the eighties and nineties, as a news reporter and later as a features writer and agony aunt, Cathy admits that she always felt somewhat inadequate and not quite cut out for the hard-hitting world of news writing.
“There were wonderful sides to it and wonderful people there and lots of fascinating and amazing experiences”, says Cathy, “I think I was a hard news reporter at first. It’s very difficult and you’ve to be a particular type of person to do that successfully and I was probably too soft. In those days by god you worked hard at it in the 80’s because you couldn’t just leave your job and I felt it was my fault that I was not quite right”
Upon expanding into more features writing with the newspaper, Cathy began to find her niche as a journalist, preferring to focus in on feelings and emotions that went with the stories, rather than the cold facts.
“ I became more comfortable with feature writing where I could write larger articles focusing on the stories behind the news stories” Cathy grateful of her routes in journalism continues “The plus that journalism gives you is that it teaches you enormous discipline as a writer because you have to sit down and work and it’s very Alice in Wonderland as you open a door to another world and you see experiences which are vital for a writer”
Cathy’s successful stint as an agony aunt would also prove to be a significant contribution to her work as a writer. Answering queries from distressed readers on a weekly basis allowed Cathy to gain, as she calls it “A PhD in people”.
Putting these life experiences and knowledge of the human psyche into practice, Cathy finally began working on her first novel. This wasn’t the first time she had endeavoured to stitch a story together however,
It was funny. I tried a couple times to write, but never what was in me”, admits the bestselling author “When I was 17 I decided to write about a women running a hotel, but knew damn all about running a hotel. It went nowhere. In 1994 my partner said stop talking about it. I’d been talking about it all my life. I’ll write what’s in me and what I like to read. You can’t think of the people you work with criticising it or you can’t think of your mother reading it. You have to write what’s in you!”
Three books later, Cathy abandoned her career as a journalist and became a full-time writer in 2001, topping best-seller lists across the globe. With many critics declaring that Cathy’s success has been on a similar level to the late Maeve Binchy’s, I ask Cathy was the Dublin-born writer a source of inspiration for her?
“The great thing about Maeve, was that she was a genius and she made this thing look very simple”, says Cathy. “It was like a fabulous piece of tapestry but you couldn’t see the drawing at the back. She was a huge inspiration. When I started out with my first book, she had a big party at her house for writers and I was invited, I nearly died!” she laughs “I felt like a complete charlatan. She was very warm and I’m a huge believer in female mentorship. It’s important that women do stick together and help each other”
With her new novel, It Started With Paris, sure to be a stocking filler in most households this Christmas, Cathy starts talking about the plot behind her novel and her inspiration for putting it together, “I was half way through the last book, The Honey Queen which has a character in it who is widowed”, explains Cathy. “I thought it would be interesting to write about women who are on their own. So I thought of this idea with three characters. One of who is a young widow with a son struggling to cope, one who is left by her toe-rag of a partner and finally Grace who is in her fifties and has just gotten divorced”
Having spoken at length about the plot of the novel, Cathy finally jokes “They say you need to be able to explain your plot in 20 words for a Hollywood pitch, that’s why I’ll never have a film made!”
However, while for some being a dedicated author, wife and mother would be enough to keep them occupied, Cathy is also an active ambassador for UNICEF Ireland and speaks of her work with the charity passionately“When I was a journalist I was very interested in women’s rights. I wrote a lot about domestic abuse, poverty and prostitution. Getting a chance to work with UNICEF is a continuation of that work and a huge passion of mine”, declares Cathy
Finally, Cathy gives her last piece of advice to budding writers out there with her trademark of compassion “Take care of your mental health. Don’t try and be the next “X”, be the next “You” and take it from there”