Catherine Isaac is a best-selling romcom author who is also a master of bittersweet family stories, the sort of stories that break your heart at the same time as they make it soar.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Catherine talks about her uplifting stories that delight readers with their glorious French and Italian settings, while challenging them to accept that sometimes it takes darkness to see how we shine.
We’ve got three copies of Catherine’s latest book, Messy, Wonderful Us, to give away to three lucky readers. In this story, two friends fly to Italy, one in search of her mother’s secret life, the other escaping a sudden separation. It’s an uplifting tale of love, regret, and second chances, just what we need in this time of COVID-19.
The draw closes on June 13 so don’t miss out. Before we get to Catherine, just a reminder that the show notes for this episode can be found on our website thejoysofbingereading.com That’s where you’ll find links to Catherine’s website and books as well as links to go into the draw to win a copy of Messy, Wonderful Us. Enter now and while you’re there leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How going to a wedding got Catherine writing
- What having a Mum in a wheelchair taught her about life
- Making light shine in darkness
- The gamble that paid off big time
- The writers she admires most
- What she’d do differently second time around
Where to find Catherine Isaac:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Introducing Catherine Isaac
But now here’s Catherine. Hello Catherine and welcome to the show. It’s so good to have you with us.
Catherine Isaac: It’s great to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Jenny Wheeler: You are in the UK and I’m in New Zealand and we’re in a time of pandemic. Can you paint a bit of a picture for our listeners? How is social distancing affecting you?
Catherine Isaac: I think we’re the same as most people. We’re kind of muddling through really. I’ve got three children, aged 15, 11 and 7, so they’re all at home doing their schoolwork here. Obviously trying to write in between printing out trigonometry questions is a bit more challenging than usual.
But we’re muddling through and we’re lucky because we’ve got a garden and I know that doesn’t apply to lots of people, so we’re just tootling along really. We’re fine.
Coping with Covid
Jenny Wheeler: I’ve spoken to quite a few people who say that even when they’re in rather comfortable circumstances, this virus somehow does get into their heads and distracts them from their normal thinking processes. As a former newspaper editor, are you finding it harder to focus? Are you a bit distracted by wanting to jump into news cycles still?
Catherine Isaac: I ‘ve always been slightly obsessed with the news. I was a newspaper journalist for many years before I became an author and I am permanently glued to the news and obviously there isn’t a great deal of good news around at the moment.
In terms of being distracted, I’ve heard a lot of people say that actually. In my case, I tend to find that in times of crisis I find writing a kind of distraction in itself and I do like submerging.
Writing as an escape
I can think of many examples in my life if things have been going badly elsewhere, somehow the writing seems to go well in that case. Don’t ask me why but I think it’s a means of escape for me.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. You can lose yourself in it, perhaps.
Catherine Isaac: Exactly. That’s not to say that I always find writing easy or anything like that, or easy to focus on, because I can think of so many times, usually when other things are going well, when I find writing incredibly hard and incredibly hard to focus on. Writing a novel does require such intense concentration that it isn’t always a given that that is going to happen, so I’m always very grateful when it does.
Jenny Wheeler: You were Editor of the Liverpool Daily Post and then you moved from that to being a novelist. Tell us how that transition occurred. Was there some ‘epiphany’ moment when you felt, oh, I must write a novel?
An avid reader all her life
Catherine Isaac: Like most authors I think my love of books began in childhood. In my instance, my mum was in a wheelchair. She had been involved in a very serious car accident before I was born so when we, myself and my brother, were brought up, we were housebound with her basically.
My dad would go out to work and she would bring us up even though she was wheelchair bound. That meant that we didn’t spend long days in the park or anything like that. What she did do constantly with us was to read.
I think it was because of that, that I became such an avid reader when I was a young child. I spent a long, long time really wanting to write a novel but not actually doing so. The epiphany moment I think came when I’d been in journalism for many, many years.
I’d wanted to write a novel the whole time, kind of harboured this ambition, even though I loved journalism, by the way, I really did love working, I’ve loved being a newspaper editor.
Inspired by bridesmaids
It was at a friend’s wedding and I was sitting in a pew and I saw her and her bridesmaids walking down the aisle and I thought, gosh, has anybody ever written a novel called Bridesmaids, a kind of romantic comedy type novel? And I thought at the time, I’m going to Google this when I get home and if they haven’t, I’m going to do it.
They hadn’t, so then I went home and I was on maternity leave at the time and I just wrote an hour here and an hour there. That really was the start of it for me. I wrote that book and then nine subsequent novels under the name of Jane Costello before this transition into different kinds of books, as Catherine Isaac.
Jenny Wheeler: How amazing. Was there something about those particular bridesmaids that sparked that thought in your mind?
Fun, friendship, wedding dramas
Catherine Isaac: No, not at all. I think being a bridesmaid is something so many of us have done and can relate to when it’s at that certain time in your life. I just wanted to write a book that had a really upbeat feel and was funny and was about friendships and all the dramas that go hand in hand with a wedding and all the funny things that happen.
It wasn’t anything specific. It feels like such a long time ago because that was my first book. That was 15 years ago now that that was out and it’s obviously a very, very different type of book from the work I do now. But it was a lovely start and I was really lucky in the sense that it was far more successful than I ever, ever dreamt it would be.
My aim at the time was, oh, wouldn’t it be great to get a book published? For it to have ended up in lots of readers’ hands as well was absolutely amazing.
Deeply emotional family stories
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. As you have alluded to, your work has developed into a different area now. You did those nine romance novels, all of which were best sellers, but you’ve moved more into general fiction and into slightly darker deeply emotional family stories. Tell us a little bit about that transition.
Catherine Isaac: A few things dovetailed really. First of all, I’d been writing the kind of romcoms for about 10 years, and I was feeling like, even though I loved them, I wanted to stretch myself and try something a bit more ambitious I suppose. So that was in the back of my head.
Then a friend of mine, somebody I know very well, discovered that his mum had a thing called Huntington’s disease. At the time I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know a great deal about it, I’m not sure I completely understood what it was beyond the fact that I knew it was some sort of neuro-degenerative disease, which it is.
A big health challenge
The thing about Huntington’s is that it comes on in middle age, usually anyway, and every child of somebody who has HD has a 50/50 chance of having the faulty gene that causes it. This was happening to this guy who’s a friend of mine, this kind of ripple effect of the whole of the disease, the fact that it affected entire families, sparked the idea for a story that was then to form the basis of You Me Everything, which was my first Catherine Isaac book.
That novel is about a woman who is a single mum and she takes her 10-year-old son to France, this beautiful place in the Dordogne, where they go to spend the summer with the boy’s estranged father. It’s because she’s discovered that her mum has Huntington’s disease, and that obviously has all the implications, not merely for her mum but also for her and the whole family.
A risk that paid off
It’s all set in this gorgeous place. When I set out, I didn’t want to write a book about a disease. I wanted to write a book about families and love and relationships and how people deal with that kind of news and knowledge and the decisions that go around it.
I wanted to make something that was funny as well as sad. The result was You Me Everything. Because it was so different to the work that I had written previously, my agent suggested the name change which felt like a big risk at the time because I had a readership, especially in the UK.
The Jane Costello books had been top 10 and it did feel like, are we risking too much here? I did have quite a few sleepless nights, I have to say. But You Me Everything turned out to be my biggest writing success to date and Lions Gate are now making it into a movie, which is really exciting. I think it’s up to about 24 different languages it’s been translated into now, so it was the right decision, I think.
Broke my heart and made it soar
Jenny Wheeler: Absolutely. Somebody wrote something very beautiful about that book. They said ‘it broke my heart and made it soar.’ So you hit the bitter sweet side of it very well. You did cover the darker stuff, but you also presented a lot of uplifting love and happiness and courage as well. That was a remarkable achievement and you went on to do something very similar with the next one, Messy, Wonderful Us, which has only been out since last month, I think.
Catherine Isaac: I think it might have been out a bit longer where you are. I’m not 100% sure, I’d have to check that. Because they all have different publishing dates and complicate matters basically. But yes, exactly. Messy, Wonderful Us is a similar thing in the sense that it’s also in a beautiful setting. It’s set in Lake Garda in Italy but it also covers themes that, as you say, do stray into darker territory. Messy, Wonderful Us opens with the discovery of a letter.
Truths likely to hurt
This letter is postmarked 1983 and it has arrived from Italy. At that time it’s been hidden away apparently forever because it contains all these secrets that are fairly unthinkable to certain people. It’s hidden away apparently forever until three decades later it’s discovered by the last person who was ever supposed to find it and that is the main character of the story, that’s Allie.
She’s a doctor, she’s a research scientist, and she stumbles across this letter in her grandmother’s drawer. It casts huge doubt on everything she has ever known about her family – who her family are, who her father is.
With the truth liable to hurt all those who are closest to her, she ends up having to discreetly hire a private detective who ends up tracing various leads to these secrets to Lake Garda. It’s there that she travels with her best friend, Ed, to try and unpick this story of what happened to her late mother in the summer before she was born.
It takes darkness to shine in
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve suggested one of the underlying themes of both of these books probably is that “sometimes it takes darkness to see how we shine”. Certainly your characters manage to shine and respond amazingly well to difficult circumstances. I almost wonder if there’s a little bit of Liverpudlian grit underneath it all. Is this part of your world view?
Catherine Isaac: I don’t know about Liverpool specifically. Maybe. Yes, possibly. That’s an interesting question. I think there are challenges thrown at my characters, there is absolutely no doubt about that. And the endings, I would say, without giving away any spoilers, are not your classic, fairy tale endings by any stretch of the imagination. And that is the case with both books.
Jenny Wheeler: No wish fulfillment, is there?
Catherine Isaac: No. The endings are very definitive, they are all tied up but it isn’t the fairy tale ending. I did that deliberately, simply because I think that’s how life goes.
Overcoming darkness with light
I think I’ve probably been influenced by my mum, to be honest. Like I said earlier, she was involved in this terrible car accident when she was in her mid-20’s and lost the use of her legs and yet she is an incredibly optimistic, fun-loving person, her and my dad. Ours was always the party house when I was growing up, it was always a place of fun and joy and we had a really, really happy childhood. I think that undoubtedly has affected my narrative when I’m writing about difficult things that happen to characters.
Jenny Wheeler: We have to assure readers that you do lighten it up with some gorgeous French and Italian settings. The food and the atmosphere and the scents in the air and all sorts of things create a wonderful feeling of armchair travel and escape. You’ve got that side of it as well, haven’t you?
Beautiful settings, uplifting mood
Catherine Isaac: Yes, definitely. Even though I’ve alluded to some of the darker things, they’re both very uplifting books. That’s the feedback that readers give me and that was certainly the aim. They’re uplifting because of the way the characters interact and, as you say, I love writing about gorgeous settings.
The first one, You Me Everything was set in the Dordogne. Italy is where Messy, Wonderful Us is set and of all the locations I’ve ever written about, that’s unquestionably my favorite. I just love Italy. I love the food, I love the people, I love the surroundings, I love all the history. That is absolutely all in there.
We went on a very, very tough research trip, as you could imagine, to Lake Garda a few years ago before I wrote the book. In fact, I’ve got lots of pictures all over my social media, on my Instagram if people wanted to have a look at it.
Pushing romance boundaries
It really is just the most gorgeous place so writing about it after we returned was an absolute joy, it really was.
Jenny Wheeler: You Me Everything was an international bestseller, as you’ve mentioned, but it also won a popular romantic fiction award. It’s interesting that there certainly is romance in it, but it’s a love story in the widest definition of the term, isn’t it? Do you think these boundaries are becoming more and more blended as genre expand their boundaries? What do you think about that?
Catherine Isaac: Gosh, it’s difficult to know. To be honest, I was quite surprised in some ways because I’d never seen it as a romance novel, I suppose. I had definitely seen it as a love story, but as you say, in the wider sense of the term, because it’s as much about the relationship between a woman and her son and a woman and her older parents as it is about a story between a man and a woman, although that is in there as well.
Avoiding pigeonholes as author
It was lovely to win the award though, I have to say. But clearly the genres are difficult. I always find it difficult to define what genre it is, really, because romantic comedy is obvious. This isn’t a romantic comedy. I personally definitely wouldn’t call it a romance. Women’s fiction is the other term, but I get lots of men reading it, so it’s very difficult.
It is a tricky one to try and pigeonhole into a specific genre. I think a lot of people are the same. You look at somebody like, let me think, even some of Jojo Moyes’ books, The Giver of Stars, for example, which has been her new one. What’s that? That’s not a romance, it’s a far-flung, sweeping historical, epic novel. I do think people tend to get pigeonholed and labeled into these things because it’s difficult to name something that they are.
Do all families have secrets?
Jenny Wheeler: Both those most recent books revolve around family secrets and in your book club questions for your readers, you ask them, do all families have secrets? I wondered if you’d heard back from your readers on that topic and what they say.
Catherine Isaac: No, I haven’t. I’d be interested if anybody had used these questions, but they’re for book clubs on a Friday night when people meet and so I tend not to be involved in what people’s answers are to it. Obviously, book clubs are very, very frank about whether they’ve enjoyed a book or which bits they’ve liked and all the rest of it, which I’m always fascinated by. But that specific question, I don’t actually know. I suspect the answer is they must, mustn’t they? I think all people have got secrets, so all families must. That’s my take on it anyway.
Her other life – as a romance author
Jenny Wheeler: I suppose that now in this day of a lot of online genealogy too, a lot of those secrets that might’ve once been buried are now much easier to access. That might be part of the reason why we seem to be coming more and more obsessed with families.
Catherine Isaac: Yes, absolutely.
Jenny Wheeler: As you mentioned earlier, as Jane Costello you wrote nine best-selling romcoms. Are you still writing under that pen name as well?
Catherine Isaac: No, I’m not. I think having taken the leap and with all the rewards that have come with the Catherine Isaac novels, especially things like the movie, I think for me that’s seems an obvious direction for me to carry on. Having said that, the Jane Costello novels seem to be getting loads of attention at the moment, I think because they’re so upbeat and they are pure out and out humor and warmth and all that kind of stuff. Without having seen any statistics,
Days to escape and laugh
I’m getting the impression that people are looking for that kind of read at the moment. In the UK we’ve re-released a couple of them and there are a couple of others, one in particular that I would love to see them re-release because it was my favorite one, which was Girl On The Run.
I think so many people are running these days and I think the combination of that, our need for escapism and a really good laugh at the moment, could really work. In terms of me actually writing new work, no. I’m working on another Catherine Isaac novel at the moment.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to your wider career away from the individual books, if there’s one thing that you’ve done more than any other that you would credit as the secret of your success, what would it be?
Catherine Isaac: One work, do you mean?
Jenny Wheeler: One either character trait or skill or talent.
Catherine Isaac: OK. Gosh, that’s interesting. The secret, I would say, is absolute refusal to give up. You’ve got to have that as a writer, to be honest. At the start of any book – I’ve written twelve, thirteen books now,
The secret of Catherine’s success
I’m in the middle of writing the 13th at the moment – when you sit you have a blank page with 100,000 completely unwritten words in front of you, it is the most daunting thing and you can easily convince yourself – in fact, I do every time – oh, God, this is going to be the one where I’m found out,
I’m going to be caught out on this, this is all going to be the one, I can’t do it. It’s the determination to push through those doubts and keep going until you get to the end and then keep refining. There are lot lots of knocks in this business, there really are, and it’s a question of brushing yourself down and getting going again.
I would say that really, more than anything. That’s what distinguishes a lot of published authors. That’s the difference between being published and being unpublished, I suppose – this determination to keep on rolling your sleeves up and keep going even when it isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be easy, by the way.
Blood, sweat and tears
I always think if a book has been really, really hard to write, it will end up being really good because you’ve put some blood and sweat and tears into it. If it’s too easy, you probably haven’t challenged yourself enough, if you know what I mean. That’s my theory anyway.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s lovely to hear you say that when you’ve written nine best sellers. People might think, oh, well it’s easy for her.
Catherine Isaac: No, it’s not easy. Not easy at all and it only gets harder, bizarrely, it really does. I suppose the more success you have, the higher you set your own bar, if you know what I mean. You don’t want to disappoint anybody and there is an expectation there. And for yourself, you don’t want to write something that’s second rate but you want to be better than the last book you’ve written. I think that’s what every author wants, is to think they’re improving with every book.
Always striving to be better
There has never been a point where I’ve sat down and thought, well, that’ll do, I’ll just write the next one and put any old thing out. I’ve never thought that. I’m always striving for the next one to be even better than the last one.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. This is called The Joys of Binge Reading, so turning to Catherine as reader, what do you like to binge read yourself when and if you get time for it these days?
Catherine Isaac: It’s more challenging these days, between the children and the writing. But I do still read every night and I’m a big fan of audio books as well. That’s become part of my life in the last couple of years. I’ve always got two books on the go. One is an audio and one is a normal traditional book. I read really widely, to be honest. My absolute favorite book in the last couple of years has been The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. I don’t know if you’ve come across that at all. John Boyne was the guy who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
What Catherine’s reading now
This is completely different, it’s a completely different novel. It’s this huge brick of a book but it is absolutely brilliant. What he as a writer does so brilliantly is be able to make a reader laugh out loud but also just weep. His characterization is sublime and there are twists and turns. I loved that book, but I’ll read anything and everything really.
I love some of the classics. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is my favorite book. When I was a teenager, that was the time I really got into reading every night and that amazing feeling when you’re so into a book that you cannot turn the light off. In those days I was reading lots of Stephen King and Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins and all that kind of stuff. That was proper binge reading, I think. But these days, it’s anything and everything.
What would Catherine change?
Jenny Wheeler: We are coming to the end of our time together, so circling round, looking back over where you’ve come from, in your writing career is there anything that you would change if you could do it all again?
Catherine Isaac: Oh gosh, no. Is that a really boring answer? I’m just trying to think. No, I definitely wouldn’t write thrillers. I’ve got the best agent I could ask for. I’ve got brilliant publishers.
Jenny Wheeler: How did you find your agent?
Catherine Isaac: I’ve actually got a different agent now from the one I first had. My first agent was a guy called Darley Anderson. He’s really big, he looks after people like Lee Child and Martina Cole. I knew nobody in publishing and was completely clueless at the beginning.
The business end of writing
Like I said earlier, I was on maternity leave at the time and I’d written the first chapter of this book and I’d done a synopsis and I bought the Writers and Artists handbook and that had listed all these agents in it. Each of them said, please supply three chapters and a synopsis.
I thought, I’ve done that. I’d written the three chapters and a synopsis, so I sent it off to all these agents and Darley, who I mentioned, phoned me the day after and said, I really think you’re onto something here. Could you send the rest of this afternoon?
At which point I had to tell him there wasn’t any more. But having somebody who was interested and thought I was on something really gave me a kick up the proverbial and made me want to carry on.
I then moved to Sheila a couple of years ago, Sheila Crowley, who is Jojo Moyes’ agent and she looks after Santa Montefiore. She’s massive in women’s fiction and is just brilliant. She’s what every author wants in terms of an agent in the sense that she is brilliant editorially but also so on the ball in terms of all the other things as well. She’s super.
What’s next for author Catherine?
It’s a really important relationship for an author to have an agent that they trust, who is there in the good times and bad times. She’s excellent.
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for Catherine the writer? How is 2020 shaping up? Even with this terrible situation we’re living in, what are your plans for the rest of the year with your writing?
Catherine Isaac: I don’t know when they are going to publish the next book because at the moment, certainly in the UK, it was originally planned for November. I’ve not been told anything otherwise, but I do wonder because I know for lots of other books the publication dates are being pushed back now, so whether that will have a knock-on effect, but as it stands, I’ve got another book coming out in November, certainly in the UK, so that will be the next thing to focus on.
The vagaries of pandemic
But for now, Messy, Wonderful Us is just out. Certainly for the moment that’s been my big focus – trying to focus on the promotion. We had a whole publicity tour planned for Messy, Wonderful Us.
I was due to be going on the Graham Norton show and two days earlier, we went into lockdown. That was supposed to be my career high, being interviewed by Graham Norton and unfortunately that didn’t come to pass. But there are worse things that can happen, aren’t there? So we’re just muddling through and doing everything we can at the moment to get that book into people’s hands, even in pretty challenging times.
Jenny Wheeler: What’s the name of the book that’s coming out later in the year, or maybe early next year now?
New book coming
Catherine Isaac: It’s called The World At My Feet. I’ll be able to talk more about that closer to the time because I haven’t even sent it to my editor yet, but the provisional title is The World at my Feet.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Do you like interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Catherine Isaac: I love interacting with readers. One of the absolute joys of being an author is hearing from readers both close to home and all over the world. They can interact with me online. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Instagram. I think the timing’s probably not very good for you though – I was going to say I do a Facebook live event every Friday, that’s at 1.00pm British Standard Time so I’ve got feeling that’s in the middle of the night for you.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, 13 hours I think is the difference at the moment so it would be 2.00am or something.
Where to find Catherine online
Catherine Isaac: Not ideal for you, then.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you record them?
Catherine Isaac: Yes, they all stay on there. In fact I should do some of them at a better time, I think, for people all around the world. But yes, I absolutely love interacting, so do come and say hello, I do interact with everybody who says hi, so please do. I’m on all of those platforms. They can find me.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. We’ll make sure that all of the links for those books that you’ve mentioned and for those websites are in the blog that we publish.
Catherine Isaac: One other thing I should mention, you’ve just reminded me. I do have a newsletter that goes out once a month, and there’s always a books giveaway in it, there’s all my book news as well. The giveaway is worldwide. My publisher in New Zealand covers New Zealand and Australia and they do specific giveaways for there as well. So please do sign up on my website.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. I know it’s a difficult time to settle down and do this kind of thing, so we’re really grateful to you.
Catherine Isaac: Thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
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