You started your writing career in newspaper journalism and worked in that field for many years before writing your first novel in 1997. What prompted that move into fiction?
It sounds like such a cliché to say I always wanted to write, but it’s true. Looking back now, I think I was a writer who became a journalist and I used to think I was a hopeless journalist because I couldn’t bear to ask anyone any hard questions. If someone was suffering, I would feel physically sick at having to ask them a tough question about what was happening. And I thought that made me very bad at my job. Now, looking back, I can see that I just feel too much empathy with people to have been a journalist, but I did it for fourteen years. I loved those years, loved meeting people and covering interesting stories, but I was always very interested in ones about people’s lives.
When my sister was little and we shared a bedroom, I told her stories all the time. I also lived inside my head a lot. It was a matter of confidence, really, and it took me many years to have even a smidgen of the confidence required to start writing. When I did, I loved it so much and would sit down for half an hour at the computer and get up three hours later.
During your time at the newspaper you worked on the ‘agony aunt’ column. You must have gained some amazing insight into people’s lives and relationships you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Do you draw on this experience when writing your books?
Although I worked as Dear Cathy for five years, I don’t think I’ve ever drawn on one single real letter or story for my novels. For a start, it would seem like a betrayal of the people who wrote to me but also, the way I work is to find an idea and invent a character, and create the story from them. It’s like having a strange computer in your head: the real world goes in, rattles around a bit, and a story comes out through the prism of my mind. Yes, pass me the medication now! It does sound strange but it’s very hard to explain. The agony column, along with working on tough news stories, taught me about life and human beings, which are vital sources when you’re a novelist. So probably lots of what I learned then has filtered into my work but never directly.
In 2005 you become an ambassador for UNICEF Ireland. Can you tell me how this came about and why this cause is so important you?
Once, when I was a reporter, I wrote a story on an Irish aid agency called Concern and I was so struck by the amazing work that they did, that I kept thinking ‘if I could go to Africa and do something….’ Cut to years later and UNICEF Ireland asked myself and my family if we’d be in a picture book to raise funds for them. We said yes, and became very involved in helping with the project. UNICEF could see that I was dying to help, so they asked me to be an ambassador. I couldn’t tell you how proud I am to be involved with them. UNICEF works in 150 countries around the world setting up programmes to help the world’s children survive and lead healthier and happier lives. Having been to Mozambique and Rwanda with UNICEF, I now say their work is like a ballet with so many complex parts making up the whole. It involves healthcare (which can mean providing anti-retroviral drugs to children with HIV/AIDs to providing them with basic nutrition); education (education genuinely is the future of kids in developing countries. It can take them out of the cycle of poverty; sanitation (we take our tap water for granted but in countries like Mozambique, 70 per cent of the water is unsafe. Unsafe water means small babies die of diarrhea. When did you last hear of a western baby dying of that?)
I have two beautiful children whom I adore and God forbid, but if something happened to me, there would be other people to take care of them. In so many places in Africa, HIV has wiped out entire generations of people and there’s nobody to raise their kids. These children live in extreme poverty, at risk of malnutrition and all sorts of abuse, physical and sexual. They don’t get to go to school, they live in huts with no floors and no food, and they live their lives in fear of the future. They can’t ask Mum to get them a spoon of paracetamol if they are sick. It’s just wrong that on our clever, developed planet children have to live like this.
I’ve held small babies in my arms in Africa and known that one in five children don’t reach the age of five in many African countries. One in five. So the baby in my arms might not live till she’s five. Because of malaria (her family can’t afford malaria nets) or diarrhea (unsafe water) or a preventable disease like measles (lack of vaccinations) or because she picked up HIV from her mother during birth (lack of knowledge of the triple drug system which helps HIV-positive pregnant woman to halve the chance of her baby developing the disease) or because of a respiratory infection that we would get rid of with antibiotics. It’s so simple and so wrong.
I recently became a patron of a wonderful Irish charity called Chernobyl Children’s Charity International (CCPI), which was set up to help children affected by the nuclear fallout of the Chernobyl disaster. Part of this charity’s work is to deinstitutionalize literally hundreds of thousands of children who live in horrendous ‘hospitals’ in this very poor part of Eastern Europe. The founder, Adi Roche, told me about a hospital where they can’t afford a children’s anaesthetic machine and therefore to perform surgery like tonsillectomies, they strap tiny children – un-drugged – down and operate anyway. This may be hard to read but it’s harder to go through, right? Doing my bit is a huge passion with me.
You had the chance to visit Mozambique and meet children affected by HIV/Aids. How was that experience for you?
Visiting Africa was life changing. It’s that simple. To meet and spend time with strong, courageous people who are living devastatingly hard lives was just an honour.
It’s so easy to look at people from different cultures on the TV and assume, because they don’t have access to our world and our technology, that they’re different. You know, all that is just stuff. We have better stuff than they do. They are exactly the same as we are: decent people trying to survive and take care of their kids.
We met all these euphemistically called ‘child-headed households’ which are basically a teenager or kid younger than a teenager, minding their little brothers and sisters. Their parents are dead with HIV/AIDs and these children have nothing. UNICEF brings hope into their lives, and not just hope: practical help; seeing that practical help in action was awe inspiring.
In your latest book, Once in a Lifetime one of your characters, TV presenter Ingrid Fitzgerald has juggled a career and children. With twin boys yourself, how to you manage to fit everything into your day and do you still find time for yourself?
Time for myself….aaaagh. I wish. I am hopeless at time for myself because my family comes first and then my two passions of work and my charity work, and everything else gets squashed into the bits left over. Which means no time for me. The only me-time I have really is reading and when I go to bed, no matter what state of total exhaustion I’m in, I have to read.
Work-wise, fitting everything into my day is slightly easier now my sons have started primary school. I drop them to school, then start work when I get home (with a brief trip into the kitchen to make coffee and stick another load of washing into the machine!). Working from home is amazing and a great privilege when you have children, but the problem is that I want to spend as much time as possible with the boys, so when I’ve picked them up from school, I find it hard to go back into the study to work, even though I have a wonderful friend who comes in to mind them so I can work. I am determined to get back to the gym now… Apparently just paying the membership and not going doesn’t get you fit!
You’ve achieved tremendous success and your books are number one bestsellers around the world. Why do you think readers love your books so much?
Thanks for saying all those lovely things! I am so lucky that I have wonderful readers and I think – have no real idea, though – that my humour and love of people come through in my books. It’s funny but the empathy that made me anxious for fourteen years as a journalist, now works in my favour. Empathy is a great thing to have as a writer!
About Cathy Kelly