Sunday 15 September 2019

Cecelia Ahern is finding her Marbles

There is a grown-up grittiness to Cecelia Ahern’s new book that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Bertie’s little girl is all grown up and already into her second act.

Bertie's girl: Cecelia Ahern says writing is her meditation, almost, and family is her joy. Photo: David Conachy.
Bertie's girl: Cecelia Ahern says writing is her meditation, almost, and family is her joy. Photo: David Conachy.
Cecelia with her husband David Keoghan

Sarah Caden

Around 2008, with several best-selling novels under her belt and an international career many older writers would envy, Cecelia Ahern stated that she needed a break. Or, at the very least, she needed to make a change.

"We were on holiday," she says of herself and David Keoghan, her husband, "and there we were, watching this lovely sunset, and we just said, 'How many more times are we going to do this? I mean, it's lovely, but we need to move on. Let's go to the next stage.' So that's when we decided to have a baby. It was time."

It wasn't just that they were ready for a baby, though. They were ready for a change of gear. Cecelia had become an international writing sensation at the age of 21, when she won a €1m publishing deal with her debut novel, PS, I Love You. The book was published when she was 23, and became a Hollywood movie in 2007, when she was 26.

That alone was a whirlwind, but Cecelia never rested on her laurels. From the start, she set herself an ambitious target of writing a book a year, writing with pen on paper first, then committing to a computer, handing it to her publisher in the summer and then seeing it on the shop shelves by September. Every book was a hit, every idea spawned a new one in Cecelia's "busy head" and by the time she hit her late 20s, she was experiencing shooting pains up her arms from gripping a pen. Something had to give.

David had been there every step of the way, says Cecelia over coffee in the never-changing Grand Hotel in Malahide, which is only minutes from her office, which, in turn, is only minutes' walk from home. A former Irish international athlete, David was on his way to the other side of the world for high-altitude training when she rang to tell him about the PS, I Love You deal. And he came with her on that "journey", she says, laughing at the reality-TV cliche.

"I really lucked out with him; he's so secure, so relaxed," Cecelia says of David, whom she married in the summer of 2010. "And, you know, I really needed him. None of this would have happened without him.

"We were only talking about it the other day, about the rollercoaster we were on at the start. The schedule they put us on, it was incredible. I remember the first time we went to America [on a book-promotion tour], we were once in four states in one day. The floor was moving underneath me I was so dazed. I was 22, 23. We weren't children, but you were having to have worldly conversations and David was there and he helped me, and I would have been lost without him. I wasn't shy, but I had written only one book and didn't have anything to say. And they expected me to. I remember we paid $100 to check into a hotel for one hour to just lie down on the bed before the next lunch."

It was mind-boggling, and the way Cecelia dealt with the madness was to keep her head down and keep writing. That's how she kept sane. But, of course, that also had the effect of keeping the rollercoaster going and maybe even ratcheting up the speed. When I first interviewed her, around 2007, she was at full tilt and, to an outsider, it seemed to suit her. She was still writing at her dining-room table, I say, in her pyjamas, setting her own hours, suiting herself.

"Not even suiting myself," Cecelia says, "just working all the time. I didn't know how to stop. I didn't know how to say no. I thought I had to do everything everyone said, but then, when I was 28, it was just I didn't want to be on a treadmill of churning out books. I write fast because I'm creative and I have so many ideas, but I got to the point where I was exhausted and I said I want a year and to catch up on my life. So I had my baby and took a break and got married."

Everyone said that, by modern standards, Cecelia and David were very young, at 28, to have a baby, but they didn't see it that way. They had been together since they were 19, they had been through more in those years than most share in a lifetime and they were ready. "We were so ready," Cecelia laughs.

"It had been very exciting," Cecelia adds, keen to convey that she's not remotely complaining about the early years of her career, "because then, because we were relatively free, and had the time and things were going well for me, he was able to get into acting and we went to Paris and he studied acting for a few months and then we went to LA, and he was making that work for him for a while. So we had the adventure together. It was great. It was exciting. And now, the kids are here and we're getting stable and boring. Well, not boring. But stable."

Cecelia Ahern and David Keoghan's first child, daughter Robin, was born in December, 2009. She is in senior infants, in school in Malahide, again minutes from Cecelia's office and home. The couple's little boy, Sonny, was born in July 2012 and has just started Montessori. Their arrival has changed everything, obviously, and Cecelia realises, the balance and the demands shift constantly as they grow up. Also, the ability to constantly lose yourself in your head and your writing, as was her way pre-children, is no longer possible.

Still, since (officially) taking the year off from writing in 2010, straight after having Robin, Cecelia has stuck to her schedule of publishing a book every autumn. And this year is no exception, as she publishes The Marble Collector, born out of an idea that evolved during her year 'off'.

"I said, 'Oh, I'm on a year off'," laughs Cecelia, "but I kept writing. Whenever she was asleep, I would write a short story. I wrote a screenplay and some children's stories. I don't think any of them have been published, but even that was important to me. I wanted to see if I was writing because I really wanted to do it and not because I had to."

So she didn't follow the Public Health Nurse advice to sleep when the baby was sleeping, then, I say.

"No," says Cecelia. "Robin was one of those babies who didn't sleep in her cot, so I'd be driving her around the coast road and parked up in some car park in Howth while she was sleeping, so I had to do something while I was sitting there. But that was my own fault, I let her be that way - typical first-baby stuff."

One of the things Cecelia started in that time was a collection of short stories, to which she gave the title The Woman Who . . . She took a phrase, and, through a narrative, made it literal. The Woman Who Lost Her Marbles was one of them; about a woman who, literally, lost her collection of marbles.

"They are all quirky, surreal stories," she explains. "But the more I thought about losing marbles and the more I read into marbles, the more I loved it. It was a whole world that I realised I could make into a novel. And it was immediately a father-daughter story."

The Marble Collector tells two stories; one is of Sabrina Boggs, a 30-something, time-starved mother of two small children, and her father, Fergus Boggs, a man in his 60s who is suffering from amnesia and living in a nursing home following a stroke. One morning, when she's off work and the children are away on a lunar-eclipse camping trip with their dad, the nursing home rings Sabrina to tell her that some boxes have been delivered for her father. When she goes to investigate them, she discovers that they contain a carefully inventoried collection of marbles, made over her father's lifetime, a life about which, she realises, she knew almost nothing.

Part of the collection is missing, the most valuable part of it, and Sabrina sets about finding out not only where the elements have gone, but who was this man, her father, who had this secret life. And she has only her 24 hours of child-free time to work it out.

As another time-starved mother in her 30s, it meant something to Cecelia to play out one part of the drama over 24 hours. She knows that feeling of dashing from one thing to the next, knowing your free time is slipping away as if through an egg timer, and that once the kids are back and around, you're on mother duty and everything else takes a back seat. Cecelia seems to balance life and work and motherhood very well - with the "very modern" shared responsibility her husband takes for the family and thanks to their childminder - but Sabrina is quite lost. She is a woman who finds herself holding her breath, constantly, waiting for something to happen, and never quite sure what it is. And in the quest to discover her dad, she sees a glimpse of a way to find herself.

The flip-side of the story, however, is a lifetime long, going back to Fergus's 1950s childhood in Dublin and unravelling with less urgency than Sabrina's part. She'd never written as a much older man before, Cecelia said, nor had she intended writing about 1950s Dublin, but Fergus's story "just flowed" and she loved writing him. One can't help but observe, of course, that while Cecelia has characteristics in common with Sabrina, Fergus is of the same vintage and native city as Cecelia's father, Bertie Ahern.

Of course, Cecelia says, there is something of her and her life in everything she writes. In retrospect, with 12 years of hindsight and many more books under her belt, she sees that Holly in PS, I Love You is a character very close to who she, Cecelia, was then. "Holly was saved by her dead husband's letters, and I was saved by writing the book," she explains. "I didn't see that then, but I do now. And I know that every character has a bit of me in them."

The common thread in Cecelia's books is that her characters tend to be lost when we meet them and somewhat disconnected from who they are. Sabrina and Fergus are no exceptions. "I love that idea of coming back to yourself; I'm really obsessed with it," Cecelia says. "I love asking people questions and finding out about them and I love stories where there's a journey and a recovery. It sounds cliched, but I'm fascinated by the human spirit. It's the bit I'm drawn to all the time."

And Cecelia says that her, optimistic, point of view is that people can come back from almost anything. She's not a worrier, really, not about the stuff of ordinary life. "Like, if I'm visiting some new country, I'll be worrying about if a war is going to break out there or about other planets and alien invasions," she says, laughing at herself. "The things that aren't likely to happen. But not issues in life and ordinary stuff.

"I think anything's possible. I think that's the human condition," she adds. "I think we can always...I won't say bounce back, but, survive, yeah. I think that's what we all have in common."

The grittiness of The Marble Collector has been commented on to Cecelia, but she doesn't see it as a departure so much as a natural evolution. She's not the 21-year-old who wrote PS, I Love You, and if you came from that book to this, you might think it was a leap into more black material, but not if you followed her through all of her work. She has changed, she has grown up and so, obviously, has her writing.

Cecelia's work now takes place outside the family home, and that's a significant change in her life. It puts a formal beginning and end on the work and helps to ensure that when she's off, she's off. The inevitable marble collection that came with researching the book lives at the office too, she laughs. Her ability to let herself have free time seems to have not improved, however, but maybe that's just the nature of having young children.

If she's not working, it's not to give herself a break, it's to do something with the kids; pick them up from school, bring them to activities, entertain their friends at the house. There is no free time; but then there was never any free time. It is all very satisfying time, though, she adds. Work is her meditation, almost, and family is her joy.

"Robin's very eccentric," she says of her elder child. "Very careful. So we are quite alike, I think. Sonny's the cuddliest, softest thing. But with divilment and a twinkle in his eyes. My dad just laughs whenever he sees him. He just says, 'He'll play for Dublin. He's buster-y'."

The only thing that seems to nag at her is how she'll manage the international book promotion, given her policy of only leaving home for two nights at a time. She'll find a way, though. Even if it requires another change of gear.

Cecelia Ahern's 'The Marble Collector' is published by HarperCollins on October 29

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