Irish author Cathy Kelly reveals secrets of a happy career

Cathy Kelly, one of Ireland's bestselling authors, has just published her latest novel looking at the problems surrounding a second marriage. It may be another 'woman's issue' but, don't dare mention the term chick lit, she tells Gail Bell

Bestselling Irish novelist, Cathy Kelly, relaxing at home with her dogs
Gail Bell

BESTSELLING author Cathy Kelly is well known for her down-to-earth Irish sense of humour – always a pre-requisite in her writing – but the idea for her latest novel was, surprisingly, steeped in the sombre circumstances of American widows.

"I had been reading a fascinating, factual piece on how women in the US are far less likely to marry again than men whose wives have died," she says. "And I started to pondered over that, as I tend to do with the random things I read.

"Anecdotally, I was also aware of how this was true in my own experience as well. Are women scared to find a person that matches up to their first love, do they just not want to?

"I decided that, rather than just heartlessly seek a replacement, maybe men want to recreate that happy place they were in, so it's a sort of compliment, in a way. They want more of the same."

And so the beginnings of Secrets of a Happy Marriage took root, with the Co Wicklow writer (and happily married mother of 13-year-old twin boys) writing from the male perspective and delving into dark, delicate corners – an inevitable part of the journey in 'starting again' with a new family and, consequently, new family dynamics.

A former journalist and self-confessed feminist – she detests the term chick lit which she dismisses as a "derogatory" term – Kelly has a natural penchant for championing women's issues. But whether her subject matter explores infidelity, depression, bereavement or infertility, a sympathetic exploration of humanity itself – in both sexes – lies at the core.

"I hate the way chick lit has become a demeaning term for women writers," she says, "as if all we write about concerns young women drinking Chardonnay and plotting how to get 'Mr Right'."

With regard to the wider issues, she reads ferociously, currently devouring a book on mining and abuse of workers in Africa.

"I love educating myself and, as former journalist and newspaper 'agony aunt', I'm still a bit of a news junkie – I am reading a lot of non-fiction, especially medical books," she says.

"At the moment, I am learning all about cobalt mining in the Congo and how the Chinese are abusing human rights, with workers digging trenches with their bare hands in inhuman conditions.

"All the big companies are using this metal and so are we – it is in the batteries in our smart phones, in all our gizmos. I have become a bit of a campaigner about it."

A campaigner with a social conscience – she is an ambassador for Unicef Ireland, raising funds and awareness for children orphaned by or living with HIV/Aids – Kelly gathers up ideas for stories from reading, listening to music, conversations – "anything can just create that spark".

But, although she once did a pole-dancing class for research – "and nearly ripped my arm out" – you won't find anything personal in her writing.

"I always try very hard not to include personal stuff in the books, as I don't think that is fair on anyone. Instead, I pick subject that interests me and then imagine how I would feel in that situation," she explains.

"As a writer, you have to be a bit of psychoanalyst and pick up on things. I see situations and then I 'imagine' people into them."

Next year she celebrates 20 years working as a full-time author and, despite having published dozens of books, on one occasion outselling JK Rowling and Dan Brown – "for one week only," she interjects, almost apologetically – Kelly still pinches herself for a reality check.

"I loved reading all my life, but I never thought I could do it as an actual job," she reveals. "But I love people and I love the stories behind the stories, so I had a go at it.

"My first book, Woman to Woman, went straight to number one on the Irish Times and Sunday Times bestseller lists and I was astonished. I thought it must have been a fluke.

"Then, after my third book, when they asked me to do promotional tours, I realised I couldn't hold down a job in the newspaper where I was working, the Sunday World, and do this at the same time. That was the first move from the creative to the business side of writing – and a real job after all."

She has hardly stopped tapping the keyboard since and concentrates on turning out one book per year, both for herself and her millions of fans around the world who identify with the realism, warmth, humour and hope cleverly crafted into tales of modern life, love and loss.

And, although Secrets of a Happy Marriage has just hit the shelves, she is already back at her desk, working on the next big story.

"I'm struggling at the minute," she confesses. "I am still footering around with the names and you really have to get the names right for the characters you create. I get attached to them, to all the books really, they are like your own children and you can't choose one over the other."

With her latest offering, it is the Brannigan clan who hold court, with Bess the new wife who, before she met Edward, thought all women who married again "must have been stark, raving mad".

"At 58, she lived happily on her own, could sit at her own dinner table in her pyjamas if she felt like it and eat a salad while watching whatever she wanted on the box," Kelly recounts in the early chapters.

It sounds like the perfect independent state, but ever a romantic at heart, the author imbues her character with a change of heart and asserts – borrowing Samuel Johnson's famous line – that 'a second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience.’

"There are a lot of conflicting emotions, especially with husband Edward's daughter who is still grieving for the mother she lost through cancer," Kelly explains, "but, while these are difficult things, like in all my books, there is an uplifting message of hope."

Sitting at her desk at home, the ideas – if not always the names – come quickly these days, but despite almost two decades of self-discipline, she is still distracted by the washing machine, the dogs and a compulsive desire to get up and make copious cups of coffee.

"I should be extremely well disciplined at this stage, but distractions are ever present," she admits. "I do get out for the occasional pilates class and I go out to buy groceries. Last time I dashed into the supermarket with no make-up on and a reader came up to say hello.

"I don't know how he recognised me; I wouldn't have, going by my publicity shots which involved a serious amount of make-up. I imagined him going out, shaking his head and saying, 'Would you look at that wan...'

At least I wasn't in my pyjamas."

:: Secrets of a Happy Marriage by Cathy Kelly is published by Orion and available in hardback and as an ebook.

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