Fearlessly flawed... how writing saved Cecilia Ahern from crippling panic attacks
Cecelia Ahern's first young-adult-fiction novel 'Flawed', which she dedicated to her father, is a deeply personal work that reveals her deepest fears. She tells our reporter about her own teenage years as a dancer and performer, and the crisis of confidence that ended her music career and caused her to drop out of her college course, but which ultimately led to her becoming one of Ireland's most successful female authors.
Published 14/03/2016 | 02:30
'I dropped out because it was kind of an intense time in my life," Cecelia Ahern recalls. "I just wasn't able. I was a bit nervy at the time." A bit nervy was, it turns out, a spell of panic attacks so crippling they left the then 21-year-old unable to attend her MA in film production, and increasingly reluctant to leave her mother's home in Malahide, north County Dublin, where she still lived at the time.
Day one of the course had passed uneventfully with introductions. The next day the class were told that on Monday they would watch a movie, and Cecelia was to be the first up to talk about it.
"And I thought, 'Right that's it, I'm never going back there again'," she says. And that was it, she simply never returned.
"It was just a kind of inner meltdown of confidence. I found it really hard to get out," she recalls now over coffee and croissants in her Malahide office. "I was with David at the time, so I wasn't completely alone. I did have somebody." Cecelia and her husband David Keoghan had met when she was 19, on a night out.
She tried all kinds of therapy. Hypnotherapy to help with breathing, a sports psychologist for cognitive therapy. What really saved her, though, was the writing. She had always written. Illegible scribbles as a toddler, then later as a teenager, diaries used to process her feelings. Now, with a determination lit partly by the desire to prove to her parents that she hadn't dropped out only to sit around the place, she devoted herself to her first book, PS, I Love You.
And the writing gave her strength again, helped her rebuild herself. "I lived that book," she says. "I wrote it in three months, which is pretty intense. I hibernated, writing all night. I didn't really leave my house, didn't tell anybody I was writing." The panic attacks were "quite bad then", she remembers.
This dark phase broke her, but then it remade her. "That's a massive time in my life. Because I think it took away the performer in me," says Cecelia, who had a career in music and dance in her late teens. "I lost that side. It broke it down. And what was left was this girl who was trying to figure out what on earth was going on inside me, and inside everybody else. I remember hearing a statistic about something out of 10 people having panic attacks. And I'd be sitting on a bus or out somewhere going, 'Who are these people? Because I don't see them'."
Not only did this period fundamentally change her, but the notion of losing one's way, and struggling to a new version of oneself, as Cecelia did, is one that has informed her work ever since. "To be honest, I would rather never talk about it," she says of that dark time, "but it's really hard to talk about what I write, if I can't talk about where it came from. The stuff I write, it's all very much about taking control of your mind."
She can't quite remember how long the panic attacks lasted, but the effects went on for years, a sort of residual anxiety, a constant niggling worry that they would come back. She can tell you though, exactly when life began again. Having sent the manuscript of PS, I Love You to agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor in the vague hope of some sort of guidance, Cecelia landed a two-book deal. And that was that.
The success that quickly followed wasn't easy. Her mother Miriam or now husband David would accompany her on book tours around America and Europe, sitting beside her, "ready to read in case I had to leg it. Speaking when I couldn't" At one early event in Germany, the nerves got the better of her, and she had everyone sitting with her onstage at a reading turn their chairs around so they now had their backs to the audience. "It was really embarrassing," she says, but she soldiered on. "It was all about pushing myself to the limit. I suddenly had a career. I had to get on planes, I had to go to book signings."
Now, at 34, the panic attacks have long disappeared, but to this day, she doesn't relish the public aspects of her work, embracing the solitary nature of being a writer. "I never find it tough," she says of time alone. "I love it. I truly never feel alone. You're always in a room full of people, even if it's just you and the one character. And it's draining. If anything, you want to be on your own after that."
In the face of her incredible success as an author - 25m books sold to date - it's hard to imagine now that there was a time when Cecelia the author was almost Cecelia the pop star. Her latest book, Flawed, is her first young-adult-fiction novel. Its heroine, Celestine, is 17. At that age, Cecelia herself was about to start college, but there was also a burgeoning career in music and dance on the side.
"I was a performer at 17. I was about to do Eurosong. I had just finished pantomime, with Twink, Dustin and Samantha Mumba in the Olympia," she says with one of her infectious belly laughs, aware of how incongruous this sounds. "I love that my parents let me do it," she smiles. Her parents come up regularly in conversation; they're clearly touchstones in her world. If she has a problem, she will often go to them, she says, and they will always help her see things from a different perspective. With her dad, "it's about listening to both sides of a problem and seeing the middle. Mom, she comes at it from a different angle and he's about meeting in the middle."
Both parents have a strong work ethic, Cecelia explains, as does she but she probably took things too far with her time in panto. At the time, Cecelia, who had been teaching dance since she was 15, was performing as a dancer at the Olympia Theatre's Boogie Nights musical show on Saturday nights, and studying for her Leaving Cert. So a weekend schedule included four panto performances and Boogie Nights: "so it was really, really intense. But I think I'm just a worker."
And then, of course, there was Eurosong. This part of her life isn't something she would always have talked about, but, in the way of people who are truly comfortable in their own skin, now Cecelia is open about all aspects of her past, the difficult, and the "cringey", as she puts it. "I was incredibly embarrassed about it for a long time," she says. "I'm not anymore."
Louis Walsh approached her about putting together a band to hopefully win Eurosong and represent Ireland in the Eurovision. Louis knew her through Nicky Byrne, her sister Georgina's husband, and from Cecelia performing as a dancer at 2fm's Beat on the Street. Auditions for what became Shimma were held, with Cecelia, already in the band, sitting on the judging panel. And for a time, it seemed like it could be something big.
The record company certainly thought so, she says. The aim was to be the next version of pop group Steps. Shimma were flown to London to sign a record deal. The choreographer who worked with boyband Five was recruited to work with them.
Legendary producer Pete Waterman produced the song - When You Are Near. "And we didn't win. And everyone just kind of dispersed," Cecelia recounts now with a gale of laughter. "We didn't hear for a while from a lot of people." She was 18 by then. Even if the band had done well, Cecelia had always intended on sticking with her degree in journalism and media communications in Griffith College. "I don't remember being terribly sad about it," she says. "Talking about it now, it's weird. I think I just got swept along."
Now, it's hard to imagine Cecelia as either of these former incarnations, the all-singing, all-dancing teenager, or the fear-stricken 20-year-old. Today the quiet confidence shines out of her. Mostly, what you notice when you spend time with Cecelia is that she's fun; quick to laugh. "Naughty. I am a bit naughty," she says with a smile. At one point during our shoot in Malahide Castle, the two of us are forced to hide behind a screen in total silence in order not to interrupt a tour. The vision of Cecelia peeking out in a blue wig to shock some poor unsuspecting tourist is irresistible. She has to squeeze her eyes closed and almost hold her breath to stop the giggles erupting. This is Cecelia. Always quick to see and enjoy the ridiculous in life. We have worked together several times over the last 10 years, and for someone who has enjoyed such success, she's particularly easy-going to work with. But try messing with her book, she says, and she'd be a nightmare. With everything else, including the film scripts for her books, she's an easy collaborator. "I'm not a rule breaker," she explains. "But traditions, or expectations and duty, I don't like. I'll break them all. But when it comes to everything else I'm a goody, goody, goody," she laughs.
Life now is dominated by routine. To an extent, creating a rigid framework that simplifies her day-to-day existence is the only way her extraordinary creativity can flourish.
Cecelia produces a book a year and has done since her first novel, the one exception being the year after her daughter Robin was born, when she still wrote a book of short stories. "I am very regimental. David always laughs and says I would be perfectly happy working on a production line somewhere. Monotony is m'thang," she jokes. Becoming a mother helped in forging a manageable routine that works for her. She became more focused, created boundaries. "I had no starting or finishing hours before," she explains.
Now, everything is "so structured. It's the only way I can make it work. I think most mothers would say that as well though". After having her daughter, she realised she needed to separate home from work. "We had printers sitting in the dining room, and boxes of books. Everywhere I looked it was work, work, work. I just took it all out, decluttered my head and the house."
The creation of each book is very intense, Cecelia says, and she insists on the 10-minute walk from office to home every day in order to clear her head. "It's very emotional because of how I write," she says. "I have to put myself in the position of the characters, and feel what they're feeling. So it's draining." Having children gave her a way to punctuate this, when she walks in the front door, she is "immediately transported to a different world. Now I have my end time. Finished at half five, and I go home to my life".
She has just signed a four-book deal with HarperCollins. Describing a recent phone conversation with her publisher about book deadlines, she shakes her head at the surrealness of it: "So you'll have this to me in May 2018, you'll have this to me in May 2019, you'll have this to me in May 2020. And this in May 2021." She doesn't overthink it, that would be overwhelming. So far, every January when she has sat down to write, the idea has come: "It's that I have so much to say and not enough time to do it in." She has always been confident about her work.
Her own standards are so exacting, that she doesn't need to refer to the opinion of others: "I'm really hard on myself. Really, really hard on myself. And I push myself to the max. Stupidly. So it's not going anywhere until I'm happy with it. I trust myself. And that's why I'm never too bothered ever by other people."
Flawed, her first novel for young adults, is one of her darkest yet. There will be two books in the series; Perfect is to follow. The film rights have already been bought, which is unusually fast in today's market, where the success of the book normally needs to be established. But that is the Cecelia effect. There's an unpleasant school of thought that her father's position as Taoiseach in some way helped her kick start her writing career. In fact, her agent, Marianne Gunn O'Connor nearly threw aside the manuscript of PS, I Love You, when she saw who it was from. With Flawed, Marianne and Cecelia sent the manuscript in under another name, in order to get an honest response.
With Flawed, Cecelia is writing for the first time of her anxieties.
"It is as personal as all my books, but it's my fears," she says. "How terrifying it would be just to lose control. To be invaded or for the people that you think have common sense to suddenly lose it." When it comes to booking holidays, she has vetoed destinations because she doesn't like their government. "If I'm on a promotional tour, I'll ring my dad and say, 'Dad, what is the chance of a war breaking out here? Can I go there? Are they on the cusp of anything?' I'm kind of obsessed with that. Humans losing their humanity. And most of my dreams are about armies marching. I never talk about that stuff in my other books."
Flawed, like PS, I Love You, was written incredibly quickly, this time in six weeks, again in somewhat intense circumstances. Her then two-year-old Sonny had hurt himself and ended up in a full leg cast. Afraid he would turn in his sleep and be unable to flip back over, Cecelia took to spending the evenings sitting in the dark in his room, watching over her son, writing while he slept. "It was day and night, so intense. I was living it. I've never felt such adrenaline," she says. "I've never written a book so quickly in my life." After writing a key set-piece where her heroine is physically branded, she recalls being left feeling physically shaken.
Flawed tells the story of Celestine, a 17-year-old living in a seemingly ideal world.
Popular, clever, with a gorgeous boyfriend, her world could not be more perfect. Through her boyfriend and family connections, she is at the heart of her country's powerful regime, a regime based on a notion that to err is unforgivable, and should be punished by branding an F on a body part.
All of Cecelia's books are dedicated to someone. David had PS, I Love You and How to Fall in Love. This is her father's book. "For you, Dad", reads the dedication. While she never discusses the reasons behind a dedication, I say to her that people are inevitably going to draw comparisons between her father's situation, and the world in the book, where a rigidly judgmental and punitive society has grown up in response to the perceived mistakes of the former government.
"I'll tell you a weird thing about me," she says. "I have always been obsessed with injustice. In my 20s I read the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. My sister jokingly used to call me 'Suffragette'. And she didn't just mean the woman thing. Bad treatment of people really upsets me. So much that I can't stop researching it. If David walks in on me looking at another Hitler documentary," she says with a shake of the head indicating her husband's mild despair. "He's, like, 'Why are you putting yourself through this?' And all that went into this book. So if anything happens in my life, or in the world, that I feel is unfair, it upsets me," she says carefully. "This book is my way of processing it. And that's my answer," she finishes, with a cheeky smile, and a gleam in her eye.
Too much emphasis on appearance and the unfair treatment of women in the media are both themes of the book. But mostly, it was inspired by what Cecelia saw as an increasing lack of empathy around her. "An overwhelming feeling that the world we live in is incredibly judgmental," she explains. "If people make a mistake, whether they've deliberately done something silly or are doing something for the best, and it's wrong, I felt that we were really finger-pointing and shaming."
Real-life happenings: children being taken away from their mothers in the last few decades; the Magdalene laundries; the X case, all informed events in the book. People keep using the word 'dystopia' about the book, but that's incorrect, she says firmly. "I'm writing about this world. Where these things happen all around us."
Celestine, her main character, is at the centre of a powerful, public family, and the book charts her journey to personal independence. Did Cecelia herself struggle with the fact that her own family were quite public as she got her own career underway, I wonder? "I don't think so. I think it was just the way it was. Like, if I look back on it, I can see, 'Oh, things are very different now. There's a lot more freedom to say things that I want to say'. Maybe I didn't ever have to be like that, it was just the way I wanted to be," she muses. To a small degree, her father's position as leader of the country made her mind her Ps and Qs.
"I think things were read into an awful lot. I remember other authors would make jokes about things that I couldn't. And still I think there's probably things I could never say because they'd just be jumped on. But I don't think I ever had any great problem with it. I was just aware of it."
It never stopped her from writing or saying things she wanted to say. "I never held back. If anything I'm the kind of person where if you go, 'You can't say that,' it means I bloody well have to. I can't censor myself. So, no, it was never an issue."
These days, Cecelia is more outspoken than ever. Growing up, she was always slightly ahead for her age - starting school at three, college at 17. "And I was always trying to keep up with whatever level of people I was with. I always tried to figure out what was going on without asking any questions."
Now, when she's asked what advice she would give to teens, it is to ask questions. "Now I ask nothing but stupid questions constantly. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I don't care," she says with a laugh.
'Flawed' by Cecelia Ahern is published by HarperCollins, €17.99
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Claire O'Farrell
Hair by Elle Doyle, make-up by Becky Keane, both Dylan Bradshaw, 56 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 671-9344
Photographed at Malahide Castle, tel: (01) 816-9538, or see malahide castle.com
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