Author of her own destiny


Profile Cecelia Ahern:Cecelia Ahern has emerged as a poster girl for a generation who grew up with the confidence to pursue their dreams, writes Róisín Ingle

The movie PS I Love You is out next week and here are some things you should know. Lead actor Gerard Butler's "Wicklow" accent is the worst advertisement for voice coaching in the history of moving pictures. "Oive been writin' you lett-urrs," he drawls as though auditioning for the part of the leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow. But, instead of How Are Things in Gloca Mora? the movie features a dirge by James Blunt. Quite apart from the diction disaster and the relentless stage-oirish shenanigans - shamrock-covered boxer shorts, ahoy - Hollywood's spin on Cecelia Ahern's debut novel is disappointing. In a recent interview, Ahern said the first time she saw the movie she spent the entire two hours in tears. I'm not surprised.

The tears, of course, were caused by the emotional impact the movie wrought on the best-selling author, rather than any aversion to the film.

Despite Hollywood taking her massively successful novel and meddling with pretty much everything in it, apart from the protagonist's husband dying of a brain tumour and sending her encouraging letters from beyond the grave, Ahern has given the movie her seal of approval.

A romantic-comedy-by-numbers that tries far too hard to please, some commentators are nevertheless predicting it will prove a big draw stateside. After all, Americans are unlikely to be bothered that the iconic Dublin music bar Whelan's is referred to throughout as "Waylan's" and, possibly, neither will Irish audiences.

You can't help wondering whether Ahern was aware of how woeful Butler's Irish accent was or if she knew about the "Waylan's" travesty beforehand and just decided to ignore both. Described by many who have spent time in her company as "gentle, unassuming and easygoing" it's quite feasible that she had a clue but decided to keep schtum. When she was interviewed on CNN's Young People Who Rock programme a while back, the presenter kept pronouncing the author's surname as Aw-hern. When Cecelia was asked whether the pronunciation was okay, she smiled back in agreement. The ability not to be precious about such things can only have helped ease her path to her astonishing level of success. She now has four books under her belt, a hit TV sitcom in the US, and the movie, which stars two Oscar winners, Kathy Bates and Hilary Swank.

When Ahern began her writing career five years ago with PS I Love You - written in three months - all anyone in Ireland could talk about was her dad. The question of whether the estimated one million euro in advances for her first book had something to do with the fact her father was Taoiseach may have merited discussion back then. These days her relations, who also include a Westlife brother-in-law in Nicky Byrne, are a mere footnote to her own career.

Ahern has since moved out of home, travelled the world and become, in sales terms, the most successful female Irish writer since Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.

In the process the 26-year-old has emerged as something of a poster girl for a generation who grew up with the confidence to pursue their dreams, however ambitious they might be. Teenage author Ruth Gilligan, with two Irish best-sellers, is another young Dublin woman who didn't let her tender age stand in the way of novel-writing.

Ahern's initial bid for fame came through Billie Barry-style performance roles, which culminated in her joining the pop band Shimma. The group came third in the Song for Europe contest, but not long afterwards Ahern was taken on by prolific agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor and found her niche as a writer.

With quiet self-confidence, she has spent the past five years seizing every opportunity with almost fearless enthusiasm. She has said that when the call came from ABC, who wanted to know if she was interested in developing an idea for a television comedy series, she didn't hesitate. "I said 'Yes, yes, yes' . . . I had no particular idea in my head, but I knew I would come up with one," she told an interviewer.

Recently she told Bookseller magazine about pitching her idea for Samantha Who?, her sitcom, on which she gets a producer credit. The show, about a woman who suffers retrograde amnesia after coming out of a nine-day coma, has not been picked up by RTÉ, a decision the station may come to regret.

"I went over, there were three days of pitching to studios," she said about her time in LA. "I was so scared I almost dropped dead - I pitched and pitched, met with writers and producers, and chose the people I felt would work well for the series . . . If I feel good about something, I'm willing to just go for it, despite my nerves and anxiety."

IT'S THIS ABILITY to push herself forward despite any insecurities that is the most inspiring part of the Cecelia Ahern story. Ahern possesses the kind of dedication and self-discipline many writers would kill for. She doesn't appear to waste time worrying about whether she can do a project, she just goes ahead and makes it happen through sheer hard work and pure imagination.

Fellow Irish author John Boyne says that in company she is "grounded and easy-going", adding that he's never heard anyone in the industry say a bad word about her. "She is not someone who takes her success for granted," he says. "I would also say that for someone of her young age she has been incredibly productive. I admire her work ethic hugely. She also inspires great loyalty in her readers and that is what every writer hopes for."

Retailers were disappointed this year not to have another Ahern best-seller in time for the Christmas market. "She usually writes a book a year but she is lucky to be in the position where she can take a gap," says one Irish publisher. Maria Dickenson, books-purchasing manager for Eason, confirms the sense of disappointment within the retail trade but says "she had other commitments this year, apparently . . . and the thing about Cecelia is that her books will sell at any time of year".

The new novel, Thanks for the Memories, is due out in April. This one is based on another of those quirky ideas which, even before a book is published, seem likely to spark interest in Hollywood. The plot concerns a woman who miscarries a baby and then receives a blood transfusion from a stranger. This transfer of blood leads to a magical connection between the donor and the woman, with the couple, eventually, after a few classic Ahern twists and turns, falling in love.

Ahern has said she got the idea for Thanks for the Memories from a documentary on heart transplants that showed how people who undergo such operations often acquire the tastes and qualities of the donors. "People would wake up and suddenly want beer when they'd never drunk beer before, and it turned out the donor was a big beer drinker. As soon as I heard that, I thought: 'I'm definitely going to go with the idea. I like to go with something out of the box.' I like to see the extraordinary in the ordinary; the magic in my novels is the little extraordinary thing in real life," she has said.

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that all of her books have plots that would be at as home on the big screen as they are on the page. She has a master's in film from Griffith College, Dublin, completed after a journalism degree, so the book/TV/film career path would seem like an obvious one.

But it's Ahern's heartwarming, almost naive, style of writing that has her millions of readers worldwide clamouring for more. At the core of every Ahern story is a young woman's journey through adversity, and if she has a message it is that even the most insurmountable obstacles or grief can be overcome. What the books lack in gritty reality they make up for in a fairytale-like quality, as though Ahern is always imagining a better, truer, gentler world than the one the cynics who sneer at her syntax inhabit. And, speaking of critics, Ahern has always adopted a mature-beyond-her-years approach to reviews. "For somebody so young she has incredible resilience. The negative reviews genuinely go over her head," says one Irish writer.

As a personality, Ahern is more complex than her resilience might suggest. When she appeared on Tubridy Tonight recently, the studio audience were asked by presenter Ryan Tubridy to play along with the idea that Ahern was being interviewed live. In truth, Ahern had recorded the interview before the live transmission of the show, proof that her star is now so bright she can demand and be granted a pre-recorded interview to publicise a movie.

It may sound like a demand worthy of a diva, but the more likely story is much more endearing. Eason's Maria Dickenson remembers back at the beginning of Ahern's career, when she was making her debut appearance on The Late Late Show, how nervous the 21-year-old had been at the prospect earlier that day. When it came to the live show, her attack of nerves was so bad that Pat Kenny had to virtually drag her from the wings and into the studio. The reluctance to do Tubridy Tonight live may show the nerves are still at this shy young Irish woman, but that underlying self-confidence and bottomless font of ideas suggests plenty more movies, books and TV series will follow.

Let's just hope she becomes more vigilant about the Irish accents.


Who is she?Best-selling author Cecelia Ahern

Why is she in the news?The big screen version of her debut novel PS I Love You opens in Irish cinemas next week. Samantha Who?, the sitcom she co-created, is currently a hit on US television.

What to get her for ChristmasA DVD box set of rom-coms.

What not to get her for Christmas:De Little Book of Bertie.

Most likely to sayDo you think Brad would be right for my next movie?

Least likely to sayPS, I've completely run out of ideas.