Facing a blank page and creating something out of nothing – now that’s what I call spark. This is even more the case when you use that blank page to create stories that resonate with people all around the world, regardless of race, religion or creed. Cecelia Ahern makes it look easy. She is internationally famous as the young woman responsible for twenty-two million book sales, the woman who, at twenty-one years of age, hit headlines with the release of PS, I Love You and, perhaps most simply, as the woman so many readers have shared more than a decade of their lives with. Cecelia’s creative power have also been transposed to screen, with audiences in countless countries falling for movies and TV series based on her books. Yet – and here’s the thing – Cecelia Ahern would continue to write, even if no one was reading.
I’ve met, and been inspired by, Cecelia on many occasions. I’ve been inspired by her composure, her ability to make a writer’s life look easy. She produces a best-selling book a year – minimum – and in addition has been knocking out short stories, novellas, children’s books and more with staggering alacrity. I’ve watched how this softly spoken, often shy Dubliner took a childhood spark and took on the world. And I am never more inspired by Cecelia as when I – twenty-one plus tax! – face a blank page, knowing it’s time to breathe life into it.
On each encounter Cecelia will share reports of a new book, movie or television project she’s added her name to. This time, she’s fresh from celebrating the tenth anniversary of PS I Love You and is fizzing with excitement at Love, Rosie, the big screen realisation of her book, Where Rainbows End. Meanwhile, I can scarcely imagine the day I’ll see this book in my hands. I want to learn more about her drive, her will to transform her interior world into a proofed, printed and bound reality. A writer’s discipline is the natural springboard for our conversation.
Cecelia, I was lucky enough to know Maeve Binchy, and she would tell me how she approached writing. It was a job for her: up each day with a mandate to write, say, a few thousand words before lunchtime. Do you share her discipline?
I am very disciplined, yes, and I absolutely view this as my job. I write longhand, from Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5.30pm, taking Wednesdays off. You can be very creative within those hours, but it is very much work, and it’s not going to happen unless you sit down and put pen to paper.
Isn’t there a secret, though, beyond hard graft?
No! I do a lot of events with people who want to write, and they’re sitting there with their pen and paper thinking there’s some secret that they don’t know but authors do… and if they could just figure it out, they’d be able to write their novel. And really there is no secret: all you do is you sit down and you write. A lot of the time there is nothing there, so you have to make it happen…
You have to light the spark. Do you have a method for ‘making it happen’?
So I always come up with an idea first: and then I decide what kind of character would find themselves in that position…and as soon as I hear the voice of the character, I know that it’s time for me to start writing. It sounds odd, but I start hearing their voice, and I start hearing how they view the world…as I’m walking down the street I kinda start thinking as them. That’s when I know the feeling is strong enough to start writing…as soon as I can hear the character and see their world, I can start creating it.
Do the ideas come to you based on your own life experiences or from the people around you?
It’s from a mixture of both really. I’m an observer. I absorb everything around me, which is not really a conscious thing. I know Maeve Binchy used to say she’d go to cafés and listen to people, but I prefer silence. I watch people who are listening rather than those who are talking – because they’re the ones that don’t know they’re being watched! And of course I put my own experience and my emotions in there; everything I am writing about I have felt at some point.
I think that’s the difference between you and the vast majority of people – your daydreams take flight; as you apply your personal experience to make them real, almost. Was it always so?
Well, I have books of poems and songs, things that I wrote from the age of eight…so I suppose I was disappearing into another world from a very young age. Writing was always a hobby, something I did for myself and wasn’t even that bothered about showing anyone else. Because it wasn’t about other people reading what I wrote…it was about the enjoyment I got from writing.
Do you ever ask yourself why that is, Cecelia? Why escape into your own world from a young age?
I was obviously much happier there! I still do it now…if something bad happens, I just go to that place. I’m also processing what’s going on in real life, but in the same way that someone would switch on the tv, or read a book, dreaming is my outlet. I don’t need to read a book – I’ll just make something up in my mind!
You do read of course and have spoken about how the writings of Maya Angelou influenced you in your teens. It was Maya who said: “Nothing will work unless you do.” Tell me: how did your hobby become your work? You initially completed a degree in Journalism at Dublin’s Griffith College…
I did. I suppose I chose to do that course because English was the only thing I really enjoyed in school. With journalism there was an element of creative writing, for film and tv, but overall I found that the writing of fact was not where I wanted to be. I wanted to disappear all the time and think ‘What if this happened?’ instead. So I went to do a Masters in Film Production, but I really was finding it to difficult at that stage, so I left and decided to just concentrate on writing…
I call it my quarter-life crisis! I was actually in kind of a sad place…even though I had my boyfriend and I was very happy with him, I was trying to figure out who I was, and trying to find my place in the world. What happened was that I suffered really badly from panic attacks, which really took over my life, and made me step out of my life.
What was the knock-on effect of these panic attacks, do you think?
Well, I started looking at other people and thinking, ‘If this is what’s going on in my head, what are other people thinking?’ I’d hear these figures, like, three in ten people suffer from panic attacks…so I’d be in a room thinking, ‘Who are the three that are thinking like me’? But I could never find those other people who seemed to be so unhappy as I was. That totally changed the way I thought, it happened at a young age, and it made me look at life very differently.
Is it fair to say that this tough time sparked action in you?
I suppose so, yes. The panic attacks made me stop enjoying my life, which was terrible, but they also made me go into myself, which is what made me start writing my books. It was my way to express myself.
Looking back, do you consider the writing of PS, I Love You a form of self-administered therapy, perhaps?
Yes – it was hard to write, but it was also amazingly therapeutic. I would sit writing from about ten at night until six in the morning – in a way I was hiding as because I didn’t want to go out into the world, because I felt it was kind of…horrible! So I would sit in at night and get lost in this world, and write about this character who also felt very lost, who had lost her identity, and who was grieving.
Which leads me to a question I’ve always wanted to ask you, Cecelia. I’ve lived my life and experienced losing my husband, and I couldn’t possibly have imagined beforehand what it would have felt like when he was gone. Yet there you were, in your early twenties, writing PS, I Love You, a story about a woman losing the love of her life. I can’t imagine how you could have thought in that way…at a time when most young girls are thinking about romance and getting married…all that happy-ever-after stuff. Yet you did have the capacity to think along those lines…
I know – but in my best attempt to answer your question – at that time I had never lost anybody that I had loved, but I did feel like I had lost myself. And that’s the character I still write about: someone who has been through something very difficult, has lost a sense of themselves, and who has to try to figure out who they are again. And from doing that, with PS, I Love You, I became so much stronger. By the time I’d finished the novel I had a career, one I really wasn’t planning on, and I was on the path to learning who I was.
I’d like to dwell briefly on that idea of becoming who you are. A tough question, I know, but was your childhood a happy one?
Oh yes. I was a generally very happy child – promise! It was just at nineteen that I had a little blip! Growing up I did hide behind my big sister, Georgina, a bit, let her do all the talking, but she tells me that whenever things got too serious I’d jump out with a quick joke…make everyone laugh, and then I’d run and hide again.
Your childhood did contain one key point of difference, of course, as your father was Taoiseach of Ireland – the most powerful political post in the land – from 1997 until 2008. This meant you’ve been in the public eye for as long as you’ve lived, probably…
Yes, it’s true in that from a young age I knew the feeling of walking into the room and people paying attention, or watching you. So me and my sister would always be very careful about that. But I never really thought about it until people would say it to me…that life felt very normal to me; it didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.
So whom do you take after: your Mum Miriam or Dad Bertie? Or are you the perfect combination of both?!
I’m both really. Me and my mum have a very similar sense of humour… and maybe I got the work ethic from Dad…
Do you think you’re moving out from under your Dad’s shadow? You were kinda dogged with the association when first published…has that eased as time as gone on?
It definitely has, but I must say that I never really felt like I was in his shadow. I mean, I expected every reaction that I got. Of course, at the beginning some people thought it was purely Dad that got me all of these book deals, which obviously wasn’t the case, but I think it’s changing now. And I think that if I was trying to get into politics, then I would have felt in his shadow, but as a writer I’ve always felt that I’ve been able to be me, and do my own thing.
The association would have been felt most keenly on home soil, I imagine. I wonder, when you travel for work, are you still asked about your Dad?
They do ask, if it’s a bigger interview, and of course it’s an interesting thing because who my Dad is did form me and did shape me. But generally, no, it’s about the books and it’s about my career.
I think you’ve more than demonstrated your ability to stand on your own merits!
Novels, short stories, children’s books…you’ve even written a play and your early love for TV and film production is now being played out beautifully in screen adaptations of your work. There must be a secret – because you are making world domination look very easy!
I know how lucky I am. Everyone says ‘oh you’re so successful,’ but the thing is that for every one thing that has worked there are probably ten things I have failed at…so if I write something for television, for instance, there will have been about ten ideas I submitted that haven’t quite worked – but one that luckily gets there eventually.
I’m always saying it’s the failures that teach you, that define you…
Well, this is the thing. People think I don’t understand what it’s like to have rejection, but it happens to me all the time! Even if magazines say, ‘do you have a short story?’ and then I’ll send it in and they’ll say, ‘no, that’s not what we’re looking for…’! And particularly in development for television – they have something in mind, you send it to them and then they have no difficulty in telling you ‘nope!’
Is that a bad thing?
Well, no, it’s good, because it keeps you on your toes. I know that people aren’t taking just anything that I’m writing…it needs to be good!
Finally, Cecelia, you recently marked the tenth anniversary of PS, I Love You with a book signing under the clock of the department store Clerys on Dublin’s O’Connell Street – why there?
I had the idea for ages that I wanted to do a signing there because there are so many romantic stories associated with Clerys’ clock – it’s a traditional place for Irish courting couples to meet – so we did it last Valentine’s Day. And then I went to lunch with my husband, which was lovely and romantic too!
I actually had my first kiss under the clock at Clerys…
Did you? You see? I love that everybody has a story about it – it’s such a special place.