Dubliner Catherine Barry has been through the mill but lucky for us, she’s come out the other side with a cracking tale to tell. In Charlie & Me, her latest book published by New Island Books, she has found a way to channel her experiences into a tough, raucous but ultimately hopeful tale that is touching the hearts of readers all over the country and beyond. A published poet, novelist and short story writer, Barry has already written three fiction books: Skin Deep (2004), Null and Void (2002) and The House That Jack Built (2001). Charlie & Me, her first foray into non-fiction, documents her battle with depression and alcoholism and the support she found in Charlie Gallagher, a fellow traveller on the road to recovery.
Writing has always loomed large in Catherine’s life. She started keeping a diary when she was six and a love of books was encouraged at home. She says, “My father was a great man for literature and passed the passion on to me. He brought me to the library once a week, I fell in love with books there, and I realised at a very early age, I loved the ‘physical’ act of writing as much as the mental one”. It wasn’t until she was eighteen that she began to write seriously though, “poems mostly”, she says, “but I never had the courage to submit them to anybody – they sat mostly in my bottom drawer”.
Her creativity was destined to be aired however and this itself became part of the healing process. She explains, “I entered Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of thirty, and met Charlie Gallagher who became my ‘sponsor’”. A writer himself (of short stories and radio plays), he was instrumental in encouraging her to get published. She tells the story, “One day, we were sitting in my living room and he noticed a poem hanging on my wall. It was a wedding gift I had received. He asked me who had written the poem. I explained I had. He said it was too good to be hanging on a wall…. I explained I had roughly a hundred more in a drawer upstairs! He demanded to see them, as he was a good writer, when he told me I was too, I got the courage with his help to submit”.
Catherine quickly found a niche; “It wasn’t long before my poems began to be published, then short stories, and eventually I secured a contract with Simon & Schuster”, who published her first three novels. Yet like recovery from addiction, writing is not always a straightforward, “to-order” process. Even with three books under her belt, Catherine struggled with writer’s block for two years and she was unable to move forward, “I knew the content and structure was good, and just could not figure out why it was not working out on paper. I kept going backwards and forwards, instead of ‘shelving’ it, which is what I should have done”.
The breakthrough moment came suddenly when Catherine realised there was another story to tell. She says, “Without wanting it to appear cliché, I literally was woken from my sleep one night with the idea of Charlie & Me and suddenly understood, I had to write that story first and that was why I was struggling with the other one so much”. Where the other book had stalled, the entire outline of Charlie & Me came tumbling out as if by itself, “I stayed up all night when I had the ‘revelation’ and by early morning had the skeleton of the entire twenty chapters written down in small paragraphs. It all came to me so easily, I finally understood what I needed to do and I set about writing it immediately”.
Her addiction to alcohol was bound up with depression, which she suffered with on and off from the age of sixteen. She says, “Alcoholism and depression usually come hand in hand. It’s very common for sufferers to have an addiction, this is self medicating, of course, I did not know at the time I was doing that”. Depression and creativity have a complex, intertwined relationship – from the stereotype of the melancholy artist or writer to the portrayal of writing and other creative expression as therapeutic. This is certainly true for Catherine; “Writing has/does keep me ‘sane’. Writing Charlie & Me was in particular very therapeutic, as it is my first ‘factual’ book and an entirely different journey to the one I took writing fiction”. She also writes “daily pages”, a stream-of-consciousness exercise she’s followed for the last seven years and which helps her get in the mode to write for an audience. This move from fiction to non-fiction is one that not all authors will, or could, make. As Catherine explains, “It’s rare for authors to take a risk and start writing factual books when they are known as novelists. It’s not really recommended!” Yet as she explains, this was a book she needed to write, “I knew I had to write Charlie & Me, as much as it being a tribute to my best friend, I needed to write it for my own personal reasons, and in some way to pay him back for always being there for me, and to honour his own writing career”. Shorter than her previous books, it was also the most difficult, yet ultimately a labour of love, “Charlie & Me was originally 300 pages long. There were umpteen drafts over a period of two years – yet I have to say, I never enjoyed writing something as much as I did this book”.
Striking a balance between commercial and private interests is one which many published authors may struggle with. For Catherine, commercial pressures had a negative impact on her ability to write, “I loved writing my first two books, but when it came to writing Skin Deep, which was far more ‘commercial’ – forced upon me by my publisher – I laboured hard. I hated every second of it, and that is why I stopped writing for some years”. Yet in many ways this period of stalling was a blessing in disguise. The move away from fiction in Charlie & Me allowed her to find her niche and she realised, “my vein of gold is actually writing factual things. I found my ‘voice’ if you like”. Her experience is a heartening example of trusting your authorial instincts, and she happily tells us, “ironically Charlie & Me has had virtually no publicity and is getting about through word of mouth… I hope to seal deals in the UK, Europe, USA and Australia eventually”.
As you might expect from someone willing to so honestly describe her experiences, Catherine sees problems of addiction and depression on a social level; something to be shared and opened up. She quotes the “staggering and scary” statistic that one in every four people in Ireland suffer from a psychiatric illness (such as depression), yet “the problem is largely ignored and misconstrued mainly because of the ‘shame’ and ‘stigma’ label which comes with both illnesses”. She understands the power of writing to explore issues compassionately and sees this playing a large role in her future. With personal experience of depression and having worked with people in similar situations, she feels a certain responsibility, “I am on a sort of mission now to educate people about such matters through my gift for writing. I feel it is a calling of sorts”.
Book number five, Here I Am, will continue in the non-fiction vein and delve further into topics introduced in Charlie & Me. Honest stories of hidden lives can humanise and raise awareness of problems widely experienced but rarely talked about. Catherine feels strongly, “stigmas arise purely out of fear of the ‘unknown’, it certainly is not a lack of information. But people can sometimes relate better to personal stories, and that’s what I intend to write from now on”. Although Charlie & Me is not long in print, she is already overwhelmed with messages from people who have read it, “I really did not have any idea how affected people would be. I know of eight people personally who have entered treatment centres after reading it”. While understanding the important role a book can play, she is also humble, “I feel honoured and privileged to have been instrumental in helping others to move to recovery and start a whole new life journey”.
Catherine Barry is a brave, strong woman who has written a heart-warming memoir about addiction and depression, and the ultimate power of friendship. Through her humane rendering of this real life tale, she has immortalised a fantastic character and generously given their story to others as a form of solace and hope. In a sense the book can act as a “sponsor” in itself, one which I’m sure will offer lived wisdom and inspiration to readers for many years to come.