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Cecelia Ahern: ‘This is the first time I was an executive producer. Nicole Kidman was amazing – of course she is!’

One of the first pieces Cecelia Ahern wrote in Roar, her 2018 book of short stories, was a tale she originally titled ‘Guilt’. It was inspired by a moment in her own life, she now recalls of the story that became ‘The Woman Who Finds Bite Marks on Her’ in a new Apple TV+ series.

I remember the day I wrote that. Said goodbye to my baby boy, going to work. He cried – you know that dramatic crying? He didn’t want me to go. Dropped my girl to Montessori, she cried. Dramatic crying.

“They always say, ‘Go, go, don’t hang around, they’ll be fine in five minutes.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not fine.’”

She recalls getting into her car and sitting there crying, thinking that nothing had gone well that morning.

“It had not been good. Went to the office, wrote my novel,” she tells me. “Then at the end of the day before I went home, I just wrote that story. The title was ‘Guilt’. It took me 30 minutes. And then I wrote: ‘PS, now go home Cecelia.’”

The stories in Roar – which has now been made into an eight-episode Apple TV+ series, featuring such stars as Nicole Kidman, Issa Rae, Alison Brie and Cynthia Erivo – came out of a time in Cecelia’s life when she felt pulled in various directions.

Today she’s a mother of three, but back then her two eldest children were a baby and a toddler. And on top of family life, there was the big career as a best-selling author.

“I was on holiday, down in Kerry. It was when the kids were younger,” she says, describing the almost transactional exchanges that parents of young children know.

“That time where it’s like, ‘I’ve been with the kids for an hour, and you’ve been out to golf – so now I’ll go for a walk, and then you have them.’

“I just went. I got the hotel notepad and pen, went to my favourite bench, and I wrote a story. I think I wrote it in like 30 minutes. I just got this… phshew… out of my system, and it was really lovely and it kind of set the tone.”

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Issa Rae in ‘The Woman Who Disappeared’

That story was called ‘The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared’ and was inspired by a conversation Cecelia had had in LA, 12 years before, with a casting agent. The talk was of demographics, and of which groups advertisers preferred.

“The 18-34-year olds, advertisers love that group, it’s the dream, the golden demographic. When she was talking about women, she stopped at 54.”

What about a demographic of women over 54, Cecelia asked. 

“And she said, ‘Oh, there isn’t one.’”

She knows that things have changed now – to an extent.

“But it just occurred to me that’s why actresses of a certain age say there aren’t many parts for them. It’s why my stories were attractive to networks, because they’re – not always, but usually – about women in their 30s. And I just left that meeting feeling a bit… yeugh.

“It stayed in my head a lot, because of course we’ve heard of women who feel invisible as they get older – but I just hadn’t thought the whole thing through.”

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Cecelia Ahern’s books have made transition to big screen. Photo: David Conachy

It was a lightbulb moment. She did two things next, wrote a screenplay called Old, in which all the characters were in their 70s and 80s, and then wrote ‘The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared’, written in that scrap of time grabbed on a family holiday, between her other many commitments.

“As she ages, she’s going through menopause, she’s starting to disappear. Society doesn’t value her, or feel that she has anything to offer.”

She worked on the stories for a number of years, which was unusual for her. Pre-pandemic, Cecelia was famous for publishing one book a year, sticking to a schedule of writing for the first few months, then editing, before doing publicity in the last few months of the 12-month cycle.

“With many of them, it was definitely working through things that were going on in my head. The characters weren’t me, as usual, but it was definitely stuff that I was going through or thinking about. I just felt better after writing them every time.”

Each one has a moment in which the character overcomes their current situation – their “roar moment”.

“Everyone’s trapped in their moment,” says Cecelia with a smile. “And it’s just working it out, and overcoming, and at the end you’re kind of rising up. So for the ‘Guilt’ one,” she says of that early story, “it’s like, ‘I feel like I have to be all these different people, and I’m this and I’m that, and I can’t please anyone.’ 

“The confusion, the feeling of being pulled. And by the end she’s like, ‘But I have to do it, and I will do it.’ It’s kind of solving the moment of confusion.”

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Cecelia Ahern and boyfriend David Keoghan in 2007.Photo: Getty Images

In many ways, the stories in the collection feel like a summation of many aspects of what it is to be a woman. This was reflected in the enthusiasm the women around her felt for the project.

“I’m not one for sharing my ideas with my friends, I wouldn’t really get into what I was writing. But with these stories, we were all talking about them.”

But when she described them to TV executives who were brainstorming her more commercial projects, she was met with blank looks: Were they sci-fi? What exactly were they?

“As a result of that, I wrote ‘The Woman Who Spoke Woman’,” and she persevered with the treadmill of meetings. Then, towards the end of one such confab, someone asked what else she was working on.

“Everyone has a passion project, that they always mention at the end of a meeting,” they told her. “They weren’t biting at anything else, and I thought these stories have been with me for so many years, and I’m not going to give up.”

At the time, the collection’s working title was not Roar but The Woman Who. Cecelia described them to the room, bringing some around the table to tears.

“It was a very interesting time,” she recalls now. “Trump had just gotten in, and there was going to be the big Women’s march a few days after this meeting. The atmosphere in the room definitely changed.”

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Nicole Kidman in ‘The Woman Who Ate Photographs’

Nicole Kidman’s production company Blossom Films, and producer Bruna Papandrea’s Made Up Stories, companies who had worked together on Big Little Lies, came on board. Cecelia had finally found her team who “spoke woman”.

Cecelia herself was an executive producer on the show – which was an amazing experience, she says, describing the level of detail the role entails.

“You’re in on everything. Make-up, what the bite marks are going to look like, cast, crew, music, scripts, writers… Everything is run by the executive producers. It was really lovely. [The pandemic] was such a difficult time, so it was nice to have something, a project.

“I feel like every time I come to something, it’s still new. This is the first time I was an executive producer. I was the new girl in the room, still trying to figure things out. Over here in Ireland, it might be, ‘Oh we know her, she’s had loads of books and movies and stuff.’ But they’re probably not thinking that,” Cecelia says of her American colleagues.

Working with Nicole Kidman was all done by phone and email – unfortunately Cecelia was unable to travel to America due to Covid restrictions and related administrative backlogs. “I couldn’t get over for filming. I was watching everything on my phone,” which was still a joy, she recounts. “Amazing. She’s so brilliant at what she does. Such a pro. Of course she is.”

Cecelia’s youngest child, daughter Blossom, is now two and a half. She was three months old when the country first went into lockdown.

“I would say it was like having the first child again. Because I was able to have the same time with her when they were at school,” she says of going back to babyhood after such a significant gap (her eldest, Robin, is 10 years older than Blossom, and middle child Sonny, aged 10, is far closer in age to Robin).

Ironically, the making of Roar for TV brought her back to the kind of life she had been living when she first wrote the stories.

“That crazy time in your life, that’s when I wrote a lot of these stories, when Robin and Sonny were a baby and a toddler – can’t think too much, buggy, jeans falling down, agitated. It was interesting in that the Roar stories felt far away, and then I was kind of back to that time,” she says with a laugh.

“And thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the way I was when I wrote them.’ I’m kind of back there again in my head.”

She went straight from maternity leave into lockdown. “I’d already been walking for months,” Cecelia smiles. “It’s like having the first child but having the confidence. Taking away all the anxieties you have the first time. I enjoyed it, it was a great thing.”

She relished the change of pace that restrictions brought with them, and now, in the aftermath, she has made alternations to her schedule.

“We go to the beach and spend hours there. I have loved the slowing down. What I’m doing now is 11am until three. Then we’ve got the afternoons [as a family]. And then a few nights a week, eight to 10pm, I’ll do American stuff.”

Children’s needs change based on their age, she points out. “So now I’m not working until five, I’m going to stop at three and do homework with them. I go with what they need. That’s what guides me now, and I’ll just try to get the work in around them.”

When we speak, she is just over a bout of Covid. “Thankfully it was kind of mild. I was lucky.” She turned 40 last year and approached the date with a certain amount of consideration.

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Lisa Kudrow, Cecelia Ahern and Hilary Swank in 2007 in New York City. Photo: Rob Loud/Getty Images

“I was doing a lot of looking back. This is the next phase, and this is where I want to put my energies, and be the type of person I want to be.”

To mark the occasion and underline the priorities she wishes to bring into her next decade, she walked up Croagh Patrick with a group of friends.

“I think it was in my head that I wanted to be healthy, in a good place, fit. The walk was kind of setting the tone for the next part of my life, that was my priority leading up to it. And I was doing it with my girlfriends, we were walking up that mountain together.

“It just meant so much that we were going to do it together. If we stumbled, we’d pick each other up. I felt that’s where I was in my head and in my life – so I wanted to make it quite metaphorical.

“It was sort of like one of ‘The Woman Who’ stories,” she says with a laugh. “’The Woman Who Climbed Croagh Patrick for her Party.”

Roar, the TV adaptation, was one of the first projects she and her husband David Keoghan worked on together. They now work together on an ongoing basis with their production company Greenlight Go Productions.

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Betty Gilpin in ‘The Woman Who Was Kept on A Shelf’

Switching off from work talk is not a problem, she says. “We can barely speak to each other in this house – the minute we start talking, everyone is talking over everyone, so we just say we’ll talk about it later – and later always has to be during work time.

“But mostly what we joke about is that we barely get to have a conversation together. Sometimes we have to schedule a walk, so we can just go outside and chat.”

Covid upended her schedule of one book a year. Freckles was published in September 2021, and she now has two unpublished books waiting in the wings. Does this mean she will slow down her output, take some time off?

“No,” she smiles wryly. “I don’t even work that hard – eleven to three. I don’t know how I wrote the next [post-Freckles] book. That was during home schooling. The way that’s written is moment by moment – I literally had to grab moments to write it.

“And actually,” she says, leaning forward conspiratorially with a smile, “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”

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Bertie Ahern pictured with his daughters Cecelia Ahern and Georgina Byrne

It was a totally new way of working, she notes. Instead of going into her office, she was working from home in north Dublin, near where she grew up, daughter of Miriam and ex-taoiseach Bertie. “In my basement, one of the kids on the bean bag, doing Zoom with school. Just shows, you can do it.”

She once said her books are about taking control of her life. She looks somewhat bemused when I put this to her.

“Did I?” she asks. “I would think it’s about understanding yourself. Characters that get a bit lost, and… I don’t know if it’s about control. Understanding who you are and going with that. I think that’s what I’m drawn to, because I think that is a continuous thing,” she reflects.

It feels a little like she could be describing the moment she herself became a writer – when, after stopping her studies due to panic attacks in her early 20s, she sat writing in her mother’s home for several months, creating her first book, PS I Love You. She became a publishing phenomenon, aged 21, in 2004.

“It’s something that I work on with myself. If I’m feeling off, I’m going to work on feeling good again. I’m constantly checking in with myself,” she says.

Naturally, she has got better at this over time. “But then when you think you’re fine, ooohhh,” she laughs. “That’s the time to beware. The one thing I’ve learned is you can’t control everything. The only person you can take care of is yourself.”

In researching her latest book, she tried light therapy – to help reduce symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

“I’m just really interested in trying different things. You know when you feel off? If there are moments where I think, ‘Hmm, not feeling myself, I’m going to work on getting better.’ And I think that is what I write about and that is how I live.”

She is good at not letting things fester in herself.

“Maybe I did before? I think maybe I did when I was younger, and I didn’t understand those things. But I’m quick to kind of fix it now.”

‘Roar’ is available now on Apple TV+

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Writer Edel Coffey at Dawson Lane in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath

Women on top: Great Irish debut novels

Edel Coffey

Journalist Coffey’s debut, No 1 best-selling book Breaking Point, was purchased at a multi-publisher auction for six figures as part of a two-book deal.

Sally Rooney

Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends – originally a short story before it became a novel – was published by Faber and Faber after a bidding war between seven publishing houses.

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Author Kathleen MacMahon at her home in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Kathleen MacMahon

Roughly a decade ago journalist MacMahon’s debut novel, So This is How it Ends, and a follow-up book were bought for a six-figure sum.

Disha Bose

Former UCD student Bose, who was mentored by Anne Enright, has earned a six-figure deal for her debut novel Dirty Laundry – a story set in suburbia which involves a murder.

Caroline O’Donoghue

Strictly speaking, author, journalist and podcaster O’Donoghue’s six-figure deal did not come for her debut novel, but her debut Young Adult novel, All Our Hidden Gifts. It’s a book about tarot, which the Cork writer, now London-based, wrote in 2019 after losing several of her freelance journalism jobs.

https://www.independent.ie/life/family/family-features/cecelia-ahern-this-is-the-first-time-i-was-an-executive-producer-nicole-kidman-was-amazing-of-course-she-is-41577094.html Cecelia Ahern: ‘This is the first time I was an executive producer. Nicole Kidman was amazing – of course she is!’

Fry Electronics Team

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