At Home With Cathy MacPhail

Much has been written about popular Greenock writer Cathy MacPhail who is a pleasant, unassuming woman who feels that life has been good to her.

For biographical details about Cathy and information on the books she has had published go to:

http//www.catherinemacphail.co.uk or Google her or go to Wikipedia.

My story is about Cathy MacPhail “at home” since she was gracious enough to grant me an interview to talk about her life and her career as a published author.

Cathy was born, Catherine Green, in Greenock on 25th January, 1946.

I wondered if sharing her birthday with Rabbie Burns had any significance for her.

“I was interested in writing stories from a very young age,” said Cathy, “so I thought that it was not altogether accidental that I was born on the same date as someone as famous as Burns.  I dreamed that, maybe when I was older, I would be a famous writer too.”

Cathy’s story is not exactly a “rags to riches” story but is the story of a wee girl who dreamed a dream with all her heart and it came true.

There were four girls in Cathy’s family.  She was the third child of her parents and her father died when she was only two and her mother was pregnant with her fourth child.   Baby Teresa was born two months after her father’s death.  It was hard on her mother bringing up four girls under the age of eight on her own.  Theirs was a happy home and their mother made many sacrifices for her daughters and worked hard to support them so that they did not go without.

As youngsters, they did not go away on holiday but they went on day trips during the summer holidays. “Every year, on Fair Wednesday, we went on the TV train to Edinburgh. There was a studio on the train and children could go into the studio and sing or perform.  It was a competition and Teresa and I sang together but we did not win.  I think it must have been the song we chose because we loved singing.

“I loved school,” Cathy remembered “and would like to have stayed on at school and possibly gone to University, but I was aware that money was short at home and I was expected to go out to work and earn a wage.  So, I left school at fifteen and got a job in the mill (Fleming Reid’s).  I still have a lot of friends from my days in the mill.”

Even then, Cathy was writing and dreaming of the day when she could get her stories published and earn her living as a writer instead of working in the mill.

IBM had a recruitment drive in 1965 and Cathy and her sister, Teresa, each managed to get a job assembling IBM computers. “There was great camaraderie among the workers and some of the friends I made then are still my friends.”

But, the writing bug had never left Cathy and she continued to write and to dream that one day she would fulfill her ambition.

Cathy married Archie MacPhail and they had three children, David, Sarah and Katie.      “As a family, we went on caravan holidays to Pittenweem and later to Scarborough,” she told me,” and each holiday we took, my mammy came with us,” declared Cathy.

Archie died in 2001 at the age of fifty seven, after a period of illness which lasted for many years.

Cathy speaks very highly of Janetta Bowie who founded the Greenock Writers’ Club and who gave Cathy tremendous support and encouragement when she was a fledgling member of the Club.  Although Cathy had always written stories and articles it was at the Writers’ Club that she learned how to structure her writing and to aim for each story she wrote to be published.  Janetta Bowie did not believe that writing was a nice wee hobby.  It was to be taken seriously and stories were meant to be published so that they could be read by a wider audience and not languish in a box under the bed!

I wondered if Cathy’s mother had known of her success and that she had gone on to achieve her ambition.

“My mother knew that my first book “Run, Zan, Run” was going to be published but she died in 1993 and the book was not in the shops till 1994. Nevertheless, she was proud of me,” said Cathy.

And so to Cathy’s books: Cathy’s dander was up when she wrote her first book “Run, Zan, Run” because her daughter Katie was being bullied at school and Cathy was incensed about it.   She poured her feeling out on paper and wrote a book based on the incident.  It won the Kathleen Fiddler Award for the first book by a new author.

This was followed by her second book “Fighting Back”.  After that, there was no stopping Cathy as she published book after book as well as having plays broadcast by the BBC and her series “My Mammy and Me” broadcast on BBC2.     Wouldn’t her Mammy have been delighted with that?

I asked Cathy what book she found hardest to write and she said it was “Fighting Back”.

“I had written “Run, Zan, Run” and was given a contract to write another book.  I found it hard to hit on an idea for my second book because it felt like I was having to write to order.  However, I came up with the idea of writing about a loan shark and putting into the book characters based on people from my local area.

                     

 

Which book was most enjoyable to write?

“I loved writing “Granny Nothing”.  It was great fun and I found it really enjoyable”

“Do you have a favourite among your books?”  I asked.

“I like them all for different reasons”, replied Cathy. “I wouldn’t say there was one that was my favourite.”

Which authors do you like to read?

“I’ll read anything,” was Cathy’s reply.  I enjoy everything from Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to Stephen King and Agatha Christie.  Among books I have enjoyed reading is Jane Eyre.”

I wondered if Cathy had ever tackled writing poetry and if it was any good.

“I’ve tried my hand at writing humorous verse or writing the words for songs,” Cathy admitted, but writing books for teenagers and younger children is where my talent lies.  However, I write a variety of other things too.”

One of Cathy’s books, “Out of the Depths” came about when Cathy supplied the first line for a short story to a group of pupils from a Secondary school.  On her return visit, teachers and pupils asked her if she was going to write a book based on this “exercise”.  Cathy couldn’t resist the challenge and “Out of the Depths” came into being.

 

A Series of Books by Cathy MacPhail 

Cathy was asked by her publishers to write a series of book.  She wrote Nemesis, which was a series of thrillers based on a boy who was on the run and he could not remember why because he had lost his memory.  In each succeeding book he gets more of his memory back until, by the final book, he has fully recovered his memory and the pieces all fall into place.  The books can be read separately but they are also linked together for readers who want to follow the story through to the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                        

 

  One of Cathy’s Many Awards

                       

 Another Honour for Cathy

Cathy standing proudly beside her trophy cabinet                                              

This is Cathy’s own personal bookcase containing her copies of her books, many of which have been translated into foreign languages like French, German, Swedish and Russian, Dutch, Italian and Malaysian.   Some of Cathy’s little knick-knacks pertinent to her career as a writer can also be seen.

  

 Many of Cathy’s books have been translated into other languages like French, German, Russian and Spanish, Dutch, Italian and Malaysian.     

 

 

 

I wondered how children from other cultures coped with the vernacular but Cathy said that seemed to have  been taken care of by the translators.  Australian children are avid readers of Cathy’s books and “scunnered” was one word that Australian children wanted clarified.  Cathy gets feedback from readers in Malaysia who are very interested in relationships and families in our culture.  Cathy receives many e-mails from her American readers.

 

Award Winning Roxy’s Baby      By Cathy MacPhail

                            

 Cathy won the Scottish Book Award for both these books

This is the winning design for a book cover for one of Cathy’s books, Grass.   The competition was open to school children to design what they thought was a suitable cover for the story.

 

Two questions I wanted Cathy were, “What kinds of things or people do you love and what do you hate.

“I love my five grandchildren and I see them as often as I can.”

“Silly question,” I said, “but what do you like about being a Granny?”

“What’s not to like?” replied Cathy, simply.

“I hate anyone or anything that hurts children,” Cathy said with feeling.  “I can’t stand anyone doing anything that would harm children.  I really don’t like to think of children having to be taken into care.”

 

A selection of Cathy’s books  showing a variety of covers.

 

                                                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cathy gives a lot of her time to helping children’s education.  She does school visits and workshops in which she tries to raise the aspirations of children and tries to motivate them so that they have faith in their own ability and are willing to try to write poetry or short stories.

Workshops and classes in creative writing for prisoners are among the things Cathy does.

Some prisoners are semi-literate and lacking in self-confidence.  Cathy points out to them that she left school without any formal qualifications and did not go to university to obtain a degree.  However, she did go to classes later on to get her Highers and she worked tirelessly at her writing and now she is a published author many times over. This puts a different slant on things for them and gives them the incentive to try creative writing for themselves.

Recently, Cathy returned from a visit to The House of Lords where she attended a reception in her capacity as a “Volunteer Reader in Schools”.  “It was very exciting and I was thrilled to be there.”

 

Cathy takes time from her busy schedule to give talks and do workshops in both primary and secondary schools in various parts of Scotland.   I’m sure the pupils are among those who buy her books and it must be exciting for them to meet her “in the flesh”.   It also keeps Cathy in touch with the target audience for her books.

 Cathy talking to pupils at Kilsyth Academy

                     Cathy during a teaching session at Millburn Academy

 

Early in her career Cathy acted as a “Ghost Writer” for Jack Kirkland.  Jack retired after thirty-six years as an ambulance driver.  He had kept many cuttings etc. of fires he attended throughout his career.  Jack also had information about the Ibrox Disaster. 

Against the advice of her friend and mentor, Janetta Bowie, who told Cathy to stick to her own writing and not to get sidetracked by writing someone else’s story, Cathy collaborated with Jack and his book was eventually published. 

Unfortunately, there was some mishap with the publishing company and Cathy was not paid a penny piece for her time and effort.

 

Cathy has always been a keen cinema goer and she and some of her friends campaigned long and hard to keep the last cinema  in Greenock, The Regal, open.  They wrote letters to the “Greenock Telegraph” and encouraged people to come out in their numbers to the pictures or the cinema would close. It was to no avail and Cathy and her friend, Rene, were the last two people to leave The Regal before it closed its doors for the last time.

Every Friday night, Cathy and Rene go to the pictures at the “new” cinema in Greenock. 

“Is it escapism for you?” I asked. 

“No,” replied Cathy, I watch the films to study the plot and to see how the characters are developed.  It helps me in my writing.  It’s the same when I watch TV or read books,” added Cathy,” I’m always analysing  the plot carefully or studying the role played by each character so that I can learn more about the art of writing.”

To end on a high note, Cathy is thrilled that one of he books, “Another Me” is about to be filmed, with Jonathan Rhys Myers taking the leading role.