Sunday 22 April 2018

Best-selling author Cathy Kelly reveals devastating assault motivated her to become a writer

The best-selling author tells how writing helped her to overcome the trauma of her experience, writes Niamh Horan

SPEAKING OUT: Author Cathy Kelly has sold more than two million books and at one stage outsold both JK Rowling and Dan Brown. ‘It is incredibly sexist to write off every female writer who does not fit in to what is characterised as “literature”’, she says. Photo: David Conachy
SPEAKING OUT: Author Cathy Kelly has sold more than two million books and at one stage outsold both JK Rowling and Dan Brown. ‘It is incredibly sexist to write off every female writer who does not fit in to what is characterised as “literature”’, she says. Photo: David Conachy
UNICEF Ambassador Cathy Kelly at UNICEF's Mother's Day lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Cathy Kelly with her husband John Sheehan
How I Got My Job: Best-selling author Cathy Kelly
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Last Wednesday afternoon, Time magazine announced ''The Silence Breakers'' as its ''Person of the Year 2017''.

The magazine cover leaves one woman's face out of shot; a symbol of those who remain anonymous and the others yet to come forward.

I'm in the Radisson Blu hotel in Stillorgan in Dublin discussing this with best-selling author Cathy Kelly, unaware that a few minutes later, she will become the latest high-profile woman to step from the shadows.

The man involved is now dead. But what he did has stayed with her to this day: "This is really the first time I have spoken about it because it was an absolutely devastating time in my life. For about six months I was taking tranquillisers to try and deal with it."

Now 51, you can almost see a chill ripple through her as she closes her eyes to recall the encounter. It happened more than 30 years ago.

"I am loath to go in to the details. I want to protect my children in this too. But I think it's important to talk about these things and to share our stories.

UNICEF Ambassador Cathy Kelly at UNICEF's Mother's Day lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
UNICEF Ambassador Cathy Kelly at UNICEF's Mother's Day lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

"I can't even begin to explain how devastating it was. When something like that happens, it is an attack on the very nature of your being, of who you are and that has a horrendous effect. It stayed with me for years and years. Even now, it's there. I have moved on - but it's there."

In the aftermath, a relationship she was in at the time fell apart under the weight of trauma and for a long time, she was very cynical of men. "It absolutely affected relationships after that... it changed my view of men and it gave me a fear and anxiety that wasn't there before," she said.

Like many women, she blamed herself: "It was like a shame on you. You asked yourself what you had done that somehow invited this."

Years later, Cathy went to a therapist to talk through her feelings about the incident. A Unicef ambassador herself, she says: "I was lucky I was in the position to do be able to do that but I know there are many who can't. That's why I would love to set up a charity some day that would help women and children in war zones who have had similar experiences so that they can get access to these kind of services."

The assault was also the catalyst to her career as a writer: "It was a very powerful motivator for me. I always wanted to write and it was very cathartic to get rid of the feelings of shame, humiliation and secrecy, I went through all of those things and I have written about it in my books."

She recommends another female author for anyone who has gone through similar pain.

Marta Hiller's A Woman in Berlin details the story of a female journalist who is raped by a member of the Red Army during World War II: "It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read," she says, "[The author] knew she had to survive and she was able to."

Cathy's personal experience is just one of the many reasons she detests the so-called ''erotica'' that runs through much of the classical and contemporary literature aimed at women:

She writes off Heathcliff "as a man with a lot of mental issues". And Christian Grey as "someone who needs about 15 years of therapy and a lot of medication".

But, given that Fifty Shades of Grey is the biggest-selling book ever in Britain, why does she think women have been lapping it up?

"I think it has worked so far because there is so little erotica for women. That, along with the fact that women have been brought up to believe sex is bad, therefore if you have a man overpowering you, to have sex it's somehow more acceptable.

"It makes me despair because it is terrible for feminism. There are so many areas that feminism has to work on, this is just something else that needs to change."

Today she lives in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, with her husband John Sheehan (the former MD of record company Sony Music), twin boys and three dogs, and her books continue to strike a chord with readers. She made the list of the bestselling authors of the decade 2000-2009, with 2.3m books sold, bringing in sales valued at more than €14m.

Cathy Kelly with her husband John Sheehan
Cathy Kelly with her husband John Sheehan

It is odd then that you won't hear her name said with the reverence reserved for other well-known Irish authors. This is, perhaps, due to the literary world's tendency to give more weight to white male literary types.

As author Jodi Picoult once pointed out: "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.

Despite this lack of respect, Cathy once outsold both JK Rowling and Dan Brown.

"Ah that was only for a week," she says, brushing it off.

I tell her that is almost akin to Neil Armstrong saying he had visited the moon only for a day. She laughs and acknowledges the industry's double standards:

"It is incredibly sexist to write off every female writer who does not fit in to what is characterised as 'Literature'. You are instantly denigrating the people who read my books, you are denigrating me and you are denigrating women's lives."

It is noteworthy then she is part of a strong circle of women who encourage each other in their craft. When Marian Keyes went to the top of the UK bestseller chart, Cathy sent her flowers. This was no one-off act of superficial female solidarity either. She re-enacts crying down the phone to the Rachel's Holiday author on the days she is suffering from a dry spell.

As Cathy explains: "Marian is great. She will say send it on to me and then she will look at it and say 'it's fine, keep going' and give me the encouragement I need."

According to Cathy, even after 20 years, best-selling writers don't ever manage to shake off their self doubt: "It tells you that any spark of brilliance you ever had is all gone. It claws at you and drags you down."

When she does power through, the result is gold. In recent weeks, her work has earned the author yet another €1m book deal.

I ask if money matters - or if she is driven purely by passion?

"Anyone who says money isn't important has absolutely loads of it and has never gone through any pain in their life. I've both been in a place where I have had none and then I have had some and although it doesn't make you happy, it can certainly makes things easier."

I think about asking if the eye-watering deals take the sting out of the reverence paid to her more lauded but less widely read male colleagues but no doubt she is too much of a lady to say.

The Year That Changed Everything is out in February.

Sunday Independent

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