Cathy Kelly on life, death, crying and pole-dancing

The best-selling novelist talks about the time she briefly outsold JK Rowling and Dan Brown, and how she nearly had her arm ripped off while ‘researching’

Cathy Kelly on her new novel, Between Sisters: “One reviewer said it was ‘intelligent, clever fiction’. I like that one.” Photograph: Jill O’Meara

Cathy Kelly on her new novel, Between Sisters: “One reviewer said it was ‘intelligent, clever fiction’. I like that one.” Photograph: Jill O’Meara

 

Novelist Cathy Kelly is a global best-seller whose many novels include Lessons in Heartbreak, Someone Like You and Always and Forever.

She grew up in Dublin and studied journalism in the 1980s. She worked for the Sunday World, first as a reporter and later as an agony aunt. After a failed attempt at writing a Mills & Boon novel with her mother, she published her first book, Woman to Woman, in 1997.

She lives with her husband, John, their young twin sons, Dylan and Murray, and their three dogs in Co Wicklow. She is an ambassador for Unicef Ireland, raising funds and awareness for children orphaned by or living with HIV or Aids. Her latest and 17th novel, Between Sisters, is about two sisters who were abandoned.

 

When you applied for your job in the Sunday World, 500 people also went for it. You and crime reporter Paul Williams got the jobs. Why do you think you were hired? 

Back then I wasn’t very confident, but I did a very good line in faking confidence. I think I should have been an actress; I could turn it on very well. We had to do a test and turn a story into tabloidese. I would never have believed at the time that I was smart. I thought I was thick as four short planks, but I faked it well.

 

You left journalism to be a novelist. Is it true you once outsold JK Rowling and Dan Brown?

It is – for one week only. And then they went back up to the top again. But it was wonderful at the time.

 

Is there any rivalry between that group of Irish female writers who are best-sellers internationally?

One of the first times Marian Keyes got to No 1 in the UK, which was a big deal, I sent her flowers. We are all happy for each other. Generally this is a group of women who are writing warm books about women and female friendship. So there is that feminist line in all our books, and you couldn’t write that kind of thing if you were sitting around saying, “I hate her, she’s a bitch, she’s doing better than me”.

Gore Vidal has that famous and very funny line: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” I don’t want to be that person.

 

Your latest book is about two sisters. What’s the worst row you’ve ever had with your sister?

We’ve never had a bad row, and I am not making that up. She is seven years younger than me and I just love her. Growing up, I always looked after her; she was like my baby.

 

What is your most enduring childhood memory?

We always had dogs, and I remember sitting in a red setter’s bed when I was about three, reading her stories. She was so beautiful and soft.

 

When did you last cry?

The boys wanted to watch Les Misérables, and I didn’t want to because I knew I’d get upset. As predicted, I had to leave the room as soon as Anne Hathaway started singing that song. I cry very easily.

 

Do you have any writing rituals?

I light candles. I turned 49 recently, and the boys got me two Diptyque ones – out of their pocket money (not).

 

Who, living or dead, would you have at your dream dinner party?

I’m interested in the Obamas, so they’d be there. I’d love to have Billy Wilder; he was just the best writer. And Nora Ephron; I am such a huge fan of her. I was delighted when she answered a tweet of mine before she died.

 

What would be your death-row meal?

Scallops and cheesecake. Not together. I love cheesecake, although it makes me feel incredibly ill. But if I’m on death row, that won’t matter. What is your least attractive personality trait? My family would say my complete inability to say no. Also, perfectionism.

 

What word do you most overuse?

Sorry.

 

What is the best advice you were ever given?

“Will it matter in 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years?” Which is what I ask myself when I am worrying about something.

 

What book are you currently reading? 

City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai. It’s a fabulous, dark and yet funny book. One of the great things about being an author is getting to denude the shelves of your publisher. I’m a bit of a book whore that way.

 

Have you ever experienced literary snobbery?

Yes. A woman I know said to me in a supermarket, “What was your last book about? It was very fluffy. I forget all about those things.” I should have said something clever and cutting. But I never have the right response when those things happen, so I just said nothing.

 

What is the best thing about living in Ireland?

The people.

 

And the worst thing?

I don’t like the cold.

 

Who would play you in the film of your life?

Can it be Reese Witherspoon? I love her.

 

Apart from your house or car, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?

I once bought a very expensive, very beautiful pewter-coloured Amanda Wakeley dress for a wedding. The wedding was in Claridge’s and Elton John was the best man.

The problem is you are not supposed to have bazooms to wear it and, sadly, I have bazooms, and it only has these tiny little straps holding it up. I can’t wear it because I am always afraid the scaffolding will give way. So I just look at it occasionally and pet it. It’s a thing of great beauty, which I should box frame and just look at it every now and again.

 

What’s the best thing on TV?

The Ascent of Woman on BBC.

 

Tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to know

I once did a pole-dancing class and nearly ripped my arm out. It was for research, but the scene never made it into the book.

 

Who should read your latest novel and why?

Well, of course I think everyone should read it. Why? Because one reviewer said it was “intelligent, clever fiction”. I like that one.

  • Between Sisters is published by Orion
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