With her new book Flawed, out April 5, Cecelia Ahern, author of P.S. I Love You, is trying her experienced hand at the world of YA. Flawed is set in a society where the public shaming of The Scarlet Letter is back in full force: If you steal, you’re branded with an F on your hand. If you lie, you might be branded on your tongue.
Below, Ahern tells EW what made her switch to YA — and what crime she’d be guilty of if tried in the court of Flawed. And beneath that, check out an exclusive excerpt from the book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re a successful adult novelist. What made you want to dive into YA?
CECELIA AHERN: I always say that I never choose the ideas, they choose me, and I had the same experience with Flawed. The idea arrived in my head and was bursting to be told. There was no big decision about writing YA, I just had to write the story that was in my mind. I always just write the story that moves me and hope that the right audience finds it. The adrenaline was pumping as soon as the idea arrived and I put pen to paper and finished the first draft in six weeks. The whole experience was a thrill and a joy.
How have the experiences differed so far?
In terms of the feel of the novel, it is filled with emotion as all my novels are but Flawed has more of a thriller feel. It holds a magnifying glass up to society. It is different to my other novels in that it is pacier, and that’s because my heart was racing as I wrote it. How I went about writing the novel wasn’t any different. I do what I always do; I put myself in the mind of my character and saw the world from her eyes. What’s different with Flawed is my new audience; it feels really good to introduce myself to a new audience and get to know my new readers, doing new and exciting events, meeting new booksellers too. After 13 novels, it’s fantastic for things to still feel fresh.
Where did you find the inspiration for Flawed?
Flawed was inspired by the fact that I believe that we live in a very judgmental society, one that is quick to point the finger, to embarrass those who have made mistakes, or who have made decisions that we just don’t agree with. We hold people up as examples of what not to do, or of what is wrong with our society, creating scapegoats, and give little thought to the possibility of a fair second chance.
We are essentially branding people in the media, in society, already, so I decided to go one step further and create a morality court, one that is supported by the government and that makes real the labels that we already give people.
What interests you about the concept of public shaming?
It moves me to the point of frustration. It is the scapegoating, the public witch-hunts, the sickening dramatic headlines, the pretense that those who judge don’t make mistakes in their lives. And if people aren’t to make mistakes, how do they learn? Often the biggest mistakes we make teach us so much about ourselves.
I fear very much when humans lose their humanity, and this story is filled with my fears of how ordinary decent human beings lose their compassion for others.
What aspects of our own society are mirrored in the society in Flawed? Did writing this make you feel more or less comfortable in today’s world?
I based this novel on modern society — many things that I dislike about what I see in this world, both from our history and the present, have gone into this book.
At the time of writing Flawed in 2014, the marriage referendum regarding same-sex marriage had not come into effect in Ireland so I was living in a two-tiered society; many of my friends and family members did not have the same rights as I did. Thankfully this has changed, but there are many countries where this is still illegal.
I wanted to show how women are treated in the media; the language used for Celestine’s mother and Celestine during the trial depicts this.
The public criticism Celestine faces in the media and by society is similar to what teenagers are faced with in social media. There is no hiding in social media from the bullying; the pressure to be perfect, to look perfect, to have a certain amount of friends on Instagram, to sound interesting, to be more sophisticated than they actually are, the obsession with image, to always be available.
Everyday I looked at the tabloids online to see who was being targeted. A young pregnant celebrity caught smoking, a young actress whose housekeeper didn’t pay taxes, a high-profile footballer who cheats on his wife and the attention turns to the flaws of his wife. People who live off the grid from the government. Leaked emails. Police officers ‘sexting’ on work phones. What is incorrectly described as news is just publicly shaming people. Judging them. Pointing the finger.
I could go on and on.
What kind of research did you conduct, even if it was in your imagination, to write this book?
There was a lot of research. I spent quite a bit of time doing disturbing research into the effects of searing the skin; the anesthetic, the healing time, the effects of these wounds on Celestine’s skin. That was a disturbing day at the office.
What was the most difficult part of your writing process?
I wanted this novel to have a universal feel, I wanted people to feel that this could be happening wherever they are living. I toyed with setting it in the future to avoid shining a light on one particular country and to give it that ‘anywhere’ feeling but that did not play to my skills. I’m not psychic, but I am observant and so what worked was going back to exactly what I had written in the beginning and instead setting Celestine’s story in a fictional country, but one that’s familiar to modern culture.
What was the most exciting part?
The most exciting scene to write was the branding chamber. Each person who is found “flawed” in court must go to the Branding Chamber to receive their brand on their skin. I had a major reaction to writing this scene, I was incredibly pumped and emotional and felt like I was Celestine sitting in the chair and receiving these horrific punishments. Most people who’ve read this has said to me that they can’t believe I go there, and I love this reaction. It’s not what the reader is expecting.
As a public figure, have you ever found yourself facing public shame/criticism?
I don’t think anybody is immune from criticism, especially as I write novels that are put out in the world to be enjoyed and criticized. I write to please myself. I must connect with my work, I must be moved. I can’t write for other people because it feels too contrived and there’d be a clear disconnect when reading it. If I’m proud of myself and know that if I’ve done the best I can, then that’s all I can do. The same stands for every aspect of life. If I feel like I’ve let myself down, then I probably have. I do the best I can.
If you faced the Flawed Court, what crimes would you be most likely to be found guilty of?
I think I would be very similar to Celestine in this instance. I’m like Celestine in that I won’t break a law, but when it comes to society’s rules or traditions, I find my own way. I’m open-minded, liberal, I follow my instincts and I’m always ready to hear the many other sides to one single story. Kindness is key. For that, I’d probably get just as many brands as Celestine did.
Excerpt from Flawed by Ceceila Ahern
At the next stop, an old man gets on the bus, and I almost call out to him. He looks so much like my granddad that I’m convinced it’s him, which doesn’t make sense because my granddad lives on a farm in the country, but then I see the large F symbol on his armband and I shudder, annoyed with myself for ever thinking someone like him could possibly be related to me.
My prejudice strikes me. I had been repulsed by the reaction of the woman with the crutches to the Flawed woman smiling at her, but I hold equal views of my own without ever realizing it.
The man is in his seventies or eighties. I’m not sure. He’s old, and he is dressed in a smart suit and polished shoes, as if he’s on his way to work. From this angle, I can’t see any signs of branding, though it could mean it is on his chest, tongue, or foot. He looks respectable, and again I study him, surprised by his appearance. I always thought of the Flawed as less than us, and I can’t believe I have admitted that to myself. He is unable to sit, because the two Flawed seats are taken- by two women who are not Flawed but are so busy chatting that they don’t notice him. He stands near them, holding on to the pole to stay upright.
I hope they notice soon. He doesn’t look like he will go very far standing.
A few dozen minutes pass. He is still standing. I look around. There are at least a dozen free seats where he could sit, but he is not allowed to. I’m a logical person, and this does not prove logical to me.
I look across at Juniper, who has taken off her headphones and is sitting up, poker straight, alert, and looking at the same situation that I am. Juniper has always been more emotional than I am, and I can see her on the edge of her seat, ready to pounce, instead of fearing that she will do something stupid. For once I am glad she and I feel the same.
The old man starts coughing. And then he won’t stop.
His breath is wheezy, barely still for a moment before he coughs again. He takes out a handkerchief and coughs into that, trying to block the germs and noise. His face goes from white to pink to purple, and I see Juniper move closer to the edge of her seat. She looks at the two women chatting, then back at the old man. Finally, he stops coughing.
Moments later he starts again, and all heads turn away from him and look out the window. The fat lady stops talking to look at him, and I’m relieved, knowing she will finally let him sit in the seat he is entitled to. Instead, she tuts as if he’s bothering her and continues her conversation.
Now I straighten up in my seat.
The cough is bothering her. It is bothering everyone on the bus. His loud gasps for breath can’t be ignored, and yet they are. Rules state that if anyone aids a Flawed, they will be imprisoned, but not in this case, surely? Are we to watch him struggling right before us?
The coughing stops.
My heart is pounding.
I let go of Art’s hand. It feels clammy.
“Can’t you hear that?”
He looks around. “There’s no one coughing.”
The coughing starts again, and Art doesn’t bat an eyelash when he looks at me intimately and says, “You know I can’t wait to be somewhere alone. Why don’t we miss the first class?”
I can barely hear him over the coughing, over my pounding heart. Does nobody hear the old man? Does nobody see him? I look around, flustered. All eyes are staring out the window or on him in disgust, as if he’s about to infect us all with his flaws.
Juniper’s eyes are filled with tears. My own flesh and blood agreeing with me is validation enough. I make a move to sand up and Art’s hand suddenly clamps around my arm.
“Don’t,” he says firmly.
“Ow!” I try to move, but instead his grip feels like a burn. “You’re hurting me.”
“And do you think when they sear your skin it won’t hurt more than this?” He squeezes tighter.
“Art, stop! Ouch!” I feel my skin burning.
“How is this fair?” I hiss.
“He has done something wrong, Celestine.”
“Like what? Something that’s completely legal in another country but that people are prosecuted for here anyway?”
He looks as if I stung him.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Celestine,” he says, sensing he has lost the argument. “And don’t help him,” he adds quickly.
“I have no intention of helping him.”
How I walk by this coughing, wheezing, struggling-to-breathe old man is beyond me, but I do, seeing the faint F scar on his temple as though it has been there a very long time, like it’s as much a part of him as the freckles and hair alongside it. I walk straight to the two women in the Flawed seats. They are chatting about making jam as if nothing is wrong.
“Excuse me,” I say sweetly, offering them the most polite smile I can muster. They respond immediately with their own bright smiles. Two polite, friendly women from the suburbs, willing to help me with anything. Almost anything.
“I was wondering if you could help me.”
“Of course, dear.”
“Could one of you sit in any of the available seats here? Or I could offer you two seats together where my boyfriend and I are sitting so that you can continue your conversation?”
As I look up at Art, all I can see is terror on his face. Funny, I no longer feel it. I like solutions. The problem was disturbing me, and fixing it just made sense. I’m not doing anything wrong; I’m not breaking any laws or rules. I’ve always been complimented on my timing, my perfection. I come from a good home. I have a pleasant manner. The anklet of geometric harmony proves it.
“May I ask why?” the woman with the broken leg asks.
“Well, this man here”- I point to the old man- “is clearly Flawed, and you are in the Flawed seats. He can’t sit down anywhere else. And he is struggling.”
I notice a few faces turn to stare at me when I say that. I expect them to understand when I say that. I expect there to be no further conversation. I even expect the few who have overheard to step in and agree, make sense of the situation. But they don’t. They look confused, some even scared. One man looks amused. This is illogical. This is Juniper’s territory, not mine. I look at her. She has the same face of terror as Art does. She is not moving. If I ever thought she was going to back me up, I know now that she won’t.
“But we’re talking,” the other woman says.
“And he’s choking,” I say with the same smile on my face, which I know looks a little psychotic, because we are no longer being polite.
“Are you trying to help him?” the woman with the crutches asks.
“N-n-no,” I stutter. “I’m not. I’m trying to help the situation…” I flash her a brilliant smile but she recoils from me.
“I want nothing to do with this,” she says loudly, attracting more attention.
“With what?” I laugh nervously. “Your leg is fine. Perhaps if you just move to another chair and your friend stays here….”
“I’m staying right where I am,” she hollers.
Now we have the attention of the entire bus.
The old man, who is beside me, can barely stand. He is bent over coughing. He turns to me, face purple, and tries to talk, but he can’t catch his breath.
I don’t know what he’s trying to say. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what medical help to give him. Even if I knew what medical help to provide, I wouldn’t be able to give it to him. Think, think, Celestine. I can’t help, but a doctor can.
“Is there a doctor here?” I call down the bus, and I see Art put his face in his hands.
There’s an audible gasp on the bus.
I look around at everyone, the judgmental faces of surprise. I feel dizzy and confused. This man is going to collapse, maybe die. My eyes start to fill.
“Are we just going to watch this?” I scream.
“Stop it, dear,” a woman says to me in a hushed voice. She is clearly upset about it, too. It’s not just me, but she’s warning me. I’m going too far.
This is completely illogical. Have we no compassion for this human being, Flawed or not, that we won’t help?
Heads look away. Eyes are averted.
“Okay, okay,” I say to the old man, who by now is panicking severely. He continues to cough and I can see the F on his tongue, which makes me recoil slightly. I can’t even imagine the pain of receiving it. “It’s okay.”
He punches his chest, starts to fall to his knees.
I pull him up under the arms, and I bring him to the nearest open seat.
“Stop the bus!” I yell.
The bus stops, and I assure the old man everything will be fine.
I look over at Juniper and see that she is crying.
“It’s okay,” I tell her and Art. “It’s going to be fine.” My heart is still pounding. “This has all been so very ridiculous.” My voice is high-pitched and shrill; it doesn’t sound like mine. And then I hear the siren, loud, close, intense, and threatening.
Everyone stays still in their seats, waiting, my heart beating loudly over the silence. Two Whistleblowers climb aboard blowing silver whistles so loudly most people block their ears. They make their way toward me and the old man.
“See? I told you it will be fine,” I tell the man over the noise. “They’re here. Help is here.”
He nods faintly, his eyes closed. I expect them to go to the old man, who has passed out on the seat, exhausted and taking short breaths, a fine layer of sweat covering his skin. But they don’t go to him. They come for me.
And then they take me away.