STAYING TRUE TO HERSELF
Eilis O'Hanlon meets up with the successful Irish author.
It is the night of Friday 20th February 2000. Viewers across Ireland are sitting down in front of the television to select the country’s entry for that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The winner turns out to be a little known singer called Eamon Toal, whose ‘Millennium Of Love’ went on to finish sixth in the contest with, curiously, the only song of the night to make reference to the turn of the century; but February’s show was more memorable for another reason. Coming third that night was a song called ‘When You Are Near’ from boy/girl band Shimma, whose line-up featured a fresh-faced eighteen year old by the name of Cecelia Ahern who would, within a few short years, have emerged from nowhere to become one of the most famous authors on the planet.
What if? It’s a question which often haunts Cecelia Ahern’s books. What if there was a world where all the lost people and misplaced things could be found? That’s the premise of A Place Called Here. What if imaginary friends were real and they needed us as much as we needed them? If You Could See Me Now explores the question. Cecelia Ahern’s life is rich with the same ruminations. What if Shimma had won that night and music had taken the place of words? What if she had never written PS I Love You, the book which launched her onto the world of international publishing at such a young age? Ahern herself,
whilst interested authorially in the possibilities that life throws up, does not seem to be given to such speculation. If it was meant to happen, it would have happened, seems to be her philosophy. ‘Whatever is, is,’ as she puts it.
It’s a code which clearly extends to her personal life too. We meet in a hotel in the quiet seaside suburb of Malahide in north Dublin, where she lives with her husband, actor and former athlete David Keoghan.
A pretty and surprisingly tiny twenty-something, she is pregnant with her second child. It would be understandable if her attention was elsewhere, but she is wise to the demands of the professional writer and wouldn’t dream of disappointing. Does she know, though, if the baby is a boy or a girl? ‘No.’
Well, I wouldn’t expect her to tell me anyway, but she’s adamant. ‘I don’t want to know.’ Later a waitress, herself pregnant, comes to take our order and asks the same question. Cecelia repeats the same line, though admits that it’s a different bump than the last time, when she gave birth to a daughter. Unconvinced, the waitress and I still think that it looks like a girl bump. (As it happens, we’re both wrong. Five weeks later, Cecelia Ahern gives birth to a son, Sonny, brother to two-year-old Robin). The waitress is incredulous that she doesn’t want to know, but the author simply smiles and insists: ‘Sure, I’ll find out soon enough.’ She’s even happy with her height. ‘I like being small.’
‘No matter what life throws at us, it’s in all of us to think we can’t do it, but then, most times, we do end up doing it and by the end of it, we’re all the stronger for it.’
Not many authors would get away with talking about their work the way she does. There can’t be a writer alive who is less cynical about their craft. ‘I love my books, I get totally involved in the writing. I cry when something sad happens. I laugh when I write something funny. If I don’t think it’s sad, how can I expect somebody else to? If I’m not moved by it then it’s not good enough.’ Her books haven’t all been equally effective, but she ponders for a long time when asked to name her least favourite.
‘I do have one,’ she concedes, ‘but it wouldn’t be fair to the readers to say which one it is because
that book might be their favourite. And anyway, if I hadn’t written that one, arguably I wouldn’t be where I am now.’ There’s no doubt about her favourite, however. ‘PS I Love You’, she answers immediately when prompted. Readers certainly seem to agree. The story of a young widow named Holly who is guided through the depths of grief to a better place by a series of letters left behind by her late husband Gerry was a perfect marriage of content and form, and remains her most popular book.
‘It was the start of my career and I poured so much of myself into it. I worked on it day and night, all night. I didn’t write it for anybody but myself.’ From the way she talks, it seems as if it almost possessed her for the duration of its creation.
Maybe this is the core of Cecelia Ahern’s appeal. Where Rainbows End, the sequel to PS I Love You, was a very different book, spanning the relationship of one couple over half a century through letters, diaries, emails – a form of epistolary novel which, albeit less popular nowadays, was common in the pre-modern era (though as to that Cecelia Ahern admits with refreshing honesty: ‘I don’t read classics. At the start I used to be embarrassed to admit that but not now. They don’t do anything for me.’) Either way, it was a risky venture, but Ahern simply did what felt natural at the time.
Likewise, she dismisses the idea that her fresh, rather innocent books might become more raunchy in response to the ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, which does seem to represent a sea change in the market of romantic writing by and for women. ‘No, no, it wouldn’t be me,’ she says, slightly aghast at the idea. ‘If you’re cynical about your work, readers will pick it up.’ That sense of staying faithful to one’s true identity is the key to understanding her work and why it has been so successful. Her sitcom, Samantha Who?, similarly told the story of a woman who wakes up after an accident with retrograde amnesia and sets about trying to piece together a sense of who she was before, and then to put right the mistakes which that past self made.
The theme was most obviously dramatised in The Time of My Life, in which Lucy Silchester is, literally, avoiding her Life, which has manifested itself in the form of a strange figure called Cosmo who insists on following her around, demanding to be heard, refusing to be ignored. The message – that you might give up on life, but life never gives up on you – is quintessential to Ahern’s work. She takes feelings which everyone has had at one time or another, and, by giving shape to the conflicts which they arouse, shows how they can be resolved. Even though Lucy is a spiky, sometimes unlikeable woman, in vivid contrast to some of the almost too saintly heroines who populate popular fiction for women, she is ultimately redeemable because she faces up to her faults and reconnects with who she really is. She’ll never be perfect, but she can be herself.
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SENSE OF OTHERNESS
The other feature which unites Ahern’s strikingly diverse set of novels, of course, is a powerful sense of otherness. She constantly weaves supernatural elements into the narrative. There are angels, magical books, other worlds. People vanish, or discover paranormal abilities. Transformations abound.
In Thanks for the Memories, memory passes from one character to another via a blood transfusion. In The Gift, a man finds himself able to be in two places at once. I recall a famous quote from CS Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, told to a child who feared she had outgrown fairy stories: ‘Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.’ From the start, Ahern’s books have been described as modern-day fairy tales too. Could that be why they continue to have universal appeal, because reading those stories growing up, absorbing those motifs, almost etches them onto our DNA in some mysterious way?
Her answer is surprising. ‘When I was young I never read fairy stories,’ she confesses. Indeed, she says that she initially hated being called a writer of modern fairy tales – though interestingly the book she most wishes she had written is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, which also deploys a fabulous premise to explore ordinary life and the nature of love. ‘I’ve come round to the idea since,’ she adds quickly. Maybe because she’s more familiar now with the form and has come to realise that fairy tales are not necessarily the light fluffy, escapist fare which they’re commonly imagined to be. ‘I read them to my daughter now and I love them. I love the darkness in them. I think that’s there in my books too. If I’m influenced by them at all, it’s in that I always want to bring my characters to a more positive place.’
That darkness is undoubtedly present in her latest novel. One Hundred Names begins with a young journalist by the name of Kitty facing a dark night of the soul after libelling a teacher, who has fathered a child with one of his underage students, by accusing him of being a paedophile; meanwhile, Kitty’s mentor, her editor Constance, lies dying of cancer in a Dublin hospital. What was the story that Constance most wishes she had written? Her answer is to leave Kitty a list of names of one hundred people, with no explanation of what connects them. By the time Kitty finds the list, Constance is dead and cannot explain. Kitty has two weeks in which to find the link.
As usual, a strong original concept propels the plot forward, but this time the tone is darker, the mood more sombre. That tendency has always been there. She published two short stories, ‘Girl in the Mirror’ and ‘The Memory Maker’, which showed this change of direction. There was a sharp edge of loss and unhappiness. Loneliness, ageing, poverty. The resolutions were less bright. It’s a trend continued in this new book, which comes with the tagline ‘everyone has a story to tell’. Stories we all may have, but the ones which Ahern chooses to tell this time are not for the fainthearted. There is murder. The abandonment of children. These threads are not neatly wrapped up, though there is redemption of a sort because overcoming adversity is Cecelia Ahern’s ultimate message. Her damsels may be in distress, but ‘I like them to rescue themselves, at the lowest point in their lives. I’m interested in the human spirit, that no matter what you’re going through in life, no matter how bad things look, you can get through it. We’re stronger than we think we are. No matter what life throws at us, it’s in all of us to think we can’t do it, but then, most times, we do end up doing it and by the end of it, we’re all the stronger for it.’
Giving shape to that perpetual struggle is what drives Cecelia Ahern as an author. It’s summarised best by Constance in One Hundred Names: ‘Telling a story is not necessarily to go on a mission all guns blazing in order to reveal a lie. Neither is it to be particularly groundbreaking. It is simply to get to the heart of what is real.’ She tells Kitty she must ‘inject understanding in all aspects of the story; show the audience that there is feeling behind the words.’ An author’s core is being unpeeled here, and a sense of a new, more serious Cecelia Ahern emerging. It’s even present in the title of her new book. One Hundred Names may have a glittery cover like its predecessors, giving the impression that Ahern’s books are like small, sweet treats; but the title is stark, and, like the list which Constance bequeaths to her young protégé, it gives nothing away.
It’s a far cry from the catchier titles of her earlier books, such as Thanks for the Memories and If You Could See Me Now, which were not only deeply symbolic, but often taken from the names of popular songs, making them seem somehow already familiar. Sometimes she comes up with the titles herself, sometimes in collaboration with others. It was Marianne Gunne O’Connor, for example, who thought up the title PS I Love You. She clearly values highly the judgement of her agent.
It’s possibly this matter of factness in her approach to life which kept the young author grounded when, at the age of twenty-one, she was taken up by literary agent Marianne Gunne O’Connor and subsequently accepted for international publication with a large advance for her debut novel. As the youngest daughter of Ireland’s most successful ever Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, she was bound to attract headlines whatever she did with her life. Resentment too. She had too much: she was pretty, she was young, she had a famous family. There were many people willing her to fall flat on her face, to justify their own resentment that she had it all so young and, to their eyes, so easily. Instead PS I Love You went on to sell two million copies and be made into a successful film starring Hilary Swank and Gerald Butler. Seven further novels quickly followed, as well as a stint in Hollywood as scriptwriter and producer of the ABC sitcom Samantha Who?
Germany, interestingly, remains her biggest market, and she was recently approached by German television to write two primetime comedy dramas. She thinks it’s because ‘they’re a very emotional people, they’re very similar to us’ – us being the Irish. Her work remains firmly rooted and grounded at home in Dublin.
Such success hasn’t always endeared her to literary snobs. Telling stories may be the original function of literature, but it remains one of the most undervalued. Not by readers, who appreciate the beauty of a well- made tale, but certainly by critics, who often think that authors with a knack for creating involving and dramatic plots are somehow cheating. They can be suspicious of humour too, though it’s one of the hardest aspects of fiction to handle correctly. That it is female writers who often excel at both gifts does not make it any easier. Maeve Binchy, who died this summer after a career spanning fifteen novels and numerous short story collections, suffered the same sniffy fate. Not that Cecelia Ahern is complaining. It’s not her style. She simply gets on with the job in hand.
Having a daughter has already changed the way she works. ‘I’ve taken an office in the town centre and go there from nine in the morning until six in the evening every day. At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get things done that way because you can’t expect creativity to be turned on and off like that’, but she needn’t have worried. The same determination which saw her working hard when other young women were out having fun and finding their feet remains at the root of her success. Though her latest book was a bit of a worry, she confesses. She didn’t start it until February and finished it in April. ‘Once I start writing, there’s no stopping me. I just write and write until it’s finished.’ The idea always comes first, then the characters; she simply drops her heroines into the middle of some huge dilemma and follows them to see how they cope. ‘It’s one of the questions about human nature that fascinate me.’
There’s a lot of what might be called this journalistic spirit in her work, and indeed the author was doing a journalism degree before bestsellerdom beckoned, and penned occasional pieces for magazines; she also relished getting involved in the nuts and bolts of her television shows as a producer as well as writer; but she laughs at the thought of any such alternative career in the media. ‘I hate writing non-fiction. I’m approached from time to time to write stuff about what’s happening, but I can’t do it.’
Cecelia Ahern: the CV
Born September 1981 in Dublin.
Studied Journalism and Media Communications, Griffith College Dublin.
Wrote PS I Love You ages 21.
Published PS I Love You ages 23.
Her father, Bertie Ahern, was Irish Prime Minister from 1997-2008.
Married to David Keoghan. They have two children, Robin and Sonny.
Her older sister, Georgina, is married to Westlife’s Nicky Byrne.
Her books are published in 46 different countries and to date have sold over 13 million copies.
Lives in Malahide, County Dublin.
Irish Post Award for Literature for Where Rainbows End 2005.
Where Rainbows End won the German CORINE award 2005.
Cosmopolitan awarded her the Fun Fearless Fiction Award for If You Could See Me Now 2007.
Film rights bought for If You Could See Me Now, Thanks for the Memories and Where Rainbows End.
‘I get totally involved in the writing. I cry when something sad happens. I laugh when I write something funny. If I don’t think it’s sad, how can I expect somebody else to? If I’m not moved by it then it’s not good enough.’
A CLOSE, STRONG FAMILY
‘I used to show my mother everything, though I wanted to hide my face in a brown paper bag when she was reading,’ she smiles. ‘Now I show stuff to my husband, but he’s not as quick at getting back to me. I love watching his face when he’s reading. “Why didn’t you laugh at this bit, it’s meant to be funny”.’ Poor man, I say. It’s not easy being married to a writer. She laughs. If there’s one crime of which Cecelia Ahern will never be guilty, it is taking herself too seriously. A close, strong family has always been her refuge from the craziness of fame, as it is for her characters.
Where she goes from here remains to be seen. Cecelia Ahern has made a trademark out of mixing up the genres in a way which has challenged the traditional, often dismissive definition of ‘chick lit’. So far readers, who often have a tendency to be conservative in their tastes, have loyally followed her on the journey, and it could be that together they still have a long way to travel. One Hundred Names, with its theme of the transformative numinosity of ordinary people’s lives, feels like a summation of what Cecelia Ahern has been saying all along, from that moment, as a twenty-one year old, when she stayed up all night finishing PS I Love You. But it also feels like a milestone in her growth as a writer. She could go anywhere from here. Whatever she does, one thing will always remain the same. She sums up her philosophy when asked what advice she would offer to budding writers taking their own first steps on the road to publication. ‘Write for yourself, write stuff from the heart, write what you want to write otherwise it’s all useless. Stay true to yourself.’ It could almost be the title for one of her books.
One Hundred Names
by Cecelia Aherne
published by HarperCollins