Maeve Binchy: 'Boredom is a mortal sin'
When they met, at the end of the 1970s, the star ‘Irish Times’ columnist was reworking the play that DOUGLAS KENNEDYwas helping to stage at the Peacock, in Dublin. They bonded over a G&T, and so began a friendship that Kennedy, now also a successful novelist, has valued ever since
IT WAS A WET THURSDAY some 33 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 me and proffered a pack of cigarettes. (Back then so many of us not only smoked but also 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 39, a columnist of immense brilliance. But the play, a tale of two young Irish women spending time on a 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-wannabe novelist in me couldn’t help but marvel. So this was what a proper writer sounded 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 24 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 it hurt.
“But the only response you can ever have to a 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 most beloved popular writers of our time. The triumphs of her career have already been well documented this week: the facts that she was translated into virtually every major and minor world language apart from Inuit and Urdu, that she sold more than 40 million copies of her novels and that she still lived in the 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 hyperbestsellerdom have embraced.