An Interview with Irish Bestseller Cathy Kelly

Her trademarks are a wry sense of humour and a big heart – internationally bestselling Irish author Cathy Kelly is back with her latest novel It Started in Paris, a candid exploration of male-female relationships, blended families, and the connectedness of community.

In Auckland for a whirlwind tour of New Zealand, Cathy took time out to chat to NZ Booklovers about her new novel, the lives of women, motherhood and her work as an Ambassador for UNICEF Ireland.

You are here to publicise your latest book It started with Paris, your 15th novel. The novel starts off with one particular event – an engagement at the top of the Eiffel tower – and which is then the catalyst for a whole range of developments within the wider group of friends and family of the engaged couple – can you tell me a bit about how you came up with that idea?

Often when I’m half way through writing one book I begin to think of the idea for the next book – I was writing The Honey Queen and I had a widow in it, and then I began to think – you know half way through one book you always think of another book that you are waiting to write, because the other one is getting harder and you think “I’m sick of it, I want to write the new one.” Which of course you can’t – but so with It Started in Paris I wanted to write about women who were on their own for various reasons, like somebody who was just getting divorced – where could she go from there because her confidence was fraught? Then I thought about another character who had been divorced a long time, and her ex-husband had somebody new and she hadn’t – and then she ends up coming into contact with her ex-husband a lot more. So it’s about different types of break ups and how it works out. Another character is a man who has a break up with his wife and its very acrimonious, and the children are being used as ammunition, and then he falls in love with one of the other characters who is widowed, and I was trying to write about it in shades of grey – there is no black and white, there are no bad people, there are no good people, it’s just people who react in different ways, and it takes them time to get over things. So I think the romantic engagement in the beginning of the book is a catalyst and a contrast between this “ideal” thing that everyone has when they start out and they are very young and innocent, and don’t know any better, and then it goes on to the real world. I like writing about “the real” and even though there is warmth, and humour and things work out in my books, I want it to be real too.

There are a range of female characters in the novel, and they are all at different stages in their lives, in different types of relationships. What would you say is the thread that connects them with each other?

That’s a good question – I suppose it’s not really one single thread, though the main link was looking at divorces and separations and how it affects people in different ways. That’s as far as the thread goes. It’s also about being on your own, like Vonnie, the American character, who is widowed and is falling in love with somebody who is already separated and how his ex-wife then has to move on – so it’s the impact of previous relationships on new relationships and blended families, and that’s also part of the link.

I was thinking also that one of the things that links the female characters in It Started with Paris is that they all come out stronger, they are all survivors and they all find their place.

Yes, that seems to be what I write about, and I didn’t plan it when I started writing, but somehow I do seem to keep coming back to that: know your own strength, be strong in yourself. And if there is something in the past then you need to deal with that, and take responsibility for who you are and what has happened to you, and then you can move on with your life. And that is what comes out – I’d like to think – in all my books, that the characters become stronger. Like the character of Leila, the girl who was in this whirlwind romance and married this loser guy who everyone warned her against, and then she didn’t spend any time with her family, she did that terrible thing of “I’m with a guy I don’t need my girlfriends,” but she realises that was the wrong thing to do. She was trying to be something different, to be what he wanted- and it’s easy when you’re younger, when you’re not quite sure who you are – we’ve all been that person. I remember dating this guy many, many years ago – I was fifteen, and he was eighteen – and he liked the band Deep Purple, and I was more into this band called Bread; so his sister had a Bread album, and when we went to his house he would put on the Bread album for me with a big sigh, and then he would put on Deep Purple and I would say “oh yes, Deep Purple are great”, but I hated Deep Purple – but you pretend to like those things so you can impress this person, rather than be yourself. I think that’s my message, be who you are, and then good things happen.

How important do you think romance is in our lives, and what made you want to write about relationships when you first started out writing?

When I wrote my first proper book, which was published in 1997, I wanted to write the sort of thing I wanted to read, but I didn’t really want to write romances. Though possibly the book was romantic on one level – there were two women, and one of the characters ended up with a guy, and one of the characters didn’t end up with a guy. So it wasn’t that being with someone is the be all and end all, it’s being happy with who you are that’s the be all and end all – and if you manage to have a relationship as well, then that’s absolutely fabulous, because I think that sharing your life with another human being is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

I think romance is thrown at us from so many different angles, and I’m not sure how much I believe in romance – you can have these fabulous relationships that have very little romance in them, and the others that are full of red roses and “I’m going to take you away for a weekend,” but really they don’t get on, so I think romance can be a fake thing. Just think of Valentine’s Day, it’s such a commercialised thing and if you haven’t got your red roses everyone is looking at you like there is something wrong. And not all people are good at that, and we women expect guys to know that we want that, even if they are no good at that. Guys are not mind readers, and sometimes we need to say “you know what, I’d love it if you did that for me,” and that cuts out all that misunderstanding. So no, I’m not a romantic.

You get the opportunity to travel all over the world, do you find that the messages in your novels resonate with your readers wherever you go?

Absolutely – I have found to my astonishment that people all over the world are the same. When I started writing, and I was setting my books in Ireland I thought maybe I need to set them somewhere else, and then I thought “no, it will ring untruthfully”, because when you try and write about something that you don’t know, people see through that. So I thought that I’ll just write about the places I know, but the experiences and the feelings are international. And as Irish writers, we seem to have that self-deprecating humour that is beaten into us from when we are very young.

Yes, New Zealanders understand that type of humour!

Yes, there is this great sense of humour here, and that’s why we do get on.

You are also an Ambassador for UNICEF Ireland – how did you get into that, and how does it tie in with you as a writer and story teller?

I got involved in Unicef nine years ago, my own children were two, and my first trip was to Mozambique, and it was just the most startling and shocking thing. I’d always wanted to do something with charity work – when I was working as a journalist I remember doing an interview with the Red Cross and they were trying to recruit people, and at the time I had a house and a mortgage that I couldn’t afford, and I remember thinking, “how could I go and do something, what can I do? I’m not a nurse, or a doctor, I don’t have skills”, so in the end I didn’t do it, but it was always there in the back of my head. So when the chance to work with Unicef came up I thought “yes this is amazing”. I now have a sort of a platform, which helps – that’s the only thing that fame is, it gives you a little platform – and I can use my writing and storytelling ability to tell that story to other people, to make it real to them, because everyone can’t go and see – but if they did it would change their minds.

So when I went to Africa the first time I remember meeting people, and the stuff I had in my little bag that I was carrying around was worth more than what they earned in a year. I had a phone, sun cream, malaria tablets, and pills for diarrhoea – they don’t have that stuff, and kids in Africa die of diarrhoea and they die of malaria. And they die of diarrhoea because they don’t have clean water, they die of malaria because they don’t have malaria nets. Someone in Africa dies of malaria every 30 seconds, and really all they need are six or seven dollar malaria nets in every family, and that would eventually bring down the malaria rate. It’s quite complex to explain, but every time a mosquito with malaria bites you if you already have malaria it strengthens what is in its system, so its reinforcing the power of the virus as it goes around. But if less and less people have malaria because they have malaria nets, it gets to the point where malaria is actually dying out within the mosquito community. Somebody is working on a philanthropic vaccine, but I don’t know when that will come on board. But it’s just horrendous – you look at your own kids, who can easily go to the doctor– one of my sons has mild asthma and he had one of those puffer things – but over there respiratory infection kills an enormous number of kids – respiratory infection, diarrhoea, malaria, all of these things.

I guess it can be easy for people who haven’t been confronted directly with the destitution to think “well those people aren’t like us, that’s not us”.

Yes exactly, it’s very easy to remove ourselves from it, because we imagine their lives are so different, and it is different- and yet when you meet the people they want exactly the same thing you want. If you look at the work Unicef does – they are involved in school, they are involved in health, they are involved in sanitation – for instance if you sink a well in a village and you build toilets beside a school, you can literally change people’s lives, because when girls around thirteen or fourteen years start to menstruate they stop going to school because there are no toilets, and they have to go into the bush, and there are dangers and they are embarrassed. And that is also the age they start getting water for their families – which might be four hours away – so if there is a well, and if there are toilets, then they stay in school. And there is no doubt about it, if you educate a boy you educate a man, if you educate a girl, you educate a family. It’s so powerful – girl education is absolutely vital, and you can do that by sinking a well and building toilets.

And also by giving people education about HIV – in lots of patriarchal societies where condoms would not be used women and children are the greatest number of people getting HIV Aids. You have women who are pregnant who have HIV Aids and they don’t give it to the child in utero, they give it to child when it’s being born, so the answer to deal with that would be a caesarean, but that’s not possible there. So if they know about it in time they can use what we call the triple vaccine: they get a dose before they give birth, the baby gets a paediatric dose, and then another dose later. And that baby has a seventy-five percent chance of escaping HIV. But then the problem is if the mum breastfeeds she can transmit it through the milk, and if she’s lucky enough to get formula seventy-five percent of the water is contaminated, so the baby will die of diarrhoea – it’s Sophie’s choice. And that is happening right now, in this 2014 world, when people out there think that feminism is over and done with – but really, it’s so not over and done with.

You write a lot about mothers, for instance in It Started with Paris a lot of the characters are mothers or want to be mothers – how important is it for yourself as a mother to write about those experiences of motherhood?

Oh, it’s the biggest thing that has ever happened to me. There is always something in your life that you’re really into, and with every book you change and you can move onto something else, but yes, motherhood is the most incredible thing. I just love it. And that doesn’t mean I don’t shout at night and say “go to bed! Brush your teeth” and you hear yourself and you think “I sound like a fishwife”!

I was thinking of the character of Jennifer from your latest novel, who really is making life hell for her daughters – so is there also a message about good parenting?

I didn’t want Jennifer to be the bad person, she is just so wounded and she cannot take responsibility for herself and say, “okay the kids come first and we will be the adults”. A lot of people do this. Look at the number of people who split up and they say, “no he’s gone now, he has to be out of my children’s lives too”, and that is unfair to fathers and it’s unfair to the children. So I suppose I was trying to say “look this happens” – it’s commenting on something that happens in the world. Jennifer was so caught up in her own pain she couldn’t see. And I think taking responsibility for your own actions is the hugest thing in life, and I am a big fan of that.

You have said in previous interviews that being a mum is a big challenge to your job as a writer – what are some of the other challenges?

Oh gosh, my own insecurities and my own feeling of “oh this is dreadful”. I’m a big fan of Samuel Beckett and the idea of “try again, fail again, fail better”, so you’re endlessly battling against yourself. I’m battling against myself trying to be better at what I do – it’s not even a publisher or anyone else, it’s me. My evil editorial voice saying “you’re not doing that right”, and that’s one of the big challenges – hoping it’s good enough. I can’t remember the name of the psychologist who coined the phrase “the good enough mother” because we were are all trying to be perfect – so I apply that to writing, to be the “good enough writer”. Often at the end of the day when I’m about to pick up the kids and I look at what I have achieved it’ll be “well I have done great emails, but the work is not so good”. But I do feel great when the work is good.

And what is next for you in terms of work, or what you want to achieve?

I’m working on another novel, and you know that joke, how do you make a statue of an elephant? Well you get a bit of marble and you crack away at it and it still doesn’t look like an elephant – so I’m still at the cracking away and it still doesn’t look like an elephant! I have a book that I have been using for research – and I love reading and that helps me. Apart from that I try and make sure everything is okay at home, that I have enough food etc., and maybe even possibly tidy my room – there are so many things to do, you have no idea! And yes, maybe paint – I used to paint and I’d love to get more time to paint, but you know, when you have kids and you have work you just don’t have time for these things!

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Tanya is a freelance writer, reviewer and blogger with a background in comparative literature. When she is not reading fabulous new books or writing about them, you can find her horse riding or walking her dogs in the beautiful Waitakere ranges. Visit Tanya at livingwritingreading.com.

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