million-seller and mentor to many
Nicholas Clee meets the internationally popular writer and finds she is as nice as she appears
Cathy Kelly is so friendly and such good company that it is ignoble to entertain the question that we have learned to ask about every celebrity: can she be as nice as she appears? Yes, she can, according to all reports. Even a friend of mine who is a publisher and who once worked for Kelly’s publisher HarperCollins, and who is not notably impressed by authors in whom he no longer has a commercial interest, describes her as ‘lovely’. Kelly does not have, in that old- fashioned phrase, ‘any side’ to her. When she talks about her close and uncompetitive relationships with contemporary women writers, and when she explains that she finds it rewarding to mentor aspiring novelists, she is genuine.
This generous spirit is what readers respond to in Kelly’s fiction. Because she began her career at the time when ‘chick lit’ by young women writers was in vogue, she has sometimes been associated with that genre. But really her books, which have sold many millions of copies all round the world, are not all about finding Mr Right, but about friendship, resilience, and learning how to change. The warm atmosphere of her novels is closer in tone to the work of Maeve Binchy than it is to that of the writers whose names tend to be embossed on Day-Glo covers. ‘I don’t think I ever fitted quite into the Chardonnay thing,’ is how she puts it. Yes, the heroines in her first novel were looking for men; but one of them ended up on her own, with her children – a most unglamorous choice, some would think. ‘I would find a 20-something, chick-litty novel almost impossible to read now,’ Kelly says.
Her most recent novels, Homecoming and The House on Willow Street, have been about the interconnected lives of characters facing changes, and unsure whether they’ll be able to adapt. In The House on Willow Street, set in a small Irish town, Tess Power is dealing with a failing business and a failing marriage. Her sister Suki, author of a classic text of feminism, has emerged from broken relationships with a politician and with a minor rock star, and seeks refuge in the town when a biographer starts digging dirt on the political dynasty from which she is exiled. City girl Mara is also seeking refuge, after being dumped by her boyfriend, and is living with her Aunt Danae, who has dark secrets in her past. And Cashel is a hugely successful businessman; but has he ever truly forgotten what Tess Power once meant to him?
In real life, these people might tackle challenges by repeating the mistakes of their pasts. Kelly usually allows her characters to learn to find fulfilment. ‘Maybe it would be more realistic to write about people who don’t learn, and who never change,’ she says. ‘Not everyone gets that chance. But they do in my books.’
The town in the novel is called Avalon. ‘I couldn’t help it,’ Kelly apologises. ’I had it as a working name for the town, and I thought everyone would say, “You can’t call it that!” But they all said that it was lovely.
‘My husband comes from County Waterford, and while I was writing the novel we went there, to a beautiful village called Ardmore. My town isn’t quite like that, but it does have the same kind of mystical atmosphere.’
The jacket of The House on Willow Street carries a pastel-shaded illustration, by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson, of a coastal town, with white, blue and yellow houses leaning towards the sea. ‘I have my own picture of the town, but this fits the book very well, and it’s exquisite,’ Kelly says.
It’s not all idyllic and cosy, however. Suki has lived in the grittier worlds of politics and music, and brings a more acerbic quality to the novel, especially in a tense scene with the brittle matriarch of the political family. And Danae’s secret involves – not to give too much away – domestic violence. Kelly says:
‘I like to think there’s reality in my books, and pain and difficulty and suffering – but there’s also the Irish sense of humour and community, and there’s friendship.’ She enjoyed writing Suki, and admits that she fell into relishing the character’s bitchiness a bit too much: ‘Suki had an assistant, and was always mean to her, and it was great fun. But I had to rewrite her totally, because she became wildly clichéd.’ Kelly shares Suki’s feminism: ‘I was always feminist, and it just seems even more important now.’
The discipline of journalism helped her when she came to write novels, ‘Because you have to sit down and work – someone would say, “We want 400 words – yesterday!” The difficulty I found was that I’d come into the office after writing at the weekend, and I’d find it very hard to get back into writing a 400-word story, with a short snappy intro and a joke at the end.’ But, having learned how to get on with writing rather than agonising over it, she was able to write her novel in the evenings, after work, and at the weekends. It was no hardship, she says. ‘I’d say to myself, “I’ll just write for half an hour”, and three hours later I’d still be at it. I worked in an open-plan, small living room and dining room, on a second- hand kitchen table, and on a second-hand computer. My beautiful dog would be on the couch, wanting another walk, and it would be 10 o’clock at night. It was a wonderful escape.’ (After the death of this dog, a Labrador called Tamsin, Kelly dedicated her novel Best of Friends to her.)
A friend of Kelly’s knew someone at Poolbeg, the Irish firm most associated with the ‘production line’ mentioned earlier – it had published novels by, among others, Patricia Scanlan, Marian Keyes, and Sheila O’Flanagan. Kelly sent off the novel, ‘long before I had finished it’. Three months of silence ensued. ‘I thought, “I must be an idiot, and this is just confirmation of the fact”. My friend said, “Ring them”. I said, “If they had wanted the book, they would have rung me”. Anyway, in the end I did ring them, and they said, “We liked it, yeah”. Poolbeg sold the British rights to Headline, which was later to publish O’Flanagan’s novels too.
This first novel was Woman to Woman, about two friends, one of whom discovers that her husband is having an affair, while the other, unmarried but with a gorgeous boyfriend, learns that she is pregnant. Two further novels followed before Kelly decided to leave journalism to become a full-time writer; she also moved from Poolbeg and Headline to HarperCollins, which in the past 11 years has published 11 books by her, all bestsellers.
Writers are, on the whole, a competitive crowd, jealous of the successes even of, and sometimes particularly of, friends. But Kelly’s generation of novelists appears to be immune from this trait. Kelly and Marian Keyes are particularly close: Keyes, who has suffered a well-publicised battle with depression, clearly has found Kelly a supportive and cheering friend, while Kelly has gained from Keyes encouragement in her writing.
‘In the world of journalism, they want you to be rivals,’ Kelly says. ‘When I was a journalist, that was the vibe, and it was so toxic – they wanted you to be aggressive, to beat others to stories, to do them down. But that’s a horrible way to live your life. It took me a while, after I had got out, to say to myself, “That isn’t who you are, you don’t have to be like that”.’
As for rivalry: ‘The pie is infinite,’ Kelly says, meaning that she does not jealously guard her share. ‘There’s no point in saying, “I hate so and so, because she sold so many copies”.
‘I like to think there’s reality in my books, and pain and difficulty and suffering – but there’s also the Irish sense of humour and community, and there’s friendship.’
‘Marian is a mate, and I love her to bits. I’ve read her new novel, and it’s amazing – she’s just brilliant. If I’d sent the manuscript to her, there’d be at least three characters called Jenny. She’s just so funny and gifted, an amazing diarist of life and how human beings feel. Nobody can do what she can do. Even her newsletter is brilliant: I can have been talking to her the day before, and the newsletter pings in and I’m so excited to see it.’ Browsing in an airport bookshop recently, she noticed that a novel by Patricia Scanlan was at number one in the shop’s bestseller list, and texted Scanlan with the news.
Kelly’s generous attitude to other writers extends to mentoring those at the starts of their careers.
One of them has been Emma Hannigan, who began writing after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which has since returned seven times but is now in remission. ‘I’m very proud of her. She hasn’t really broken over here [in Britain], but she should.’ Kelly has been known to rearrange bookshop displays to give Hannigan’s novels more prominence. ‘I would NEVER do that with one of my own books,’ she adds.
Of course, there are many people who want Kelly’s advice and help. ‘I never mind,’ she insists. ’I love helping people, and I’m always there to help new writers. I’m a huge believer in mentorship.’
Does she never regret her reputation for being helpful? ‘There have been occasions when people have stuck manuscripts in my letter box,’ she concedes. ‘I’m getting better at drawing boundaries. About two years ago, I got a part-time assistant, Sarah, who deals with these enquiries, and sometimes she will say, “Cathy is really busy”. It works out ok. I’m not bombarded.’
No writers enjoy criticism, and aspiring writers can take it particularly hard. How does she give advice? ‘I think you have to be honest but not devastating. In the beginning I’d work quite closely with people. Now there are websites like Authonomy [run by HarperCollins] where people can get a lot of feedback. You do have to be frank, to a point.
‘But when people get referred to you by someone you know, you’re in trouble. I remember this lovely woman, and she had this massive manuscript. I said to her, “This is about eight books, and they’re all different, and they’re all glued together, and you need to do x, y, and z”. And she’d say, “Oh no, but I love this bit”, and I realised she wasn’t hearing anything I was telling her.
‘About a year later, I got a letter from her saying, “Nobody is interested in my book, what do I do next?” What do you say? And there was a friend of a friend who emailed me – I was actually cross about this – and her email was so badly written, with random capitals all over the place. So in a case like that, you just have to say, “Go away”, as nicely as you can.’
It’s not as if Kelly has an excess of time on her hands. She is a mother of twins, and lives with them and her husband, former Sony Music Ireland Managing Director John Sheehan, in County Wicklow. She produces a book a year, and goes on regular publicity tours – last year, she went to Canada, and this year she has been in Australia. She also travels as part of her work as an Ambassador for UNICEF, for which she has visited Rwanda and Mozambique, highlighting the charity’s ‘Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS’ and ‘Schools for Africa’ campaigns. Her fellow ambassadors include Rory McIlroy, Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Gabriel Byrne, and Pierce Brosnan.
‘I feel like a big sponge for pain,’ she says. ‘The genocide museum in Rwanda: oh God, I can’t begin to tell you about it. There was a children’s room... I’d always had it in my mind that I wanted to visit Auschwitz, but now I know that I couldn’t do it, because Rwanda was too much for me. And it’s especially difficult there, because of the recession.
‘Then you go to Mozambique, and see a clinic with mothers and their babies sitting outside in the sun. Pick five of those babies, and one will be dead before his or her fifth birthday.’
Kelly always wanted to write novels. Like many aspiring writers, she had a few false starts, one of them a plan she and her mother concocted to write a Mills & Boon novel. Like many others, they discovered that it was a lot harder than they had expected.
‘My mum had done a writing course, and I’d read plenty of Mills & Boons when I was growing up, so we decided we’d do it. We had a second-hand typewriter with a dodgy “e”. I’d go to college, and when I came home she’d have written in a notebook, in absolutely appalling handwriting, something like, “Heroine goes into room”, and then in brackets, “(Describe room)”. The heroine worked in the hotel business, about which we knew absolutely nothing.
‘I have no idea how two people can write a book together, it’s beyond me. So of course we couldn’t do this desperate thing. And then, hilariously, my father decided that he was going to write a Mills & Boon too, because his father had written songs. He’d never even read one.
‘Then, when I was in my early 20s, the news editor of my paper told me about someone he knew who was allegedly a scout for publishers, and they were looking for writers. I met this guy, who turned out to want clogs and shawls novels. I doubt very much if the industry ever worked like this, in fact I’m quite sure it didn’t, but I went home very excited. I did loads of research, but I didn’t read those sorts of books, and after a while I realised that I couldn’t do it.
‘I made the mistake of telling everyone about it. So for two years people kept asking, “How’s the book?”, and I’d have to say, “I’ve written about two pages”.
‘Maybe it would be more realistic to write about people who don’t learn, and who never change. Not everyone gets that chance. But they do in my books.’
‘So when I finally started writing properly, I thought, “We won’t do Mills & Boon, we won’t do clogs and shawls: just write something that you’d want to read.” That was the only way to go.’
She worked for 13 years at the Sunday World in Dublin, and ‘loved’ journalism, mostly. ‘I was hired as a news reporter, and I was an appallingly bad news reporter, because I was quite shy – you wouldn’t think it now! My friends had been nerdy, bookish kids, who are exactly the wrong kind of people to be tabloid journalists. I hated asking people emotional, personal questions that I would have found hurtful. Sometimes, you need to put your foot in the door, and it would kill me. I’d go back to the office – there would have been some horrendous tragedy, and I’d have had to talk to the people involved – and they’d ask, ‘What age were the victims?’. I couldn’t ask those questions. Sometimes I’d lie, and say that I’d asked that question but that people didn’t want to answer.
‘But I liked writing features, on subjects like poverty, and prostitution, and child abuse. I was interested in the stories behind the news stories, in the people. I think if I’d stayed in journalism I’d have been someone who crusaded in a particular area.’ She also worked for a while as an agony aunt: ‘It was like a PhD in people, getting all those letters,’ she said in an interview with RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster).
Cathy Kelly: the CV
1966 Born in Belfast (but raised in Dublin)
1988 Began a 13-year career as a
1997 First novel published
2001 Became full-time writer
Currently lives in Enniskerry, County Wicklow with her husband and twin sons.
Cathy has been an ambassador for UNICEF Ireland since 2005 and also works as a Global Parent for UNICEF.
2012 The House on Willow Street
2011 Christmas Magic short stories
2010 The Perfect Holiday quick read
2009 Once in a Lifetime
2008 Lessons in Heartbreak
2006 Past Secrets
2005 Always and Forever
2003 Best of Friends
2002 Just Between Us
2001 What She Wants
2000 Someone Like You
1999 Never Too Late
1998 She’s the One
1997 Woman to Woman
Cathy has also contributed to numerous short story anthologies and written for many magazines.
HOW SHE WRITES
Many of us, given Kelly’s home life, might be inclined to enjoy it to the exclusion of experiences such as these. She and Sheehan have been together since roughly the time when she started writing, but they got married only a couple of years ago – after their six-year-old twin boys had started asking them when they would, she told RTE. The family lives with three Jack Russell terriers. Kelly describes her writing routine: ‘Before I had children, I would spend about eight hours a day at the computer, and I probably wrote less. Now, I take the children to school, come home, maybe have some breakfast, flip through the papers, hug the dogs about 800 times, and put on the washing.
‘John and I share a study. That’s fine, because I was raised in a newsroom where you write no matter what’s going on. But about a year ago I changed one of the bedrooms into a study, with no internet access, just books and pictures of things I like and of my family, and candles – Marian sent me a lovely candle recently. The internet had become so intrusive when I was working downstairs – you’d think, “I wonder if so-and-so’s got back to me?” It’s really a very bad way to write. So I might spend a few minutes on urgent stuff downstairs, and then I go upstairs, and work there, with breaks for tea or coffee, until the boys come out of school. I rarely try to write after that, because I never wanted the boys to think that my work was more important than them.
‘School holidays are hysterical. In Ireland, they’re three months. I have a Brazilian girl who comes in – well, she’s not a girl, she’s 30, but she’s so much younger than I am. [Kelly is 45.] Sometimes I’ll have a blast of work at the weekends if the boys are away on a playdate. But I love having the children in the house, being with them and doing things with them.’ A favourite game involves making up stories: ‘One of the boys will say, “The Pacific Ocean and China”, and the other, “A banana and a computer”, and I have to make up a story with all those things in it.’
After 14 novels, she is still sometimes prey to the insecurities she felt when starting out. ‘There are many days when I think, “This is cobblers, and I should delete it all”. And I feel dispirited and that I’ve failed. At those moments, you long to be in a 9 to 5 job, where at the end of the day you turn off your computer and that’s it. There are lots of days like that. But so much of the time I love it. I feel so lucky to do this amazing thing.’
The House on Willow Street
is published by Harper
Also available in
a festive collection of short stories
by Cathy Kelly