UPDATE: Maeve Binchy, one of Ireland’s national treasures, passed away on July 30, 2012, in Dublin. Sharon Ní Chonchúir’s 2007 interview with Binchy, below, captures her incredible spirit and down-to-earth philosophy.
Maeve Binchy couldn’t be more apologetic. She is sincerely fond of her American fans and is disappointed to have to let them down.
“I can’t come to America for my book launch because I’m ill,” she explains in her lilting Dublin accent. “I’m going to miss all the razzamatazz. I’ve had such great times in America.”
I can vouch for that. When Maeve shows me around her home – colorfully decorated with photos, paintings and countless books – one wall stands out. “It’s my celebrity wall,” she says with a smile. “Here I am with Barbara Bush at the White House. There’s Andie McDowell. And that was the time I was on Oprah…”
Maeve Binchy has been popular with American readers ever since she launched her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, in 1982. In the Ireland of that time, there were few women writers. How did Maeve begin?
“It’s a strange story,” she says. “I never intended to be a writer.” Maeve qualified as a teach and spent eight happy years teaching history, Latin and French, and enjoying the long summer vacations.
“I traveled the world during those holidays,” she recalls. It was this pursuit of adventure that inadvertently led to her writing career.
“In 1963 I went to Israel. My parents were petrified. My mother tried to convince me to go somewhere I might meet a nice young man I could marry. But that wasn’t for me. Instead I chose to go to a kibbutz in the desert.” Eager to reassure her worried parents, she wrote frequent letters home describing Israeli life with evocative images and distinctive humor. Her parents were so impressed that they submitted the letters to a newspaper.
“When I came home, they’d already been published” recalls Maeve. “I was absolutely shocked.”
Soon she started to contribute travel articles to The Irish Times. One particular article – about her ignorance of hotel etiquette – elicited an extraordinary response from readers.
“I didn’t know if I should make the bed,” she remembers. “I was afraid that if I made it, they’d think I was a servant. And if I didn’t, they’d think I was a slut. People loved that article.”
By writing in her own voice and saying exactly what was on her mind, Maeve was already developing the novelist’s persona that we’ve since come to know so well. Yet it required a lonely experience in London for her to turn to fiction.
She met Gordon Snell in 1972, after a long line of unsuitable men. “I’d finally met the right man,” she says. “There was only one thing wrong: Gordon lived in England.”
She moved to London to be with Gordon, who she married in 1977. The Irish Times employed her as its London correspondent. It was a prestigious job but she missed Dublin.
“Dublin was a village in those days,” she says. “I knew so many people. In London, I didn’t know anybody.”
Maeve, always the resilient character, didn’t want to admit to loneliness and cause Gordon to worry. Instead, she began to write.
She may never have done so had she remained in Ireland.
“We have too good a time here,” she maintains. “We sit in bars talking about our plans to write, but very few of us do it. We simply sit there until closing time talking about it. In England, if you tell someone you’re going to write a book, the next time they meet you they’ll ask how the book is going. That was good for me.”
It certainly was. Her debut novel, Light a Penny Candle, met with huge acclaim.
It’s a tale of friendship between an Irish and an English girl, a friendship that starts before WWII and continues to present day. It established some of Maeve’s recurring themes – relationships between women and life in Ireland.
“I thought only a few people in Ireland and England would like it,” she says, with genuine modesty. “But people loved it. I couldn’t begin to imagine what was so good about it.”
She still can’t. Even with her fourteenth novel just published in the U.S., Maeve is still perplexed as to why she has become one of the world’s favorite novelists. But she admits that maybe it’s her approach. “When I was young, I’d read stories that went like this: ‘Georgina, the grand duchess, came down the stairs in her emerald dress. Tonight, she was wearing her grandmother’s pearls.’ Well, that’s balls compared to life for the rest of us. What I write is like this: ‘Georgina wondered what on earth she was going to wear. None of her clothes would fit. Nothing was clean or smart. What was the chance of finding something in Oxfam?’”
Maeve’s readers identify with her lifelike characters and familiar storylines. Whether she is writing about a young girl going to her first dance or trying to resolve an argument with a friend, her stories ring true to everyday life.
They also capture the flavor of contemporary Ireland. And they have inevitably portrayed some of the changes that have taken place in recent years.
Maeve, like many others, is shocked by the pace of that change. “When I think back to what Dalkey (the area of Dublin she lives in) was like when I was a child, it was so different,” she says. “We’d meet each other on the way to Mass on a Sunday morning, the women in headscarves, the shops closed. People would look askance at you if you bought a loaf of bread. What sort of housewife had to go to the shops on the Sabbath?”
Maeve welcomes some of the changes. “The world is far from perfect but it’s a lot better now,” she says. However, she rails against the consumerism that has become prevalent in Irish society. “People spend thousands on handbags. I’m not trying to be a holy Joe but what good is a bloody bag?”
She may not yet have tackled this theme in her books, but Maeve’s latest novel, Whitethorn Woods, does have a priest as one of its central characters. “In the old days, priests used to be respected,” she says. “Not anymore. I wanted to explore the changing role of the priest. My priest is a decent man who is in a dilemma. I’m very pleased with his character.”
Her next novel may tackle the issue of immigration to Ireland. “I was in hospital recently and there was a Polish girl who had had an accident. She spoke in halting English and was very frightened. From what I could hear, she was working illegally and didn’t want to be reported. I thought that would make a marvelous story – the reverse of us going to America.”
This idea is in keeping with Maeve’s wish to reflect the time and place she lives in with honesty and compassion. “I want to hold a mirror up to Irish society,” she says, “but I’ll have to study for this one. I’ll go to Polish restaurants, shops and clubs. And of course, I’ll continue paying attention to everyone around me.”
Maeve has always been inspired by ordinary people; “When I’m out, my ears are literally out on sticks, trying to find out what people are talking about,” she admits.
Just as she has maintained her method of working, so too has Maeve continued to live as she has always lived – quietly.
“We (she includes her husband Gordon, who writes children books and mystery novels, in every aspect of her life, crediting his constant encouragement for her success) were old enough when success came,” she says. “I was 42 and I knew what I wanted – pretty much more of the same.”
Maeve and Gordon remain in the small terraced house they have lived in for years, a decision that often surprises visitors. She hoots with laughter as she tells the story of an American woman on a bus tour. “The driver said that Dalkey was home to celebrities – Bono, Neil Jordan, and Enya. Then he pointed out my house, and the woman said it couldn’t be. It was too humble a home.”
Maeve may not be keen to flaunt her success but she does acknowledge that she has had some influence on the younger generations of Irish women writers “One of them said to me: ‘If you can make money out of old rope, the rest of us can too.’ I think that says it all really,” she says, laughing.
But she admits to a sense of pride. “When I was young, there were few women writers. Today, there are so many, and if I had something to do with that, I’m very pleased.”
She continues to encourage writers. “I’m not one bit jealous,” she says. “Success is not like a cake that needs to be divided. It’s more like a heap of stones – a cairn. If someone is successful, they add a stone to the cairn. It gets very high and can be seen from all over the world. That’s how I see it.”
Magnanimous as she may be, Maeve does own up to some playful rivalry. “If I see Marian Keyes’ books or Patricia Scanlan’s books given more prominence than mine in the bookstore, I’ll move mine to the front. I’ve told them I do this and they’ve confessed to doing the same thing to me,” she chuckles.
Maeve recently won the PEN Award (which, since it is chosen by fellow writers, makes it a great honor). She has also had her portrait painted for the National Gallery in Dublin.
“I keep having lovely things happening to me,” Maeve says. “I’ve had a good life, full of more success and happiness than I ever expected.”
Maeve’s illness, which she reluctantly talks about, saying “I have an irregular heart beat, sometimes it doesn’t pump properly so my lungs get flooded and I have to go to the hospital. But with medication it’s under control,” may be curtailing her movements but it is not affecting her writing.
She sits at her desk from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. every day, directly across from her husband. They write together and Gordon encourages Maeve in her distracted moments. Her positive outlook, combined with her intuitive understanding of relationships, shines through in her novels. It may be why they captivate us so.