By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
Less than a year ago writer Cathy Feeny abandoned the south of France for the wilder shores of Shetland. The isolation, peace and freedom of life here appealed to her and her stay has been productive – not least because she has perfected the art of baking bread and contributed to Shetland Life.
Feeny has had a successful writing career to date – she is the author of four novels and many plays and short stories, the latest of which is about to be read by actress Penelope Keith on Radio 4.
Making Ends Meet features a lonely divorcee made redundant by the credit crunch – she is trying to find ways to economise when a chance meeting changes her life.
The subject may appear serious, but Feeny said her writing, which is often about people who try to escape the narrow confines of society, reflects her libertarian left-wing ideals and is almost always humorous.
Feeny was always destined to be a writer. There was never a time, she said, when she did not write. As a young girl she fell under the spell of whoever she was reading at the time and created work in that style, hence The Family Fotheringay, a 15-page homage to The Forsyte Saga, and a drama inspired by Chekhov “in which nothing happened but people talked a lot about life”. There was also a great deal of poetry, later dropped in favour of fiction.
Another powerful influence was the “wonderful” English teacher Feeny encountered as a teenage exchange student in the United States fresh from the Guildford convent where she had been educated – a teacher who galvanised Feeny’s ambition to be a writer.
Feeny returned to Guildford to finish her schooling, then proceeded to an English degree at Leeds University and finally an MA in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she also taught for a time.
Throughout these years, and subsequently, she absorbed the work of women writers – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anne Tyler, Marge Piercy – who, she felt, “revealed the epic quality of everyday life, the quiet heroism of its decisions, sacrifices, kindnesses and absurdities”.
These are themes of her own work too, which is coloured by her being “a pacifist and an anarchist in the true sense of the word”. She said: “I have a deep distrust of authority and a profound faith in the general decency of human beings if they are left to get on with things for themselves.”
Her big literary break came when she was taken on by an agent and her four novels were published. Plays and short stories followed and she found time for journalism too – her articles have appeared in The Independent, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph and various women’s magazines.
Feeny earned her living in the real world by teaching in schools and universities. She was a writer-in-residence twice and helped restore and set up an alternative theatre where she did anything necessary – always, she said, a “hand to mouth” existence. A nomadic one too, with spells in the USA, France, Oxford, Canterbury and Brighton.
It was while teaching a creative writing course at the University of Sussex that she met the commissioning editor of Pier Productions who invited her to write a short story for a series entitled Brighton Women. This was read on Radio 4 and more radio work followed. She is now looking forward to hearing the broadcast of her latest work in two weeks time.
Now 51, Feeny arrived in Shetland last May with her partner Ray and their pet parrot, making their decision to move after a six-day visit.
Shetland, she said, has been a “revelation”. They have settled in Levenwick, enjoying hill-walking and discovering the wonderful seafood (food and its history being another of Feeny’s interests), and plan to stay long-term.
The sense of community and the strong identity are very attractive, she said, and the peace is conducive to writing.
“I’ve never lived anywhere bland, and I enjoy extremes, so the extreme northerliness and the wild weather appeal to me. I can’t get over the views of the sea, and the peace really helps me to write. I have a very low tolerance of background noise so hearing only sheep and birds is perfect.”
These qualities of Shetland life have been discovered by several other well-known writers recently – novelist Kevin MacNeil is now based in Cunningsburgh and poet Jen Hadfield has lived in Burra for several years.
- Making Ends Meet will be read by Penelope Keith on Wednesday 22nd April at 3.30pm.