A Conversation with Cathy Kelly, Author of Always and Forever
Do you consider Always and Forever to be a modern-day fairy tale?
Absolutely! Leah really is a fairy godmother character, but in a modern way because she doesn’t wave a magic wand and transform the other women’s lives: she simply gives them their own magic wands. The bottom line, I guess, in all my novels is that you are in charge of your own magic wand and it’s up to you to change your life. Nobody else can do it for you. So Leah helps the women think about their lives and gives them a safe place where they can think, but they do the transforming themselves.
This novel was already a huge hit in the UK. Did you modify the story at all for the American audience? Do you think American readers will react the same way as British readers?
The only modifying I did was change some of the phrases that are specifically Irish—the correct term is “Hiberno-English”—in case people don’t understand them. I also changed some of the syntax—structure of sentences—as Hiberno-English structure is different to both US and UK English as it comes from the Irish language, where the syntax is more or less reversed. Recently, I hosted a talk radio show in Ireland for a week and one of my guests was Professor Terry Dolan, head of English at University College Dublin. He’s this marvelously learned and enthusiastic professor and I interviewed him about his new book, A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (Gill & Macmillan), which I would recommend to anyone with a love of language. While some of our words do translate in the UK market, I’m not so sure they would in the US, so I modified them. I also changed some stuff like changing “pushchair” to “stroller.” But other than that, the story is exactly the same. I like to think that the women I write about and the themes I cover are international: they work in Dublin, Ireland and Dublin, Ohio.
Balancing a career with motherhood is a central theme in this novel. Do you struggle with this issue? If so, any tips for working mothers out there?
Struggle...who me? As I write, I am shattered after running round with my three-year-old twins getting them ready for playschool, and I have to compress four hours’ work into two. Raising a family, whether you work inside or outside the home, is a struggle. A wonderful, life-enhancing struggle, but sometimes, it’s still a bit of a balancing act keeping all the balls in the air. What I wanted to say in the book was that women are too hard on themselves, and that when you work outside the home, you feel guilty and wonder if people are judging you, and when you work inside the home, you feel guilty and wonder if people are judging you. I’d love women to be able to cut themselves a little slack and not be so hard on themselves. We’re doing our best! As for tips, I am looking for them rather than giving them out! At the moment, I am on a “list” kick, which means I try to stay organized with lists. It’s not entirely working. I am also trying to only go to the supermarket twice a week instead of every day, because it takes up so much time, but this plan isn’t working out yet, so if anyone has any hints, please tell me!
Not everyone has a Prince Charming in this book. Why did you make this decision? Should readers be discouraged or empowered by this?
I’m not sure I believe in Prince Charming. I love reading books with Prince Charmings in them, I should add, but that’s a lovely fantasy world and I don’t know if I’d be able to write a book like that. If my hero were suitably overpowering, I might worry about what he’d be like ten years later when they were raising kids and arguing! I try to write about the real world as I see it and I’m very interested in psychology and the concept of people taking responsibility for themselves emotionally. Nobody can fix you or make you happy. You have to make yourself happy inside and only then are you in a position to look for another person to share it all with.
I hope people are empowered by the fact that not everyone in the book has a Prince Charming. More and more women are living on their own these days and I’d like to think that it’s empowering to have heroines doing the same thing. Love is wonderful but if it’s not around in your life, it’s not around and you get on with living your life.
Two characters in this novel discover their partners are cheating on them. Initially, both women want to reconcile. Do you think this would happen in real life? Are women more likely to want reconciliation than men?
The women want to reconcile for different reasons. The first woman does so because she is so emotionally reliant on her partner that she can’t see he’s not the right person for her in the first place. Her wanting to reconcile is wrong and hopefully, the reader will be rooting for her and chanting “dump him!”
The second character sees her husband cheat on her and because they have children together, she wants to give things another chance. This couple has a better relationship than the first pair, so it’s a reasonable thing to want to try again.
I don’t think you can say that women are more likely to want reconciliation than men. That’s too general a statement. In this case, though, one of the men is very keen to reconcile—let’s just see if he keeps his side of the bargain.
The men in this novel range from the perfect husband, Adrian, to the imperfect boyfriend, Alex, to the misunderstood millionaire, Tyler. How important was it for you to create this spectrum of male personalities?
Creating male characters is very hard, much harder for me than creating female ones, so I’m glad you think there’s a spectrum of male personalities. I never want to write a one-size-fits-all guy who messes up all the women’s heads. I want to write about people, whether they’re male or female. That said, it’s so much easier for me to get into women’s heads!
Female friendships are important to the storylines. Did any of your real-life friendships influence the plot?
No, I honestly never use any real life people in novels. It’s kind of hard to explain but I write from my imagination and if I used any real people or situations, then my imagination wouldn’t be running the show. I just make things up and for some brilliant reason—thank you, whoever did it!—I have a lot of stuff in my head still. All I need to do is get it down on paper….
Both Leah and Cleo work in the hotel business, Mel works in PR, and Daisy is a fashion buyer. What kind of research did you do on these industries? If you weren’t an author, which one of these careers would you choose?
I love writing about different careers so I can peek into other people’s lives. I’d love to work in fashion buying and for this book, I spent a long time talking to two people in the industry. It’s so fascinating but I learned how hard it is and got over my idea that I could ever do it. I could so not predict what people would want to wear in six months’ time. But I love fashion, despite the fact that I’m typing this wearing old Gap jeans and a very old sweater! I have a friend who used to be in the hotel business, so she gave me insider information on that and for the PR stuff, I worked as a journalist for fourteen years, so I was relying on past experience there. The most fun I ever had with research was spending time in my vet’s surgery for the novel Someone Like You. I love animals and adored my time there, although I just wanted to pull some of the dogs out of their vet cages and cuddle them because they looked so sad.
Is there talk of film adaptation for this book? If you could choose your dream cast, which actresses would play the leading roles?
There’s no talk of a film adaptation and I’m not sure if my work is filmable, really. They’re not “concept” novels, with a one-line idea. They’re more mini-series stuff and they don’t seem to make many mini-series anymore, sadly. You know, I haven’t thought about who I’d like in the film version, if there was such a thing…. Let me think.
I love Liv Tyler and she’s very anti-totally skinny (I get so annoyed at how girls are meant to look like teeny, tiny models and starve themselves to physically become something they weren’t meant to be. I’m writing about this subject in my current book, my tenth one), so she’d be great for Cleo. Stockard Channing, who is the most incredibly versatile actress and has wisdom coming out of her in waves, would be Leah. Then the wonderfully talented Reese Witherspoon (although she might be a teeny bit too young) for Mel, and if we could get the gorgeous Kate Hudson to put on some weight because Daisy’s a little bigger than the slim Kate, she would be totally fabulous as Daisy. She has just the right amount of sadness in her eyes.
Did you have a favorite fairy tale growing up? Why was it special for you?
I loved Little Red Riding Hood, partly because there was something dark about it, something scary about those woods and the little girl on her own in them. Even as a child, I knew it wasn’t just about a wolf. Fairy stories were originally written as darker tales, so there are lots of different ways of looking at the story. I adored the Neil Jordan/Angela Carter film version, The Company of Wolves—which also starred my fellow UNICEF ambassador, Stephen Rea, actually—because it was such a glorious fantasy, yet also dark, and looked a the whole area of burgeoning sexuality, among other things. I used to get quite annoyed at Sleeping Beauty, though, because as a child, I thought she wimped about by going to sleep and waiting to be woken up. Wake yourself up, girl!! I thought. See, I haven’t changed!!
A Conversation with Cathy Kelly, Author of Once in a Lifetime
1. Your books are number one bestsellers in your home country of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, as well as being published in many other countries and languages. Do international audiences respond to your novels differently? Are there some reactions you find to be universal?
I think the themes in many novels are international. It doesn’t matter if you live in Cork or Chicago, love, loss and emotion are all the same. When I was young, I loved to read novels from other countries partly because I loved the way authors’ voices differed from country to country, partly because I loved learning about how other people lived and partly because there was something immensely soothing about realizing that people all over the world shared the same things. It gives me huge pleasure to get emails from readers in different parts of the globe and hear how something in particular touched them. It makes the world seem like a smaller, more human place.
2. Through your work as a UNICEF Ireland Ambassador, you’ve had the opportunity to visit places like Mozambique and Rwanda. What’s the most rewarding part about this work? Of all the places you’ve travelled, do you have a favorite?
A lot of the work I do for UNICEF is to do with children who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. My primary area is Global Parenting which means attempting to help communities parent children who have been left without one or both parents. This sounds like an impossible task: look at how you take care of our own kids and imagine if you were gone… it’s a heartbreaking thought. So my aim is to visit places like Mozambique and Rwanda, and then tell these children’s stories when I get back so hopefully other people will be moved by their lives. It’s quite devastating to visit children who have nothing, who live in a shack with a dirt floor and who have nobody to take care of them, feed them or just hug them. The rewarding part is seeing UNICEF money in action. UNICEF fund communities to take care of their orphans in many ways, from education and health onwards. The devastating part is realizing that nothing can ever replace their dead parent. Whole generations of people are dying in Africa. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen was a woman who was HIV-positive, sitting with her eight-year-old HIV-positive little girl and waiting to see if they would be accepted onto the anti-retroviral drug scheme. Drugs are so expensive, not everyone gets them. Somebody makes that choice.
I loved Mozambique for its warm-heartedness. Despite living in poverty, the people have such love in their hearts. The kids were dancing with delight meeting UNICEF people because of all the money UNICEF puts into schools. In Africa, kids adore school. They eagerness for knowledge is incredible.
Rwanda was a sobering place to visit. It’s a small nation with a very low HIV rate but they have the memory of the 1994 Genocide to overcome. Again, they’re hugely friendly, warm people doing their best to overcome the past, but visiting their Genocide Museum in Kigali was heartbreaking. It’s not forgotten, though. Schoolkids learn about it to make sure it never happens again. It’s a very forward-thinking country.
3. If you were to leave a journal behind as Dara did with advice for your children, what are some of the most important things you’d want to tell them?
When I was writing the book, I couldn’t think in that way or I’d have cried during the writing of the whole book, instead of just a quarter of it! Love yourself and love other people the way you want to be loved is pretty good advice but I daren’t think of having to write such a thing for my darling sons.
4. Female friendships are a huge part of Once in a Lifetime: Ingrid and Marcella, Molly and Natalie, Charlie and Shotsy. Do you have a best friend that you can tell anything? Which of the characters is she most like?
I have a couple of very close female friends but none of them are like the characters in any of my books. I make all the characters up and to be honest, if I see anything in them like a real person, I try to eradicate it instantly. Perhaps on some deep subliminal level, there are facets of real people in there but as a writer, I find it impossible to work with characters who resemble real people. I need to control my characters and if they were like people I knew, I couldn’t! As to whether I tell them everything…you should see my phone bills. Few things beat being able to phone a close friend and tell her everything. I’d be lost without my women friends.
5. The Bluestone women are born with a sixth sense, and an ability to tap into the energy around them to heal and help others. Do you believe in ESP and magic, or was this just a device you used in the novel? Do you think it’s a gift only some people have, or is everyone capable of it if he or she is open to it and to the world?
I do believe some people have psychic abilities, although I don’t think everyone has it and it’s just that most of the human race has simply lost it. Aeons ago, people certainly had to rely on instinct more for survival and in the modern world, we don’t. So it is possible that more people once used instinct as a tool for life. But the mind is a fabulous tool and if you read books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, you see how our mind processes things on a level of which we’re rarely aware.
Sadly, I do not possess psychic ability but I do my best to listen to my instincts. Interestingly, we’re told to trust our instincts as a mother when we’ve got kids, so I work on that a lot.
6. Once in a Lifetime, like all your novels, is filled with strong, vibrant female characters. Which character in the novel do you most relate to personally? Which was the most fun to write?
I loved writing Once In A Lifetime and really can’t single out any one character. I did adore Star and toyed with the idea of writing another book with her in it. Still don’t know if I will or not. And I loved Ingrid’s wisdom and Dara’s fierce passion for life. Kitty was marvelous fun to write. Naughty characters are so much fun – it must be like the way actors say they love to play baddies. You can let rip.
7. “If houses could be colours, then Ruth’s home was a deep rose pink, full of warmth. Dara’s house was grey, a cold grey like endless rain.” (ms. pg. 292) If your home were a color, what would it be? Why?
Probably a honeyed, amber color. I love lighting soft lights and having honey-colored shades so that the light has a glow about it. I’m very drawn to those colors. I even love perfumes in those colors, all the amber bottles dot my dressing table. I love red rooms too, although in my house right now, we only have one red room which is a bathroom with library wallpaper on the wall. It’s called ‘bibliotheque’, the French for library.
8. Although Once in a Lifetime is told primarily from the female characters’ point of view, at the end of the novel we get a glimpse of David’s thoughts and motivation. Why did you decide to include this scene?
I didn’t want it to be black and white/woman: good, man: bad scenario. I believe that life is shades of grey and showing a little of David makes sense of all his choices.
9. Can you tell us a little about your research and writing process?
My books start from the oddest ideas and suddenly, I am consumed with the desire to write about a character who experiences this. Creating the character then takes over and sometimes, by the time the character is formed in my head – w hich can take months – I realize that the subject matter no longer works. Cue huge panic. But I find that characters tell their own stories and if you’ve created them properly, they really do lead you on the right path. I used to interview novelists when I was a journalist and I thought they were mad when they said the characters take over, but they do.
I research as I go but have to control myself or else I’d do nothing but research. You start reading about something and before you know it, hours have gone by and you’re having fun, but you’re not writing!
10. Are you working on another novel? What can we expect to see from you next?
I’m finishing my twelfth novel which is due out in Ireland, the UK, Australia and Canada in Fall 2010. It’s about the intertwined lives of a group of people living in a city square in Dublin. I stopped off in the middle of it last summer (2009) to write a novella, called The Perfect Holiday, for a UK adult literacy program, and I would not recommend writing two things simultaneously!