If you could see her now
Cecilia Ahern has picked up further recognition for PS, I Love You with awards this month in Britain and Germany. She tells John Byrne what it's like to be the Taoiseach's daughter and a 23 year old millionaire, and how she's particularly popular with male readers in Germany.
Just after the launch of her first book, PS, I Love You, Cecelia Ahern was sitting outside Easons in Dublin. Her boyfriend, David Keoghan, was inside buying copies of the book. "When the first book came out, loads of people wanted to get the book signed by me," she says. "So my boyfriend went into Easons and I waited outside the shop, because I felt stupid buying my own book. But I eventually went in and stood beside him."
The woman behind the counter began to chat to Cecelia, but failed to recognise her, despite the big promotion that was going on in the shop at the time. The conversation turned to PS, I Love You.
"The book is selling really well, she's doing great," said the Easons woman. "And Cecelia is on the Late Late Show tonight. It's lovely to see her doing so well."
Cecelia was a bit taken aback.
"It was nice to get some honest opinion like that," says Cecelia. "I was just like, delighted. It was amazing. It's good to know that people genuinely like your work and are happy you're doing well."
It's different these days. Cecelia Ahern is now one of Ireland's best-known producers of what the literary establishment derisively calls "chick-lit", and what marketeers prefer to call "women's commercial fiction". PS, I Love You spent 19 weeks at the top of the Irish book charts, and was reprinted three times in three weeks following its release here. It's been published in 40 different countries, was in the bestseller list in Germany for a year, and is will be made into a film by the makers of Forest Gump. Her second book, Where Rainbows End, also did extremely well, topping both the Irish and UK bestseller lists. And the meda blitz to promote PS, I Love You was extraordinary.
Does she often get recognised on the street?
"Sometimes I do. Mostly, people just look, and you hear, 'there's Cecelia'. If I do get approached, usually people will just come up and say, 'I really enjoyed your book', and then walk away. There's never anything nasty."
No Madonna-style stalkers, then?
"No, none at all," she says, laughing. "I've learned a lot over the past two years. I've learned much more how to deal with people, how to deal with the media, how the marketing works. I know much more what I want, whereas at the beginning it was all new to me. I think I'm much more focused now."
The publisher's dream
Cecelia Ahern is a publisher's dream; pretty, articulate and self-effacing. And she's also the daughter of the Taoiseach. Every newspaper in the country wanted to talk to her when PS, I Love You came out. She made a famous appearance on the Late Late Show before which she had a panic attack and had to be coaxed on stage by Pat Kenny. And the fact that the Irish Taoiseach's young daughter had written a successful book was enough to make the papers in other countries.
But at that time, there was a feeling in some quarters that the "Taoiseach's daughter" line was a gimmick which was getting her more publicity than her talents deserved. Does she feel that her continued success has proven these doubters wrong?
"No, they probably still don't like the book, and I wasn't trying to prove anybody wrong," she says. "I wasn't interested in that, I just love writing. And to be honest, writing is such a private thing, you do it for yourself, and for no other reason. If, for any reason, a publishing company wants to publish it and people actually enjoy it, then all of that is fantastic, but I'm not trying to prove anyone wrong, I'm just trying to prove to myself that I can do it."
So book sales don't matter, whether it's one hundred or one million?
"I'd be delighted with a hundred."
What about five?
"Yeah, it's still all good. In any case, the magic is all gone once you've written down what you want to say. As long as you can keep that going, the rest is fantastic. Every writer wants as many people as possible to get read their writing. But if it doesn't happen, if you don't get published, you're still a writer."
Although Cecelia Ahern has built up a huge fan base, the literary establishment still retains a snobbish attitude to her writing. PS, I Love You was denounced as "tosh... akin to a secondary school essay" on Liveline shortly after it came out. The Guardian newspaper was even more scathing: "Gerry dies before the start, and the rest die on the page".
Does she care what critics say?
Not at all?
"No. If I don't listen to the bad, I don't listen to the good. It's the people that read it who are important. Obviously critics read it, but I've nothing against that. It's fine if you have an opinion – but it's just one opinion."
Does she think that the term "chick lit" is a fair one?
"I hate it. It's a term I don't like. If it's going to be marketed at women, it should be called 'women's fiction'. I mean, if you're calling it chick-lit, you're calling women who read it chicks. It's just ridiculous. If it's a man, it's called fiction, if it's a woman it's called chick-lit.
"It's not even 'chick lit' either. 'Chick lit' is generally for women in their twenties and thirties, whereas my books are read by ten year olds and 90 year olds. And men as well read them, particularly in other countries. There are always men at my readings and signings in other countries. In Germany there are as many men at my readings as there are women.
"I'm not saying it to give out, it's just the way I see it. It's not fair."
Interest in Cecelia Ahern's private life is strong. Apart from growing up with her parents' much-publicised seperation, and Bertie Ahern's subsequent relationship with Celia Larkin, there have been many column inches devoted to her relationship with her boyfriend, athlete David Keoghan. She now lives with him in a very large house in Malahide. Keoghan was accused – and cleared – on a date rape charge while he was a student in the United States. They also broke up for a short period, and this received a lot of attention. And her sister, Georgina, is married to Nicky from Westlife.
Seeing as her books contain no autobiographical information, does she do this because she knows people would be scouring her writing for clues as to what is going on in her own life?
"I don't write like that consciously. I don't find myself writing about me and suddenly go, 'I'd better scratch that out'. I just don't figure in it at all. I just get swept away. People ask me about myself when I'm doing promotional tours. But when I'm reading a book, I don't want to know about the author. I just want to read the story."
What function do her books have?
"The type of writing that I do is escapism for people. Not only that – and people are going to say, 'she says her books change people's lives' – but I get quite a few letters from people. My last book was about a woman who was a single mother, always struggling, never really knew what she wanted. But she works really hard and in the end she gets somewhere. I get this letter from a woman saying, 'I was that character. When I was reading this, I felt I was going to try to do what I always wanted to do'. But that's a great thing. It can help people, it can give people hope. And the first one, a lot of people who'd lost their husbands said it really helped. But apart from all that life-changing stuff, it's really about escapism. And about helping people learn."
Does her father read her books?
"Yes, he read the first one, and he really liked it. He was reading the second book, but the format it was written in... [It was written largely in the guise of text messages and emails] It wasn't that he didn't like it. People either loved it or hated it. He's really looking forward to reading the third one. It's set in Kerry."
He likes Kerry?
"Yes. We go every year on our holidays to Kerry. I just think it's beautiful down there, there's loads of colour, and this book is really colourful."
Does she ever quiz him to make sure he's not pretending he's read them when he hasn't?
"No I don't," she says, laughing. "You know, loads of people say, 'Oh, I'm really sorry I haven't read your book'. You don't have to read it just because I've written it. So it's fine, I'm not like that. All the way along, I learned from him about how the media works. You know, knowing what to believe, knowing not to take it too seriously."
Was it strange growing up with her father being such a public figure?
"No, not really. It was all I knew. You hear the name being mentioned, on the news and stuff – it's not life-changing. My Dad's a great guy, and he does great work – and people know that. I'm just his daughter."
With high sales, film deals and a heavy promotional schedule comes lots of money. Cecelia Ahern has undoubtedly made an awful lot of it, and she's just 23. She reportedly got a $1 million advance from US publishing house Hyperion, and Harper Collins UK gave her a £150,000 advance for a two-book package. The film deal for PS, I Love You will also net her a cool $500,000.
What does she spend the money on?
"A mortgage. I'm not overly flash. I like travelling, and I like eating out and, I can't think what else, really."
Does she think it fair that mega-millionaires should benefit from a full tax exemption?
"I think there is really small percentage of people who do really, really well – and I'm an exception as well. I know people will say, 'oh she's just trying to not pay tax' – but I'm not really thinking of me. I'm thinking of the people who don't really earn very much money at all. It's nice to be able to encourage them to do their work. It's unfair for people who are earning very little to have that taken away from them."
What about putting a cap on the artists' tax exemption, so that artists who earn over a certain figure should pay some tax?
"Well... it's not for me to decide, so I won't say."
Cecelia Ahern's third book will be published soon, and will be followed by a heavy promotional tour of Australia and the United States.
"It's called If You Could See Me Now, and it's about a woman who, it's kind of a multi-dimensional story really, it's just a positive book about a woman who's really struggling, and someone from another area of life comes in to introduce the colour and fun back into her life. So it's a big leap from the first few to be honest. The writing is much better, the characters are much deeper, there's more depth to everything, I can see it."
Does she intend to keep on writing as a career?
"I'm really comfortable writing. I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I mean, I'd like to try different styles of writing, maybe get into screen writing. I'd love to write a play. I love creating worlds and characters." p