The RTÉ Guide's Donal O'Donoghue met the writer in 2010 to discuss Minding Frankie. Here we re-publish the article in memory of Maeve who died yesterday aged 72.
In the picturesque Dublin village of Dalkey, there’s a pretty cottage that looks deceptively bijou. That is until you step into its book-lined interior. Like C S Lewis’ wardrobe, this is a way into another world. Maeve Binchy, best-selling author and all-round good egg, lives here. Upstairs is her work room and you get there by a glass elevator. With her arthritis worsening and a dicky heart, Maeve is not as mobile as she once was. "But I hate people talking about their ailments and illnesses”, she says. My father had a great statement. He used to say that the words ‘how are you?’ is a greeting, not a question about your health.” So at 70 years of age, MB remains resolutely young at heart, a tonic and a trouper. "I have a great friend who is a retired judge now and whenever we meet, we say to each other: ‘what will we do when we grow up?’"
As her husband, the broadcaster and writer Gordon Snell, is out playing golf, I sit in his work chair, which is cheek-by-jowl with Maeve’s. On one wall is a phalanx of Binchy’s framed book covers ("That’s to remind myself that since I wrote all those I must be able to write another") and the shelves are lined with editions in various translations. With more than 40 million sales, Maeve Binchy is Ireland’s most successful writer and also one of its best-loved. Many of her novels have been made into movies (most notably Circle of Friends and Tara Road) with the author herself contributing Hitchcock-like cameos to some of them. "People sometimes ask me an odd question and that is: 'surely you must have enough money now so you don’t need to write the books'", she says. "But I never wrote for the money, it was always a childish wish to tell stories."
Her latest story, Minding Frankie, is vintage Binchy: a novel of love and redemption against a world of odds as an alcoholic attempts to raise his baby, Frankie, following the death of her mother. "I was trying to think of an issue where there could be an argument for both sides”, she says. In Binchy’s fictions, as in life, there is rarely a black and white situation and no person is utterly without some redeeming quality.
"The thing is that nobody’s perfect, just as nobody is entirely villainous", she says. "I often wonder that if I had met Hitler, I reckon I might have found some streak of decency in him. I once tried to write a novel about revenge. It’s the only book I didn’t finish. I couldn’t get into the mind of the person who was plotting vengeance. I’ve always believed that the best revenge is living well. On Coronation Street they have a great phrase: 'oh, get over yourself'. It’s great advice."
She has been an avid fan of Coronation Street for many years. Indeed, in one episode of the ITV soap, Ken Barlow’s mother-in-law, a huge fan of the Irish writer, bequeaths all her Maeve Binchy books to Ken. "His face was contorted in horror when he heard the news", she says and laughs. After I leave, she will pen a letter to Ken, telling him to get over himself and appreciate this literary inheritance.
If some dismiss her work as the stuff of airport carry-on, their criticism is impotent in the face of her near-universal appeal, and those ideas that come from the ebb and flow of everyday life. "I got the idea to write Silver Wedding while I was sitting on a bus", she says. "There were two girls talking and one said. 'Oh it’s my parents' silver wedding anniversary this Saturday so I must get a card'. And the other one said: 'That’s nice. Is it a big celebration?' To which the first girl replied. 'No, it’s a dreadful marriage. And the worse the marriage, the bigger the card'."
Her philosophy on life is filtered through another story. "Not long after I wrote my first book I was on a French television programme called Apostrophe – a terrifying, serious programme about books. Suddenly they asked me, as only the French would, 'Madame, what is your philosophy of life?' What a cosmic question, but I had to answer, and answer quickly, because it was live. So I said, in French, 'I think that you’ve got to play the hand that you’re dealt and stop wishing for another hand'. I was afraid to look at them. But they were all nodding in agreement and when I was thinking about it afterwards, I thought that is my philosophy. Trite and clichéd as that may seem, that’s the kind of motif I bring to the books – that people take charge of their own lives."
In her days as an Irish Times journalist, following a career as a teacher, Binchy penned a popular column called 'Unasked For Advice'. But she herself is devilled, like most of us, by doubt. "As I’ve got older I’ve asked myself, 'do I understand more about people?' and the answer is no. I still think, as I did when I was 20, that I could run everybody else’s life. Not my own of course, as my own is deep confusion to me. I always felt that way."
She says that doesn’t fight with anybody, never gets angry and rarely gets down. In fact the only darkness is when she remembers her younger sister, Reenie, who died recently. "It’s over two years now but it’s still unbelievable", she says. "I can still, to this day, reach out to ring her. There are things I want to tell her and my hand would be going to the phone to tell her. That’s hard."
Minding Frankie is dedicated to 'dear generous Gordon who makes life great every single day'. "But he does", says Maeve of her husband of 43 years. "I have been very lucky. My mother said that she was lucky too when she met my father. I think it’s great luck who you meet. There’s no cunning way to entrap someone who was going to be fantastic husband material. None of us grew up that way. It’s luck and a sense of timing as well. By the time I met Gordon I had seen an awful lot of the world. If I had met him when I was very much younger it might not have worked at all because I was obsessed with seeing the world. Of course my mother was hoping that I would settle down and do something nice and normal."
Settling down was never Maeve Binchy’s way (even if she did retire, briefly, when she turned 60). "I’m a great one for making plans", she says, despite her physical limitations. So she lunches at a nearby hostelry, visits friends to play bridge and engages in postal chess with a neighbour (he drops his moves through the catflap). Maeve has already started work on her next novel and is buttressed by her bullet-proof phrase for panicking publishers: "I tell them that I’m writing at the height of my powers", she says. "Now that means absolutely nothing but it keeps everybody happy."
Next year, RTÉ will honour the writer with an Arts Lives documentary but she worries viewers might feel short-changed by her wonderful life. "I almost feel guilty because I have nothing to bring to the table", she says. "There’s no alcoholism or huge poverty or dreadful unhappiness in the home. I wasn’t writing to escape that. I had such a happy life I almost feel smug."
* Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy is published by Orion Books.
The article was first published in the RTÉ Guide in 2010