Cathy Cassidy is such a star that I worry a bit that we won’t be left alone in Costa when we interview her. I can visualise hordes of girls descending on Cathy once they notice her. It’s never happened yet, but I feel Cathy’s popularity is such that it just might. If an oldie like me can succumb to her charm, then there is little hope for young teenagers. She comes through the door and apologises for her plans having changed at the last moment. ‘I didn’t expect it,’ she says. After a bit more apologising from Cathy, I ask her how the tour is going.
‘It’s been amazing, I’ve had a lovely time. I was in Coventry yesterday, which is my old home town, and it was really emotional and so fabulous.’
‘How long is it since you lived there?’
‘Oh goodness, I lived there in the late eighties, and I taught there for a wee while. I left it to go to college, probably in about 1980 and was away for a bit. Then I was in Scotland working on Jackie Magazine, and then back again at the tail end of the eighties and that was the last time I ever lived there. I’ve been in Scotland for more than twenty years now.’
‘I keep listening for a Scottish accent, but you don’t have one.’
‘No,’ she laughs, ‘the kids in Coventry said “you have still got a Coventry accent”.’
‘Have you? I find it hard to tell.’
‘Yeah, I’m definitely not Scottish.’
‘How much touring do you do a year?’
‘It’s hard to say in a year, but I usually do two or three weeks when a hardback is out. Not so much for Cherry Crush, but there’s lots of other things going on in September. I was in Dublin and I’ve been to Reading. There’s Bath, and then there will be Cheltenham. And I’m obviously going to Edinburgh and Hay, and in the spring when the paperback comes out there’s usually a week’s tour for that. Then there might be individual schools or a library that might request an independent visit. If I can, I will try and do those. So it ends up quite a lot.’
‘Yes it does.’
‘But I do think it’s quite important for me to keep in touch with readers, because if you are writing for that age group… now I’m not doing any more magazine work, I really need to keep in touch with readers, to find out what matters to them.’
‘And do they share?’
‘They do. They really do. I’m really lucky like that, they’re the best readers ever.’
‘You strike me as a sort of favourite aunt, girls will tell you anything.’
Cathy’s coffee arrives. ‘I meant to get you a drink, not the other way around,’ she says.
‘I wouldn’t worry about it.’
‘So you’ve stopped your agony aunting have you? Because it says on your website…’
‘Yes, I spotted that. It needs updating and things. It’s not quite accurate.’
‘Yeah, I haven’t done that (the agony aunt job) for about three years now. It’s just the whole…’
‘Fame and riches’ I say, as Cathy slaps a fiver on the table.
‘It’s a contribution anyway.’
‘Tipping your interviewer. I don’t know…’ We laugh.
‘How many fans have you managed to see now?’
‘They’ve been really big events. In Coventry, in the morning event there were invited schools from all over the city, and an extra five schools turned up.’
‘There were over 400 kids there, which was quite emotional because it was my old home town. So that was special. But they are big events. They can be somewhere between 250 and 350 kids, and if you have two school events like that in a day, and maybe a public signing, as well, as I did yesterday, that’s a huge amount of people in a day. I try very hard to have some kind of contact with those kids and to answer their questions as they’re getting their books signed, or try to get them involved. A lot of them will contact me afterwards on facebook.’
‘Yes, I was looking at your page.’
‘I really like the format of that. It’s a great way of finding out what the kids are thinking. They might not be able to get to an event, but they can still keep in touch. They can let you know more about what kind of books are doing it for them. And I do get loads of emails that can be quite personal at times, you know? There is definitely loads of that even now that the agony aunt thing is in the past.’
‘They’ll open up to you?’
‘I know they’ll speak to me. I know that. I feel privileged. I love it that they see something of themselves in a character or they feel that maybe someone somewhere is writing about them, what they’re feeling, what they are going through. I don’t know if I ever told you about the best question I ever got? In New Zeeland, so I travelled across the world to hear it! I was asking if anyone had questions and a girl put her hand up and said “tell me how you know what it feels like to be me.” And I was like, “I can’t answer that”, because of course you don’t know, but we all have so much in common and also things different and unique. That’s one of the things you might get at that age when you’re reading a book, you look to find yourself in the story, as well as to lose yourself. Everybody wants to escape into a book, but at that age you’re looking to make sense of your world as well, so I think that’s what we still do. If you can find the best books…’
‘… connect with you; it’s something there that makes you feel “that’s good”. Or that somebody who’s written the story has somehow included you in their world, and that’s the kind of book that I like. A world that has a personal connection and I feel like I get that a lot from my readers. They are lovely because they will tell you. You know, kids of that age are so open and direct and the whole communications thing and the whole modern media thing, the internet, it makes it possible. I’m lucky.’
‘When they share things with you; do you put that into books?’
‘Staying with the agony aunt thing, the one that’s had the most comments was a non-fiction book, Letters to Cathy. I don’t know if you’ve come across it?’
‘No I don’t think so.’
‘It’s come directly from those emails, about help with things, from friendship problems , bullying problems, school problems, boy problems, any kind of problem. I wanted to write a book like that when I was an agony aunt, but nobody would have wanted to publish it. But now they will. I actually think it’s really important. It’s not another body book. It’s about feelings, feelings that mask the things that nobody helps you out with.
You haven’t got a blueprint for going through those growing up years, but I wish I’d had a book like that. Often your parents are the last to know, because you don’t want them to know that you are struggling, or to let them down. So that did come directly, from emails, so I fictionalised them a little bit, but they are very much based on the real thing.’
‘Who looks after your website? Is it you?’
‘Mainly me, yeah,’ Cathy takes a sip of her coffee, ‘my daughter does some updates for me, for pocket money. And I have a PA, who does freelance a day a week. She doesn’t do much website stuff. I’m a bit of a control freak,’ she laughs, ‘I quite like to know what’s there and what’s happening. And there’s never any time. I like that it’s interactive, and I like that the kids can get involved. Their ideas can develop into all sorts of different things on the website. The stuff about friendship is there because they want it to be there. It’s not necessarily stuff from the books, but it’s what matters to them. All the stuff about young writers, and they can post their poetry. You have some kind of responsibility.’
‘You do, yeah.’
‘It’s the way the world is now and you can’t ignore those things.’
‘Are all the recipes yours? I noticed you have an awful lot of recipes.’
‘Some of them are mine, but there’s probably a limited amount of cupcake recipes you can have. A girl brought a box of chocolates to one of my signings, and they were better than the ones I made. I was given a little cupcake with icing on it, and mine never look that good! The only interest I have in cooking is baking because I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth. I always feel slightly guilty about it, but if I was healthier it would still sneak into my books,’ she laughs.
‘I’ve got a picture my son took of you in Edinburgh at your book signing, and you’re standing there holding a cupcake, and I thought “my god, she probably has cupcakes all the time!”’
‘Bags full all the time! No honestly, it’s brilliant. Not every day. That’s why you can’t tour all the time.’
‘Is the Chocolate Box Girls series really going to take five years?’
‘It might well. If it’s humanly possible I will do it quicker because I know the readers want it. They want the next one now.’
‘That’s what I was thinking.’
‘If I can find a way of doing it quicker, I will, but it’s very difficult. It kind of takes five or six months to write a big book like that, because there is a lot of other stuff, the website, touring, book festivals, time to myself. I’ve had my first proper holiday in the six years since I started, but I do feel a lot better for it. That kind of refuelled everything, but there are a lot of things that take up your time and I’m writing as quickly as I can. I live in constant hope of becoming more efficient, more prolific. You never know…’
‘What book are you writing now?’
‘The third Daizy Star book at the moment. And after I’ve finished next week, I’ve got four days at home and then I’m away again. Then once I get home I’m at home properly, and I’ll be writing Vanilla Skye, which is the second instalment of Chocolate Box Girls.’
‘And will there be a nice new boy for each book?’
‘There will be a boy for each book, but not necessarily a romance. There will be boy characters. I don’t know if boys read the books. They keep very quiet about it in public. I loved it in Coventry. It was an all girl event except for one school that brought three boys, who all had their own book. Someone came in and said “we’re having a boys’ reading initiative, do you want to come and be with the boys?”, and the boys went “no we want to be here.” I loved them.’ She laughs loudly.
‘In Edinburgh I found this,’ I say, pulling out my copy of Our City, the charity anthology. ‘I was so keen to read it, and I thought your story was really good.’
‘I loved writing that.’
‘It’s both you and not you, in a way.’
‘It is me, totally me. Sometimes it’s nice to write a short story because it can give you more freedom in some ways, and some of the readers will be looking for something completely different. They might not know anything else about me.’
‘Yes, they might not have read your other books.’
‘I still feel strongly about friendship, it’s all about feeling, all about the important stuff that’s me, and it’s a secret way into the novels as well. You know there’s things like standing up for yourself, being an individual, saying no to bullying. It will be characters who are true to themselves and who are not afraid to be different to the crowd.’
‘Yes, I thought it was unusually political for you, and the fact that it doesn’t end all sweet and perfect.’
‘Real life isn’t like that. I think that there probably aren’t any happy endings. There are just new beginnings and that is the same for the endings of the books I write. It wants the loose ends wrapping up, but if you look at it there’s the ending that really starts another story. So that’s life, isn’t it? It doesn’t have a thick line drawn under it, you’re just moving on to the next bit. The books offer the potential for things to work out. You kind of know with that story, they probably will never find this girl again, but it’s the feelings they had about her.’
‘And that book’s got a friendship bracelet. It’s not just something for book signings, they do actually have a meaning.’
‘I’m wondering about your camper van. On your website the camper van seems to equals events, but do you ever use it privately?’
‘Oh yeah, we do. The camper van is probably used personally more than it is for events, now. Events have grown a little bit beyond the camper. It has actually been out less this year than it’s ever been, because you can’t roll it into a playground and expect to run a friendship festival around it…’
‘… with 300 kids. So now we hope to do events that have a little bit of extra, not just me standing talking about books. Hopefully there’s lots of add-on things we can do. I love the image of it (the camper) as an idea, the friendship festival thing, and hopefully it will still be out and about in the future. Maybe it needs to be indoors. And there’s global warming. And you’re going to need some help from schools if you’re working with 300+ kids.’
‘I saw a discussion on rabbits, probably on facebook. Is there really a disappeared rabbit called Einstein?’
‘I prefer to think of him as missing and that he’s living wild on the hillside, and bonding with the local wild rabbits, and that soon I might be seeing small orange, very hairy, slightly lop-eared rabbits which might have magical, mythical skills. Yes, he escaped. He was probably the friendliest, tamest rabbit we’ve ever had, so I’m not entirely sure if his survival chances are great. He would just run up to a fox and kind of go “hello!”’ We both laugh. ‘They’re all rescue rabbits, so they’re kind of free range if you know what I mean? They don’t get locked into their hutch at night, but they have a brilliant quality of life. Sadly his time with us wasn’t huge, but he enjoyed every minute of it.’
‘So at least he had some fun.’
‘You mentioned a dog.’
‘The dog I have now is a lurcher called Kelpie, and she’s eight years, but I did also have a greyhound, who was my Dad’s. She was a rescue greyhound and sadly she died last year. She was lovely; just like the dog on the cover of Michael Morpurgo’s Born To Run. It’s an amazing book.’
‘I knew you had the lurcher thing…’
‘“The lurcher thing”, that’s a very good way to describe her. That’s just what she’s like.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ I laugh.
‘She’s like a toilet brush on legs, that’s what she is. She inspired the character of Leggit in Dizzy. That is her really. And there’s two cats at the moment. One cat has been awol for about six months, and I fear has come to no good. We’re all hoping for a llama or chickens or something, but Liam says no. I probably need to do less touring if I want a llama.’
‘Yes, I was going to say you can’t want a llama and then just go away, can you?’
‘What are you reading at the moment?’
‘I haven’t actually managed to read much this tour because it’s been very long and I’ve come to a grinding halt with books. Usually I will wake myself up an hour early just to get reading. What I have started reading but haven’t actually been able to get properly into, is the new Sarah Dessen, Along For the Ride. Before that I read William Nicholson (Rich and Mad).’
‘Oh, you’ve read that one?’
‘Yeah, and I thought it was good. Obviously an older age group than I write for, but I didn’t understand what the fuss was about, why it was contentious.’
‘No, I don’t either.’
‘What he’s done he’s done in a really caring way, and I wouldn’t have a problem giving it to my kids to read. I thought it was done well. That’s the last book I managed to complete, at the start of the tour, when I was still sane.’ Cathy laughs.
‘What’s the best thing about being a writer?’
‘Daydreaming for a living.’ (Her answer comes so fast that it’s clear she’s thought about this before.) ‘Being able to write about cakes and chocolate. Sorry, that’s facetious, but (she laughs) it’s a thing I’ve always wanted to do since I was very little. It brings together everything I’ve ever done as well. All the things I’ve cared about. It just feels right, and I don’t feel that I’ll get bored of it. Even when nobody wants my stories, I’ll be there on my old cobwebby laptop. I’m addicted, but I love it; daydreaming and writing and making up stories.’
‘What do the children think? Are they past your age range?’
‘They are, and I suppose as well that whatever your Mum does, is never all that thrilling. They take it in their stride, but my daughter’s 16 and my son’s 18. They still read the books, but I’m really needing feedback from younger kids.’
‘What are you going to do about that? Are you going to recruit a few young readers?’
‘Yeah, I do. I sometimes use kids from the local area, children of friends and so on. If I was getting things wrong, I would need to be more intensive about research. As long as you’re with children a lot, you are still able to absorb. That means that there is always plenty coming at me, things that matter to them, things they care about.’
‘You must spend ages on email?’
‘Yes, a stupid amount of time. Watching TV is a rare occurrence for me,’ she laughs. ‘It’s not an easy job in that it’s very time consuming. It’s a 110% job, but that’s the way I choose to do it. It’s what works for me, and if I wasn’t serious about it and it didn’t matter to me, then I probably wouldn’t be interested. When I do something I love it has to be all or nothing. I was like that as an art teacher, and with the agony aunting. It mattered to me and I wanted to do it the very best way I could. You can’t do it half asleep.’
With that Cathy notices that she really needs to leave to go to her next event. I hope our chat won’t prove to have been too much on a busy day.
‘I had a really long day yesterday, and another today, and I will probably keel over pretty soon after, so you might as well get more out of me now,’ Cathy says and laughs.
And then we just have to admire her friendship bracelets, and Cathy pulls at each individual one, telling us about the history behind most of the colourful strands that make up her chunky bracelet. She knows her fans so well, and she really cares about them. There are sad stories behind some of the bracelets, but Cathy is full of hope and determination for her friends.
(Photos Helen Giles)