Cathy Kelly is known to millions as one of Ireland's most beloved storytellers. This week she releases Between Sisters, a vivid new tale about the crossroads every woman must face in life, and what it means to be a family. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the best selling author about love, abandonment and how damaged people can slowly steer themselves back toward life.
Cathy Kelly, 49, is that rare thing, a former Irish journalist and agony aunt with the Irish tabloid the Sunday World who followed her dream of becoming a writer and discovered she could make a living at it.
In fact she made more than a living. There have been weeks when her books have outsold J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown on the U.K. best seller's lists.
Born in Belfast but raised in Dublin, Kelly was a spirited teen who argued with her teachers and after graduation managed to beat off 500 applicants for a job at the Sunday World, where she worked as a journalist and agony aunt until finally quitting to write full time in 2001.
In Between Sisters, her latest book, she writes about how Cassie and Coco, two very different but devoted Irish sisters, navigate the challenges of love and life. Both were abandoned by their mother when they were just children we discover, and both have somehow managed to hold the pain of that loss at bay until circumstances force their abandonment issues right out into the open.
The two women try to contend with their feelings in different ways, Cassie by being the perfect wife and mother (her revenge) and Coco by shying away from any kind of romantic commitment (her unresolved issues always get in the way).
Kelly shows us how hard Cassie works to be the ideal wife and mother. She’s present to her kids, thoughtful to her partner and considerate of her mother-in-law. She’s a set up for a melt down, in other words.
“Totally!” Kelly tells the Irish Voice with a laugh. “I think when you’re trying to be the perfect mom and wife, and have a job, and bake cookies, then something’s got to give! It’s the perfectionist thing so many women have. We have to do everything perfectly but in real life, perfect doesn’t exist.”
Women already have so many social pressures and expectations placed on them, and then like Cassie in the book they often add some more on themselves for good measure. Eventually Cassie has to step back from that. It’s a life lesson for anyone isn’t it?
“The pressure to be perfect comes from both outside and inside us,” says Kelly. “Women have been trying to be equal to men for so long, and the wave of feminism in the ‘60s and ‘70s made it seem possible that we could have it all. But in reality, having it all means doing it all.
“Cassie learns what we all eventually, hopefully, learn: you can’t get everything right 100 percent of the time. Something has to give. You need to not be perfect, you need to fail, you need to let the people you love see you as fallible.
“Also, I think women have a terrible habit of thinking only they can do X or Y the right way. We’ve got to step back from that and not worry so much, which is easier said than done, speaking as a grade A perfectionist!”
Grandmother Pearl in the new book has a secret lover, a wrinkle that adds further depth to the tale. Irish women of a certain age are rarely presented as sexual in their golden years, so what made Kelly decide to push back against this kind of reductive thinking?
“When you’re young, you think that anyone over 40 can’t have a sex life and that young people created sex and sensuality. I wanted to show this amazing and sensual woman who had a loving relationship with a wonderful man because the greatest sexual organ of all is the brain and that doesn’t age the way our bodies do,” she says.
In Between Sisters, the two girls have been abandoned by the mother who walked out of their lives years earlier. That’s a situation that could break someone but it doesn’t here. These girls certainly have their demons but they don’t break. How deeply does Kelly believe in making amends and trying to move beyond the sorrows of the past?
“First, I believe that human beings are very strong and can come through so much. Secondly, these sisters were brought up with a loving grandma, and therapeutically, kids need one strong, present, loving carer. They had that,” she said.
“Also in therapeutic terms (I have a deep desire to study psychoanalysis more!), I am a big believer in the Jungian theory that the hardest journey is the one inside ourselves. Both Cassie and Coco learn to understand themselves. That doesn’t always take away the pain of the past but it helps people to move onwards.”
Irish women can make particularly compelling subjects because they’re often impressively strong as well as sensitive. Does Kelly agree?
“Yay for the Irish women – actually, yay for all women, of every color and creed. Guys might want to stab me for saying this but I think that women have to be strong. We are essentially physically weaker and for 4,000 years have been told we were lesser, and in the middle of this, we kept families together during wars and famines,” Kelly says.
“I am getting off point here but yes, I think Irish women are brought up strong. We’re a lyrical nation, which makes us sensitive to other people but we have come through some rough times. It wasn’t that long ago that this was a very poor country indeed. That leaves a mark and teaches women that inner strength is vital.”
Kelly worked as a journalist and agony aunt. Did this give her insight into the difference between how things looked and how things really were in Ireland? Just how much of a chasm was there?
“Working in a tabloid newspaper and being involved in both crime stories, stories about drugs and working as an agony aunt or advice columnist showed me a side of life many Irish people didn’t see. It’s a privilege to see the world as it is – and very, very sad,” she says.
“One of my strongest memories is the first time I saw a little girl who’d been sexually abused by a neighbor. I can still see her little four-year-old face in all its innocence. That changes you. And yes, not many people saw that but then journalism can be such a privilege in that you see so much.”
What gave her the courage to pursue her own dream of becoming a writer? Did she have a chorus of people telling her it was too hard a road?
“Years ago, I tried to write a book and told everyone, who then kept asking how it was going. The answer was: nowhere! So with my first serious book, I kept schtum until it was almost in the shops! I learned my lesson,” she says.
“My courage to become a writer came from this fierce desire to write, something I’d wanted to do all my life. I never thought you could make a living doing it and I am really glad you can! I’ve just finished either my 18th or 19th book and I love it.”
Irish women writers don’t flinch from the darkness they can find in life and neither does Kelly. The plot of Between Sisters throws some serious curve balls that could unmoor a life, so the challenge for her characters is how to respond to them.
“I love writing about darkness because all life is chiaroscuro – dark and shade. I’ve written about suicide, depression, infertility and addiction among other things. Darkness is part of life and if books make us feel less alone, then reading about darkness can help people feel less alone.
“I love the women writers who write about women’s lives and I hate that this is somehow seen as less important than writing about philosophical concepts. It is an anti-woman belief. Our lives are important.”
Were there any surprise discoveries she made writing Between Sisters in her own life or in the life of her characters?
“Well, I found how lovely it is to write about two sisters who adore each other and I found that I adored writing wonderful Pearl, who has a lover, paints her house in the colors of the Greek sea to remind herself of holidays there and is always ready to reach out and befriend other people. I do hope I’m like her when I’m older. She even has a dog!”