Tuesday 25 June 2019

Author's living her dream and keeping the day job

Sophie Grenham looks at how Julia Kelly's life segues into that of her characters

Sophie Grenham

IT is the nature of the beast when one hears of someone with a famous father publishing a very successful first novel to feel a huge wave of scepticism. But readers feeling this before reading Julia Kelly's darkly funny and touching book With My Lazy Eye are likely to give themselves a slap on the wrist.

Julia's father was the late John Kelly, former attorney General and Fine Gael TD, though her work was not endorsed with the help of his connections. And what a welcome it has received. As well as a rave review from the Irish Times and offers of media work, her launch party was heaving with keen supporters including celebrities Guggi and Ali Hewson.

Since then, Kelly's book has become a hit, selling out in nearly all major book shops. Yet Julia is humble about her success. When mentioned, it is obvious that she still can't quite believe how the public has embraced her talent.

This heart-warming tale is focused on troubled Lucy's coming of age in 1980s Dublin before finding work as a civil servant. Later, she musters up the confidence to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Under it all, she carries the burden of constant self-doubt up to her father's death, which led to media interest in Julia's own family background. This is not an autobiography, but there are moments that make us wonder where Kelly ends and Lucy begins.

Even after the explosion of With My Lazy Eye, Julia has kept her job in the civil service. The working environment that she has described is anything but stereotypical. Surprisingly, her office has a relaxation room where one can escape from stress, a far cry from character Lucy's dull surroundings. However, the overall feeling is the same: both Julia and Lucy have desires beyond their desks.

It can't have been easy being the offspring of a public figure, but Kelly's childhood was happy and carefree. She describes her younger self as a "messer". Julia, naturally shy, always had a desire to live up to her father's expectations. To her, this feeling is nothing out of the ordinary and it lives in all of us. It was only after John Kelly's passing that Julia started to feel the strain of the press. She says, "I hated having TV cameras at my father's funeral and I resented so many people sharing our grief. I wanted to be left alone and felt it was no one else's business but our own -- quite childish really! But when he was alive, his being a public figure had no effect on me at all. I did occasionally come across teachers that expected more from me, being my father's daughter, but they found out early on that I was pretty clueless about politics and public affairs. At home he was just Dad and never talked politics to us."

Julia does, however, have strong opinions on certain ethics. On what is considered acceptable during pregnancy, she says, "I do absolutely hate to see people out smoking and they're nine months pregnant. Drinking is more debatable. A couple of drinks is not going to do the baby harm, as long as you're not getting pissed every night. I've never smoked, so I don't know how addictive it is. I would be slow to judge but I would certainly never consider smoking when pregnant."

Julia supports the smoking ban which is being gradually enforced all over the world. Nicotine is also a joke between herself and her partner, painter Charlie Whisker. Both vegetarians, when they first met she bent the rules by eating fish. In the end they made a pact that she would give up fish while Charlie gave up cigarettes.

With My Lazy Eye has many bitter-sweet storylines, especially when Lucy begins to see the world clearly for the first time after laser eye surgery. Julia had that surgery four years ago, just before she began working on the book. This was a decision that would affect her view of the world forever. She says, "The late Roisin Conroy talked me into it, promising me that my life would change if I could see clearly. The world feels like a much safer place to me now. Everything appears more clear-cut and sharply defined. I'm a lot more confident since having the procedure. So it has been life-changing for me."

While the young writer is living the dream in Ireland, Julia admits that she is open to exploring pastures new. In her opinion, Ireland has limitations for an ambitious writer. "A UK publisher or a US publisher: that's really where you make money. That's what most writers would aspire to because it's just too small a pond here."

And Kelly is definitely a big fish. But though many doors are open to her, for now she simply wants to focus on her next instalment. With many writers longing for success, what advice can Julia share? Casting her mind back to how she started, Julia says, "Just go into your room and sit down and just start writing and just say, 'I'll do an hour a day, even an hour a week.' Stick to it and even if you feel that you're not inspired at all just write anything. Just write whatever comes into your head. The idea will come, but you have to give yourself that time. Close the door and unplug the telephone and just get started."

'With My Lazy Eye' is published by Lilliput Press, €18.95

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