January 2008

Cecelia Ahern

Flights of fancy
Interview by
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Cecelia Ahern is so wildly successful for her 26 years, you’d think her head would be spinning like the tornado that whisked Dorothy off to Oz. But as her bubbly Irish brogue travels across the Atlantic, she sounds remarkably grounded. Ahern, whose first novel, P.S. I Love You, written when she was just 21, became a bestseller and a major movie with an all-star cast, is gracious and down-to-earth. Her rise has been nothing short of meteoric, and there’s no apparent end in sight. She has just completed her fourth novel, There’s No Place Like Here, created a hit U.S. comedy series ("Samantha Who?"  on ABC), and has other film and television projects in the works. Not bad for a young woman who didn’t even aspire to be a novelist.

Speaking from her seaside home in Dublin on what she says is a glorious late afternoon, she looks out at the water as our conversation ranges from writing to rap. Asked about seeing the film adaptation of P.S. I Love You for the first time in October, she says, with a lovely lilt in her voice,  "It’s really nice to revisit that story because you have to keep moving on talking about your new one."  That story goes something like this: Holly, a recently widowed young woman living in Dublin, deals with the aftermath of her husband’s death from a brain tumor. In the process, she rediscovers herself and the joy of life with help from an endearing circle of friends and family and a cache of letters from her late husband.

Asked what compelled her at such a young age to write P.S., she says the story just popped into her head. She found it easy to identify with Holly and with the fear of losing someone so young, when you have your whole life before you.

Ahern is emotional when talking about seeing her first book on the big screen. She went to Los Angeles with her mother, agent and boyfriend in tow people who had encouraged her along the way for a private screening. She’d read the script and been on set, but the end product was even better than she’d hoped. She especially enjoyed having the opportunity to see the story in a new light and approach it with a fresh perspective, even though she did cry for two hours afterward. "Not to gush, but it was really one of the stand-out moments in my life,"  she effuses.

For Ahern, writing was always a hobby she never dreamed it would become a profession but she did feel drawn to media communications. She was actually working on her master’s in film production when she wrote P.S. I Love You. She has, she says, "always loved to go off on flights of fancy."  And fly she has. Her writing easily lends itself to both the big and small screen. Case in point: her latest novel has already been optioned for a series by Touchstone Television.

There’s No Place Like Here is the story of Sandy Shortt, a young woman so obsessed with finding things that she starts her own missing persons agency. Since childhood, Sandy has been plagued by where things, and people, go when they’re missing from the proverbial sock in the dryer to her childhood neighbor. But as with all of Ahern’s stories, there’s a fanciful, quirky twist. As Sandy searches for a missing man, she finds herself lost in a magical land where all lost things and people go.

"It’s just all very metaphorical really,"  Ahern says.  "It is about a woman who literally wanders off the wrong path, loses herself, wakes up one day, looks around, [and] doesn’t realize where she is. I think everyone can identify with that story; I just took it to a different level."

Though she didn’t write There’s No Place Like Here with The Wizard of Oz in mind, Ahern concedes that parallels exist. She wanted her character, like Dorothy, to be physically whisked off to a different place. Originally titled A Place Called Here when it was published in Ireland, the title was changed to emphasize the connection between the two stories for an American audience, which suited Ahern because she felt the allusion was apt. As in Ahern’s other work, there is a little romance in the mix here, too, in the form of a rather unorthodox patient/therapist relationship.

The fairy-tale quality of Ahern’s work would seem to recall Ireland’s rich history of myth and storytelling, but Ahern is a thoroughly modern young woman with her finger firmly on the pulse of pop culture. Her taste in books and music is varied, with a distinct American flavor; she likes Mitch Albom and 50 Cent. Despite the fact that her father, Bertie Ahern, is Ireland’s prime minister, there’s nothing uniquely Irish about her books—as evidenced by foreign rights sales of her novels in 40 countries. Ahern believes that if you write authentically about human emotions, you can touch any reader, regardless of culture or age.  "You can take readers anywhere if they can identify with the character and the feelings and emotions are familiar,"  she says.

Ahern has just finished her fifth novel, which will be published in April in Ireland and later in the U.S. Adhering to her rule of taking life one book at a time, she declines to discuss it but does divulge the title: Thanks for the Memories.

She also happens to be the creator of a successful TV comedy, "Samantha Who?"  Higher-ups at ABC contacted her after reading P.S. I Love You and asked if she’d be interested in writing a show for television. Within days she met with the comedy development team, writers and producers. She calls the show’s success "a modern fairy tale in itself,"  and adds, appreciatively, that she’s just so glad there is an audience out there for her bizarre little stories. The personable and ebullient Ahern takes her many accomplishments in stride. Though Dublin is her home base, she has spent a lot of time recently traveling between New York and L.A. for the movie promotion and book tour. She’s not just bi-coastal, she’s tri-coastal.

Of her early success Ahern says, "It’s a mixture of a lot of luck and a lot of hard work."  So that’s what they mean by the luck of the Irish.

Katherine Wyrick is a freelance writer in Little Rock.

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