Cathy Kelly: Writing from the heart

Feminism, and the expectations on women, are at the heart of Cathy Kelly’s new novel, the author tells Ciara McDonnell.

CATHY KELLY, author of 19 bestselling books and mum to twin boys Dylan and Murray, 14, is giving me tips on raising boys. The most important thing to be able to do, as a mother, she tells me, is apologise.

“Teaching your kids to say sorry is a brilliant thing but you have to be able to say sorry too. Like, if I’m a narky cow and I’m telling my sons to go to bed, I have to be able to say that I’m really sorry and really tired.”

Extremely close to her children, Kelly adores being a parent (“my sons are just beautiful, lovely, wonderful people. I feel so lucky to have them”), and says that it’s essential to allow children to explore their own life journey. “As a parent you can give them the tools and you can give them self-confidence and unconditional love but ultimately we are the way we are; some of us are more sensitive than others.”

When it came to writing her nineteenth novel, the 51-year-old considered the life paths that women are expected to take, and whether they are still relevant today. “I kept coming back to the idea of three ages of women; virgin, mother, crone,” she explains.

“We have the bride before the wedding, who becomes a mother, who then becomes ancient and forgotten about. Maybe that idea worked when we all died at the age of 50, but it doesn’t have relevance to women today, and yet society has not changed its perception.” The Year That Changed Everything focuses on three women celebrating their 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays, and the year that will follow these milestones.

These birthdays, says Kelly, mark such important times in a woman’s life; not least because of what she feels she ‘should’ have achieved so far. Ginger, our 30-year-old character, is suffering from a huge lack in self-confidence, and has created a lifestyle of lies to hide her secret shame. “We have so many distressed people like Ginger in the world,” says Cathy. “Her weight issues and the burdens she holds may be rare, but when you’re in your early thirties, and everyone is asking about babies and marriage, it’s hard not to feel the pressure.”

Sam is finally pregnant after years of trying. When her waters go on her 40th birthday, she worries she won’t be able to be a mother. Kelly resonates with Sam, having had her twins in her late 30s. “I was 37 when I had the boys, and I was asked so many times in interviews before I was pregnant ‘why have you not had children yet’. The implication was that I was swanning around and too selfish to even think about having children.” There is a problem in society, reckons Kelly, when women in their forties are bombarded with pressure to settle down and have babies, while men are not.

“Everyone asks female movie stars in their forties like Cameron Diaz, ‘when are you going to have a baby’? Fertility is thrown at us; every day of the week there is an article telling us that our eggs are shrivelling up and we have very little time left. For a long time there was always going to be something in the marvellous world of fertility and now they are backtracking and saying ‘we were wrong, you can’t have any babies now’.” Classified an elderly primigravida (mother over 35), which Kelly found hysterical, it was only in the waiting room of the maternity hospital that she felt her age. I remember going into The Rotunda and sitting with really young girls, and the reality of our age differences was apparent.”

The thing is, as a woman, it’s really hard to keep up with what is expected of us, and that’s the story arc created with Kelly’s inimitable empathy and wisdom in The Year That Changed Everything.

“We have Ginger, who hasn’t achieved any of what society says she should have, so she pretends to have boyfriends,” explains the author. “Then we have Sam who went through devastating IVF and then suddenly she is having a baby and is scared and feels like she should know much more than she does.” Callie, Kelly’s 50-year-old character, was a joy to bring to life for the writer.

“Callie was so much fun to write because she had been a model. I love the idea of people who have been spectacularly beautiful and then they start aging. Suddenly she’s in this phase of needing to look younger and all that that entails.”

Kelly wanted to challenge our concept of menopause in her book, through Callie. “I am sick of this bullshit that when you become menopausal your life is over. It’s not over, you just sweat in bed a lot.” Kelly loves to pin pictures of women in their seventies and eighties on her Pinterest boards, because she loves the raw beauty of their faces and hair.

“Their bones and a beautiful bright eyes and their white hair – I really want that hair.” 

She pins for fun, rather than work and says that it’s the only social media outlet she doesn’t find stressful. 

“Instagram is amazing but I feel constant guilt about it – I have about three pictures up. The business of being an author has changed since Kelly published her debut novel in 1997, these days requiring an almost constant social media presence. Publishers want you to be involved in all of this stuff, because social media is meant to sell books,” she affirms. 

“I don’t mind Facebook, but if I’m writing or if I’m having a bad day, I can’t fake it and go in and be fake happy Cathy – I have to be in the right place to do it.” 

Twitter, she maintains, is a whole other beast. “I find Twitter very hard. I am so connected to the news and what is happening in the world through my work with Unicef. I know that there are people dying – for example right now, in the famine in Yemen,” she says. 

“I think ‘I can’t go on this and talk about my new book coming out’. I find the self-aggrandisement very difficult.”

On a basic level, Kelly sees Twitter as a place largely of negativity. “It’s a negative toxic swirl in the world. I am a Yungian and the concept of the great unconscious with all this swirling negative energy going around. It gives people who should possibly be under lock and key the opportunity to be viciously nasty to other people and send them to very dark places.”

A champion of women at every age, Cathy Kelly will be voting to repeal the 8th Amendment of our constitution in the upcoming referendum.

“Nobody knows what’s going on in another person’s shoes and the fact that this is in the constitution is unacceptable,” she states. “There are so many horrendous stories of people whose children won’t be born because of fatal fetal abnormalities and they have to take a plane and come home with the remains of their children in a jiffy bag. I’m sorry; this is not acceptable. Clinging onto the rules of a specific religions that were made up and enforced by men — the belief that women are not to be trusted with their own bodies is absolutely appalling.

“Human beings deserve love, and kindness and basic human rights, and sadly in this country it’s not always the case.”

- The Year That Changed Everything by Cathy Kelly is published by Orion and is available in all good book stores priced €13.99


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