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Cathy Kelly: 'I don't want the boys to think they aren't as important as my work'


Author Cathy Kelly

Author Cathy Kelly

Author Cathy Kelly

Cathy Kelly, best-selling author and full-time mother of five-year-old twins, makes combining writing and running a home look easy. But it is a time-consuming juggling act that involves a well-planned routine.

"I get up at 6.30am because I have to get the boys up an hour later. I literally wake up early so that I can sit in bed and have a read," says Cathy (41), who lives with her partner, John, and their twins, Murray and Dylan, in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

Their bungalow home is beautifully decorated and, like most women, Cathy has a pile of magazines beside her bed, but she tends not to read women's fiction while she's writing because it can be a little discouraging. "If you're trying to hammer away at something and Anita Shreve does it in four lines, you'll go, 'Okay, I'll just stop now'."

Since discovering motherhood, Cathy admits that her writing schedule has changed. "I don't want the boys to think they aren't as important as my work, so I tend to do the real 'working mother' thing, which means everything fits around them. If I'm in trouble near the end of a book, I just work at night when they go to bed, which I hate doing, but sometimes it's the only way. I'd prefer to be there for them in the afternoon.

"John and I get the boys ready for school, then we drive them in and I start working at my desk from 9.30am until 2pm. I always pick the boys up. You can count on one hand the amount of times I haven't dropped or picked them up. My theory would be to do another hour of writing after they come home, but a lot of the time that doesn't work out very well because my study is in the house and they come in and out. They think it's their computer that I get to work on. They call what I do 'mummy's typing'."

No matter where she is, Cathy will always write something daily, even on holidays. "Maybe it goes back to the journalism days where I worked full-time and wrote three books; I got so used to working all the time that I got used to working on holidays. Now, when we go down to Spain, I take a laptop."

Unlike most writers, she has no particular rituals that she engages in before writing, apart from the cup of coffee. "I think I was very superstitious with my first few books. I had a computer that I wrote them all on and an old kitchen table that I had in my dining room, and I remember when I got a proper desk and changed computer -- because it was a heap of a thing -- I was absolutely terrified in case there was some magic. Since I moved on and found I could still write, I'm not ritualised at all now."

She does, however, have a few guilty indulgences. "I'm a desperate woman for chocolate biscuits and coffee. Six months into writing a book, you realise that the chocolate biscuits and coffee are having a bad effect on your backside and think, 'I must do something', so I stand in front of the open fridge and peel off a few slices of cheese and think I'm being very good."

Distractions are part and parcel of every writer's life, and for Cathy they can come in the most unlikely of forms. "With the last book, I got another laptop and went up to the bedroom to write, otherwise I find myself flitting around. Things such as the Victoria's Secret newsletter email comes in -- and I have occasionally bought nice, plain white cotton knickers from them, not the mad ones," she laughs. "When it pings up and says, 'We're having a sale', you have to look at it."

Apart from reading, her other hobby is art. "I've just started an art class. I loved art at school and toyed with the idea of going to art college, but didn't. I was scared I would never be original but, going back, I find it's like turning on a magical switch. I love it, and I love crafts such as tapestry, embroidery and felting. I enjoy making things -- or, at least, starting to make things!"

With an enviable wardrobe of designer and affordable high-street clothes and accessories spread across two wardrobes, Cathy says: "I love glam evening clothes, but during the day I live in jeans, little cardis and MBT runners. I love high heels, but I prefer to be able to race around at high speed in flats. I'm a high-speed sort of woman.

"I used to be so fit, then did nothing for the past few years, but I got back into going to the gym in December. I got an iPod from John for Christmas, so I'm back to working out and love it. A good 40 minutes of cardio, some weights, a blast in the sauna and wow! It's a recipe for feeling good. It's so addictive and you sleep so well afterwards, which is another plus."

Cathy says they occasionally choose holiday destinations where she can do research. "We went to Egypt for my book, Someone Like You. I'm madly keen to visit India; I've been fascinated by it since I was very young, but I think I'll wait until the boys are a little bit older."


  • Reading is a vital tool. Reading shows me wonderful prose, which makes me cry into my cereal because I may never match it, but it spurs me on to do at least half as well. Bad writing will show you what not to do.

When you read, ask yourself what makes this particular book good or bad. See what you like or dislike. Feel your way through language to see what sort of writing moves you. This does not mean you should copy anyone; copying someone's style might fool some people for one book, but the soullessness of pure plagiarism will soon shine through. Be the best writer you can be, from your heart and soul.

  • Reading is a way of sharpening your mind By osmosis, you'll absorb structure, grammar and style. An editor can always spot the people who don't read their manuscripts -- they're the ones with random use of capital letters and no clue as to how to lay out a page of dialogue.

  • There's no magic potion or routine -- you have to get your bum on the seat and write. Everyone has a different way of sitting down to write and you have to find your own way or routine.

  • This may sound very obvious, but write every day if you can. Start with 500 words. Around 1,000 a day is a great aim. If you don't have a story in your mind at first, play around with a short story. A 'What if ... ?' Many books start with 'What if...?' Writing is like sketching with charcoal: you have to practice on a lot of newsprint paper before you move on to cartridge paper.

  • What is your story? Speak it out loud to see how it sounds. Some stories (high-concept ones) can be described in one line; others are tangled webs of lives and relationships. Most stories are a journey, either a physical, mental or emotional one. By the end of the story, the characters will have moved on in every sense. Do you have enough of a story to fill a whole book (at least 120,000 words for an average novel)?

  • Find characters you can feel on an emotional level. Keep hammering away at them until you can feel them, then your story will progress -- they're in charge, not you.

  • If the book is working, the story will take over itself. The characters and the story itself are in charge. If you think I'm mad, then start working now and you'll see what I mean. A story that follows a plotline like the train from Dublin to Cork will be a very dull affair. You need to know roughly where your story is going to go, but that's it.

  • Don't write for the Booker committee, your colleagues or that person you really want to impress at the school reunion. Write for yourself. Enjoy.

  • The story needs narrative and dialogue to drive the plot along. Don't write reams of narrative. A vital piece of writing advice is show, not tell. Don't have eight pages telling the reader about an argument. Show it with a scene.

  • Sometimes the writer needs to know all about a character's past but the reader doesn't. We may not need to know that he owned a hamster when he was eight -- unless he's a serial killer and chewed its ears off, obviously.

  • Some writers write a draft of the entire book, then go back over it and polish, which results in the second draft. Then go back again and do another polish.

  • I tend to write in segments -- I write a draft of the first third of the book, then go back over that until I like it or until I go mad; which-ever comes first. Then move on.

  • Edit, edit and edit again. Then take a leap of faith and send your manuscript off.

  • Appreciate your own talent. Don't compare yourself. We all do it and it's fatal to writing, creativity and life in general. Think that you're this unique, marvellous person and that you're going to give this writing business your best shot.

Writing a novel is like closing your eyes and asking the universe to help you, and then, if you really believe in it, the magic will start to flow. But believing in it is the key. You have to love writing and it genuinely has to come from your authentic self. By this, I mean that if you think you will hit the writing jackpot by becoming the next John Grisham or JK Rowling, then forget it. Don't be the next anyone -- be the first you.

©Cathy Kelly

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