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Cecelia Ahern: ‘I feel very comfortable writing about people’s foibles’

The author on her new novel, In a Thousand Different Ways, and why her work is so attractive to film-makers

Tell me about your new novel, In a Thousand Different Ways. What was the inspiration and how did it evolve?

It’s about a character named Alice who has the ability to see people’s emotions in the form of colours around their bodies; she sees auras. She can instantly know just by looking at someone exactly how they’re feeling, and if the colour travels to her, then she can also feel exactly as they are feeling. Alice feels that this skill is a burden, not a gift, and we follow her as she tries to navigate her own life, carve out her own path despite feeling overwhelmed by everyone around her.

As an empath, I wanted to write about what it’s like to be empathetic and highly sensitive. I felt that using colour would be the best way to show how energies move from one person to the next, for people who don’t understand what it’s like to feel and pick up on what others are feeling or thinking. The evolution was in the colours becoming characters themselves; they had personalities and movement, they twirled, swirled and spat, which developed in a way that felt like I was creating a new language, and that was my point. We have so many ways of communicating and understanding each other that’s not just through the spoken word.

How challenging was it to write about mental illness and abuse?

I didn’t find those aspects challenging to write. I feel very comfortable writing about people’s foibles – I love to go into the dense dark spaces of the mind and see the world from my character’s eyes. The more nuanced they are, the better.

Why do you think you are drawn to writing about loss?

I’m drawn to writing about transitional moments in our lives when we leave behind the person we were and through tragedy, trauma or whatever life challenges we’re faced with, we move to the next version of ourselves. I find that when life is smooth and we are content we don’t question very much, but when we are faced with challenges we question almost everything – ourselves, the people around us, the world, what are we doing, how did we get here, how do we get out of it. Will there be a way through it. There always is the way through it and that’s the juicy part of a character for me. Vulnerable, questioning, slightly broken but not shattered, is right where I want the character to be in order to lift them up and make them stronger.


You were only 21 when you wrote PS I Love You, which became a huge best-seller and was adapted for a major Hollywood film. Was it easy to cope with success?

It was certainly overwhelming. The workload was immense from the beginning which was excellent training. However, being from Ireland and being surrounded by grounded Irish people, I knew, because I was told, that what was happening to me was not the norm. I knew that it was not going to be the case for every single book for the rest of my life and so I was embracing the moment and enjoying it as much as I possibly could.

What makes your work so attractive to film-makers?

I’m a visual writer, I see the story and I write it, which transfers well to screen. My ideas can often be high-concept and original. Female actors are always on the lookout for meaty satisfying roles, and my characters provide a real journey and growth. I grew up watching a lot of TV and film. Most of my pocket money went on renting videos and watching them over and over again. From romantic comedies to sci-fi, musicals to thrillers, I’ve lived in stories for the majority of my life. With each novel my aim is to tell a story that has never been told before.

Did being the daughter of a former taoiseach help prepare you for being a public figure or encourage you to keep a low profile?

It prepared me for both and so I do both.

I’ve read that you’re not comfortable speaking in public. What does writing mean to you?

My difficulty with it is that writing is my first language and I’m not as fluent in the spoken word. I conceive a story and I write it, quite quickly and naturally. In that moment I have brought together tones, themes and language which come together because they just fit or through trial and error, which I subconsciously play with and feel my way around. And then when I’m finished writing, I have the job of having to explain how, why, when, where and what. I have to analyse my work, my thoughts and my process and try to link it to talking points, which seems unnatural. I find writing and speaking to be two different languages. It would be easier to say, read it, then you’ll know what I mean.

What do you mean when you say you take risks in your work?

I’m not interested in writing the same novel twice. I’m drawn to writing about challenging, transitional moments in people’s lives, and that theme never changes, but how I go about telling the story changes so very much I’m sure it sends my publishers’ heads in a spin. I’m often too quirky to be commercial and too commercial to be literary and while I’m comfortable with not fitting in, it’s never easy when it comes to knowing where to put me on a shelf.

What projects are you working on?

I’ve just begun writing my new novel which will be the 20th novel I publish.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I did an author event in the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, Georgia. I toured the house where she wrote Gone with the Wind.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“You’ve done this before, you can do it again” – myself to myself.

Who do you admire the most?

Original thinkers (when they use their powers for good.)

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Everyone must be kind to each other.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Iceland. It’s one of my favourite countries to visit. When I was there for the first time I felt the landscape was so different to anything I’d ever experienced before that I had the feeling this is what it must be like to be on another planet.

Your most treasured possession?

Sniffy. My 40-year-old pillow case that is now a rag and still comes everywhere with me.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

A special edition Winnie the Pooh, the complete collection of stories and poems. The most beautiful words and the most beautiful stories.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I have actual dinners with Paul Howard and John Boyne, and they’re great fun. We could add Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, Aimee Bender, Audrey Niffenegger, Andrew Kaufman, Sinéad O’Connor and Louise O’Neill to that and it’d be perfect. I’d hide in the corner and listen.

The best and worst things about where you live?

It’s a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean. And ... it’s a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean.

What is your favourite quotation?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” – from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Jack Reacher.

A book to make me laugh?

Queen Bee by Ciara Geraghty.

A book that might move me to tears?

One by Sarah Crossan.

In a Thousand Different Ways by Cecelia Agern is published by HarperCollins

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times