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Two sisters

Best selling author Cathy Kelly told David Hennessy about her latest novel Sisterhood, the ‘terrifying’ experience of being diagnosed with cancer and why she doesn’t like it to be described as ‘battling’ cancer.

Cathy Kelly is a well known and best selling author.

Prior to that she was a journalist with The Sunday World.

Her latest novel Sisterhood tells the story of two very different sisters. Lou is easy going and has faith that going out of her way for people will get her recognised but when her bosses, her husband and even her own mother take her for granted one too many times on the occasion of her 50th birthday, something snaps.

Toni is very different to Lou. She is not afraid to go after what she wants. While Lou works at a small town florist, Toni is a well known broadcaster.

When both sisters are hit by a revelation of their family history, together they seek to find out more.

Sisterhood has already spent weeks as the number one book in Ireland and reached the top ten both here in the UK and Australia.

There is also an unfortunate symmetry with her own life.

While there is a character in the book who has passed from cancer, this is a disease that has touched Cathy’s life although thankfully the result has been much better.

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Cathy revealed that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2023 and told fans in December that she’d rang the bell following chemotherapy.

Cathy Kelly told The Irish World: “I started thinking about sisters and how they can be very different.

“I think it all started with Lou who’s the sort of person who does everything for everyone, has no boundaries and no matter what you say to her she’ll say, ‘Yes, of course I’ll do that’.

“And people like that got walked on.

“I think some of us, some women particularly are brutal at that and will keep bending over backwards until something breaks.

“The story of Lou is something breaks.”

A secret comes to the fore in the family. This seems to be a more and more familiar story in Irish life with people discovering siblings they didn’t know about and people also looking for birth parents or children, this is all the legacy of the mother and baby homes/ Magdalene Laundries and the forced adoptions…

“Yeah, you’re totally right.

“It is a sort of familiar Irish thing.

“The Irish stories are incredible.

“We talk about the stories. We’re talking about them now.

“20 years ago, no one was talking about it.

“It was the big secret.

“Look at how many people were brought up with a sister who was supposed to be a sister who was actually their mother.

“I mean, that was a very common thing if you think about it back when the church held sway and being a pregnant unmarried mother was the worst thing in the world.

“But as my mother used to say, what about the unmarried fathers?

“There was never any mention about them.

“Parts of Sisterhood is a very Irish story and then parts of it are very universal which are about women, boundaries, and how you deal with the people in your life who take advantage of you and what happens when you go, ‘Stop’.

“Lou gets to say stop and that’s when the fun starts.”

Toni is a more familiar character to you being a journalist and broadcaster..

“People say to me, ‘Who is this Toni? Who is she based on?’

“I don’t base stories on real people.

“I make them up.

“But I worked in journalism for a long time.

“I’ve been writing books for about a million years.

“You meet so many different people and you’re running in and out of radio studios and TV studios and you meet people in the broadcasting industry.

“So writing about someone who’s in broadcasting, and I’ve done broadcasting myself, so that’s sort of easy.

“The fun bit was writing about someone who is mentoring women in business because when we first meet Toni, she’s doing a radio programme with some dude who’s saying, ‘We don’t need women in business organisations because women are great in business’.

“And she says, ‘Well, how many women do you have at a managerial level in your company?’

“And he has to admit that he actually didn’t have any at all.

“She humiliates him and he decides he’s going to get even.

“So she’s a very different kettle of fish to her sister, Lou.

“She’s younger. Their mum is a bit of a narcissist who wants people to run around after her.

“Lou runs around after the mother, Toni doesn’t.

“And Toni doesn’t do subtext which is a great thing. You know when people send you whatsapps which are a bit ‘I’m fine’ and you know really they’re not fine?

“The subtext is, ‘I’m not at all fine. I need you to come and fix me’.

“But Toni goes, ‘I don’t care. I’m ignoring the subtext’.

“So that was fun to write about.”

There are some themes in the book about being female in the modern world.

There is Toni’s being successful and assertive intimidating men but why is that Toni’s fault?

That came up quite a bit, didn’t it?

“It did and it is an excellent point.

“That’s one of the problems she has with this guy she’s on the radio with.

“I mean lots of people are intimidated by her because she’s strong, she’s straight up, she doesn’t back down and she doesn’t do that female thing of deferring to other people.

“She’s a very powerful, strong woman.

“There’s so many young women now who are like that, who do not take, excuse my expression, crap from anybody.

“It’s really powerful because perhaps my generation were taught, ‘Be nice girls, be good girls. Be nice, be good, be polite’.

“Nice and good and polite are great but they don’t necessarily get you anywhere in life.

“They can get you walked on.

“Toni’s the sort of woman who people don’t walk on which is fantastic.

“I want to be Toni when I grow up.”

That brings us back to Lou, you say nice and polite can get you walked on. Lou probably thought trying to please everybody would get her somewhere but it’s hardly ever the case, is it?

“No, it’s never the case.

“There is her relationship with her mum.

“The relationship has always been the mum gets Toni to do stuff and Toni does it out of love and duty. This is the way she was raised and because she was raised that way, I guess it meant Toni could sort of go, I don’t need to do that. She’s doing that, I can go off and do my own thing’.

“It’s interesting about families: Where you are in the family hierarchy can be very, very important.

“I love writing about families, they’re great, especially Irish families. We have a lot of stuff going on.”

The sisters although very different, they have a strong bond, don’t they?

“There’s some things I’ve never written about.

“I’ve written about sisters who fight but it’s always hard because I’m very close to my sister who lives in the UK so it’s really difficult to write about.

“There’s some things it goes against the grain to write about, so it was lovely to write about sisters who are close because that’s my own experience.

“But as a writer, you’ve got to write about stuff you don’t know about otherwise, it’d be very boring.

“I mean, the 23 books would have been extremely boring If I’d only written what I knew.”

On that note did you think you would have been talking about 23 books when you released your first one Woman to Woman back in 1997?

“I had no plan.

“I remember going for my first job and they said, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’

“And I was gobsmacked, I never had any sort of plan.

“You know those people who are great planners and they say, ‘We see ourselves doing this…’

“I never saw myself doing anything.

“I bumbled along.

“I just wanted to write a book, to actually write and finish a book and getting published was amazing.

“And in order to get published, you have to sign a contract which says you’ll write two more books.

“So suddenly, I had to write two more books and then suddenly, I had a career in book writing.

“That was amazing.

“I never thought I’d get up to number 23.

“I’m going quite slowly at number 24 because of all this cancer treatment, cancer treatment slows you down a bit it has to be said.”

You announced last year that you had cancer and then thankfully later last year that you were cancer free.

There is a personal element to this book in the character Mim, who Lou lost to cancer but still speaks to, were you writing all of that on your own cancer journey?

“You know what I said? I’d finished the book.

“I had chemo first, then surgery, then radiation so there’s no way I would have been able to write.

“I mean chemo was really hard.

“So thank whatever is up there the book was written, because I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“It was uncanny that she’s talking to a friend who died from cancer, and that her friend was saying the things which I believe and which I saw through this dear friend of mine, Emma Hannigan when she went through cancer.

“It’s that sort of concept of hating the word ‘battling’ because it implies that if you die, you haven’t battled hard enough which is such a crock.

“No one says that when someone who dies of pneumonia or a heart attack, ‘they didn’t battle hard enough’.

“Or that positivity is the answer to everything.

“No, it’s not.

“You have appalling days during cancer.

“Positivity is great, it helps you if you can do it but you’re not gonna be able to do it all the time.

“So it was uncanny that these things were in the book.

“It’s weird.

“Books are weird.

“Life is weird.

“I’m cancer free at the moment knock on all the wood we can find.

“I’m at the radiation part of the treatment which is tiring.”

Thankfully it has been good news but it must have been a shock when you were given that news..

“It was absolutely terrifying.

“I was told that I had cancer and then it was a matter of, ‘Well, we don’t know what it is until we get the biopsies back’.

“And then you’re thinking, ‘Jesus, what is it? What stage is it? What grade is it? What are my chances?’

“It’s absolutely terrifying.

“And it’s, as somebody put it recently, a life diagnosis because for the rest of your life, you’re sort of looking over your shoulder for this thing.

“So it’s a new reality.
“Professor Anne Marie O’Dwyer said, ‘You’re not going back to the person you were before. You’re different now’.

“You are different.

“You’re the same in lots of ways but you’re different.

“You’ve changed because you’ve gone through this- Okay, I’m going to use the word ‘battle’ and you’re on your own.

“My family have been just wonderful but you’re in your own head at night.

“And then I worry about my kids.

“I’m so lucky.

“I have two sons.

“They’re nearly 21 so that’s brilliant they’re older and my heart goes out to people- and we see it all the time because there’s so much about cancer in the newspapers now- who have really young kids and are diagnosed.

“I think, ‘Jesus, that’s terrifying, that really is. At least my guys are nearly 21’.

“One of my sons is in college in London.

“I couldn’t fly over and see him during chemo because my white cell count was so low, I picked up everything and I got pneumonia.

“But I can go over and see him now which is brilliant.”

You had a successful career as a journalist with The Sunday World writing film reviews and an advice column.

What was it like to swap that for writing novels?

“I always say to people myself and Paul Williams started in the Sunday World at the same time.

“But I knew nothing.

“I mean, I was sort of intelligent and yet somehow spectacularly thick at the same time.

“There was so much I didn’t know.

“When you’re that age, you know nothing.

“You’re a big eejit, so I was very much a big eejit.

“I think I’d make a fabulous journalist now with wisdom.

“I’m 57.

“I know a lot, I devour the papers but then there was a lot of innocence which was possibly not the best thing actually for a journalist starting out.

“That’s how we all start out, isn’t it?

“We’re all young and doing our best and faking it.

“You’re like, ‘Yeah, I know stuff. Look at me. I’m wise and clever and streetwise’.

“There were some great fun times and the buzz of working in a newsroom.

“I mean, that’s incredible: That buzz, or you’re going after story and it’s such a thrill.

“Then I was working just at home, I missed the buzz because I’m a very chatty person and I love people.

“So that was really, really hard.”

You have worked with many charities and been an ambassador with UNICEF since 2005…

“Very, very happy to be.

“I haven’t been able to really do anything (recently) because I’ve been staying off social media but I just got a thing, you know the way your phone says ‘this time last year…’?

“My last thing was going to Turkey the end of February last year with them because Turkey had had the huge earthquake.

“I think there was myself and two other news organisations on sort of a three day trip to see what was going on.
“It’s just devastating.

“You’ve got 50,000 people killed.

“Unfortunately due to the standard of housing in some areas, you have entire villages and towns that are wiped out.

“You have people living in really limited tented accommodation and they’re going to be there for years because it’s going to take millions and millions to get them back.

“You’ve got teenagers in tent classrooms.

“The problem is that the news cycle moves on, the world moves on.

“The horrific thing is we are always standing there going, ‘We need help’.

“We need help to help Yemen.

“I mean there are children in Yemen who are malnourished to the point that their brains are not going to develop.

“Small children need a certain amount of nourishment.

“If they’re not getting it, their brains literally don’t develop properly.

“That is a massive problem.

“People forget about that.

“For a while people are going, ‘Oh yeah, Turkey’. And, ‘Oh yeah, Yemen’.

“And then at the moment it is the horror that is Gaza so everyone looks at that.

“There’s endless tragedies.

“I’ve seen so many tragedies.

“It’s nearly 19 years that I’m working with UNICEF and it’s a huge honour to do something like that and come home and try and use my skills talking or writing to make it seem real because sometimes people don’t want to hear about it because it’s too hard to listen to.

“So it’s to try and make it seem real, to talk about one family and what they’ve gone through to try and bring it home to people so that’s what I try and do.”

Sisterhood is out now Harper Collins.

For more information about Cathy, click here.

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