Cecelia Ahern | "I don’t think any book should be described as 'chick lit'"

Cecelia Ahern | "I don’t think any book should be described as 'chick lit'"

Cecelia Ahern burst into the bestseller charts back in 2004 with the publication of her début novel P.S. I Love You. It was something of a fairytale arrival; aged only 21 and about to start an MA in Film Production, she had an idea for a novel and dropped out in favour of trying to write it. She obtained an agent, Marie Gunn O’Connor, on the basis of just a few chapters. P.S. I Love You went on to sell in 40 territories, reached number one in Ireland and has sold more than a million copies according to Nielsen BookScan. Book sales were boosted by the 2007 film adaptation, which stars Hilary Swank as the young widow who discovers her late husband has left her a series of letters to help her cope with his death.

Eight years and nine books later, Ahern is now established as one of HarperCollins’ biggest commercial brands. To put that into context, even her “smallest” novel—2011’s The Time of My Life—has shifted 176,000 copies in hardback and paperback to date. Phenomenal sales then, and I wonder what she attributes this lasting success to?

“What moves you is usually what is going to move a reader—a reader who is interested in your work of course. I’m not a market research king, what I have to do is look to myself and write something that moves me and that I believe in,” she says, over the phone from Dublin. “If I write something that is supposed to be sad; I literally need to be in tears. If I write something that I think is funny, I need to find it humorous; I need to be laughing. Really, I just pour my heart and soul into each of my stories and try to make the characters real.

“So that’s my thing, to look to myself, always look inside at what’s moving me, what am I going through in my life at the moment. I might not realise until after I’ve written the book that such a huge part of myself has been invested in it, but they usually represent a place that I am at in my life.”

Although all of her novels to date have had a magical, fantastical element (If You Could See Me Now featured an invisible friend; in Thanks for the Memories, memories shifted from one character to another because of a blood transfusion), her new novel One Hundred Names is, she says, her “first novel where the basis hasn’t been that kind of magical essence”.

The main character is Kitty Logan, a journalist whose career is on the brink of ruin. A reporter on the TV news show “Thirty Minutes”, she has been suspended by the network and is facing charges of libel following an ill-researched story. She still has a writing gig for Etcetera magazine, which offers a slim chance of redemption: Constance, the founder of Etcetera and Kitty’s mentor, is dying. At her bedside in hospital, Kitty discovers there is a story Constance always wanted to write, but never had the chance to file.

Ahern has an amusing story about the inspiration behind the novel. In the same room as a television but not paying any attention, she misheard a trailer for the film “The Hunger Games” as “one hundred names”: “You know when you hear something and your mind immediately starts gathering ideas of what it thinks it’s about before you actually hear what it’s about? So I was like ‘a hundred names’ . . . who are these people? How are they linked?”

Kitty is determined to write Constance’s story, but all she has is a list of 100 names. She sets off to track down and meet everyone on the list—and find out what connects them. Along the way Kitty has to contend with an unsympathetic editor, a looming deadline and someone determined to trash her flat, as she discovers that everybody has a story to tell, and that each story matters.

“I would say it’s about the main character’s quest to find and write a good story, that’s the heart of it . . . a lot of what [Kitty’s] going through I go through as a writer—the quest to find the perfect story.”

After allowing the idea to take hold for a couple of months, Ahern started writing One Hundred Names in February this year, and was finished by May: “It’s the quickest I’ve ever written a book, in my life,” she says. She used to write through the night as the inspiration took her. Now, bowing to the discipline imposed by having a small child, she works office hours Monday to Friday, despite initial doubts: “I didn’t think that anything creative could be done from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to be perfectly honest. I didn’t think that you could force inspiration, but it actually works for me.”

Ahern is emphatically not a fan of the description “chick lit”—for her own novels, or anyone else’s: “I don’t think any book should be described as ‘chick lit’. I think it’s just a horrible phrase and it really bothers me when I hear it. It’s not that I’m saying I’m not in that category, it’s that it’s just a disgusting category to have been created at all. As a woman I don’t want to be called a chick, as an author I don’t want to be called a chick . . . it’s one of those horrible, derogatory terms. And when it’s used in a business sense it just really confuses me.”

She would prefer to be categorised simply as “fiction”. HarperCollins says there is a new jacket design “in order to grow Cecelia’s readership within a more sophisticated audience”. Ahern’s books are often described as “uplifting” and “inspiring”, and she acknowledges there is often a moral element to her writing: “I suppose I start them in such a dark place and I want to bring them to a light, positive place. Even when I write about something sad I want to inject it with humour. I do always want to bring things to a good, honest, positive place realistically, without being sweetie and saccharine and all that.

“While I want positive endings, I don’t want conventional happy endings. I just want the character to wake up and feel hopeful that they can face the day. To me that’s a happy ending.”

Book data
Publication date: 11/11/12
Formats: HB £14.99/ e-book £8.99
ISBNs: 9780007350469/ 477197
Rights sold: 37 territories including US
Editor: Lynne Drew, HarperCollins
Agent: Marianne Gunn O’Connor

Personal file
1981 born in Dublin, Ireland
2002 graduated with a BA Journalism and Media Communications, Griffith College, Dublin
2004 P.S. I Love You (HarperCollins) published and rights were sold in more than 40 countries
2007 film adaptation of P.S. I Love You released starring Hilary Swank

Cecilia Ahern’s Top Five
P.S. I Love You
Harper, 9780007258925, £7.99
A husband writes a series of letters to his wife to be read after his death, guiding her into a new life without him.

Books sold: 1,109,000 since 2004

Where Rainbows End
Harper, 9780007260829, £7.99
The correspondences between two childhood friends, Rosie and Alex, who appear destined to be together.

Books sold: 582,000 since 2004

A Place Called Here
Harper, 9780007198917, £7.99
A woman obsessed with missing things ever since her childhood schoolmate disappeared becomes missing herself.

Books sold: 515,000 since 2006

If You Could See Me Now
Harper, 9780007260812, £7.99
A woman struggles with her organised mess of a life until a mysterious, spontaneous and adventure-seeking stranger arrives.

Books sold: 502,000 aince 2005

Thanks for the Memories
Harper, 9780007233694, £7.99
Waking from a blood transfusion, a woman discovers that she possesses the memories and knowledge of the donor she has never met.

Books sold: 481,000 since 2008