Author Cathy Kelly: 'The law is unnecessarily cruel to people who are having children with fatal foetal abnormalities'
She's creative, he has a head for business and is 20 years older, but Cathy Kelly and her husband John Sheehan are a match made in heaven. The secret? Being kind and having time to do your own thing. Our reporter meets the author whose latest novel centres on finding marital bliss.
Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30
Cathy Kelly is not afraid to declare herself as a feminist. It's a label that many women in the public eye have rushed to publicly avoid or embrace over the past couple of years, but the author is clear where she stands. In fact, she feels that in 2016 - where young women are dealing with sexualisation and 'slut shaming', and the gender pay gap widens further - that feminism is needed now, more than ever.
"A lot of women are paid less in their jobs just because they are women," she says. "I'm in an industry full of women, but we're lucky because we get paid according to how many books we sell, not because of our gender."
That Cathy's job is to sell books - we're meeting today because of the release of her 18th novel - doesn't deter her from speaking out on subjects that other famous faces might shy away from. (Then again she was a journalist before she became a novelist, not to mention being a UNICEF ambassador.)
Take, for example, the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, which has brought the deeply divisive issue of abortion back into the national conversation. Cathy is very much in favour of repealing, as she feels that women need to be able to make choices around their own bodies.
"Look at the people who are carrying a child that is not going to live? They have to carry a child, go on a plane and bring their baby back in a bag - and that's appalling."
While many people might agree that abortion should be legalised in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, what does Cathy feel around cases where women just don't want to be pregnant any more? "There's a grey area there," she admits, biting her lip. "People need to be intelligent and clever and know that abortion is not a type of contraception and it can't be that. But I would also say that you don't always know what is going on in other people's lives.
Cathy is grateful that attitudes have largely changed in the intervening years, but she feels that life is still very hard for single mothers now. "I'm not saying the answer is abortion, because as a woman with children, I think they're so precious and amazing, but it's a very difficult subject that needs to be discussed. I don't know what the answer is but I certainly think that the law, as it stands at the moment, is unnecessarily cruel to people who are having children with fatal foetal abnormalities, to people who have been raped or abused, and to very young people."
Cathy's own children, twin sons Murray and Dylan, are 13. She says they are quite like her in that they're really into reading and art, and she's delighted that they're interested in world affairs.
"I adore them and we do so much together because I love being with them and explaining the world to them. Even when we see something on the news, we talk about it and discuss it. I talk to them about the UNICEF stuff, as I want them to know that we're terribly lucky because of where we are born.
"I'm not a strict parent and I try to be fair, but at the same time, they know I mean business if I say to put the phones away now."
She turned 50 last month and celebrated by going out for dinner with family and friends. Her sons bought her a beautiful suede record player and she's enjoying revisiting the extensive vinyl collection belonging to her husband John, the former head of a record company.
As our photoshoot attests, she looks fabulous in person. What, I enquire, is the secret to her trim physique and youthful looks?
"I can't believe I'm 50, but I'm endlessly enthusiastic and energetic, so that helps. My knees are a bit dodgy and I have a huge problem with my neck from whiplash, but I'm so lucky. After I drop the kids to school in the morning, John makes us green smoothies with kale, spinach, lime, ginger and carrot. We eat healthily all the time, as clean eating suits me and I stretch and meditate. I also do Pilates, which is good for strengthening my neck. I rarely eat meat any more. When I was working as a journalist, it was totally different, as there were all these mad parties going on. I couldn't think of anything worse now!"
Having grown up in Dublin, Cathy entered the journalism course in Rathmines in 1984, and went on to work for the Sunday World. She's previously described herself as being a terrible news reporter, and so she moved into being a feature writer, film reviewer and agony aunt for the newspaper.
She always wanted to write fiction, and started a book at 21, which she says was dreadful. She tried again when she was 27, and her first book, Woman to Woman, was published when she was 30. She has now written 18 novels and a couple of collections and is hugely successful, with her books hitting best-selling lists all over the world. Indeed, she made the list of the Bestselling Authors of the decade 2000-2009, coming in at no 76 with 2.3million books sold, bringing in over €14million.
Today, she lives in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow with the boys, three dogs and husband John Sheehan, the former MD of record company Sony Music. She was in her early 30s when they met.
John was 20 years older than her, had been married before and was father to four children. Cathy has spoken of it being a case of love at first sight for her when she met John, but surely entering the relationship, and all it entailed, must have been daunting?
"I never felt young because I think I was born old," she says. "If you fall in love with someone who has young children, I think that's more daunting because you're involved in rearing them and you have to negotiate that. When I met John, his children were grown up and they had a fantastic mum so it was very different. They didn't need me to be a mum.
"There are five grandkids now so we have a blended family and it's lovely. The age gap between us was never a thing, and it's only one now because I love John, I adore him and I want him to stay around forever. The potential to lose them earlier is the only negative thing about falling in love with someone older than you."
After 13 years together the couple were married in March 2010. Cathy has said that she "was never that girl, the Wedding Barbie," but that it was the encouragement of their twins, then aged six, that led them to the registry office, followed by a party at the Powerscourt Hotel.
Which brings us neatly to the subject of why we're at that same venue today: to discuss Cathy's new novel, Secrets of a Happy Marriage. The story is about three women - a newlywed, her stepdaughter and her jilted bride cousin - experiencing different dramas. There are ups and downs and secrets in there too, all written in Cathy's trademark witty style.
Can she share with us the secrets of their own happy marriage? "We're different but we're the same in many ways," she muses. "We're both very driven and are perfectionists, but I read novels whereas John reads newspaper articles and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. Being kind is really important in a marriage as is being able to do your own thing. John plays golf and sees his friends while I do Pilates or go out with my friends, and that works brilliantly."
As it happens, I worked for a time in Sony Music, and I mention to Cathy that John was known for having exacting standards in the workplace and being a tough negotiator when dealing with artists and record deals. The latter presumably works to her advantage, because while she has a literary agent who does all the deals and international work, John is very much involved in her career, too.
"He's brilliant on the business end of things," she agrees. "Contracts come in all the time from different countries and you have to have different tax certs, for example, and I would lose my reason over that stuff. John has taught me to understand the business, because while I was always logical as well as being creative, I was never good with money."
So how does their chalk and cheese marriage work? "I have taught him how to live with a creative person because that's hard work," she smiles. "I get upset when things happen and John thinks I'm mad, but he understands me and allows me to have my little moments. He totally grounds me, and I think I've softened him. He's tough but he's always fair, and there is never any underhandedness with John. What you see is what you get and there is a pure honesty with him, but he was always soft underneath anyway.
"He's amazing with his six kids and five grandkids and he really loves them all. He's even great with the three dogs."
John had problems with his spine a year and a half ago, and it required serious surgery. Back on his feet, he works out and plays golf, and Cathy says that he is much fitter than she is. "He still has a six-pack even after a back operation," she laughs.
Murray and Dylan are in different classes at school and have their own gangs of friends, but they're each other's best friend. Cathy says she and John make sure to treat them as two different people rather than a unit, as can sometimes happen with twins.
She worries about the risks of the internet and social media, and tries to explain the dangers of various sites to her boys. They're not on Facebook and don't have their phones with them at night, but Cathy knows that it's inevitable that they will soon be exposed to the reality of social media. "The boys are so innocent but I try to explain to them that people can bully other people through social media. I want them to understand the power of it and what it can do to you."
Cathy is very conscious that as well as turning out young men who are thoughtful and educated about the world, they will also be able to look after themselves. They can both cook, and Murray is already very good at it, and they vacuum and do chores. Now that they are teenagers, they will inevitably start dating. How will she feel about that when the time comes?
"I want them to be happy, and there will come a time when there will be somebody else in their lives that they absolutely idolise," she says. "That will be very hard, and I will move slightly down the scale, but that's the life cycle and they move on.
"In one of my books, I had a part about a mother-in-law from hell, and lots of Italian women wrote to me and said it is such an issue for them. I think that's dreadful as you have to let your children progress in the normal way."
Cathy is pleased that her sons are in a mixed school and remarks that they already have a lot of friends who are girls. "One girl in Dylan's class told me that he was the perfect gentleman," she says, proudly. "The boys are kind people by nature, but they have been taught to treat people with kindness and respect."
Cathy credits those values to her own family, to whom she is very close. She was devastated at losing her dad, Paddy, a year and a half after he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. She is very close to her mum, Gay, and also to her brother and sister, who both live abroad.
"Mum is amazing and she sold our family home and has moved a bit closer to me now, which I'm delighted about. She was living with us for seven months and we had the best fun as she has a wicked sense of humour. It was very difficult for her losing my dad but she has coped amazingly. She is hugely involved in charity work, so all of the scandals that have gone on in the past few years have affected her. She would be standing in the rain with her bucket for St Vincent De Paul, and people would make comments, but she is so good and just truly wants to help."
Cathy was shocked by the revelations of wrongdoing around organisations like Console, where it is alleged that huge amounts of money were misappropriated, and she believes that how the HSE is allocating money needs to be carefully monitored and examined. She recalls listening to chef Derry Clarke speaking on the radio in the wake of the scandal, and being heartbroken listening to how he had raised so much money for Console after losing his son Andrew to suicide.
"To think that somebody could run away with the money raised by people who have done so much to try to help makes me feel physically sick. It's beyond horrendous."
We chat about the various crises facing the world, ending up on the subject of the American presidential campaign. Cathy says that while she has great admiration for Hillary Clinton, she doesn't have the warmth factor that everyone seems to want from a female candidate. When it comes to Donald Trump, she doesn't mince her words: "He has displayed this underlying racism and xenophobia that is utterly frightening. He's a trust fund baby who has gone bankrupt several times, but he has got all these people on side who live in woods with their guns. They are his tribe and they are all coming out to support him and that is scary.
"I think Obama is incredible and he tried to do so much, but the Republicans got in his way. And then they come up with this moron!"
As she packs up to leave, Cathy and I laugh about how the glamorous life of an author switches from swanking about Powerscourt in lovely clothes one minute, to discussing social issues, to running off to do the shopping at Tesco the next. That's feminism in action.
'Secrets of a Happy Marriage' by Cathy Kelly is out on October 17. cathykelly.com
Photography: Naomi Gaffey
Styling: Lorna Weightman
Hair: David Cashman
Make-up: Zoe Clark
Shot on location at Powerscourt Hotel and Powerscourt House and Gardens, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, powerscourthotel.com; powerscourt.com