Caragh Bell simply loves writing. She adores her characters – enjoys talking about them, and misses them when, having written, The End, she has to bid them farewell. But that comes as no surprise to the reader, since all the different personalities that crowd her book positively bubble off the page.
The author is quite as bubbly as her characters are. We’re speaking on the phone today, because of Covid 19, but I met her at the publication of her last book and took to her at once. Her positivity shines out; she talks fast and freely – and you sense that she gets the most out of all life has to offer.
Her latest novel, Gabriella, is set in the States in the world of fashion. Gabriella dreams of becoming the next Coco Chanel, but growing up in the Bronx, living with her Puerta Rican mother and grandmother, this doesn’t seem likely. Until she gains a scholarship to a prestigious school of design, where she befriends an aspiring model, Isabelle Flynn. The two vow to make it to the top.
So starts a glamorous trek through this exclusive world, charting all the ups and downs the girls encounter, both professionally and personally. Will success bring happiness, and will the two find fulfilment in the end?
This is a standalone, but those who have read any of Caragh’s previous novels will recognise a number of the cast of characters. Gabriella’s mum works for the Du Maurier family, headed by the super-bitch Victoria; the eccentric Colin makes a few appearances, and Luca features prominently.
“He’s my Rupert Campbell-Black,” says Caragh, referring to the dangerously attractive hero who stars in some of Jilly Cooper’s books, making an appearance in others.
Caragh is a massive fan of Cooper’s.
“She’s been a huge influence,” she says. “What I love most about her books is seeing her characters reappear in a different context. I wrote to her when my last book, Echoes of Grace was published, saying how much I admire her, and three weeks later I got a letter back. We started writing to each other regularly, and I sent her ‘Grace,’ and she was so lovely about it. When I asked if I could use her quote, she said, ‘I would be proud to be on your book.’”
Cooper’s quote reads, ‘I read until 2.30 am last night with so much joy,’ and its well-deserved; Caragh has an ability to write the kind of narrative that keeps the reader engaged throughout the 557 pages. Doorstoppers like Jilly Cooper’s and indeed, Caragh’s, whilst not as fashionable as they once were, are still in demand for readers who want their escapism filled with charm and humour.
Whilst Caragh has always had the itch to write, the road to publication has been anything but smooth. Brought up with privilege – her mum was a doctor; her dad a geography and history teacher Caragh says she never really had to try hard at anything in her early life. That changed when she was at college.
“I met John at University College Cork, and, at 22, got pregnant. I was in the final year of my degree and was so shocked and traumatised that I left with a sub-standard degree.”
She and John married when their daughter, Fódhla, was born, and later, Caragh decided to go back to education, gaining an H Dip in teaching, and following that with a Master’s in education. That was hard, because, by then the couple had three children.
“It was 2011. My third child, Lughan was only six months old. I was travelling for two nights a week, leaving the children. But I got a first-class honours.”
Whilst Caragh was juggling all that, she decided it was time to start writing. And over the next few years, by which time she was teaching English and French, she wrote a trilogy, self-publishing all three.
“I didn’t try and get the first books published because it was the recession, and there was a kind of moratorium on publishing. I read about EL James who self-published Fifty Shades of Grey and ended up making pots of money, and I thought I would give it a go.”
She worked through Amazon with Create Space; reader reaction was highly positive, and then, having worked on the publicity side, she got a review in The Irish Examiner. She sent this to the publishers, Poolbeg, along with the three books, and with her most recent one, Echoes of Grace.
“I signed with them in 2017.”
Caragh now has five children. And whilst Fódhla, at 18, is about to start college, the youngest, Feidhlim, is only 2 ½. She admits its hard fitting everything in.
“There is so much writing I want to do. I’m editing my sixth book now. It’s set in the music world, and is about an Irish pop star called Madison. I have my first draft done. Some of the characters from Gabriella are coming back.
“My seventh is a lovely story in my head which I’m dying to get started. I don’t have time – and then there’s this script I want to write,” she says, explaining that she feels scriptwriting will suit her narrative style.
“I think I would really like it. I taught the movie, Pride, to my Leaving Cert Students last year. We downloaded the script and I realised with my novels beings very dialogue heavy, they’d suit screen adaptation. And whenever I write I visualise what it’s like on the screen. I see everything in my head.”
And whilst, in many ways, Caragh would love to be able to dedicate all her time to writing, she’s not ready to forego teaching just yet.
“I do get tired. The work is stressful and full on and is becoming more about paperwork than anything else. I’m exhausted when I get home.” She sighs, and says, that after working from home during the lockdown, she realises there is a lot about her job that she would miss. “I’d miss the social aspect; the students, and my friends, and rubbing off other teachers.”
And besides, reading for her teaching often sparks her best ideas.
“I was reading The Great Gatsby at school, and I was intrigued by the social structure in America; that was a spark for Gabriella. My favourite scene is where Gabrielle goes to a yacht club and she is treated like dirt. She and her well born boyfriend struggle as a couple, which is terrible. It’s uncomfortable to read, but it could happen.”
Writers are often advised that they should never read bad reviews, but Caragh disagrees with this.
“I always read them. I learn from them and take the criticism through to the next project. You are constantly learning, and if I look back at the things I wrote five or six years ago, I cringe! I think, Oh my God!”
Throughout this conversation Caragh has been downplaying the quality of her books.
“I’m always excusing the books, but I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that they are escapism. And there’s a function and a place for them. They are the books I like to read, and I’m proud of them!”
Gabriella by Caragh Bell. Poolbeg: €9.99. Kindle: €4.41
Published in The Irish Examiner on July 10th.
© Sue J Leonard. 2020.