Cecelia Ahern: Nepotism, escapism and Catholic guilt

The daughter of the outgoing Irish prime minister has made her own name with a series of wildly successful romcoms.
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The Independent Culture

We're in the creepily dark Oak Room of Malahide Castle, County Dublin, and the sparkling but diminutive Cecelia Ahern is saying that while she thinks ghosts might exist, she hasn't seen any. "But I certainly believe people who say they have."

That something – a force, a feeling, a power – exists beyond reality is, in many ways, Ahern's fictional territory. While her novels might have the feel of a fluffy, cuddly romcom – she hates the term chick-lit – they also have a peculiarly Irish whimsical, or at least fantastical sense. Magical things happen. People vanish and appear, talk from the grave, suddenly discover unearthly or superhuman qualities. In her latest novel, Thanks for the Memories, memories shift from one person to another via a blood transfusion.

To say she's the new queen of escapist romantic literature is almost to miss the point. Her novels don't just defy belief, they expect the reader to suspend all sense of reality and go with the flow. "I always take a story that's kind of out there, like an urban myth," she says. "I take some possibility that people imagine, that they are familiar with, and try to turn it into a story."

Thanks for the Memories begins with young heroine Joyce Conway falling down the stairs, losing a lot of blood and her unborn baby. In hospital she gets a blood transfusion, and once out of hospital she decides to abandon her failing marriage and start afresh. However, she suddenly finds herself in possession of thoughts and images that are quite alien to her. She keeps dreaming about a young girl with blonde hair, and has suddenly become an expert on art history. We soon learn that the blood she received was donated by handsome, divorced, single dad and highly acclaimed art historian Justin Hitchcock.

The phenomenon of molecular memory has variously been discussed in relation to heart-transplant patients – who, after the operation, suddenly experience feelings and desires that are out of character. Taking an even larger leap in the dark, Ahern attributes the concept to blood transfusions. Never mind that many millions, if not billions of people have had blood transfusions and never has the question of molecular memory been raised. "Blood comes directly from the heart so I felt it was in some ways related," she says, giggly and wide-eyed. "How much of us is in our blood?"

On this premise one could wonder whether, by drinking milk, we might begin to see things from a cow's point of view. But don't laugh, because Ahern's open take on life has reaped the most extraordinary rewards. She piles the romance on to her very questionable "concepts" or "myths", and in particular creates characters, always young women, and invariably suffering from some form of grief and loss, and takes them on a journey of discovery, until luck and usually love turn back their way. "I write human stories," she says. "I write about people. Not as a product of their environment. But from the stance that everybody is made of the same thing. I write about emotions – falling in and out of love, finding what you want to do, no matter where you are or who you are. I think that's why people feel connected."

They certainly do. By my reckoning, Cecelia Ahern is, for her age, the world's most popular novelist. Her first novel, PS, I Love You – now a major motion picture starring Hilary Swank and about a grieving young widow who is sent an endless stream of cheery messages from her late husband – was an instant hit. Her subsequent three novels were also worldwide bestsellers, and novels number three (If You Could See Me Now) and four (A Place Called Here) are already destined for the silver screen.

Then there is the small matter of Ahern having created the new sitcom Samantha Who?, which stars Christina Applegate. Oh, and Ahern's also about to sign a major deal on her first original screenplay. All this, and she's only 26. No wonder she arrives for the interview in a black and beige Merc SL 350, which she refers to more than once as her "baby", and comes accessorised with a black and gold Jimmy Choo clutch.

But Ahern doesn't feel especially comfortable with the spoils of her success. "I never grew up thinking the goal in life was to be a millionaire. All the way through college I had a part-time job. I worked hard to get the things that you need at that age. But now I probably have this Catholic guilt, or Irish guilt – you want to get a nice thing and then you think, oh no, I should save, and then you think what am I saving for?"

Aside from guilt – and she does describe herself as a "modern Catholic" who believes in the "heart of religion" – her reticence about being showy can also be attributed to exactly who she is. In her native Ireland she's as close to being royalty as you can get. Or was. Her father is Bertie Ahern, who stepped down as the country's second-longest serving prime minister after this interview, while her elder sister Georgina is married to Westlife singer Nicky Byrne. She's been the subject of close public scrutiny for as long as she can remember, and is even more on her guard since her father's resignation, and the surrounding controversy over his personal financial affairs.

When she landed the $1m deal for PS, I Love You, fresh out of college and at just 21, she expected a drubbing. "I'd had 21 years of having a politician as a father. Every time I do something people deliberately think the worst of it, or stupidly think the best. I've met people who've said, 'I didn't want to buy your book because I thought you only got the deal because of your father,' and I've met people who've bought the book because they've said they are big fans of my father. I would be stupid to say it had not helped, particularly in Ireland."

However, publishing success as vast and as sustained as this cannot be purely attributable to having been the youngest daughter of the Taoiseach. Most notably, what she believes she inherited from her father was a passion for work. "I'm driven," she says, "and so is my dad. He's the hardest worker in the world. In my opinion I can never work as hard as he has."

Maybe not, but in many places she has all but eclipsed him when it comes to celebrity. Yet Ahern's clearly not comfortable with this sense of status. "My father has accomplished far more amazing things than I have. He was dealing with the reality of life while I'm taking people into a fantasy world."

While she says her father read PS, I Love You, has maybe dipped into the others – "he didn't have time to read them" – and has always been fully supportive of her writing career, it was her mother who encouraged her to get an agent and think about getting published. This was after Ahern had produced the first few chapters of PS, I Love You when she should have been applying for jobs, after finishing her degree in journalism and media communications.

Oddly, and excepting a brief stab at a novel when she was 14, Ahern had never seriously contemplated writing. She had thought she'd move into film production. Prior to that she had a flirtation with pop music, singing for the truly dreadful Shimma. When they came third in a competition to represent Ireland at the 2000 Eurovision song contest, she knew it was time to give up that dream.

"I look back with total embarrassment," she says, "but if I like something I go for it." Fortunately she thinks the possibilities of writing fiction are "limitless... your mind can go absolutely anywhere". Whether the readers will continue to follow remains to be seen. Though Ahern believes each of her books are very different and not easily categorised, they are all, eventually, unbelievably uplifting. They are also entirely respectable and seemly for a good, albeit "modern", Catholic girl who happened to be the daughter of the PM. The action always stops well short of the bedroom door, as family-minded Ahern always gathers with her father and extended family every Sunday in Malahide, the place she was born and brought up and where she still resides with her actor boyfriend David Keoghan.

"I'm in a comfortable place," she says. "I'm very lucky at this age." And then off she spins in her gleaming Merc, leaving behind the ghosts of Malahide Castle. "Be good," she had said earlier, regarding her spirituality, "and good things will happen." The real question is not how good is Cecelia Ahern the novelist, but just how good has Cecelia Ahern the person been? The other question many in Ireland are now asking is, "Just how good has Bertie Ahern been?" No doubt Cecelia Ahern is counselling him, as she did me, "If bad things happen, still be hopeful." n

The extract

Thanks for the Memories, By Cecelia AhernHarper (Collins £12.99)

'..."Ah, there you are, love," Dad says grandly. "Everybody, this is my daughter and she'll be the one to tell us about my lovely piece here that caught the eye of Michael Aspel." This is followed by a chuckle and he sips on his tea. "There's Jaffa Cakes over there if you want them."

Evil little man.

I look around the room at all the interested, nodding heads, and force a smile on to my face'