My Big Break: Catherine Deveney, journalist and author

CATHERINE Deveney is an multi award-winning journalist, whose third novel, Dead Secret, is out on the sixth of next month (published by Old Street).

Earlier this year, an article she penned for The Observer sparked a train of events that was to lead to the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, and a statement by him of ‘sexual conduct… below the standards expected…’.

When did working in the media first start becoming an ambition?

I became a journalist almost by accident. At 20, I moved from Glasgow to the Highlands for my first post as an English and drama teacher. Schools were all I’d known and, to be honest, I felt a bit stifled. I used to see cars winding along the A96 from my upstairs classroom window and think, I don’t know where you are headed – or why – but I wish I was going too.

When I had my first baby, I was in a rural area, away from family, and childcare was an issue. I thought about writing and sent off a piece to The Herald. I heard nothing but it suddenly appeared in print. If it hadn’t, I might not be a journalist now.

I hate cold calling – I still can’t sell – but that gave me courage to phone the Daily Record’s women’s editor. She liked one of my ideas but out of the blue said, “Are you a journalist?”. I won’t lie so I had a brief internal debate. Was I a journalist? Didn’t the piece in The Herald mean I was freelance? I heard the word ‘yes’ coming from my mouth, and didn’t look back.

What was your first ‘media job’?

Almost immediately, I established connections at Scotland on Sunday. The news editor, Will Peakin, asked me to come and see him and I ended up working exclusively for them. In a way, working for one paper suits me: I probably work best when I feel loyalty to a team or title. When that goes, so do I.

Over the years I did news, features, a lifestyle column in Spectrum, and I even became the paper’s diarist for one nightmare year. Since I was living on Highland farmland, it was stretching it to pretend I was part of the in-crowd. It had its funny moments. I was on the phone to someone in the city when a cow mooed loudly outside my window. The person stopped talking and there was a heartbeat of silence. Then a puzzled voice said, “Sorry, did you just say something?”

Describe, briefly, how your career unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.

I eventually went on staff at Spectrum, though I also wrote for the main paper when needed at elections and big events. Writing features always felt liberating compared to news, like being allowed to think in colour instead of black and white. I also did some television interviewing for Tern Television in Aberdeen, now a very successful independent company.

I was travelling to London a lot for Spectrum. My day would start at 5am for the early flight and didn’t end until after 10pm. It became an exhausting treadmill but I learned a lot.

I have always believed that talking to so many people, in so many different situations, gave me emotional insights that I wouldn’t have had in my own life. Eventually, I channelled the things I learned about the way people think and feel and act into novels. The initial trigger was the death of my father and that first novel was tucked away for a long time. I’m so pleased it’s finally out. It’s my third published novel and I now combine writing fiction with journalism and training for the NUJ.

Any particularly big breaks along the way?

Your biggest break as a writer is finding people who believe in you. An old colleague said to me recently that the early days of SoS were like being in a pirate ship out at sea: gung ho and full of spirit and camaraderie. The upstarts taking on the establishment. I was lucky to enter journalism at that more optimistic time. It’s all a bit more brutal now.

I suppose winning the awards that I did changed my career. When I won Journalist of the Year in 2005, I decided it was maybe time to stop feeling like an imposter. This year, my big moment was breaking the Cardinal O’Brien story in The Observer.

Getting published is always partly luck and timing. I came across Old Street, a small independent publisher, as an interviewer and asked my agent to approach them. They have a similar spirit to that ‘old pirate ship’ and I feel very at home with that.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

There are so many people to be grateful to along the path of any career. People like Will Peakin, Willie Paul, Nigel Billen, Margot Wilson and Mark Douglas-Home gave me a toe in the door at the start. Later, editors like John McLellan and Tom Little supported me, as did Clare Trodden who remains a close friend. She had integrity, loyalty and guts – valuable qualities in journalism.

David Strachan of Tern took a big risk with me, while Paul Holleran of the NUJ not only supported but employed me.

More recently, Ruaridh Nicol and Paul Webster at The Observer and last – but not least – Ben Yarde-Buller of Old Street.

What do you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

Dying in the attempt isn’t always necessary. And security isn’t everything. When I left a staff job in 2010, it seemed a risky time to freelance. But it’s funny how things ‘turn up’ and I am so much happier now.