'Sometimes you need light relief in really dark moments' - Cecelia Ahern on writing through the pandemic and her latest book Freckles
You are the average of the five people you spend most time with. Not family or those you live with, or even five people who inspire you - Amal Clooney or Greta Thunberg types - but people you see most days; that chatty barista in a coffee shop, the woman walking her dog on your commute who stops for a blether, the traffic warden who catches you in your usual spot when you run five minutes over and slaps a ticket on your windscreen, again.
This is the premise of award-winning Irish writer Cecelia Ahern’s latest novel, Freckles, her 18th.
She’s written one a year since she was 21 and her debut P.S. I Love You became a bestseller and was turned into a 2007 film starring Gerard Butler and Hilary Swank, while her second book, Where Rainbows End also hit the big screen as Love, Rosie in 2014. She’s gone on to sell 25 million copies of her books internationally in over 40 countries in 30 languages, won numerous awards, and also moved into script writing and TV, co-creating the US ABC Comedy Samantha Who? and the upcoming ROAR, with Nicole Kidman’s company for Apple TV+. An eight part anthology of darkly comic feminist fables based on her 2018 book it stars Betty Gilpin, Meera Syal, Fivel Stewart and Kara Hayward and is due to hit our screens this autumn.
“I first heard the phrase, you are the average of the five people you spend most time with, from my brother-in-law [Westlife’s Nicky Byrne who is married to her sister Georgina],” she says over Zoom from her home in Malahide, the seaside town outside Dublin, where she lives with her husband David Keoghan and three children, daughter Robin, son Sonny and toddler Blossom, born just before lockdown.
“It was about five years ago and we were on holiday. My mum said something to him, his back was turned and he said ‘was that you or your mum?’ because we were so similar, and he goes ‘you know you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with’. My head just went ping ping ping, and I immediately started finding my story from there. So now he thinks that this book is his whole his idea!” She laughs, something she does a lot, chatty and chirpy, talking fast in her Dublin tones that leave you grateful for the pauses while she carefully considers an answer.
“I've been asked a lot who are your five closest people and who are your favourite five or the five people who have changed your whole life and actually that's not what this phrase is about. Your five people are not the five you think they are. It can’t be family members, it’s outsiders who are influencing in ways you might not realise. It could be the person at the bus stop you speak to every morning, someone at the gym, the REAL five people you spend the most time with. Do they say something or do something that makes you think in a way you wouldn't if you hadn’t met them?”
With the seed of a story, Ahern turned her attention to her main character, Allegra Bird, a traffic warden who loves rules and regulations, perhaps because the rest of her life is out of control. She also takes things literally so when a disgruntled parking offender flings the phrase at her as an insult, she begins a process of self-examination, with darkly comic results.
“It's an interesting phrase and for someone like Allegra, almost another rule that she needs to follow.”
So who are Ahern’s five at the moment, since she stresses they change over time as our lives evolve.
“It's funny. I wrote a piece for someone with my five people and they said it wasn't personal enough! Ha, ha. It couldn't have been more personal, ‘cos the top one was my personal trainer who I see four times a week and knows more about my life than any of my friends. They know what you're eating, where you're going, how exhausted you are, if you're positive or negative that day and I think they're really important relationships.
“Also who the five are and what they do with their lives is fascinating. My trainer is a spokesperson for endometriosis and has spoken to governments about it, promotes information and better education and set up a resource center, so I’m spending most of my time with someone that's inspiring. That's the kind of person that I want to spend my time with. So I do want to get people thinking in that way,” she says.
“Wait, no!” She shouts, “I didn't want to get people thinking, I just wanted to write a book! She laughs.
In Freckles Allegra is struggling with her five people - an ex partner, a former best friend, a manipulative landlady - and the idea that she is their average.
“It’s really a book, as all my books are, about taking control of your life,” says Ahern. “It’s saying you're allowing five people into your world and you get to choose. If there's a toxic relationship or people are draining you or badly impacting your life, they shouldn't be one of your five. Allegra realises she can curate her life and has a very literal way of doing it because she is very … I don’t know the word for it….”
“em prescriptive?,” I suggest, and we laugh, two people that work with words grappling for one.
“Ha, Ha, I don’t know. But I did write it!” says Ahern.
Despite a wealth of book promotion events and appearances which she enjoys, Ahern confesses she’s happier with the written than spoken word.
“I’m not very good at speaking. I’m much better at writing. I find it very difficult to translate what my work means in spoken language. I read Sinead O'Connor’s autobiography, my favorite book I’ve read in a long time, and she says, I’m paraphrasing, if I could explain my songs to you, I wouldn't have written a song. I feel like that with my books. If I were able to explain the story I wouldn't have written a fictional story with this character in this world. I suppose my fiction helps me make sense of the world, in that way.”
Ahern has a very workmanlike approach to writing, working every morning, producing a chapter in each sitting, starting each book in January, finishing in May then editing, publishing in the autumn and spending the rest of the year promoting.
“Freckles was postponed last year and I was really disappointed at the time because my books are always representative of that moment and I want them out, but lockdown’s given me more time.”
Shorter days were imposed on Ahern because of Ireland’s lengthy lockdown, the cancellation of an international tour schedule and the need to homeschool her two older children.
“That was difficult, like for everybody,” she says. “It was an hour for each child and then me and I tried writing at nighttime but after putting the kids to bed the last thing you want to do is write, so I tried different ways, and interestingly the hours I was able to work defined the structure of how the next book is written, capturing a series of moments, as opposed to chapters, because I think that's what I was doing, grabbing a moment, writing a moment, you know?”
With the idea for a book in her head, Ahern will work out the plot, knowing where it’s headed and the ending, but as she develops her characters, they often take the story off in directions she hadn’t foreseen.
“I have most of the story in my head but a lot of it just happens naturally as you're writing. They're always the best things, the surprises and twists and the turns, and the character not being ready to do whatever you want them to. The best stuff happens when it's natural and organic, when it's flowing.”
Ahern loves characters who are at a loss, who have fallen and are trying to find their way, and also manages to imbue their struggles with a lightness and comic touch.
“I think that might just be down to my own personality. Sometimes you need light relief in really dark moments. I enjoy writing about loss because I think that’s meaty and you want a place for your character to go. I find it very, very difficult to write a character that’s happy all the time because then you don’t search as much for answers. When you're unhappy, you question the world, life, existence. And that's a really interesting place for a character to be.
Ahern, who turns 40 this month, has been writing since childhood, keeping a daily diary and enjoying writing essays at school, starting her first novel, Beans on Toast (And a Bottle of Beer) at the age of 14.
“I never finished it,” she says, “but I’ve still got it somewhere in a box. I even drew a cover for it,” she says and laughs. “It was about the monotony of being a teenager, the beans on toast and the bottle of beer was the fun we had at the weekend.”
After her Communications and Media course, favouring script writing or radio broadcasting and TV production rather than print journalism - “it was storytelling in all its different formats I loved. I always go to fictional worlds” - she began a masters in film but left.
“I was going through a difficult time and wasn't able to face another year. My head wasn’t in the right place,” she says.
Returning home to her mother’s, she wrote P.S. I Love You in three months, found a publisher immediately and it is still her best-selling book. Its co-star Butler remains a friend and Ahern describes him as “a hero of mine, just such a lovely man, rooted, talented, quiet, a gorgeous man.”
The follow-up novel, Postscript, published last year after she broke her own rule and returned to the life of a character to rave reviews, is now being made into a film with Hilary Swank.
“The story for P.S. I Love You came to me and I think it was a similar situation to mine. I hadn't lost a husband, but I did have a loss of identity and was trying to figure out where I fitted in and who I was. Going through that period, the writing really helped me and by the end of it, my character is very hopeful and I had this book deal and my life completely changed. It was very interesting what that book did for me, personally and professionally.”
“With everything that I’m doing now I would love to have that film production knowledge, but I’m learning it as I’m doing it. Life is mad,” she says and smiles at how she’s come full circle, with her own production company in which she works with her husband.
As she ages Ahern finds herself growing in confidence, finding her voice on set and in life, as well as in her novels.
“That’s what ROAR is all about, trying to find that assertive voice and make a change in your life for yourself. I still believe that kindness is the way forward - people who shout might get listened to faster but I still would rather do it my way.”
Growing up “glued to TV and films,” and after watching PS I Love You being made on set, she was excited to be asked by ABC to create the comedy Samantha Who? for ABC and see it attract 100 million TV and film views)
“It was my ﬁrst experience working in TV. I started with no knowledge of the industry so I learned so much about how a show is made.”
With ROAR, her input has expanded after she decided she’d like to be involved at a higher level and is executive producing.
“I’ve made a conscious decision to just go for it. If it doesn't work, fine, I'll just keep writing my novels, but I knew that I had to step up or step away.”
The female-driven eight part anthology series from GLOW creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, has just finished production and Ahern is very proud of it.
“They really have really brought it to a new level,” she says, “It’s not meek or shy in any way - there’s a clear strong message that I think that was really necessary.”
As daughter of Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach or first minister from 1997 to 2008, her Sundays with her dad - her parents separated in 1992 - often saw her going into TV studios while he did interviews.
“I grew up with my dad being on TV and loved sitting in a studio watching the cameras and lighting and always found it fascinating. Behind the scenes, how things are made, I’ve always been interested in the inside of things.”
Ahern had a ringside view of the inside of politics, the most notable being Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended most of the violence of the Troubles, and she visited the White House as a teenager.
“The part I enjoyed most was seeing behind the scenes of everything, the meetings, we were there,” she says.
Although Ahern’s burgeoning writing career sometimes eclipsed getting the chance to meet a president.
“I remember everyone in my family met Clinton and Hillary but I was doing a Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire interview for Top People Under 30 or something, and I was like ‘I really wanted to meet Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton’. But I did meet Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair, a couple of years ago when they were marking the 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement. And I did get to meet George Bush in the Oval Office, which was incredible. Dad was addressing Congress and I got to sit in the First Lady’s seat and we were whisked around by secret service which was very exciting. But I was a teenager and you’re busy with your teenage life and don’t know who everybody is and what’s going on. I’d probably be really into it now!” she says.
As well as waiting for the TV airing of ROAR, Ahern is finalising the novel she began in lockdown. although isn’t allowed to say much about it.
“I’m so excited about the next one. I think it’s so unusual. I don’t know how it was written, in those two hours every day during lockdown, but it just shows when you go through really challenging times, good things can happen.
“It’s about lights, about colour. That’s my theme. It came from the seed of an idea and just grew and grew. I don’t know how it happened but it just came out of me.
“And - I do this with every book, think the newest one is always the best - but honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”
Freckles by Cecelia Ahern is published on 2 September by HarperCollins, £16.99 hardback.