Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Life is goodfor Cecelia

From early criticism to selling 13m novels, Bertie Ahern's daughter is on a journey. Hannah Stephenson catches up with the hugely successful author of PS, I Love You - and is very careful not to use the words 'chick lit'

It could have been a twist in one of her own romantic tales. When guests turned up to best-selling novelist Cecelia Ahern's daughter's christening last year, little did they know they were actually attending Ahern's wedding to long-time partner, actor David Keoghan.

"It wasn't a total lie, because it was a christening, but we decided to say our vows as well. So we had 20 members of our family at the church and they all knew what it was," the bubbly blonde author recalls.

"The 150 guests who came to the reception afterwards didn't know. Some people were totally shocked because they thought we'd never get married. One of the most fun parts was standing at the door in my wedding dress to welcome everyone. The reaction was fantastic."

The happy couple had been together for nine years and their daughter Robin was born in 2009. So what changed her mind about marriage?

"Eventually it was the simple fact that it felt right. I'd never been interested in it before. I wasn't really someone who ever wanted to get married and then suddenly, I did."

Married life hasn't changed things, the 30-year-old author of PS, I Love You and The Gift reflects. She didn't change her name and she didn't want her father, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, to give her away.

"I wanted to walk down the aisle myself, with my husband and my daughter.

"I thought the idea of your father giving you away to another man was so old-fashioned and not appropriate for me."

Ahern's books are difficult to categorise, as they all have a magical, fantastical quality, but she's not keen on them being called 'chick lit'.

"I hate that phrase, because I don't think it's fair to anybody. It's a horrible term for readers and writers. They are not literary fiction - I'm not in any kind of denial about that - but calling them chick lit, or commercial fiction or women's fiction, is the lazy way out. There's always a quirky element involving ordinary characters."

Her eighth novel, The Time Of My Life, is the story of Lucy Silchester, a young woman who is sent an appointment card to see 'her life'.

When the man she meets introduces himself as 'her life', her stubborn half-truths are revealed and she finds herself having to face up to life instead of hiding from it through lies and avoidance. Ultimately, the novel has a positive slant. Ahern says it's important for her to write uplifting books.

"I always want my books to reach a positive point in the end. It's not about finding Mr Right, or that sort of conventional ending, but I do want my characters to have hope - and that's what I do with all my stories."

Dublin-born Ahern was thrown into the publishing spotlight at the age of 21, securing a £200,000 deal for her first two books including PS, I Love You.

The film rights were sold to America for $1m (£650,00) resulting in the hit movie starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler.

The hype was intense but due to her father's political career, she's no stranger to the spotlight.

"Myself and my sister [Georgina, who's married to Nicky Byrne of Westlife] were a lot more aware of other people. The teacher would already know us on the first day of school.

"It made us careful about who to trust and who not to trust."

Her parents divorced when she was five but she remains close to both and still sees them and the extended family regularly.

She recalls: "Every Sunday we would go with my dad to wherever he was working, whether it was opening something or making speeches. We'd be with the other adults listening to everything, so it was a very interesting life."

She began writing as a child - poems, short stories and songs - quietly and secretly, to clear her head, until she wrote PS, I Love You. Yet when she secured the early lucrative deal for that book, critics accused her of nepotism.

Irish writers joined in, lampooning the novel as 'tosh... akin to a secondary school essay'.

"Sadly, I was expecting it, but people in the publishing industry had never seen such nastiness before," she recalls. "We'd grown up hearing a lot of negative things, so I was able to deal with it.

"It's only now, looking back, that I get a little annoyed. I was a 21-year-old who'd just done something really great. To be spoken to the way I was by a lot of people, even in interviews, was hurtful. I went into survival mode.

"But for all the negatives, there were far more positives.

"People supported me in their hundreds of thousands. It wasn't all doom and gloom."

And she's surely having the last laugh. Her books are now published in 46 countries and have collectively sold more than 13m copies. Yet the experience toughened her up, she reflects.

"I didn't let it get to me because I came out with more books, and in a way it's good to feel like you have to prove something, or maybe your standards would slip."

However, the criticisms made her turn down requests for interviews or pictures with her father for some time.

"I just wanted to do things on my own," she recalls. "I'm still not doing interviews with my dad, but maybe one day that will change."

She's now back to writing a book a year, after taking last year off.

"I caught up with my life," she says simply.

"I was working quite crazily, which was great, but I wrote seven books in five years, which was really intense, and decided I wanted to stop for a while."

During that break, she was able to have some 'me' time.

"I did a lot of things for me that I hadn't been doing in the previous years, like going to the theatre, to festivals, or going out to dinner with friends when they asked, instead of always saying 'No'."

It might be argued that in some ways her fame has eclipsed her father's, but she's having none of it.

"He's done far more important things than I have," she retorts. "I'm providing entertainment, he's doing important political things."

She'll be starting a new novel in January and is also working on a German TV movie about self discovery. Meanwhile, the film adaptation of her second novel, Where Rainbows End, is due to go into production next year, and she has also sold the rights to If You Could See Me Now and The Gift.

"I have my fingers crossed and would be so excited (if the films were made). It would be fantastic for the books."

Ahern's finally having the time of her life.

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