Sophie Grenham talks to best-selling author, CECELIA AHERN to discuss her first short story collection – part cathartic artistic exercise, part provocative prose …
“I wrote my first novel when I was 21, now I’m 36. It is completely reasonable that my writing and themes will evolve over that time,” says Cecelia ahead of the publication of Roar, her most ambitious work to date. Gone are the pastel book covers which made her a household name, garnering over 25 million book sales, two major film adaptations and a string of television shows with her own production company. In their place is a sharper design and a rich colour palette, to expand her audience. Inside the covers of Roar are 30 neatly constructed stories, each title beginning with The Woman Who … In tune with the short story’s renaissance as a popular art form, as well as trends in empowering feminist prose, it turns out that Roar began germinating eight years ago. It started when Ahern met a Los Angeles-based casting agent, where she discovered the lack of interest in featuring women outside a certain age bracket.
“What bubbled under inside me for quite some time was the fact that not only do the older generation and ageing women feel invisible, but effectively are – or were – to networks at that time. The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared was a response to what I’d learned; the main character is a woman in her 50s, who is disappearing as she ages. I felt really alive after writing that story – like some sense of frustration, irritation and injustice had been acknowledged, processed, and eased, by myself. I followed it up with The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin, about a woman who realises that the guilt of having to be so many things to so many people, is quite literally eating her alive. I felt electric about the stories, like I had created something unusual, fresh, and different. I didn’t think that my publishers would want a short story collection, but working in TV with various networks in different countries meant that I had an opportunity to pitch these very visual stories and hopefully see them come to life in that way. Let’s just say many people weren’t ready for them, but I didn’t give up.”
Ahern’s perseverance has served her well. The result is a surrealist set of modern fables that bounce with playful wisdom. Their form is clear, concise and economical. At the time of this interview, she has already been long-listed for an An Post Irish Book Award for her efforts. The culmination of her latest success is GreenLight Go Productions’ television adaptation of Roar in partnership with Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films and Made Up Stories, the team behind Big Little Lies. There is a real mix of women in this book; linked by their doubt, lack of confidence and self belief, how they undervalue their potential, each with an uplifting conclusion – the moment they want to roar. I sense that some cases mirror the author’s own insecurities.
“There is a collection within the collection, which are the stories where the women really feel overwhelmed and flustered. With a career and a family, my head and heart is in parts.
I wrote many of these particular stories when my children were babies and I was sleep deprived, exhausted, and I just wasn’t operating to my full capacity. My brain was fried. I would often go to put the tea in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard. There was too much going on in my head, so much to think of, for so many other people. These ‘ditzy’ mothers are not lacking in thought but in actuality are filled with too many.” The more impassioned Ahern grows as she discusses her artistic enlightenment, the better she seems to reflect the marketing campaign by her publisher, entitled “Expect the Unexpected with Cecelia Ahern.” For me, the Roar reading experience was actually unexpected, though I personally think some people have underestimated Ahern over the years, from her “chick lit” beginnings to daring to rebrand. Now is the time for Cecelia Ahern to roar.
“In a nutshell, writing the stories has made me realise that I need to be more assertive,” she says. “I’ve always felt that I write with utter freedom but for some reason I felt even more freedom when I wrote this collection. I had no publishing deal, no deadline, nobody was waiting for them, expecting them – I was breaking all the rules. The characters don’t have names, there are surprising endings, they’re different lengths, they’re surreal. If I didn’t want to go into the character background, I didn’t. I just did whatever I wanted to do in the moment and not only are they a snapshot of the character’s life, they’re a snapshot of the author’s mood!”
Roar (€12.99, HarperCollins) is out now.
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