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Charlotte M. Kelly


Blarney Castle is now very old, 
About it a story is told 
Of a wonderful stone in the wall: 
If you kiss it you're likely to fall.

After this remarkable effusion the Muse mercifully abandoned me, and for the next twenty years my pen was inactive. Not so myself. I finished my education at the Bar Convent, York, the oldest school for Catholic girls in England, I spent a year in Lille, teaching English and studying French, with a passing glance at the history, literature and art of France. There was a winter in Switzerland, some leisured months on the Riviera, a delectable spring on the Italian Lakes, and a rapid tour of Belgium. Here was material for the aspiring writer, but it just never occurred to me to use it, except in voluminous letters to my friends.

Only when I settled down in Dublin, my native city, did chance-or more properly, Providence-start me on a career that, despite its trials and tribulations, has given me untold joy.

It all began when someone was asked to review a novel by Maurice Walsh for an Irish periodical. That someone passed the job to me-if I would do it. I would, if I could. I doubt if many books have ever received such attention from a reviewer. I read and reread, I wrote and rewrote. Restricted to a few hundred words, I found space for a colourful quotation and a moral reflection. Then I copied the final draft in my best handwriting and sent it off. I can still recall the excitement with which I saw my masterpiece in cold print. It seemed incredible that I-I had written it. That review was followed by others, but still it never struck me to "write," until an enterprising editor of the same periodical gave me my first commission. It was one that today would fill me with dismay, but then I tackled it cheerfully. Would I do three 3,000 word articles on the brothers Vrau, industrialists in the north of France and pioneers of Catholic Action? The source from which I was to get my information was a closely printed 400 page biography published early this century in French. I had never heard of the Vraus, but the town in which they lived was, by the dispensation of Providence, the one where I had learned my French. I knew the background, I knew the language. All I had to do was to write the articles. Well, I wrote them-I don't know how long I took, months probably-and they were published unaltered. I was a writer.

About this time, I began to work in the Central Catholic Library, Dublin, and, fired with enthusiasm, took a course in library training in University College. I was duly conferred with my Diploma, but I never got a job as a librarian, though I did and still do voluntary work in the Central Catholic Library. This is the place to pay tribute to the invaluable help that I and many other writers have received from the Library. But for it, I should never have been able to continue writing.

In 1931, I used the first money I had earned with my pen to visit my old school in York and was invited to record my "impressions" in the school magazine. This is where Providence really took a hand. One of the "old girls" to whom the magazine was sent was married to a member of an English Catholic publishing firm. He read what I had written and sent me a friendly and unofficial-how unofficial I was to learn later-invitation to write a book for girls, using the school as background. "But I can't write a whole book!" I protested. I had never even written a short story. A well-known writer had told me: "You can either write fiction or you can't." This was my chance to find out if I could, or not.

I began. My characters came to life, spoke, moved, thought, apparently of their own volition. That was an unforgettable day. My pen (I could not type at this period) travelled fast, presenting a photographic and embarrassingly eulogistic picture of my school days, and with the sketchiest of plots. As an expression of affection and gratitude it was a pleasing production; as a story it was an arrant failure. The publishers returned it with polite regrets. It seemed the end of everything. In fact, it was only the beginning. That manuscript, unpublished to this day, not only supplied me with the material for countless short stories, it proved that I could create characters, but that I knew nothing about plot-making. This defect was remedied by my taking a correspondence course in short story writing, which taught me the technique, if little else. Following that rejection, however, came the suggestion that I try another tale, with a Swiss background. I wrote the story. It was refused, fortunately. For it was to be the first of a number of serials that the editor of Ave Maria has accepted since then. I had never heard of the magazine until some one said to me about this time: "Why don't you write something for the Ave Maria?" Without much hope, I sent it a little tale about a gentle French demoiselle I had met abroad. It was accepted and I was asked for more. Thus began a long and happy association that continues to this day. Stories, articles, juvenile and adult serials, found a welcome in its pages, and two of my books, a juvenile, Those Terrible Trents (1948), and a novel, Laughter of Niobe (1949), were published by the Ave Maria Press.

Now my years of travel began to yield a harvest as I wrote for other American periodicals, and for Catholic and secular publications in England and Ireland. I have always loved writing for children. My first story for the Catholic Children's Realm, an old-established English magazine, appeared in the mid-thirties, and I am writing for it still, as well as for the fat shiny Annuals that appear in London at Christmas time.

My endeavors to find publishers for my books were a series of triumphs and disappointments. My story about Switzerland, The Mystery Man, was eventually (1948) brought out in book form in London by Newnes, years after it had been refused. An English publisher accepted one book and put me under contract for two more. Five years later I bought back the unpublished manuscripts. There was a slump in the juvenile market. . . if I could wait. I had waited long enough. The books were subsequently serialized in the United States.

I did not confine myself to fiction, however. An article intended for a minor Catholic magazine was passed on to the editor of a learned quarterly, whose contributors had strings of letters after their names. It was accepted, and others suggested. The payment was negligible, but it was the honour and glory to be there at all. It was then that I learned the mingled pleasures and pains of research; the wearisome plodding through old letters, old documents, the dusty files of newspapers, for some essential information, the exultation of finding in a yellowed newssheet a three inch paragraph that supplies the clue to a baffling problem.

But a newly appointed editor, looking in vain for letters after my name, began to wonder what I was doing in such company. Diplomatically he accepted my next article, but delayed publication so long that I demanded it back- something that I'm sure none of his other contributors have ever done. We parted without ill-feeling, but with mutual relief. (Perhaps he had heard about the shiny Annuals!)

Should Catholics write only about Catholics, and on subjects of Catholic interest ? That is a question one often hears. To my mind, the answer is this: if you want to make money don't write such books or articles; if you want to write them, don't expect to make money-at least in the British Isles. It's as simple as that, so take your choice. Some writers have no choice, if they depend on the pen for a living, and the living of others. But for those who write for jam, rather than for bread and butter, the choice is there, unless you happen to be a Graham Greene or a Frances Parkinson Keyes.

Personally, I am in the "writing for jam" category. I write fiction for both Catholic and secular publications, but my articles have usually a Catholic interest and are published in Catholic magazines. I am a little chary of Catholic novels, because I feel that no form of writing has so many pitfalls. It is comparatively easy to write a poor Catholic novel; it is immensely difficult to write a really good one. My ambition is to write books for Catholic children; not 'pious' tales, but good honest stories such as the non-Catholic publishers will produce, with the important addition of the background of religion that a Catholic child takes as a matter of course. I am never quite satisfied when I write any other kind of tale for children. Such a book as I described, A Year for Sally Ann, was published for me by Walker of London in 1957.

What advice would I give to young writers? First, to thank the Almighty for an inestimable gift; and secondly, to write and write and write, until your fingers ache, your eyes burn, and the words cease to have any meaning, and the pile of rejection slips mounts steadily, while the acceptances can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If this prospect appalls you, throw your typewriter into the river and take a job as a dishwasher, a band leader, anything you like. But if, disappointed, disillusioned, weary to the point of exhaustion, you still pound away, then you have within you that something that neither school, nor course, nor "easy-aid" can give you: the God-given gift of creative power.

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