Maeve Binchy: An Appreciation

(first published in The Irish Times, 4 August 2012)

It was a wet Thursday some thirty-three Septembers ago. There was a knock on the cubbyhole office that I called home back then. Standing in the doorway was our very brilliant script editor, Sean McCarthy, looking (as always) as if he had just walked out of some Charles Bukowski novel. He flopped down in the chair opposite to me and proffered a pack of cigarettes (back then not only did so many of us smoke, but did so freely everywhere except Intensive Care Units). I slid open my filing cabinet where I always had a bottle of Powers on hand, and poured us each a dram. We clinked coffee cups. We lit our cigarettes. Then Sean finally spoke one word:

“Morning”.

Followed by:

“So I’ve locked her into one of the dressing rooms backstage”.

The ‘her’ was the author of the play that was due to premiere in our theatre in just a few weeks time. And Sean – who was perhaps the best ally a playwright could have, as he had the most canny understanding of dramaturgical structure and character development imaginable – had politely ordered the playwright in question to get a major rewrite done before rehearsals started the following week. Our theatre was called The Peacock. I was its administrator, Sean its script editor (a role he also played for the big house upstairs).

“Why don’t you drop backstage in a few hours”, Sean said, “introduce yourself, and make certain she’s doing the rewrites, not her column”.

Indeed the playwright in question had already written two acclaimed volumes of short stories and was also, at the age of thirty-nine, a columnist of immense brilliance. But the play – a tale of two young Irish women spending time on an Israeli kibbutz (an experience that the writer herself had once lived through) – still needed (like all new plays) considerable structural attention.

“She’s hardly shy of doing the necessary work” Sean noted. “She just has so much else going on”.

Two hours later I headed backstage. As I approached the dressing room where our newest playwright had been sequestered I heard a typewriter being hammered at full throttle. I lingered outside for several minutes, not wanting to interrupt such percussive productivity, while the then-wannabee novelist in me couldn’t help but marvel: ‘So this is what a proper writer sounds like in full flow’.

Eventually I ventured a soft knock on the door and poked my head inside.

“You must be Dougie” were Maeve Binchy’s first words to me. “And you really are the teenage administrator, aren’t you? [I was a mere twenty-four years old at the time]. And I’m sure Sean dispatched you here to check up on the rewrite. There it is” she said, tapping a considerable pile of pages in front of her. “And yes, that is my column in the typewriter. So if I could hold on to the dressing room a little while longer…”

I said that she could have it for the rest of the day (“God, I hope I’m not here that long” she said). Then I asked if I could find her a drink.

“A double gin-and-tonic would be most gratefully received” she said.

As I headed off to fetch it, she added:

“I can see that we are going to be friends, Dougie”.

It was a friendship that lasted until Maeve’s death a few days ago (and she never stopped calling me Dougie). She was, in so many ways, the big sister I never had – and one from whom I gleaned so much about negotiating all that life throws at you.

Five weeks after this first encounter in 1979 Maeve’s first full length play, “The Half-Promised Land”, opened to terrible reviews and sell-out business. By then I had met her extraordinary husband, Gordon Snell,, and had watched her elegantly negotiate that hugely vulnerable period all playwrights travel through as their work inexorably marches towards opening night and public judgment. Though Maeve was stoic about the largely negative critical response, she did admit to me some time later that they did hurt.

“But the only response you can ever have to bad review is never let on to the person who wrote it that it hurt you. All you can do is keep working”.

Maeve’s extraordinary writing career was a testament to that statement. Just a few years after that Peacock play, she published her first novel, ‘Light A Penny Candle’. It turned Maeve Binchy into one of the most read and beloved popular writers of our time. The triumphs of her career have already been well-documented this week: the fact that she was translated into virtually every major and minor world language outside of Inuit and Urdu, that she sold over 40 million copies of her novels, and still lived in the same house in Dalkey that she had bought early in her writing career, eschewing the wildly materialistic trappings of success that so many other residents of hyper-best-sellerdom have embraced.

But the Maeve I knew and loved was very much someone who always remained very much a working writer – and one who implicitly understood that success is a fragile veneer, never to be fully trusted. As she told me when I myself had my first international success with my fifth book, “The Big Picture”, in 1996:

“I am so thrilled for you – as I know how long you’ve been working for this. But do remember one thing: it’s just a success. Now you have to write the next one”.

Writing the next one was something that Maeve was always doing – with an output that was positively Balzacian in its fecundity and in its ongoing fascination with la condition humaine. Indeed, Maeve was an unapologically popular novelist. She wrote big page turners that spoke to a huge global public. Though she was considered by some critics as simply a purveyor of comforting commercial fiction, the truth is: Maeve was always an immensely serious writer who had a nineteenth century view of the novel when it came to accessibility and its need to reflect that essential subject within which we all dwell: quotidian life.

I once had an amazing discussion with Maeve about Madame Bovary – and how the genius of Flaubert’s novel lay both in its groundbreaking depiction of domestic entrapment, and in the cold eye it cast upon that most profound of human dilemmas: boredom.

“Boredom really is a mortal sin” she noted. “And it also lurks behind so much in life, doesn’t it?”

This was the same Maeve who had agreed to be interviewed on Bernard Pivot’s very cerebral, very celebrated books programme,Apostrophes, in her absolutely fluent French, and whose knowledge of literature and the arts was as far ranging as her great curiosity when it came to everything to do with life. As such, her fiction connected with such a vast public not simply because she kept her readers turning the page late into the night, but also because her stories never shied away from the big, primordial stuff we all grapple with on a daily basis.

Go back through her oeuvre and you will see that Maeve’s genius was her ability to cast a pellucid, profoundly humane eye on the tragic and the wondrous within human existence, and to confront the way we are so often the architects of our own cul-de-sacs. Just as she so clearly understood that the biggest argument we have in life is, verily, with ourselves.

What also came across throughout her fiction was the notion that life is an ongoing negotiation and challenge – and one in which the cards are often unfairly dealt. Whether it be chronicling the dark, sadder recesses of human experience – failed marriages, failed careers, the random inequities of illness, the fact that we are all hostage to the happenstantial horrors of tragedy – Maeve’s great skill was to also reflect the steadfastness and fortitude that get people through the day, and that allow us all to somehow persevere.

We both had a hatred of perhaps the most specious word in the modern American lexicon: closure. As Maeve shrewdly noted:

“Closure is for wardrobes, not for people”.

This was another key theme underlying her fiction (and her world-view): life will frequently beat you up or land desperate things in your path, some of which might change you utterly, and leave you with wounds that never fully cauterize. But you do have to find an accommodation with it all, and still find a way of living an interesting, hopeful life. It’s the very least you owe yourself.

When I first started reading Maeve in 1977 (the year I moved to Dublin), what struck me so forcibly in her immensely accomplished Irish Times columns was the fact that she was a world-class eavesdropper, and one who was always looking to the proverbial street when it came to her subject matter. Go back through the published collections of her best columns and you will note that she had her ear firmly attuned to overheard conversations on the London underground, on a bus, in a pub, in a shop – and how each of these reported dialogues (or, in some instances, harangues and monologues) reveal so much about the complexity of a singular life that had momentarily intersected with her own.

And though she never suffered fools – and hated cruelty and the sort of outward arrogance that always masks larger concealed doubts – what so marked her journalism and her fiction was her implicit understanding that life is, at heart, so unbelievably messy; that we frequently make the wrong calls and engage in absurd acts of self-sabotage, all in the name of pursuing that elusive notion of happiness. But read through Maeve and you also see another overriding theme so central to her work: every life is, in its own way, a novel. As such, it has a value and an importance that we must never overlook or underestimate.

As can be imagined, Maeve was the most extraordinary of friends – yet also one who was gently, but firmly corrective (like the excellent schoolteacher she once was) when it came to reminding you that extended bouts of ruefulness or self-pity were less than elegant. When my own first play crashed and burned at The Peacock in 1986 (three years after I quit my job there to become a writer) – and my column on this newspaper was axed by its then-new editor just a few weeks thereafter – she called me at home in Dublin 8 and told me to come out to a restaurant in Dalkey for lunch. I was only thirty-one at the time – and feeling just a tad punchdrunk and sorry for myself after two big professional setbacks

“Now Dougie, none of this is nice” she said as she ordered us a second bottle of wine. “And I won’t tell you it builds character or rubbish like that. But what else can you do now but go back to work. So what are you writing next?”

Two years later – having moved to London – Maeve took me out to lunch on the day that my first book was published there. When I reminded her of her shrewd advice to me twenty-four months earlier, her response was Classic Maeve:

“There you go now. So what are you writing next?”

To Maeve, writing was – alongside love and friendship – not simply one of life’s great consolations, but also (I sensed) a way of being able to control some sort of narrative amidst the disorder that envelops us all.

But perhaps my abiding memory of Maeve dates back to 1980 – when, during my Peacock years, I managed to entice the San Quentin Drama Workshop to perform Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ and ‘Endgame’ at our theatre. The coup of this fortnight’s engagement was the fact that Beckett himself had agreed to direct the two productions – but would only rehearse in London, and refused to come to his home city for the opening.

I went to London to attend the rehearsals and organize the transfer. When I saw Maeve and Gordon for dinner during that week, she said: “Now Dougie, I want you to pull off a miracle and somehow get me into one of Mr Beckett’s rehearsals”.

Mr Beckett had been absolutely insistent on a ‘no visitor rule’ at rehearsals. But when – with considerable trepidation – I approached him the next day and said that an Irish Times journalist wanted to sit in on a rehearsal, he thought about this for a moment, then shrugged and said:

“As long as she understands there is to be no interview, no questions, no contact whatsoever, I’ll allow it”.

I raced to a phone box five minutes later and got Maeve at home in London.

“Meet me at Riverside Studios tomorrow at ten. White smoke from the chimney. Mr Beckett has consented”.

The next morning, having been briefed by me about Beckett’s conditions, she accompanied me into the rehearsal room. Beckett acknowledged her presence with a curt nod, then turned to the actors and went to work. Maeve sat next to me in a corner, silent and rapt throughout, her pen darting across her reporter’s pad with the same propulsion that had marked the way she was hammering out her column in a Peacock Theatre dressing room when we first met. There was a break for coffee. Much to my amazement (and I can still now see Maeve trying not to appear equally stunned) Beckett approached her. Asking if she was the journalist from The Irish Times he started chatting with her about Dublin.

They must have talked for around seven minutes. A huge conversation, given Beckett’s reticence when it came to the press. I remember watching Maeve throughout this exchange. She was so absolutely engaged with Beckett, in complete eye contact with him, absorbing everything he was telling her. Meanwhile she was virtually strangling the pen in her hand, willing it not to go to work (as that would have ended the Beckettian conversation instantly).

But as soon as he thanked her for coming to the rehearsals and turned back to the actors, Maeve’s pen flew across her notebook for the next ten minutes. When her characteristically brilliant article appeared in the Irish Times the next day – a phenomenal coup, given that it was the first interview with Beckett in an Irish newspaper for decades – the conversation Maeve reported with him was, word for word, all that I overheard spoken between them.

If this is my abiding memory of Maeve, it’s rooted in the fact that it underscores so much about the way she approached life and the written word: always absorb, always listen, always be curious, always be alive to the extraordinary and the ordinary. Most of all, always engage. And remember: all you can do is keep working.

  • Maggie Vandermeer

    I love your tribute to the wonderful Maeve, and I just loved to hear her speak, how she never seemed to take a breath. I have read ALL her books, reading snobs will not approve!. But I also love your books, have not read them all – yet, but working my way through them, Woman in the 5th…… could not put it down, but was totally confused, I love those type of books cos I pass them on to see what other people get out of them. Continue to ‘Work’ and we will all look forward to many more interesting reads. Slainte.

  • christine eccleson

    Thank you so much for sharing that wondeful story totally uplifting and I love that she called you Dougie – I bet not many people call you that !