This questions and answers section is compiled from interviews with Maeve Binchy during her writing life.
Can you describe an ordinary day?
My husband Gordon Snell and I get up at about 7 am in our little house 15 kilometres from Dublin. We have a big study up a spiral staircase in a lovely bright room and we try to be at our desks before 8.30am.
We are both writers so we have plenty to do including answering mail, sorting things out and getting on with whatever work we have on hand. We work until lunch time then try to have the afternoon free for reading or going out. In the evenings we go to the theatre, play very bad Bridge with friends, watch television or have people in for dinner.
How do two writers cohabit in one home?
Two writers co habit very well in our home but that is mainly because Gordon is a very kind and unselfish man, everyone who knows him says that this is true. We work in a lovely sunny office, sitting side by side at a big long desk and we read each other stuff at the end of the session. Ruthless honesty is the rule, followed by ten minutes and ten minutes only when you are allowed to sulk. We work every day except Sunday , and I never wait until I have inspiration because it could be a long wait. I might never feel inspired.
Who has supported you in your life and career at the most?
I was much supported by my parents who believed I could do anything, run the world if I needed to. Then I had a great kind boss at the Irish Times who thought I could do anything and sent me to write about wars and economics and the Royal Family and gave me a great training; and finally I met Gordon who also believed in me – so I have been very lucky.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Undoubtedly it was Winnie the Pooh. My parents would read it to me endlessly. I loved Kanga and Eeyore and thought of them as my friends. I used to ask where was I in the Hundred Acre Wood and my parents indulged me by saying I was on a tree or on a gate, then I felt part of it all.
When you were growing up did you have books in your home?
Yes, books were everywhere. Floor to ceiling were shelves of books. My father went to work by train every day. It was half an hour’s journey each way and he would read a paperback in four journeys. After supper we all sat down to read – it was long before TV, remember! Because I saw my parents relaxing in armchairs and reading and liking it, I thought it was a peaceful grown-up thing to do, and I still think that.
Have you ever lived anywhere else but Dalkey? If so, where? And if not, why not?
I came to Dalkey when I was a child and lived here until after my father died in 1972, I lived in a flat in Ballsbridge for a year and there were mice in it so a colleague had to come and empty my mousetrap every night before I could go home from work. Then I discovered Gordon Snell, pursued him to England , married him and went to live in London in a small terraced house in Hammersmith. We both loved coming back to Dalkey where my two sisters and brother were also living and one day we saw exactly the house we wanted and to our delight and thanks to a wonderful generous Building Society manager who took a leap of Faith against all the odds, we got it .
Rumour has it you had a childhood crush on Marlon Brando – is that true?
Oh no, it wasn’t a crush, I loved him when I was fifteen and a half until I was seventeen. I spent all my pocket money on airmail stamps to write to him and ask him to come to Ireland where I would sooth him and look after him. But he never listened. Which was really just as well. For everyone.
I prayed he wouldn’t arrive on a Friday, as that was the day our house smelled of fish. You see, in those days you couldn’t possibly eat meat on a Friday or you would burn in hell. We crouched in fear of being somewhere away from home and eating meat on Friday inadvertently. And however badly we cooked meat, I can’t tell you what a disaster we made of fish. Fish were meant to be a penance, and they were cooked penitentially. One of the many awful things about being fifteen and in love with Marlon Brando was that if eventually he had obeyed my fan letters and come to find me, I’d have had to welcome him to dullsville old Dalkey. Now I’m so proud of Dalkey that I’d love him to visit – though I am very happy in my life these days and I stopped wanting to marry him quite a long time ago.
I was sorry he had such a troubled life with all the ladies and his children who were a great worry to him. It would have been more peaceful for him in Dalkey but he wasn’t to know that. And anyway I don’t think Marlon was looking for peace.
You’ve said that you were desperate to be famous – why and for what?
When I was at school I thought I was going to be forever belted into a green tunic, bad at games, hopeless at gym, restless and anxious that I shouldn’t pass by unnoticed. I think I was just a vain show off really. Anything would have done. I once thought about tap dancing, or mountaineering, but neither of these materialised.
You’ve also said you feared seeing a vision like St Bernadette – what did you mean by that and did you ever see such a thing?
You have to realise that this was all more than fifty years ago, we all heard of Visions and Apparitions non-stop in those days, and how it was a sign of great sanctity of you saw one. I was pretty self-centred then as now, and I thought I was very holy so it was only a matter of time before I saw Something in the Sky too.
I wasn’t enthusiastic about it because people who did see visions usually had desperate lives with no one believing them and becoming nuns in the end. So I kept my eyes down from high trees just in case. And, no, I never saw anything remotely like a vision so I needn’t have worried.
Do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to be a writer?
Not really: I think I always wanted to be a story teller. My writing career started with a letter which was published in Irish Times. I became a journalist and worked for the Irish Times for many years and I had a great kind boss who thought I could do anything and sent me to write about wars and economics and the Royal Family and gave me a great training. In my own writing, I want to be entertaining, comforting, encouraging and the reader’s friend. I used to be a teacher, so I think that I can run the world. I used to be an Agony Aunt so I think I can solve everyone’s problems!
As a teacher, what was the most important thing you wanted to give to the children?
I was very anxious to give the girls I taught confidence, to tell them that they were responsible for their own lives. It didn’t matter about being married, or rich or good looking or thin, inner happiness is what we create for ourselves. Of course I am sure they didn’t believe me – who believes a school teacher – but if there was a way of telling them that I would be happy. I try to do it in my books now. Women don’t need to be rescued, they rescue themselves.
Are all your books set in Dublin?
Not all; but I set many of my books in Dublin because I am very familiar with the place and I know the nuances and lights and shade of the city
It’s just like any other city really with all the hopes and dreams and adventures in everyone’s minds and hearts. And no matter where you are – Tokyo, New York, Dublin, the Hague – there will always be those who are leaving their doors in the morning without knowing what the day will bring – love, deception, disillusion, hope.
We are all much more alike than we are different as my mailbag will tell you and I think setting my books where I am familiar is wise for me.
How have you felt about the screen adaptations of your books?
I have been very pleased indeed. It’s a totally different world – they have to cut out all those pages and pages of internal monologue that I write, and all the brooding and thinking and wondering that I go on with. One little sentence in a film script says and shows it all. And I am literally in awe of the detail they go to in order to get the places looking just right, and the detail accurate.
Are you ever afraid you’ll run out of ideas?
No, I will never run out of ideas. If you look at people’s faces in airports, cafes, on trains, in the street you can see stories written there. Is that man afraid his wife is unfaithful? Does that woman wish she had the courage to start dating again? It’s written everywhere if you look. I get ideas from conversations and listening to people. I think we all hope for the same things – a good, happy life, to be loved, to be successful, to be admired. Obviously, we can’t succeed in all of these things all the time and I suppose I write about that struggle where people fail as well as win. I never put real people in books. My father – a lawyer – urged me many years ago not to do that and I remembered his advice. But I get ideas from conversations and listening to people.
Do you have any idea what the secret of your success is?
I write a lot about people being somehow restored in life and sometimes people wonder if I write this from personal experience. I suppose I have always thought it was a bit pretentious to have a ‘philosophy of life ‘ but if I were pushed I would mutter about how we only get one life and it’s short and in the end it will be what we made it to be. There are no fairy stories. And there are no simple solutions. Being wealthy doesn’t necessarily make you happy, nor being beautiful or thin or married. We have heard all this before but always have a sneaking feeling that for us it just might work! It doesn’t, there are no guarantees.
But there are guarantees of happiness if we have an open optimistic mind, if we treat our friends and families very well, if we refuse to think we have been painted into some corner. If we realise that it’s up to us to find good in people and places and times and that we can live the life we choose then we could be very happy. I don’t know how to say this to people so I tell the characters in my books instead.
We can change the course of our own lives, and it is much easier if we know there are those who help us when we fall. There is no law that says we must stay doing the same thing for decade after decade if we have the courage to take that first step out of a rut. We are not better people if we stay in the rut; we are often worse people duller, more depressed and having little to offer to anyone else.
It can take a lot for a person in a rut to see that the life they thought they’d live has somehow escaped them. Do you have personal experience of this?
In a magic world we could all have Eureka Moments and see the folly of our ways. Then we would set about changing things. End a toxic relationship or commit with hope to a love that had become vague and uncertain. Cut our ties with what might be holding us back or alternatively settle for a life in which there may well be happiness if we know where and how to look. It would be simpler if we had these very sure and definite turning points. But does it happen? Not a lot. I think because we are hesitant we resist change we are unsure which direction to take. I wish life could be a series of sudden revelations.
Outside of writing, what do you love more than anything?
The happiest moments of my life are connected with family and friends. There is a great comfort about being with people who knew you way back when. There is a mental shorthand, and easy-going feeling that life doesn’t have to be explained or defined; we are all in more or less the same boat. To have a community around you in a changing and unstable world is invaluable and nothing can beat the feeling that there will always be people out for our good.
Is there any particular character of yours that you are especially fond of? Are any of them based on real people? Some appear in several novels and short stories; and you’ve set a number of books in the same place in Dublin. What made you think of doing that?
My father was a lawyer and he warned me never to put a real person in a book; but I steal little attributes from people and I do enjoy that… I don’t really have a favourite but, yes, a number of characters reappear in the more recent novels.
Very often readers write and tell me that they consider these characters friends: they wonder what happened to that girl Fiona who had such sorrow in Greece, or how the twins Maud and Simon were faring. There were a lot of questions about Clara from Heart and Soul, we left her dancing with Frank. Did anything come of it? It’s more interesting writing about someone who has flaws as well as strengths like the rest of us. I don’t like these ‘perfect’ heroes or heroines who look flawless, dress elegantly, are highly successful at work and immensely attractive and desirable to everyone they meet. Those kinds of people don’t exist – or if they do I never met them! I see my characters as real people and often imagine that I know them. I’d love them to be at a dinner party.
And I love writing about the places where they live, and the changes that have come along over the years. When I was young, Dublin was a grey and restrictive city. It always seemed to be raining, the people, were dressed in clothes which were sent to us in parcels, by cousins who had done well abroad. Nowadays, it’s a modern European capital city, with cafes and young people, confident and cheerful, all over the place. I live in a suburb that used to be a quiet sleepy place; now it’s full of film stars and racing drivers.
Has the traditional concept of ‘family’ changed? What is more important, do you think, family relations or friendship?
Yes, in a way the community has had to replace the family. Once upon a time in Ireland every one lived in the same place amongst the same people always. This is no longer so. People learn or should learn to depend on each other in a neighbourhood and form alliances that will help and strengthen everyone. Both relationships have an important part. It is essential not to allow a feud with any member of the family as it will lead to regrets and sorrows later. It is also important to keep your friends, to nourish friendships and not lose touch with people you have known. A good friend in life is hugely important and you can have a life-long conversation where neither of you need to explain anything because you share the same memories.
Is there anything you really wish you had written but never got around to?
Any good de-cluttering manual. My life and house and study and mind are all full of clutter. I would love to have researched a way to get rid of it, and maybe some of the good advice I unearthed would have rubbed off on me.
What would you like to say to aspiring authors?
Seriously, it’s very boring, but you must write at least ten pages a week otherwise you’re not writing, you’re only playing around…
What do you most hope that people will say about your novels fifty years from now?
I guess I’d hope people understand that we only get one life and it will be what we made it to be and there are no short-cuts. Being wealthy doesn’t necessarily make you happy, nor being beautiful or thin or married. And nobody’s life is ordinary if we know where to look.
And if we gave you three wishes?
Three wishes? So hard to choose, but they all have to do with wishing that people realised how short life is, how foolish it is to quarrel with people and how we have to make the best of what we are given… There isn’t a magic spell that will change our lives, we must do it ourselves.