Arts

Cathy Kelly: Women have to believe in themselves says Irish author

As her latest novel hits the shelves, best-selling author Cathy Kelly chats to Jenny Lee about female empowerment and opens up about her own trauma of being sexually assaulted

Wicklow-based author Cathy Kelly is 'fur-baby' mum to two Jack Russells – as well as the mother of 17-year-old twin boys

HAVING belief in ourselves is the key message that novelist Cathy Kelly wants to bring her readers through her books.

“People say I am the queen of romance but I am the least romantic person I know. I'm an absolute realist and before we can even think about having a relationship with other people we have to believe in ourselves and love ourselves,” says the 54-year-old, who has a natural penchant for championing women's issues.

Born in Belfast but raised in Dublin, Kelly is one of Ireland's most respected novelists. The former Sunday World journalist, who lives in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, has penned 21 popular fiction novels, which have been translated all over the world. And the secret to her success?

“Telling the stories I want to read – and hard work. I've always been driven and was one of those kids who were considered good and sensible. I desperately longed to be exciting, exotic and attractive but I got stuck with the label of sensible," says Kelly.

“It's still a huge part of me. If I sign a contract and say I will do a book by a certain point I have to do it as I am consumed with guilt if I don't,” says Kelly, who none the less confesses that her love of crafting and crocheting did overtake her writing at times during the past year, to ease the stress of the pandemic.

Another personality trait of Kelly's has been her trusting nature and “thinking the best of people” – an instinct which when she was just 20 resulted in devastating consequences when she was sexually assaulted on her first day of her first job by someone in a position of power.

Although she doesn't want to publicly share the details of that event, Kelly found the courage to join the #Me Too Movement and speak out about it in recent years, to encourage others who have been living with the “shame” of their past.

Her latest book, Other Women, features a #Me Too storyline, where one of the three main characters has, after being sexually attacked by her employer, lived with that secret for 15 years.

“I'm a successful woman now, who has a facade of being in control," Kelly recalls of her own story. "But back then I was 20 and very nice, very trusting and very naive."

She admits taking tranquilizers and hiding from everyone after her attack and later got counselling to help her overcome the pain and anxiety which engulfed her.

But she admits that the #MeToo movement has both motivated her to help other women through her interviews and fiction, as well as made her reopen those old wounds.

“You come out of it strong and you can do so many things in the year afterwards, but it doesn't go away. And the older I get the more I realise the deep, devastating effect it had on me.

“We women have to be true to ourselves and to help other women. Sometimes I sit and look at Twitter and get very political on this. The message women are being given is 'Don't walk home alone or don't wear that outfit'. But women shouldn't have to be trying not to be assaulted or raped.

“The laws need to be changed on so many levels and I think the whole area of consent being taught to kids in school is very valuable. Fiction too can help people see that they are not alone." ??Other Women is an honest story of female friendship, love, lust, loss, betrayal and family.

It portrays the intertwined lives of three women: Sid who wears her independence like armour; widower Bea who believes that we all have one love story, and she's had hers; and Marian, who appears to have the perfect home and family but has an addiction to shopping and can't stop comparing herself to other women.

“With Other Women I wanted to write about female friendships, which can start off one way and two years down the line become something totally different," Kelly tells me.

“My female friends play such an important role in my life. Like many, I've got friends in different arenas – I've my writer friends, my friends who are mums and my fur friends whom I meet up with to walk our dogs”.

While she is proud of being a fur-baby mum to her three Jack Russells, it's her role as being a mother to her 17-year-old twin boys Dylan and Murray that she regards as “her main job”.

“Teenagers need you more as they get older – it's just such an emotional time,” adds Kelly, who admits that home schooling was a challenge too far. “Chemistry is like reading ancient Greek,” she laughs.

The other area Kelly wanted to explore within her novel is that of women ridding themselves of the secrets they carry in life and learning to be their “authentic selves”.

While she describes writing as being “a joy”, she confesses that it's not the Barbara Cartland lifestyle many aspiring writers believe it will be.

“There are days I love it and there are days I would prefer to lick kitchen floor clean than to sit down at my desk. Then the next day you are riven with self-doubt. Perhaps that is a female thing?”

It's a theme she explores in her new novel Other Women, through the character of Marin.

“She compares herself other women but what I wanted to get across through her shopaholicism is that we don't need the right clothes to fit in and be in control of our life.

“Women are continuously pushed to buy new clothes and look fabulous and one refreshing aspect about the pandemic and us all working from home is that those comparisons and pressures have been removed.

“I swear to God I have five different outfits which I've rotated this past year and I literally do not care,” laughs Kelly.

Something she certainly cares about is global humanity and takes her role as a UNICEF ambassador very seriously.

“It's the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian war. Yemen is going through a terrible state as the hospitals have been decimated and the level of malnutrition in children in the country is quite frightening, not to mention them suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," says the author, who visited a refugee camp on the Jordan/Syrian border in 2014.

“There are many people on the ground doing great work but the Covid pandemic has hit charity funds badly. All I can do is talk about that work and give a voice to the people who don't have a voice."

:: Other Women by Cathy Kelly is published by Orion Fiction and is out now.

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