Cathy Kelly's Ireland is one where women have mortgages and ironing as well as attitude
IN her rock-chic Afghan coat, sitting calmly poised before the blazing log fire in the lobby of Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel, she looks very paparazzi princess. That image is all illusion, Cathy Kelly guffaws as she leads me from our meeting point to an around-the-corner cellar restaurant more suited to chat, ``I'm actually neurotic, insecure and nervous.'' Not that it shows, although the Irish novelist is talking at 300 words per minute.
She laughs. ``When I'm anxious, I do tend to become a motormouth, which is not so desirable a habit when you are talking to a journalist, now, is it?''
The trouble is, she barely pauses to breathe, there was a last-minute hitch en route to our appointment. The twins' babysitting arrangements (``boys, born last year, Murray and Dylan'') fell over and she'd had to reorganise because her partner was tied up at work (``he's a music business executive who is 20 years older than me and retired -- allegedly -- although he still gets called into the office two or three days a week''). Then she'd only had time to throw lippie and eyeliner at her face (``I'm probably the only woman who always ends up with panda eyes before I go out'') while hopping to the car as she changed out of sensible mum clothes into an author-about-town disguise before racing from her Wicklow rural home to the city outskirts, where she avoided Dublin's ``horrendous traffic'' by jumping aboard the ``Daniel Day'' (the city's new tram system, the Luas ... get it?) to St Stephen's Green. And then she'd galloped to our rendezvous at that renowned haunt of Brendan Behan and the other literary boyos, half-convinced she was in the wrong place on the wrong day ...
This scenario, relayed with droll self-deprecation, is one with which the characters in her novels would identify, given its spiral of antiheroic moments where the words control and unflappable exist only as elusive concepts. Because while Kelly writes romance with a capital R, she also writes romance replete with reality checks and feisty contemporaneity, leavened by a modicum of social and cultural comment, humour and the occasional earthy irreverence. It's an approach that has won her an extensive readership and a popular fiction profile to rival her friend Marian Keyes in a genre often derided by the supercilious yet one that is possibly the most competitive and bottom-line rewarding in publishing.
Kelly has no delusions of literary grandeur but she is protective of her readers and determinedly professional about her trade -- driven and preternaturally self-critical if the truth be told, as it invariably is in her novels.
And while she laughs about being a ``submarine Catholic -- we only surface when there's trouble'', her novels do have a certain social propriety about them. Issues are important, as are values -- her books are not sex'n'shopping sagas and the only bodices ripped are torn through klutziness rather than by lustful Lotharios.
Belfast-born and Dublin-reared, Kelly had youthful ambitions to be a lawyer but missed her marks (``I was too easily distracted at school''). So she studied journalism instead, as you do, then pulled a prized post-study position on the tabloid Sunday World. She loved the newsroom buzz and hard-knocks writing apprenticeship, she says, but she wasn't foot-in-door tough enough to muscle in with front-page scoops -- instead she created her own niche, writing articles with a human-interest edge, becoming during her 14-year career a feature writer, agony aunt, film critic and opinion page columnist.
But she'd always wanted to write fiction and determined to finish a novel by the time she was 30. Cue after-work evenings and weekends around the dining room table, then an unexpected publisher enthusiasm for her tentative offering. When she told her book-loving parents and siblings at a Sunday family lunch that she was having a novel published, they all burst into tears -- ``They were all so proud and happy for me.''
Still, few people, Kelly among them, expected Woman to Woman to sweep to the top of Ireland's bestseller list, as it did in 1997. The royalties persuaded her to give up her day job and since then another six Kelly titles have sold more than five million copies in Britain and Europe, the last-released Best of Friends racking up 500,000. Which all backs up (and fulfils) critical assessments such as ``The gap in the market left by Maeve Binchy packing away her laptop has been well and truly filled by Cathy Kelly'', made by Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper.
Like her books, Kelly is personable and sassy -- she claims to be ``five foot [152cm] tall, that's me'' but I suspect that is more the novelist talking than the journalist.
There's no tall story though about whom she's writing for: ``I write about women for women, and I want to reach out and investigate the real issues that affect us.'' Her characters, she has said, ``are normal people with mortgages and a huge load of ironing wanting to be done''.
And while they may have spirited attitudes, a tendency to revel in excess and a propensity for Bridget Jones-like physiques, her characters are not candidates for chick-lit. Her latest novel is the first she has written since ``becoming a mother for the first time -- I'm 38 now and my personal definitions have shifted a bit, and I started to think about just how women define themselves.
``We tend to identify ourselves through family-work-partner, so Always and Forever is about what happens to three women when the family-work-partner thing disappears and they have to learn who they really are.''
To coincide with the book's publication, Kelly is touring Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth to meet fans and talk the promotional talk. This is not her first visit to Australia, however -- she was here in 2001 and has become an unofficial ambassador for the country by consistently telling British newspapers that she ``fell in love with the place and the people''.
The odds are high that that particular romance will be reciprocated in the next week.