Novelist, writer and journalist
Born: May 28, 1940; Died: July 30, 2012.
Maeve Binchy, who has died aged 72 after a short illness, was a hugely popular novelist and writer who sold more than 40 million books worldwide during her career.
When she appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago, she shared a platform with fellow Irish writer William Trevor. They were discussing their new short story collections, and Binchy was asked about the difference between her stories and Trevor's.
It was simple, she said. When Trevor wrote a story he put it in a drawer and left it for six months to mature, like wine. Then he'd take it out and see if it was good enough to publish, or rework it until it was. Whenever she finished a story, however, she would send it the same day to a magazine, and within weeks it would be published.
It was a revealing glimpse into the pragmatic and unconceited personality of one of Ireland's best-loved writers.
Binchy, the doyenne of women's fiction, who might be seen as forerunner of the chick-lit boom, had no illusions about where she stood in the literary pantheon. Trevor and his ilk were fine writers, who honed every line of their work. She, on the other hand, produced a flood of novels and stories and plays, not to mention entertaining columns for the Irish Times, all of which were models of brio and worldly-wise wisdom. Her output included 16 novels, almost as many short story collections, non-fiction, and a play. She won many awards, and sold in quantities unimaginable to Booker prize winners.
A career in journalism, she once said, was a great help in writing fiction: "Journalists always say, 'Don't get it right, get it written', which is a very, very good motto, because when you have to have something written by 6 o'clock that day, you know it has to be done, because the paper cannot appear with a small blank paragraph, saying, 'Maeve Binchy was not able to think of anything to say'. So, therefore, you get it written, and it stops your terror of the empty page."
She was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, the eldest child of four, to a mother who was a nurse and a father who read avidly on his daily commute and then continued reading in the evening.
She was educated at the Holy Child Convent in Killiney, and University College Dublin, and taught Latin in various girls' schools before joining the Irish Times, during which time she began writing fiction. Her debut novel, Light A Penny Candle (1982), was set during the second world war and its aftermath, and immediately announced an original voice.
Binchy brought to this, and subsequent work, a winning combination of insight, commonsense, and a relaxed, conversational style. Her subjects were small-town Irish life, family relationships, and the friction between Ireland and England. While she cast a shrewd eye on the complexities of modern life, be it in the post-war era or the age of the Celtic Tiger, she was also unfailingly kind in her portrayal of characters, however foolish they might be.
She once explained her outlook: "Y'know, we all have hopes and dreams and ambitions and we all think if we're good we'll be happy, and I'm never bored, 'cause I can see people the whole time, and I wonder what that person is when I see him coming out of a railway station, or sitting at a caff. Why is his face so sad? Has his wife left him; has his son gone on drugs; has he been made redundant? And everybody is a hero or a dramatic person in their own story if you just know where to look."
This fascination with people's lives was the charm that made her books so appealing.
Her talent seemed effortless, and yet she did not plan to be a novelist. Asked about her career, she reflected: "I never wanted to write. I just wrote letters home from a kibbutz in Israel to reassure my parents that I was still alive and well fed and having a great time. They thought these letters were brilliant and sent them to a newspaper. So I became a writer by accident."
She is survived by her husband, children's author Gordon Snell.
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