Cecelia Ahern: ‘I’m not saying I’m Anne Enright’

Her new novel, The Marble Collector, tells the story of a father and daughter from Drumcondra. She talks about panic attacks and her place in the literary hierarchy

Cecelia Ahern, author of The Marble Collector, a novel about a woman uncovering the secrets of her dementia-suffering, marble-collecting father, has a lot of marble-related paraphernalia. She has a box full of marbles, a book called Collecting Marbles: A Beginner's Guide and a beautiful "contemporary art marble".

We're in her Malahide office, by the sea. There's a big desk with an Apple computer on it, a bookshelf, a table and chairs, two armchairs by a fireplace, a child's drawing by the door and a painting on the wall, in which a cow looms forward, its tongue extended. It's called Tongue in Cheek, she says. "It's me. I think when I'm writing I'm very sarcastic. I don't know if you picked that up . . . Some people don't get it."

She writes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, usually at her desk, but she can write anywhere. Sometimes she “scribbles” on the beach. She writes longhand. She has a fascination with the little “bump” that develops on the middle fingers of pen users (she has been amassing pictures on Twitter sent by fans) and a curiosity about the notebooks of others (“My God, that’s interesting note-taking,” she says of my scrawl).

She shows me the big pads in which she writes. They contain pages of blue handwriting with occasional Post-its stuck to pages and daisy-chain doodles in the margins. She tweeted a picture of a manuscript once and someone said that the doodles looked like she was trying to make connections. That’s true, she says. “I draw them when I’m trying to link things . . . trying to figure out the next bit.”


Solving mysteries

She is funny and thoughtful. She rings me 20 minutes before I arrive to see if I want a coffee and checks that I’ve put enough money in the parking meter. “They’re very strict around here,” she says.

As a child she had a rich, imaginative life. She would cycle around Malahide solving mysteries as “Detective Casey” (an amalgam of Cagney and Lacey) or would sit in her wardrobe, daydreaming to Michael Jackson records played on a Fisher Price player. She continuously wrote “little stories and diaries” and can’t understand people who say they want to write but haven’t written anything.

“That really bugs me. People say [that] and I go, ‘Do you like to write? Why don’t you just write?’ ”

Are the rest of her family?

“Loopy?” she interrupts. “No. I think it was just me.”

She never showed anyone her writing until she was 14 and began a novel, Beans on Toast and a Bottle of Beer. She showed her mother, who told a teacher. "And I was so angry with her. I never did these things to show anybody. I never wanted to be a writer. I just wrote. My teacher kept asking about this novel, and I got so embarrassed I never finished the thing."

She was 21 before anyone read anything she had written again, and that was her breakthrough novel, PS I Love You. In the meantime she learned and taught dancing at Digges Lane, performed with nostalgia band Boogie Nights and joined Shimma, the Louis Walsh-managed, Pete Waterman-produced pop act that came third in Eurosong 2000. "Not the Eurovision. Eurosong," says Ahern and laughs.

After Shimma disbanded, she felt “a bit embarrassed. I wanted to . . . put my head down and not do anything like that again.” She studied media and communications and had a bit of a “quarter-life crisis”. “I was very anxious and started to get these panic attacks . . . really horrible things . . . You become very insular. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to see anyone.”

She started a film production course but dropped out to write what became PS I Love You. Her mother said, "Why don't you show this to somebody?"

Miriam Ahern seems to be a strong guiding force. Cecelia calls her On the Other Hand, “because if I go to her with a belief of some sort, she’ll say, ‘Yes, but on the other hand . . .’ She believes that there are a million, gazillion possibilities.”

Rejection letter ready

Early chapters ended up with literary agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor, who, on hearing the taoiseach’s daughter had sent her something, “was already writing her rejection letter in her head”. But she asked to see more. “And after sending 10 chapters, we met. She said she wanted to represent me. My first deal was a few weeks later.”

It was a huge advance and it garnered a lot of publicity. The press weren’t always kind. People said her mother had written the book or that her father (then taoiseach Bertie Ahern) had got her the deal. “I remember a newspaper printed the last page of the uncorrected proof, which you’re not allowed to quote from, [and headlined it] ‘PS It’s a load of shit’.”

She’s not grumbling, she says. The experience was overwhelming, but she thinks if her success hadn’t happened, she “could have gladly sat in that house for the rest of my life. I probably wasn’t getting the panic attacks at that point, but you develop a constant fear of getting them. There’s anxiety constantly.”

She tried hypnotism, sports psychology even some “unusual energy-balancing thing”, but “what got me out of it was having to get on a plane, having to do interviews, having to go on TV”.

She also thinks her experience with panic attacks helped her as a writer. “The performance side of me was gone, so I became very introspective and began analysing everything.”

How so? She recalls reading about the number of people who had panic attacks, “and if I was sitting on the bus I’d be looking at people and thinking ‘who else is feeling this?’ because I don’t see it on anyone’s face. I started really analysing people. I always felt on the outside of things, even though I wasn’t.”

Does she have a skill for reading people? “I think I do, yeah . . . I think I have an understanding if something is up with someone. And people tell me things. No matter who I end up talking to, at the end of the night people tell me things.”

Is that the same type of skill her father has? She thinks about it. “He is like that, absolutely. He’d keep a little notebook in his inside pocket and people would come up to him and they’d say that something was wrong with their roof. I’d be in the clinic and I’d see he was helping people and fixing things that were wrong. To me that’s what politics is.”

Later, when I ask, she says she finds her father’s waning political reputation “frustrating”. She looks for a moment like she really wants to say something else, but thinks better of it. She narrates for my benefit: “Cecelia has a lot to say, but Cecelia doesn’t say it.”

She’s happier to talk about him in the context of her own life. She was always very aware he was a public figure, she says, “but because [her parents] didn’t live together, we were separated from it in ways. When we were with him [we] were part of that world. You were aware that people were always looking at him.”

Sunday was their day with him. “We’d hop in the car and we wouldn’t know where we were going,” she says. “It could be a sports day in Cabra or . . . something very fancy. Me and Georgina – thankfully, we had each other – we were sometimes at a table with a lot of adults and we’d have to figure out what was going on. [We were] thrown into a lot of situations, maybe three, four, five things in one day. As a mother I really want to get my kids out of the bubble a lot of children live in – just their world. We travelled all around the country, seeing all kinds of things and meeting all kinds of people.”

It wasn’t stressful? “I mean, it was confusing a lot of times, but it was fun and sometimes you’d meet other kids and have a great day, and every Sunday was different.”

The secretive father in The Marble Collector is nothing like her dad? "Not at all," she says. "I even went to my dad and said, 'I'm writing about marbles,' expecting him to inspire me. But he played conkers."

The book, she says, evolved out of a story she started called The Woman Who Lost Her Marbles, and though set in Drumcondra and featuring a father and daughter, "what this character feels for her dad is pure fiction."

Strong concept

All her stories start with a strong concept – letters left by a dead husband ( PS I Love You), a blood transfusion that transfers memories ( Thanks for The Memories) or someone literally losing their marbles ( The Marble Collector). She loves ideas. We talk a bit about science fiction (she recently wrote a Doctor Who short story), and when I tell her about the BBC clone drama Orphan Black, she says: "I'm jealous of that idea . . . Ideas make me excited, and if I hear someone else's I go, 'Ooh, I wish that was mine.' "

Not surprisingly, she's become a go-to person for TV, originating four television films for German television and a series, Samantha Who?, for the US.

She dislikes genre snobbery and how women's writing is often packaged with pink, glittery covers even when it "isn't about that". She loves all her covers, she says, but particularly the gender-neutral cover of The Marble Collector.

"It's kind of frustrating when you limit [your readership]. You know a person who would really like that book but they're not going to hold it on a train." She laughs. "I'm not delusional about what I'm writing. I just think everyone should be given the chance to enjoy it. I'm not saying I'm Anne Enright. "

She usually writes a book a year, but last year she wrote an extra one, her first young adult novel, Flawed. "My beautiful baby, who wasn't even two, broke his leg and was in this cast from here [his waist] to his ankle on both legs," she says, "I was afraid that if he rolled over in his sleep he'd get stuck and wouldn't be able to get up, so I'd sit there in his room writing. That's how I wrote it so fast."

She interrupts herself. “Blah-blah, I’m talking too much,” she says. “Talking about my child’s broken leg.”

Flawed, which is due out next year, is about a country where imperfect people are branded with an "F". It was influenced by reading horrible news stories. It has a political subtext? "Yeah, definitely."

Does she have strong political opinions? She laughs. "My sister has called me 'suffragette' ever since I was born. I watched Mary Poppins every day . . . and there's this song, Sister Suffragette, and at five years old I'd be dancing around to that. I have very strong opinions, but I like to speak them, not to shout them."

  • The Marble Collector is published by HarperCollins on October 29th