Cathy Kelly: 'I'm very hard on myself'

By Amy Wall

Cathy Kelly is a lot of fun. As soon as she arrives at our cover shoot, she’s laughing and joking and it isn’t long before she has everyone smiling. When we meet, Cathy has just published her latest book The Year That Changed Everythingand, as she tells us in hushed tones, she’s already working on the next. With an incredible work ethic, Cathy has millions of books in print around the globe, so what’s this new one about then?

“I had this idea around important points in women’s lives and I thought about [how] your statement birthdays are absolutely massive. You know when you’re 29 and suddenly you’re going to hit 30? That just seemed so old, because suddenly people start expecting things,” says Cathy.

“‘When are you getting married? Where’s the fella or the partner or whatever? Are you going to have children?’ And they’re the questions everyone starts asking. When you’re in your 40s, it’s different and if you haven’t done the children thing that is massive. And then hitting 50 is seen as this big, not rite of passage, but it’s this massive thing and I thought it would be really great to write about women reaching those points.”

The book, which focusses on three women each celebrating a milestone birthday, offers an honest look at women’s lives and, in typical Cathy fashion, touches on subjects that are often not spoken about. I ask Cathy if she’s ever afraid to broach some of the not-talked-about subjects that appear in her books.

“That’s the great thing about getting older, you sort of suddenly say, ‘I’m not scared to say this!’” she laughs.

“Isn’t that why we all read? To say, ‘I’m not alone,’? And list, that’s so powerful. I know when I was a kid and got into reading it was to see that other people often thought mad things too or to find, I don’t know, common experiences with people and I think it’s important for us women to talk about our lives the way they are.”

Given that Cathy is such a prolific writer, I ask her if she ever feels under pressure to perform.

“Pressure? Do you know what – if I had eaten a lump of coal it’d now be a diamond. There’s a wonderful line that I love that I think I put in one of my last books that Henry Kissenger said, which is: ‘A diamond is just a piece of coal that performed well under pressure.’ I don’t know if I perform well under pressure. I put myself under massive pressure because we all want to do better,” she says.

“I mean I’m very hard on myself and so many women I know are hard on themselves, you know, ‘I haven’t cooked a proper meal this evening. Oh God the house is a mess! Look at the state of me nails. I have a belly!’ We’re always whacking ourselves over the head with something we haven’t done – but just translate that to writing novels and that’s sort of me.

Last year the #MeToo movement exploded in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The movement saw millions of women sharing their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment on social media. The movement highlighted the reality that many women face. In December 2017 Cathy also revealed that she too, like millions of women around the world, had been assaulted. She says that it’s “incredibly important” for women to speak up about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

“That happened to me 31 years ago and very few people would have known about that. It was a combination of a lot of things that made me speak out about it. Having been a journalist I am very private and very cautious about what I say… I’m very aware that I have teenage sons. I don’t want to say things that will hurt them or upset them, but all the Harvey Weinstein stuff – it just brings it all back and I think there are women all over the world who it was being brought back to,” says Cathy.

“It’s actually staggering the number of women who have said to me since, ‘Well that happened to me,’ and they said it casually, and you’re there going, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrendous.’ They’ve just kept it to themselves because they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know who to say it to, they didn’t know anyone would believe them.”

Cathy admits that she hadn’t planned on sharing that story and that speaking about her own assault was “a sheer fluke”.

“It just happened because we were talking about Harvey Weinstein and the new cover of Time magazine which was about the #MeToo movement and I just thought, ‘I have to say something.’ And it was both freeing to say something and absolutely terrifying because there was still… how can I put it? There’s still great anxiety, horror and shock connected with these things and that’s how it happened… It’s devastating so we have to talk about it and try and change the culture and let people know how much this happens.”

I ask Cathy if people are ever shocked when she speaks up and out about things and she says that they can be “a bit shocked” but that’s mainly down to the “vision” people have of her.

“People think that they have a vision of me from what I write and yet I’m astonished that people haven’t made the connection because I’ve always written about strong women. I’ve never written hearts and flowers. People somehow think I do. People who haven’t read my books might think I do, that I’m romantic,” she says.

“There’s absolutely nothing romantic about me at all. I think my books are about women facing challenges and trying to deal with them, which is what women do all the time. So yeah people can be shocked but I think as you get old, you become more political.”

And does Cathy find herself speaking out about political subjects more now than she would have in the past?

“Oh yeah I think so. I think also you’re going, ‘Oh gosh, what do I know?’. When I was younger, when I was in school and college, I would have been very politicised and I would have said, ‘I’m a feminist.’ And I’ve always said I’m a feminist. I never understand people who don’t want to be called feminist. They say, ‘Well I like strong women but I don’t want to be called a feminist.’ And I think that’s very bewildering,” says Cathy.

“I mean feminism is simply about looking for fundamental rights. It’s not about saying you dislike one half of the human race. It’s just saying your half of the human race requires the same rights and that isn’t always the case. It’s like the difference between men and women’s wages. It’s everywhere. I was reading something recently about America where there’s this idea that women get paid 73 cents for every dollar a guy gets paid. That’s a white woman. A woman of colour gets paid about 68 cents and a Latino women gets paid about 54 cents. That’s actually staggering. That’s the world we live in. I know we don’t live in America. I know we live in a very progressive country run by progressive people, but it’s going to take time and we have to keep talking about it.”

One area of Cathy’s work that’s close to her heart is her role as a UNICEF Ambassador. She tells me that the work has brought “amazing things” into her life and that she considers it “an incredible privilege” to do it. While, as a mother, she finds the work “heart-breaking” she says that the younger generation of Ireland give her hope.

“Irish people are so good. Irish people are so philanthropic. Really, we have a phenomenal reputation around the world, a justified reputation, for being philanthropic, for being givers. And that’s just so wonderful,” she says.

“But the younger generation, they’re incredible. They get it. They see it and that is absolutely amazing. They want to help. They want to change the world.” 

Cathy, who is mum to two fourteen year old boys, tells me that she adores her family and her idea of heaven is sitting down to chill out and watch a film with her family. I ask her how she feels about the dangers of social media, especially given that she has two teenagers in her house.

“I think you’ve got to be extremely careful. As someone who devours newspapers and reports and is hyper-aware of privacy and the advances of science and big data, which is a massive thing that people seem to forget about, I’ve always been really, really aware of the dangers of social media. I’ve drummed it into my sons since they were very young to the point where they are quite sick of me, but they get it. Every time there’s something in the news about social media I say, ‘Do you see that? Do you get it?’” says Cathy.

“There was a study done recently where only a third of parents had talked about the dangers of social media with their kids. A third of people. So either that means that people don’t know enough about it themselves or, I don’t know, they just don’t see the problem with it and it’s such a huge area for exploitation of children.”

Cathy says that social media is a huge area for “bullying” and allowing children “to become vulnerable” which may lead to tragic consequences.

“I mean we see it. The newspapers around the world are full of this all the time so I have drummed it into my sons about care of social media. I am a bit of a tyrant and I am aware of everything they’re on and I watch what they’re on. Totally invasion of privacy,” Cathy laughs before adding, “Please don’t make that the headline on the front [of the magazine] or they will kill me.”

Cathy tells me that she regularly looks at what her boys look at online.

“I do look at their stuff. And I take away their phones at night. You know, ‘Going to bed now, give me that thing!’ And I drop it into them in the morning with the alarm set because I wake up before everyone else,” she says.

“I don’t want them seeing something in the middle of the night that will upset them or hearing something.”

Although Cathy admits that she’s not a major social media person herself, she does think it’s important for parents to have a solid discourse around social media with their children.

“We talk about it endlessly and I think you have to, and you have to discuss every possibility. If someone was mean to you [online], if you inadvertently see an ad that pops up that has porn in it. You have to go through all these things with your kids openly and say, ‘Okay what do we do if this happens?’,” says Cathy.

“In every case they have to know they can come to you as the parent and it’s not their fault. They’re not getting into trouble and you can deal with it. Everything can be dealt with.”

The Year That Changed Everything by Cathy Kelly (Orion, €13.99) is out now 


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