A simple, abundant success

 

In the United States, Sarah Ban Breathnach is famous. Seven million people (mainly women) bought her book Simple Abundance, a one-a-day series of how-to-feel-better-about-yourself "intimate conversations between the reader and the writer", wrapped up in hard pink covers. She's a regular self-help guru on Oprah. Time magazine called her "the Martha Stewart for the soul", referring to another US guru, this time of home-making. Although Ban Breathnach is Irish-American, she declines to disclose the name she was born with - "my family enjoy their privacy" - and will say only that her father was born in Belfast and left for New York when he was a baby.

The Ban Breathnach is simply the result of a "colourful episode, a short burst of foolishness" when she came to Dublin, "met someone" and got married and "realised almost immediately that it was a mistake". That "someone" was the broadcaster Sean Ban Breathnach. He and Sarah Devereaux-Wilde, as she was then known, married in December 1974, just 116 hours after they first met in a Galway pub. It came as a shock to discover that there was no divorce in Ireland. Back in the US, by the time a divorce (and annulment) came through she had already established a following under the new name. So it stayed.

Her writing then was in the area of "historical ; it was going to be on ruffles and closures - curtains - and I felt as if I was a discontented woman. I was angry and envious, and although I had, on the surface, a wonderful family, I couldn't connect the dots and I got tired of my own whining. I didn't whine to other people, but I whined internally.

"One morning I was just sick of it. I sat down and I said: 'Don't get up from this table until you write down 50 reasons to be grateful.' It took me about six hours and about three pots of tea and I was really quite humbled; these could be anything from finding a parking space to cooking dinner while listening to opera.

"We think that the big things are the narrative of our life: the wedding, you meet him, the big job, the promotion, the best-seller. And really those are punctuation marks. For me the narrative is written in the small every day. The small and the inconsequential which are really essential. I was dumbfounded to discover this."

Over two months, she discovered that seeing the positive in the everyday improved her life. She began "tithing", giving 10 per cent of her income - at that time housekeeping - to charity. "And that's when I called my agent and said:'I think we have a book.' Then for two years we were told we didn't." Thirty publishers turned it down.

Ban Breathnach carried on writing it anyway. Two years later, No 31 (Warner) said yes. That was in 1995. Now, after seven million copies of Simple Abundance and associated follow-up titles - all related to "finding your authentic self" - the format has been changed, for the benefit of men.

"I knew it wouldn't work the other way," she explains when we meet in a small hotel in London to talk about A Man's Journey To Simple Abundance, a collection of 50 essays by men as diverse as a backwoods hermit, a test pilot, a professional big-game hunter, a champion surfer and a mystical rabbi. Ban Breathnach is tiny, barely five feet tall even with her three-inch Manolo Blahnik heels, with a pixie face beneath a bob that, like everything else about her, is a shade of beige.

"Men are not going to read an essay every day. I knew I had six principles that I'd been able to use to structure a year around women, and that as much as I wanted to, I could not clone something like this. "At the heart of my work is honesty and authenticity. And I'm a woman and I don't know anything about men. "I adore men, but I wanted to understand them more. I wanted men telling me what was important to them. I was not going to tell them where to find the sacred, the everyday sacred. I was not giving them a template of how they were going to do it. I said: 'you can write about anything you want, but we just want emotional courage.' I wanted them to write on divorce, adultery, the difference between sex and love."

But nobody did. Loyalty and loving a woman for her smile and making a cup of coffee in the morning are the closest it gets to the man/woman axis that so dominates women's thinking.

The collection was edited by Michael Segell and, of the 50 writers, only two were contacts of Ban Breathnach, including Sting, who was asked to write about passion. He declined, but wrote instead - very well - of risk. Ban Breathnach sees her handing everything over to men as a risk in itself.

"I had to take a risk. I had to let them speak for themselves. I had to say: 'I want a book that's authentic. I don't want a bad best-seller, I want a real book.'"

The result is surprisingly eloquent - a series of "Certainly, having found my authentic self, a disquiet that had gone on for a number of years became deafening and I had the courage to listen to it," she says. The success of Simple Abundance has benefited not only Ban Breathnach's own bank balance but also, through her continued practice of tithing, a number of charities supported by the Simple Abundance Foundation.

Yet, on a daily basis, Ban Breathnach's success has proved hard to handle - "in the States there's a conception of who I am and there's a set person they want me to be" - so, four years ago, while in England covering the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales for People magazine, she went to Lincolnshire and bought a cottage, where she spends as much time as she can while running the Simple Abundance publishing venture in New York.

"In the four years since my marriage ended I've come to know who I am completely, in a way that I didn't before. And I now know that I love rural life, I love the country and I would love to raise rare sheep. This is my dream. "When you get to know yourself and what's important to you, life becomes simpler and more fulfilling - more abundant. I'm seen as the woman who has all the answers. Well, I know some of the questions now. But that's a big step".

A Man's Journey To Simple Abundance is published by Simon & Schuster, £10 in UK