'I'm fascinated by the human spirit. How no matter what you go through and you think you can't, you do'
Cecelia Ahern has finally written the sequel to her blockbuster P.S. I Love You. She talks to Liadan Hynes about why she thought she never would and about working with her husband
It's hard not to speak in hyperbole when it comes to Cecelia Ahern. She was just 21 when she sold her first book, P.S. I Love You (published in 2004), a novel written after Cecelia had left her college course abruptly, stricken for a time by a series of panic attacks that left her reluctant to leave the house.
Sold to the UK on the back of 10 chapters, it sold more than a million copies. Cecelia now has sales of over 25m in more than 50 countries. There is the Hilary Swank movie. The upcoming development of her recent short stories collection with Nicole Kidman.
More than a dozen books later, she is one of the most successful authors in the world. It's a success that sits lightly on the shoulders of the Dublin-born woman who is now raising a family with her husband David Keoghan - two children, with a third on the way - near to where she grew up, the younger daughter of Miriam and former Taoiseach Bertie.
Now 37, she has finally written the sequel to that first, most famous, book. Postscript picks up with Holly seven years after the death of her husband Gerry.
Right from the beginning, Cecelia carved out quite the work schedule. Almost without fail, every January she begins a new book.
Ideas have never been a problem for Cecelia; come January, you get the sense that it is merely a matter of picking which one to go with. It's partly this that made her so reluctant for years to write a sequel to PS - there have been so many other new things to work on.
She writes until May, edits over the summer, then come autumn there is publicity. It's a schedule that would be gruelling to anyone not in possession of a creativity that has simply never faltered. But it's one that grew out of that time when Cecelia first came to writing; as a college student, still living in her mother's home, a little lost in her own life.
"At 21, I was just out of college where I had gone from writing assignments and being told what to do by my lecturers," Cecelia recalls now with a smile.
"So I was kind of treating the people I worked with that way. 'This is homework. Next book? I'll have that delivered on time'. I didn't think I had a choice. I was doing my work. I was just following what I had done for the past couple of years.
"'Assignment due in April?' I realise now that's the way I approached it. And I was always a good girl at school and college. Got my work done. So I wasn't going to miss a deadline."
While the rest of her friends were finishing college courses, Cecelia suddenly found herself with a fully fledged career. A huge career. "I had to learn so much so quickly, I hadn't a clue about the publishing industry," she says now, laughing. "I liked to read books, but I didn't know anything about them."
Suddenly she found herself in a world of meetings with publishers, in a position where she needed to recruit lawyers, accountants.
"I hadn't a clue what anyone was talking about. I was stepping into a career."
Growing up within an industry can be challenging. Changing from a grateful, biddable naif to a woman who knows her own worth and indispensability, and expressing that while never actually changing workplace, so to speak, can be tricky.
"Oh yeah, I've had to learn that along the way," she smiles knowingly. "I've had to learn that I'm not the student any more. And to go 'this is my business, this is my career'. Just become a big girl. Because I started so young. So I think everyone's had to adjust to change," she laughs. "Oh, Cecelia's grown up."
In the spirit of running one's own affairs, she set up her own production company, Greenlight Go Productions, with her husband, who now works with her full-time. She met David, a former athlete, when she was 19, so he has been with her throughout the entire journey; P.S. I Love You was dedicated to him.
"He is a bit of a Gerry," she acknowledges with a smile, referring to the male love interest in her first book, a handsome, playful man.
"We are all about the fun. He was flying to South Africa to do a month's training at altitude when I learned about the book deal. He stopped at Amsterdam and he called me from a payphone - did we not have mobiles?" she laughs. "What was that about? And I told him about the deal. And he said later he sat for the next five or six hours on a plane like 'oh my God'."
It got to the point, she explains, that the couple needed to work together on the project that is Cecelia Ahern the writer.
"I think what happened was it wasn't enough to be able to rant stressfully to your partner. And how frustrating for him to listen and not be able to provide help? And things really grew.
"It's a big job, and I want to focus on writing. I want to create, and all this business side really drags me down. I find it difficult. So I need people who I can trust, so I can focus on the actual reason that we're all here." "I discuss loads with David," she continues. "Like, we went for a really long walk on the beach yesterday; we have these pow wows. Our little brainstorming sessions. Just saying it out loud; all I need to hear is 'that's great. I like that idea'."
Their first proper working collaboration was Roar, last year's collection of short stories, which is now in development. "We made that our project; to make something happen together. We went to all those meetings together."
She never planned to write a sequel to that first book which started it all. In fact she actively resisted suggestions that she might.
"All the way along I was really stubborn, I am a very stubborn person. I will do what I want to do. And probably the more people ask me to do something, the more I'm like 'no, no, no, no, no'."
It wasn't fear of failure; in her own quiet but determined way Cecelia does not seem to suffer much doubt over her own obvious talents. You get the sense it was more excitement over all the other things she wanted to write.
Like her heroine Holly, who now in Postscript resents attempts to bring her back to the past, why go backwards? "I love that story, but there's so many other things that I want to do. And to prove that I can write all different kinds of stories," Cecelia explains.
It was in 2012, after a meeting with her solicitor to change her will in the aftermath of the birth of her son, Sonny, that she began to think again about all the things that people who are soon to die do to prepare those who will be left behind.
"When I got the idea I was like 'I'm still not going to do it'. But the idea wouldn't go away. It kept growing and growing, and I heard the sentences in my head. And that's when I know I need to write it. So I secretly wrote the first chapter to myself. Just to see how it was going to go. And I cried my eyes out. It really touched my soul, I was right back to when I wrote P.S. I Love You. I was right back in there."
Writing the book was intense, she says, because it brought her back to that time when she was 21 and her world had slightly fallen apart around her.
"So intense," she says of the original experience. "And I think that was why writing Postscript was doubly so, not just because of the subject matter, but because it was so linked to my experience the first time. It kept bringing me back to who I was and how my life was and how things changed."
That idea of the cyclical nature of change attracted her, how over seven years we have essentially become a new person, all the cells in our body renewed. We come back to Holly seven years after the death of her husband Gerry. "There's seven years between the first Holly and this Holly. You know that theory where every seven years we become a different version of ourselves, or we evolve? I love that, and as I go through my life I'm like 'yup, every seven years'. I can't create her from scratch but I can introduce a new Holly. Because life really alters you. In a vague example, at 21 I published P.S. I Love You, and at 28 I had my first baby, and so much did change in those seven years."
She also examines the possibility that if Holly and Gerry met now, given all this change, would they even fall in love.
"I wanted to have Holly thinking that if Gerry met her now, he might not even like her. Because I met David at 19, and we are so very different, and if we had met each other since he probably wouldn't even like me, but we changed together.
"You have to be aware of it, and willing to change, and think 'am I bothered? Am I in the mood to?' I wanted to reflect that. Because I acknowledge that I am so very different."
How we survive the unwanted changes that happen to us, and the grief that goes with that process, is a topic Cecelia returns to in all her work. "I am asked it a lot; 'what is it about grief?' Always. And I do analyse myself so much, trying to figure out, what is it?" She laughs. "I wish I had a really good answer; I should have a good answer by now. I don't know. It's my thing. I think because I'm intrigued and fascinated by the human spirit. How no matter what you go through, and you think that you can't, you do. You can. It's this amazing strength that comes from people. I do have that philosophy that life does throw shit at you. A lot, and all the time. But then… how can you not be cheesy saying this, but it is how you deal with it.
"You cannot affect what other people do to you. But you can affect how you deal with it. I'm always about build yourself up. With my kids, if something happens at school, I don't get angry with the other kids, I'm trying to strengthen them. Armour yourself up."
That, she says, is the core of her books. How you can deal with your own stuff - stuff that has been put on you. Towards the end of Postscript, Holly realises she needs to establish some emotional boundaries. Cecelia puts much of her own success as a writer down to her obvious emotional intelligence, but does this openness cause her any difficulty?
"I always feel like I don't have a great deal of knowledge, but I'm emotionally intelligent, so I feel my way through things and that's kind of my guide. I try to learn as many things as possible, and I try to feel things, but really, I'm a feeler," she smiles. It's not hard, she says, this kind of emotional openness.
"I think it's a superpower. Because if you can understand people, then honestly, that gets you…"
She acknowledges though, that like Holly, boundaries are sometimes required. "I think there are certain times where I definitely have to learn how to build a wall.
"I remember being out one night and I literally turned my body away from someone, and my friend was like 'you are allergic to that person'. I said 'it's the vibes, there's something really nasty'. I just can't do bullsh*t, because I know that there's no goodness in the person. It can be a gift, and it can also be why can't you just go out and shoot the breeze. But in saying that I'm not a very sensitive person. I don't get hurt easily. I think I pick up on who I think people are. The core of who they are. It's why I follow five people on Twitter," she laughs.
"If someone's going through something really sad, I feel very, very sad for them, like it's happening to me. Or if someone's really hurt that I love, oh that hurt just gets straight into me. But if someone says something bad to me, I don't really care. I can cope with it. I feel it for other people."
Her third baby is due next month. Rather than take a full year out from writing, she wrote an extra book, which will come out late next year.
"I was very busy," she smiles wryly. "It was the hardest book I've ever written. Because I was nauseous. And ill, and my head was… I couldn't focus and I was not feeling well at all. I don't think I've ever thought as much that a book would never be finished."
Did she ever think 'maybe I just won't?'
"Many times, yeah, many times," she laughs. "My agent kept saying it to me, and David kept saying 'you know you don't have to'."
She adopts a mock overdramatic wail: "'I have to do this for my family, I must provide'. The drama. And all those responsibilities that you feel. But when I set myself a challenge, I don't like to…"
She doesn't like to quit, is what I think she means. But now, rather than a student following rules, you get the sense of a woman doing it on terms she has set for herself. A woman on own terms.
Postscript by Cecelia Ahern is published by Harper Collins, £16.99