Cecelia Ahern: ‘I don’t have small worries, I have big worries. Like the end of the world’

Cecelia Ahern. Photograph: Barry McCall

Bestselling author Cecelia Ahern on the upsides of lockdown, her new book and why she misses boxing

The initial idea for this interview was that I’d meet writer Cecelia Ahern for a socially-distanced stroll. I changed the plan at the last minute, worried the recorder wouldn’t pick up her voice as we ambled along one of her favourite walking routes around north Dublin’s Malahide Castle. She arrives on the outdoor cafe terrace in the visitor centre wearing exercise gear – a sporty black vest and stretchy leggings – and is understanding about the cancelled walk. She orders a decaffeinated coffee. She has given up caffeine and alcohol and is clearly delighted by both decisions.

She never drank that much anyway but she was off alcohol while pregnant with her third child, Blossom, who was born this time last year. “I just never went back to it,” she says. “That’s not to say I never will go back.”

Ahern has had a healthy pandemic but then she’s been that way inclined since her 20s when she figured out staying fit was “good for my soul”. After Blossom was born, she posted an Instagram video from a gym workout. She was cradling her tiny baby, using her as a weight, while doing impressive lunge walks across the gym. “My gym is so good. I wanted to show that gyms can be family-friendly”.

She doesn’t mind about missing our walk because she does a lot of it anyway, around 10km a day, on the castle grounds or along the north Dublin coast. It’s good for coming up with ideas, of which the prolific Ahern has had many.

We are meeting to mark the paperback launch of Postscript, a sequel to PS I Love You, her wildly successful debut novel that was made into a hit movie starring Hilary Swank. The book launched her writing career 18 years ago. The Dubliner was only 21 when she wrote the story of a young woman, Holly, who’s husband Gerry died from brain cancer. Like most of her books, the concept was strong. Knowing he was dying, Gerry secretly wrote a series of letters to his wife, to be opened after he died. It touched a chord with readers around the world and Ahern has been charming and surprising them ever since.

Movie

In Postscript – a sequel Ahern had sworn she’d never write – we find an older Holly reluctantly helping terminally ill strangers, members of the PS I Love You Club, who want her guidance with writing their own letters to leave behind for loved ones. The club in the novel, another of Ahern’s great ideas, sounds like something that could actually exist in real life. Postscript was a hit for Ahern and it’s now being made into a movie, with Swank starring again. “We’ve been in touch,” says Ahern, happily.

Cecelia Ahern, centre, with Lisa Kudrow and Hilary Swank, who both starred in the movie of Ahern’s book PS I Love You, in 2012. Photograph: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Cecelia Ahern, centre, with Lisa Kudrow and Hilary Swank, who both starred in the movie of Ahern’s book PS I Love You, in 2012. Photograph: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The author is about to turn 39. Since PS I Love You she has written 17 more books including Where Rainbows End, How to Fall in Love and Flawed, racking up sales of more than 20 million. She lives not far from where we meet with her husband, TV producer David, and their three children – Robin, a girl, Sonny a boy, and baby girl Blossom. She smiles mentioning the seven-year gap between Sonny and nearly one-year-old Blossom.

“These things happen,” I say.

“I think I’m beginning to figure out how,” she laughs.

“If you’d said to me you’re going to get pregnant, have a baby and a few months later go into lockdown, that just sounds terrifying. But she’s been such a gift to all of us. When you are on maternity leave you are in a sort of self-isolation anyway. In the world but not quite.”

Lockdown

It sounds as though Ahern was more psychologically prepared than some of us when lockdown was announced. She had taken her children out of school the previous week – “I was looking at Italy …” – the family had done the shopping, she had even been to the toy shop stocking up on diversions to entertain the kids for the flight.

“I didn’t go into shock,” she says. “I mean, you don’t expect a pandemic but I am one of those people who always thinks anything can happen. When I travel, I think ‘what if the borders close and I can’t get back to my kids?’ As a child I watched war movies. I don’t have small worries, I have big worries. Maybe I am expecting the end of the world. So, when it came to lockdown, I was prepared”.

She thinks back to those first few anxious weeks, the uncertainty, “the worry about people you love getting sick”. But after those weeks passed she settled into lockdown and “it was quite lovely”.

I feel like before I was always pushing everyone but now there was nowhere to go and we could just be.

“I hate to say it because I know so many families have gone through so much and I want to acknowledge that. But I loved the pace. Everything slowed down. I wasn’t rushing people to eat their breakfast. I feel like before I was always pushing everyone but now there was nowhere to go and we could just be. I could sit with the baby on the floor and just enjoy it because there was nowhere to be in an hour’s time.”

Before she started writing, she was in a pop group called Shimma who came third in the Irish Eurosong. She still loves dancing and during lockdown she became proficient in a number of TikTok dances which she performed with her husband and posted on Instagram. She also had a couple of large-scale lockdown Lego projects on the go. Something good to do with the kids? “No, they don’t go near my Lego,” she laughs, adding with a hint of menace: “Don’t touch Mammy’s Lego.”

It wasn’t all “lovely” in the pandemic bubble. “I didn’t see my dad for nine weeks,” she says. Ahern’s father is former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and he lives outside of her five kilometres. “That was hard,” she says. The worst part, she says, was not being able to show her mum and dad the baby as she grew. “You know how much a baby changes in a week.”

Updating her will

Writing Postscript was a journey back to her much younger self. Her mind changed about a sequel after she had her second child and was updating her will. It made her think “of all the things we do for the people we are leaving behind”. To write it, she had to go back and read Ps I Love You.

“I read it like this,” she says, her hands splayed over her eyes, cringing. “I was proud of a lot of it, but I could see how my writing and my character development has improved over the years.”

Postcript is clever and funny, wise and moving. She says PS I Love You was written when she was “lost”, going through a tough time having quit her master’s degree because of crippling panic attacks. Writing it was “healing” and getting it published “changed my life”. A writer she admires who read both books recently emailed her to say that PS I Love You “celebrated the girl you met and Postscript celebrates the woman she’s become.”

“Isn’t that brilliant?” she says. “I really liked that.”

Woman of colour

Postscript features a wonderfully drawn character, Ginika, a troubled young working-class mother and inner-city Dubliner, who is also the daughter of African immigrants. When I try to draw Ahern on the challenges of writing a woman of colour, especially these days when writers are under scrutiny like never before, often employing “sensitivity readers” to avoid causing offence, she is cautious. I go on to mention JK Rowling and John Boyne as writers who have been criticised in recent times for aspects of their work, but she does not want to offer a view except to say that kind of attention is not something she “goes after”.

“I think I never want to be controversial, you know, I never want to step on people’s toes. So I think I just deliberately end up staying away from anything that might offend or cause a big hullabaloo. I’m not up for the fight. I know what I want to say and how I want to express it in my work. And I am thoughtful about all my work.”I’m not surprised to learn that at prepandemic dinner parties or family gatherings she was never someone who got stuck into heated conversations. “I just get so irritated by debates. My husband loves them … I just wait for it to be over because you have your opinion and someone else has theirs. Why are you constantly trying to change people’s minds? It’s not going to happen.” And yet I have a feeling that if we were both drinking what used to be her favourite alcoholic drink – Champagne – and my recorder wasn’t on, she might have a lot more to say on the controversial subjects she so skilfully evades.

Cecelia Ahern with her parents, Bertie Ahern and Miriam Ahern, at a party to celebrate worldwide sales of 10 million of her books, in 2008. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Cecelia Ahern with her parents, Bertie Ahern and Miriam Ahern, at a party to celebrate worldwide sales of 10 million of her books, in 2008. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

When I suggest life as a high-profile politician’s daughter must have contributed to her public reticence, she tentatively agrees. “It was like, you had to keep everything low key, level headed, be grounded, you don’t want to act the eejit. People are looking all the time … so I suppose that stayed with me. But I’ve never felt that I’ve had to hold back in my writing in any way. I’m just not terribly good at expressing myself, verbally. I’m really bad at speaking. But if you were to say ‘go home and write it’, then I could send you my proper answer.”

A few days later she sends me a text message about Ginika, explaining how much “work and thought” went into building that character. “I wanted you to know that she wasn’t just dropped into the story”. But I already knew that. That care and thoughtfulness is the reason Ginika works so beautifully as a character in the novel.

‘Human connection’

Ahern’s next book, Freckles, was due out this year but was postponed because of the pandemic. It will come out in autumn 2021 and the story about “human connection” hangs on yet another intriguing concept. It was inspired by something her brother-in-law, former Westlife singer and RTÉ presenter Nicky Byrne, told her five years ago. He was pointing out the similarities between Cecelia and her mother Miriam, 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.

Cecelia Ahern with her husband David Keoghan, her sister Georgina Ahern, and Georgina’s husband, Nicky Byrne, in 2007. Photograph: Frank Miller
Cecelia Ahern with her husband David Keoghan, her sister Georgina Ahern, and Georgina’s husband, Nicky Byrne, in 2007. Photograph: Frank Miller

“It’s a business motivational term I’d never heard before. And suddenly I had the idea and the character, I had everything. So the next book is about a woman who hears this saying, analyses her life, looks at the five people in it and realises she’s not happy with those five ... so she reaches out to five people. She thinks that if she is the average of these five particular people then she can be the person she wants to be. Like, if I want to rebuild myself, who are the five people I’d want to be the average of? She is in self-analysis mode, curating her life, taking things apart and putting them back together again,” Ahern says.

Five fantasy people

She is quick to point out how different she is to her character. “I don’t do self-analysis.” Ahern says this a few times during our conversation. Even so, the most obvious question, when she reveals the plot of her new book, is to ask who are her five people or who are the five fantasy people she would want to “be the average of”?

“I’ve already decided I’m not going to answer that question, because I don’t even know who the five people are and I don’t even want to think about it ... I know that’s a really horrible answer, but it’s not why I write the books. All I can do is create a character and tell the story from her perspective, how she sees it ... that’s how I write. Otherwise I’d be doing what you do, which is non-fiction, but that’s a skill I don’t have.”

I point out that she went to journalism college but she says, “I was really bad at that part of it. I loved radio and film and TV and not the print side …”

“I do not do self-analysis,” she says again. “I will talk about everything else but I could not tell you about myself. Which is probably why I write.”

She was disappointed at first that Freckles was being postponed, but is glad now because it’s given her more time to write. She is already a few weeks into her new novel, which she is writing when she’s not on Zoom calls with actor Nicole Kidman, who is producing a TV drama based on Roar, Ahern’s brilliant, often surreal, book of short stories about the challenges of modern womanhood. These stories were loved by fans but also by people not normally drawn to her novels.

Kidman is “so sharp, the way she analyses things …,” says Ahern, who is an executive producer on the project. “I am learning a lot.” She is also writing another TV series and working alongside her husband on the production elements.

Boxing

One thing she missed during lockdown is boxing. Before anyone had heard the words “social distancing”, she was training with an MMA fighter, wrestling on the floor. “At first I kept saying sorry to him, you know “sorry, sorry, sorry” but boxing beat the sorry out of me. It made me feel strong. That travelled into other parts of my life.”

The pandemic has put an end to her boxing but on her long daily walks, Ahern plays movies and plots in her head, ones she has written herself. “And I never want to stop doing that,” she says. “My kids think I am boring. I won’t take risks like go on rollercoasters but I take risks in my work. And I want to make it better each time.”

Postscript by Cecelia Ahern is out in paperback now. Cecelia is an ambassador for Irish Book Week, which takes place from October 17th to 24th.

Main photograph: Barry McCall