In 2004, Cecelia Ahern published a novel that tugged at our heartstrings: PS: I Love You. It centres on the ultimate nightmare in every person’s life—the loss of a loved one. The plot revolves around a couple who quarrel frequently but are truly, madly and deeply in love with each other. One day, when the man dies, the wife is left to pick up the pieces and move on with her life. But how does one move on knowing that there is a void that will never be filled? How do you wake up every morning feeling the absence of the person who was right beside you all along?
A major motion picture based on the book was released in 2007 and Ahern has gone on to pen many bestselling novels since then, while also writing for the television industry. And yet, there is something about PS: I Love You that remains etched in the collective memory of those who loved the book.
“That book gave me my career, and I absolutely don’t mind talking about it as long as people also talk about other things I have done,” she says, laughing, as we catch up with her at the 16th edition of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature where she had been speaking. “But I have seen more of the world now and have evolved, as a person and writer, and I hope that reflects in my writing too. But I totally get why people keep revisiting PS: I Love You. There was a lot of heart in that book, and it dealt with a premise that has not stopped being relevant—eventually we are all going to lose the people we love. That book dealt with the idea of loss, which is something we often think about even now. But, of course, my writing is more layered now, the descriptions are better.”
Cecilia was 21 when she wrote the book. Twenty years later, having seen more of the world, she recognises the need to be complex and angular in the depiction of her characters. Foraying into the world of television (she was the co-creator and producer of ABC’s Samantha Who? starring Christina Applegate) has opened up another world of opportunities and complexities, which she recognises as a “different world altogether”.
“For every one thing that you do see get made, there are several others that do not. It can be frustrating because it takes awfully long. People fall out many times and you cannot get everyone together at all times. It is such a collaborative thing, which is a plus as well as minus. But when it works, it is so rewarding,” she says while talking about juggling between the solitude of writing books and the collaborative effort that writing for television is. One thing that remains constant, however, is the empathy you feel for your characters. “Empathy is a writer’s armour. I am empathetic to my characters, I have to feel what my character is feeling. I often put myself in their situation. I have to be moved enough by them before I can hope that someone else will be moved by them.”
When she started out 20 years ago, social media was still in its nascent stage. Today, despite being a bestselling author, the question that she often has to confront is how to keep the attention of a reader intact that presumably possesses a shorter span now. “I often have this conversation with my editor: Should I be shortening my chapters because people do not have the time to read? But then I care for the story and believe that an audience finds its book. As for social media, today, you cannot disregard the fact that it brings attention to books as well. There is a vibrant community of readers in that space and publishers have to tap into that. Look at something like BookTok and you know that young people are reading, and through social media they are perhaps even setting the agenda for what should be read.”
There are also moments when writers have to uproot themselves from the solitary space they create for themselves during the process of writing and come and talk about the book in the world. “You don’t want to be a marketing person of your own book. You want publishers to be able to do that. And now between TikTok, Instagram and X, there is a lot for a writer to juggle between. But it’s important to remind ourselves that our number one job is to write; sharing or talking about the work on social media comes next. The book cannot speak for itself; I am its voice. It’s a different part of the job, but also not something that you can afford to completely ignore.”
Loss has been an integral theme in most of Ahern’s books. Take the case of her second novel, Where Rainbows End, that examines the breakdown of a relationship through letters, emails and messages. What is it about loss that makes it so central to writing about love? “Everything I write about delves into loss. But now I also focus on tools that help us deal with loss. It helps through that journey and prepares us for it. There is always a fear, sadness and dread, but what I want to emphasise on is that you can get through. The lowest points in our lives also have the power to transform us completely. And I like to write about these transformational moments,” she says.
The power of Ahern’s prose is evident in how she is received by those who avidly follow her work. At the literature festival itself, a young nurse who has just had a 12-hour shift during which she assisted deliver 12 babies comes to attend her session to give her a handwritten note.
Another reader gifted her a handmade soap. Visibly overwhelmed by these gestures, Cecilia remembers the time when she came to the city 10 years ago to attend the Dubai International Film Festival when Life of Pi was premiering. “At that time, the metro was under construction and the Palm was just being built. It’s so heartening to see how everything is so vibrant here. I love the city,” signs off Cecelia, whose next book will release in November 2024.