At just 27 Cecelia Ahern has made millions from her bestselling books, but she tells John Spain it’s her family and the simple things in life that make her happy.
Cecelia Ahern has just celebrated her 27th birthday but there was no big party. That's typical of Cecelia. She may be a successful writer — with six best-selling novels, a Hollywood movie, a hit TV series in America and a new play — but she's more than happy to spend her birthday in the local cinema just like anyone else.
“No, I didn't have a party because the next few days are going to be mad with the launch party for the book and both my boyfriend, David, and my brother-in-law, Nicky, having their 30th birthdays within a week of each other. The last thing I wanted was another party for myself, so we just went to the cinema and saw Taken, with Liam Neeson, which was really good.”
So what about presents; what do you give the girl with millions? “Well, first of all, don't believe all you read about the millions,” she says with a sigh. “One of my best friends gave me the nicest present, an album filled with photos of the two of us over the years. It was so thoughtful and lovely and I was really chuffed. So that's what you give the girl who everyone thinks has everything,” she says, laughing at the notion that she wants for nothing.
But exactly how many millions does she have? Even before The Gift was published this week, the figures from HarperCollins showed that Cecelia's books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. At about 80p a book — which would be a conservative estimate — her share in that must be £8m?
“It's a lot more complicated than that,” explains Cecelia, who finds the media interest in how much she is worth both tiresome and irrelevant. “The percentage you get changes depending on how much you sell, and the contracts are different in different countries.
“And anyway, it's not the most important thing to me. If people feel they have to define themselves by money, what kind of job they have, where they live, their car and so on, it's a bit sad. That's what The Gift is about. If you strip all that away, who are you?”
But even if she doesn't define herself by money, it must be enjoyable having that wealth and financial security at 27. So how does she spend her literary loot— travel first class perhaps and treat herself and David to lots of exotic holidays?
There's a pause. “I really only want to talk about my stories,” she says, plaintively. “I really hate talking about money. All I will say is that I'm very secure and happy.”
As for exotic holidays, she explains that travelling so much to promote her books means that being at home is a holiday for her. But she did get to spend a whole summer in Paris.
The first home she bought was an apartment in Santry, Dublin, but these days she is back in Malahide again — the north Dublin seaside town where she grew up. Home now is the substantial detached house she bought, with a dream car outside and a writing room in the attic.
“It's overlooking the sea and the views are lovely but I've ended up not spending that much time there. It was becoming just an office, so I moved down to the kitchen table and I do a lot of my writing there now.
“I write longhand. I'll do a chapter and then type it into the computer and edit as I go along. I use pen and paper because I love the physical act of writing — and that you can sit down anywhere and do it longhand without worrying about low batteries or internet connections. I can write pretty much anywhere.”
Now that Cecelia's well settled into the house, might she and her boyfriend of five years, David Keoghan (the former athlete, now actor), be thinking of starting their own family?
There is a pause before she answers and, when she does, she sounds very serious.
“These things are so personal. Family is really important to me — it's what keeps me sane. I'm not saying I have no plans, but nothing immediate. At the moment, with my schedule, I'm just trying to make time for me. I don't want to put any time or date on it for other people to read.
“But I definitely want to have kids, I really do. I love being the aunt. I'm learning a lot from the twins [sister Georgina's sons, Jay and Rocco] because I didn't have that much contact with children before.
“I'm finding now that, when I'm at home, I'm trying to finish work early and race over to their house [also in Malahide] before their bedtime,” she says.
“When I travel I have this gorgeous photo of them that I put on my bedside locker wherever I am. There are twins in my family and there are twins on David's side as well, so it could happen to me too!” Her smile says it all.
Cecelia looks wistful as she glances around the Grand Hotel Malahide and reveals that it was here, last March, that her father, former Taoiseach Bertie, landed a bombshell on the family.
“We've had a family tradition ever since I was a child that we meet for dinner here in the Grand Hotel in Malahide every Sunday, and we've kept that going over the years. No matter where we are in the world, we try to get back for dinner so we can catch up with each other and share our news.
“It was actually here in this hotel, one Sunday last March, that my dad told us he was going to announce his resignation the following Wednesday. It was a surprise and I felt hurt and angry for him because we knew he had wanted to go on for another year.”
From the warmth in her eyes earlier when she was talking babies, you can see the hurt in her eyes when she talks about the family meal that became an an emotional time for all of them. But does she feel angry anymore?
“It was really just in that moment that I felt that way. Dad's a very positive person. He always used to say ‘we'll get through this and we'll motor on' — he has all these great motivational phrases. So it was a shock when he told us. But he seemed to be happy with the decision himself and that helped us. He just said it was the right time to stop.
“He's great now, totally relaxed. He's trying lots of different things, such as the TV sports presenting, the travelling and the speeches. He's still ridiculously busy but he's walking more, which he loves, and he does a little jogging most evenings. He's in great form, he's happy and for us that's all that matters.”
The idea for her new book, The Gift, came from the incredible pressure she was under last Christmas. “I was doing the promotion for the movie of PS: I Love You. We started at the premiere in LA and I was pinching myself on the red carpet; it really was like a dream come true. But we went on from there to other cities and, while all that was going on, I was also finishing my last book, Thanks for the Memories. There was so much going on every day that I felt I never had enough time for myself and the family. Then one day someone asked me if I was going to some event and I said I would if I could be in two places at the same time.
“That sparked the idea for the character in The Gift. If you could be in two places at the same time, where would you choose to be? That's what the book is about, someone who gets the opportunity to be in two places at the one time and eventually learns that the most valuable place to be is at home with the people you love.”
This extra dimension — called ‘magic realism' by some critics — is the common factor in all of Cecelia's stories. It can be letters from someone who is dead, a woman with an imaginary friend, blood transfusions which have weird effects, or being in two places at once.
“I don't deliberately do it, it's just how my brain works,” Cecelia says. “A lot of my characters are in trouble; they've reached a crisis point and the extra dimension in my stories takes them out of their lives and makes them really see themselves.”
Does she see herself as spiritual? “Yes, definitely, and I am very open-minded. I don't get my fortune told but I do believe that some people are more insightful than others.”
Cecelia insists that critics who see her magic realism as ‘fluffy' are missing what she is doing. There may be an element of fable or fairy story in what she writes, but there's a harder edge as well.
“There's always a darkness in my stories and I'm always drawn to that and to the characters who are at their lowest. I want to bring them to a more positive place. The magic, I suppose, is taking the characters out of their comfort zone and into this extraordinary place where strange things happen — that's when they start to look at who they really are and start to heal themselves.
“It's not fairytale magic; it's more insightful than that, I hope.”