In the finale of One Book Lane’s celebration of Irish fiction, we sat down for a natter with two of the Emerald Isle’s loveliest novelists.
Rachael English sat down with the brilliant Cathy Kelly for a chat about writing her funny and heart-warming new novel It Started with Paris.
It Started with Paris is out now in paperback, ebook and audio. Read an extract here.
Like all of your books, It Started With Paris is filled with endearing characters. I was especially fond of Leila. For you, which comes first – the characters or the story? And how much planning do you do before you start to write?
We all always find one person we love more than others when we read, don’t we? Now my answer to this is going to sound hopeless but both ideas sort of come into my head at the same time: characters and story. The characters at that early stage are a bit lumpy, sort of like the old joke about the statue of an elephant. How do you make a statue of an elephant? Get a chisel and chisel away all the bits that don’t look like an elephant. So I chisel and somehow, this person emerges. This is the slowest part of the book – the development of the characters, and as they develop, the story develops because you create a person and you look at your imaginary scenario (Leila having her husband leave her in It Started With Paris) and you begin to know how your character would react. Leila is not going to cry to all and sundry. No, she is going to put her brave face on with her make-up and pretend that she is FINE! Really, I’m fine. And at night after work, she goes home and looks at her ex’s page on Facebook and feels miserable. But people do see it in work, and then the story falls more into place as we see that her boss can spot her abject misery because, well, she sort of likes her and not in a platonic sense. . .
I loved Bridgeport with its woollen mills and sherbert- coloured cottages. I felt like I was living there. How do you go about drawing readers into the world you’ve created?
I am a failed painter or film set designer or something along those lines. I have to see the place in my mind and I keep going over the book, endlessly, adding in more bits: a hairdresser with gingham curtains, a deli run by a sweet couple, a cake shop with buns like rocks. I love a delicious town where you know where the postman lives and that the corner shop is the centre of all known gossip, and that if you walk up that hill, you will find all the local dogs having a play or squabbling over who gets to roll in the fox poo first. I am forever taking photos of pretty places on my phone (not since I dropped it on the garage floor, mind you, and the photo bit stopped working) but I forget to look at the pictures when I am writing. So I guess they all go into my mind and come out in some higgledy piggledy fashion.
Before you became a full-time writer, you were a journalist. How big a change was it to go from dealing with facts to being able to let your imagination run free?
Being able to make things up for hours on end was fabulous fun because with journalism, particularly with tabloid where we have lawyers on everything, it has to be nailed true and tight – it was harder going back into the office after a weekend of writing and forcing myself to write 600 words on something. I wrote three books before I gave up journalism, and I had severe verbal diarrhoea and the sub-editors (who lay out the paper) used to stare at me as I tried to be concise. The difficulty at first with fiction was allowing myself to let my voice speak, because in journalism you are, theoretically, supposed to be objective. I had this drummed into me in college and therefore, writing in my voice felt wrong but oh, so right.
If you want to write, you need to write and, vitally, read a lot. Honestly, you won’t write a book unless you are already a bookworm and enjoy writing, because it’s like saying you are going to be a yoga teacher when you've never done any yoga.
My mother is English and when she first moved to Ireland she had difficulty understanding people. For instance, she had to learn that ‘bold’ means naughty, ‘fierce’ means very and that a cupboard is called a ‘press’. We definitely speak a slightly different version of English! How do you maintain a strong sense of Ireland in your books without confusing international readers?
This is a fabulous question! First, I love keeping a strong sense of Ireland in my books because it is simply the most glorious place with such wonderful people but I am aware that we have our own way of speaking which entirely confuses other people. It’s partly Irish syntax, the Irish-language way of arranging the words in a sentence, and partly our own meanings for things. I love ‘press’ and ‘fierce’ and sometimes, you have to have those words in there. I think readers are very clever and can figure stuff out in the way that we all read books about fabulously glamorous people in LA in the Seventies and worked out what a condo was even if we called them ‘flats’ here. I am careful with Irish names because I will never forget with my first book, Woman To Woman, I had a character called Aisling and when it was published abroad, nobody could pronounce it. I was like: ‘but, sure, everyone knows how to say that . . . ?’ But they didn’t and it’s annoying not to be able to pronounce the name of the main character. I love the old Irish name Sadhbh but nobody outside Ireland can say it. The trick would be to have some lovely person NOT know how to say it and mention it phonetically for them a few times, and then people would get it.
It Started With Paris is your sixteenth novel, (if I’m wrong, please correct me!) and your next book will be published in the autumn. How has your writing changed over the years?
Gosh, Rachael, I had to go off and count. It’s my fifteenth novel, and I’ve also written one book of short stories and two novellas. And many, many shopping lists that I leave in the car by mistake. My writing has broadened (I think and hope!) and I hope I’ve got better at it, because I practice my craft all the time. I was thirty when my first book was published and am now forty-eight, so the changes in me leak into my writing in (hopefully) the best way. I’d like to think I’m still funny and hopeful in my books, and that my characters still seem real, because they are very real to me. I find myself dealing with themes in books now, in the sense that It Started With Paris was loosely about marriage and relationships, while my next book, Between Sisters, is about the strength of a sisterly bond in the face of great sadness.
If you had one piece of advice for new or aspiring writers, what would it be?
If you want to write, you need to write and, vitally, read a lot. Honestly, you won’t write a book unless you are already a bookworm and enjoy writing, because it’s like saying you are going to be a yoga teacher when you’ve never done any yoga. Weird example but the theory is the same. If you don’t read a lot and have never been a person who likes writing, then it’s like going off to yoga training college when you think downward dog pose is what the dog does in front of his bowl when he’s waiting for his dinner. If you are a writer, then have courage because so many writers have the horrible internal critic living in their head. This unwanted house guest tells you every sentence is awful and to go back to the old job. If you have this internal critic, you’re already there!
Write what is inside you, don’t try to copy anyone or be the next JK Rowling. Write often, as often as you can. Make friends with other writers so you can talk and laugh about the craziness of this job. That’s lots of advice. See? I love writing and had so much fun with these brilliant questions, Rachael.