As she prepares to publish her 18th novel, the Dublin writer opens up about the ‘overwhelming’ early days of her success, not being taken seriously as an author and why, as she turns 40, she’s started soul-searching
Next month, to mark her 40th birthday, Cecelia Ahern plans to walk up Croagh Patrick with her friends. “I’m just going to walk up this mountain of life with my girlfriends,” she says. “It’ll be like I’m walking into a feeling.” Asked how she feels about approaching this milestone birthday, she says: “Hmm. It’s interesting. All I want is to be healthy, fit and happy. I obviously want everyone else in my life to be too, but I’m keeping an eye on myself.”
Although she has been a literary mainstay for decades, Ahern turning 40 still comes as something of a surprise. She has long been tagged as a literary wunderkind, the prodigious talent who wrote her debut novel, PS, I Love You, at 21. After selling the title in 23 countries, including a $1m deal with Hyperion in the US, Ahern became a New York Times bestseller before hitting what she once called her “quarter-life crisis”.
“I don’t ponder it much, honestly, only that I’m asked,” she says of that “young talent” label. “I’m not considering it now. I’m on my own road now. I’m trying to challenge myself in new ways.”
On the release of PS, I Love You in 2004, newspaper clippings from the time often described Ahern as — perhaps understandably — a shy, young ingenue, wary of the white-hot hype around her debut, and nervous of the attention it afforded her. One newspaper report notes that Ahern’s Late Late Show debut in 2004 was nearly scuppered by a bout of nerves in the green room.
But the Cecelia Ahern of our interview is a different person entirely. Far from being wary, she is considered and articulate, with a self-assurance and poise that has likely been cultivated throughout an illustrious 18-book career. She is also, I’m glad to note, engaging and charming, but also won’t be drawn into any conversation she doesn’t want to have.
I mention Sally Rooney, whose debut was released when she was 25, and whose career as a young writer has subtle parallels with Ahern’s. Rooney, too, had been dismissed on occasion as just a young girl writing about romance, before the actual work — and the considerable book sales — put paid to that.
But Ahern politely waves away the comparison. “I’m just glad that everyone’s been very respectful to her and her gifts are being celebrated, and people are proud to see her do the things she’s doing and want to be involved with her. I think that’s really amazing.”
Coming of age in the publishing industry, Ahern had to negotiate her own boundaries and develop her own sense of self-worth on the hop.
“I grew up in it, but I’m still finding my way — but I’ll tell you, I was very polite. I was very polite to everyone, and I bit my lip an awful lot. My twenties were all ‘yes, yes, yes’; my thirties were about learning to say no a bit more and learning about myself, to find my own voice and be more assertive. It has been a journey. As I reach 40, I find I’m doing a lot of soul-searching and a lot of digging, but a lot of moving forward at the same time, so I’m finding that interesting.
“If I look back, some of the interviews were interesting in my early twenties — I don’t think I’d be treated like that now.”
In what way? “I think things have changed,” she laughs lightly. “I think the respect level of women’s fiction has certainly changed and I’m now interviewed like an author who can talk about my work. In the beginning, I was in a different personal position. My dad [Bertie Ahern] was Taoiseach at the time, so I was tied into all of that as well. I was polite, I was guarded, and I had to get through everything without messing up.
“It was so overwhelming. All I wanted to do was write and be treated like every other author. I’m not being negative about it — I hate even talking about it — but that’s the way it was.”
Ahern’s 18th novel, Freckles, bears the warm, charming hallmarks of several of its predecessors, but plenty of salty, mordant humour and observational power is woven throughout the tale. It’s the story of Allegra Bird, who grew up with her single father on Valentia Island but was sent to boarding school. After failing to realise her dream of becoming a garda, Allegra works as a traffic warden in Malahide. She rents a garden studio from the upper-middle-class couple Becky and Donnacha, who offer her “discounted” rent in exchange for babysitting.
Allegra’s orderly life hits a snag, prompting her to confront a single truism: you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And, as is often tradition with some of the best “uplit” titles, there are base notes of darkness — in this case, parental abandonment, sexual harassment and self-harm.
It’s not surprising that another high-concept idea anchors the story. It was Ahern’s brother-in-law, broadcaster and Westlife star Nicky Byrne, who provided the germ for the story (“He loves that,” she laughs).
Byrne was pointing out the similarities between Cecelia and her mother, Miriam, gently slagging them that they were turning into each other. “And he said, ‘You know you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,’” she says.
“It felt like a lovely way to tell a story. My adrenaline started pumping as soon as I heard, and an hour later, I had all the notes in my phone, and I had pretty much the whole story.”
Ahern is famed for her wellspring of ideas, each of them an elevator-pitch, begging-to-be-optioned jumping-off point for a story. She has so many of them, in fact, that she managed to write 30 short stories for her 2018 collection Roar in her spare time.
“Apart from those moments when you’re in the flow of writing, they’re the best moments. I’ve never done drugs in my life, but I don’t need to — I get this exciting natural high when I come up with an idea. Things just keep growing, more characters and ideas come, and I can’t keep up with the thought. It’s magic.”
Does she ever worry about this wellspring running dry? “Of course. You know, you attract your fear so I tend to not dwell on this. I’m stockpiling ideas, but there’s going to be some day when I don’t have an idea. I’m just aware of it. I mean, if I don’t have ideas, what do I do?
“I do observe, though,” she adds. “I know I’m yapping to you here — I don’t do a lot of talking. Some people are too busy talking. I listen a lot, and I watch everyone. There’s a lot to be said for it. If you do that, I don’t see how you couldn’t be inspired by what’s going on.”
Ahern has set Freckles within her hometown of Malahide. Given that she is documenting both the strictness of its local traffic wardens and, it could be argued, the less complimentary facets of some of its middle-class denizens, does she worry about writing characters that might feel quite authentic within her hometown?
“That’s the interesting thing — I’ve never wanted to set a book where I live,” she says. “I never wanted to write people I know. To me, that’s boring. At the same time, the parking wardens are notoriously tough here. You can’t leave your car for 10 minutes. I’ve had tickets put on my car twice in one day.
“But ultimately, I want to go somewhere else in my head. Becky and Donnacha don’t exist, but I had so much fun with them. But look, who’s to say that I’m not Becky, screaming like a banshee at her kids at six o’clock in the morning?”
Lockdown for Ahern, her TV producer husband David Keoghan, and three children, Robin (11), nine-year-old Sonny and one-year-old Blossom, was predictably eventful.
Blossom was six months old when Ireland went into lockdown last March: Cecelia was just coming out of maternity leave at the time, so was used to the “bubble” of new motherhood anyway.
“I just kept going,” she recalls. “I was homeschooling two of them, and something had to give. Either they got all their homework done and I’d get a little bit of work done or I was, ‘I have to work today — we’re not getting all of the homework done.’ I mean, it was insane for everybody.”
Ahern wrote Freckles while experiencing — and taking medication for — acute morning sickness while pregnant with Blossom.
“I felt horrible. When I went back to read it and edit it, I felt sick again. That is the power of writing. It just brings me to where I was and how I was feeling in a physical way. I had to edit the nausea out of the book. I could get that disgusting taste in my mouth.”
Was she not tempted to take a break, just this once, given the circumstances? “Well, I have deadlines, and sticking to a deadline is my job,” she laughs.
Becoming a mother certainly changed her life, but I ask her if parenthood changed the writing. “I don’t know if it’s parenthood, but the more you write, the more you learn. But my editor said that after I had my first baby, the writing was a lot more focused.
“A lot of it has to do with time. If you have less time and you’re going to be away from your family, you make it worth your while. You get to the point quicker.”
Ahern still writes her novels longhand, often in her Malahide office, by the sea. She usually writes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and occasionally takes herself down to the beach to write. Though she only managed two hours of writing a day during lockdown, her next novel is already under way. “I can’t even really talk about it, but it’s written in a series of moments, so I just wrote moments every time I sat down. It’s not written in chapters.
“Someone recently asked me, ‘Do you write at night anymore like you used to?’ but I’m too exhausted. I’ve three kids and it’s tiring. There’s putting the kids to bed, and then there’s the other work to do.”
The “other work”, famously, involves working alongside the likes of Nicole Kidman and Hilary Swank. The latter has signed on to appear in the movie adaptation of Postscript, the sequel to PS, I Love You. Kidman has bought the rights to the Roar short-story collection and has created an anthology series for Apple TV+ (it began filming at the end of July).
“I always have a couple of things happening, so I’ve been writing screenplays or writing TV series, but my input in those can be very different, and it requires different levels of concentration at different times,” Ahern says.
During the filming of Love, Rosie in 2014 (adapted from Where Rainbows End), Ahern was a steady, albeit largely non-intrusive presence, on its Dublin set, going so far as to appear as an extra in one of Love, Rosie’s wedding scenes.
“If a novel is being adapted, I am fine with handing it over [to others],” she explains. “I’ve never been interested in adapting my own work and being involved in whatever way they want me to be involved. If I’m executive producing [as she is on Roar], that’s the highest level I’ve ever been at — you get to see everything and be involved in every conversation, which is fantastic.”
The question is begging to be asked: does she enjoy the glamorous side of creating work in Hollywood — the premieres, the screenings and the fraternising with the A-list?
“For me, that’s not the main pull of it,” she says. “If it’s a premiere and you’re sharing this thing you’ve collectively worked on for so long, that’s a really emotional moment and can be amazing. When it comes to the rest of it, the logistics and stuff, it’s a different part of your brain you have to switch on. You have to think of different things like, ‘Well, I’m going away for 10 days — how many dresses do I need? How are we going to get from the airport?’
“You’re always getting up at 4am and landing somewhere and going straight to your events. And then you get to your room and go to bed and get up again... then get on a plane and go somewhere else. It’s not glamorous.
“I don’t have a team or crew or anyone that’s doing that stuff for me,” she adds. “I remember having this conversation with my brother-in-law [Nicky] and my sister [Georgina]. They have stylists and stuff, but this is very, very different.”
Growing up, Ahern’s older sister, Georgina, reportedly nicknamed her Suffragette, which would certainly go some way towards explaining how the stridently feminist Roar came to be. Yet the nickname has much more innocuous roots: “I loved Mary Poppins when I was younger and watched it a couple of times every day, and at the age of five, I was stomping around singing, ‘Well done, Sister Suffragette!’ and that clearly sank into my whole soul because that’s what I became. I would be very outspoken and always stood my ground with anything that was a bit old-fashioned.”
I note, too, that Freckles ends with the appointing of a female Taoiseach. Again, Ahern responds carefully: “I’m kind of aspirational in a lot of the things that I write. If you see a different world, the world becomes different. Obviously, you want to reflect reality, but let’s open it up now. I want to write things that are real, but also things that are aspirational. I want to write about the what-ifs and maybes and give someone a different vision.”
Treading outside of her writing comfort zone is something that keeps inspiring Ahern, and yet she keeps encountering new audiences who are constantly surprised by her work. I ask her if she thinks that PS, I Love You, written nearly two decades ago, continues to inform people’s idea of who she is as a writer.
“Absolutely,” she affirms. “If you don’t know my work, you think PS, I Love You, and you think sentimental love stories, and you think every novel is exactly like that. To be honest, [when I promote] every novel, I have this conversation. People say, ‘Wow, this is really different for you,’ and I think, ‘Well, they’re all different.’ What I want is for people who don’t know me to pick up these books and take them as they are, and just discover who I am as a writer.”
‘Freckles’ by Cecelia Ahern is out on September 2 via HarperCollins. Cecelia will be in conversation with Sam Blake as part of the Dublin Book Festival on September 4. dublinbookfestival.com