Writers pay tribute to the late Maeve Binchy
Writers John Banville, Claudia Carroll, Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, Cathy Kellyand Colm Tóibínon the Maeve they knewJohn Banville:Her prose had an exuberance, an effervescence, that was visible in her very typing
When I was books editor at The Irish Times in the 1990s, I managed with surprising frequency to persuade Maeve to review for our pages. Surprising since, after all, she was by then a best-selling novelist with a worldwide reputation, and could have been expected to disdain such work as I was asking of her, or at least to plead a prohibitively busy schedule. Maeve, however, was a trouper, and a refreshingly modest and obliging one, at that.
One thing she was not was a tidy worker. In her accommodating way, she was perfectly happy to let an editor do what he was paid to do, and her copy would arrive in peppered, or better say sprayed, with ellipses, which I was expected to turn into seamless links and transitions.
The task of editing Maeve always looked daunting, at first, but in the event proved surprisingly easy. That was due to what I can only call her writerly shrewdness.
She knew what she wanted to say, and knew how to communicate what she wanted to say; the fact that she didn’t actually go so far as to say it, in so many words, was of scant consequence.
In a very little time I came to enjoy grappling with Maeve’s prose. It had an exuberance, an effervescence, that was visible in her very typing – those ellipses could look like so many champagne bubbles. She wrote well, and she wrote generously. She could find something to praise in even the duffest of the books I sent her. Gore Vidal used to say that it was not enough for him to succeed, but others must fail. Maeve wanted everyone to be a success.
My warmest memory of her has nothing to do with books or reviewing or editing. One summer day many years ago I was driving, after lunch, somewhere in west Cork, when there appeared ahead of me, going in the same direction as I was, a large and somewhat dingy Mercedes. The car was progressing between the hedgerows at a 30-mile-an-hour weave and wallow, and from its wide-open windows there were issuing audible peals of helplessly happy laughter. I waited for a straight stretch, and, overtaking, glanced in and saw that it was, of course, Maeve and Gordon, on holiday and returning from lunch, no doubt, glorying in each other’s company, as happy as happiness itself. It is a great gift, the gift of knowing how to live; Maeve had it in abundance.
Claudia Carroll:Reading Maeve is a bit like watching the Olympic gymnasts: you think, I could do that! But just try
If I can share a special memory about Maeve, it’s from years back, when I was nervously about to publish my first book. I’d met her socially and told her I was petrified. Then she told one of her famous stories that’s always stuck with me.
Years before, she said, when she first published Light A Penny Candle, she was walking into the Times offices one day and was stopped by a lady on the street.
“You’re Maeve Binchy, aren’t you? I just read your book,” this lady told her.
“Well thank you,” Maeve replied, all delighted. “I hope you enjoyed it?”
“To be perfectly honest with you, no, not really,” came the withering reply. “Why was that,” the ever polite Maeve asked.
“Well, when I finished it, I thought, sure I could have written that myself.”
“Of course,” Maeve calmly told her, “but you didn’t, did you?” Because reading Maeve’s work is a bit like watching the Olympic gymnasts: you look on from your chair and think, I could do that! But just try. And you’ll see how hard it is and how effortlessly easy she made it all look.
She was also so incredibly generous with her time whenever new authors approached her, which of course they did regularly. In her own book about writing, she once said she was astonished by the sheer number of people who’d say to her, “I’ve love to write a book, if I had the time.” You’ll never have more time, was her very practical attitude. So just find the time from somewhere and get on with it. She herself said that when working full-time, she’d get up extra early in the morning and somehow find two hours to write, with the thoughts of the lovely launch party she was going to throw for herself the only thing that kept her going!
I first came to love her through reading her columns in the 1980s. She’d find the magic in the most ordinary of situations. I recall she wrote about eavesdropping on the Tube in London to two guys. One told the other he hadn’t been home last night and didn’t know how to face his girlfriend. “Say and do absolutely nothing,” advised the pal. Intrigued to know how this would play out, Maeve followed them off the Tube, up escalators and right the way to their office door to tune in for more, all the while pretending to be fumbling in her handbag. As far as she was concerned, there were stories everywhere – drama and wonderful characters all around us.
So goodbye, Maeve. I hope you’re up there in heaven, keeping the angels in stitches with all your funny stories and still continuing to weave your magic. RIP.
Roddy Doyle:'Whenever she had her hands on a new Maeve Binchy buke . . .'
– See Maeve Binchy died.
– Sad tha’.
– D’yeh ever read any of her bukes? – No.
– Me neither.
– I read the covers. In the bed like. Whenever she had her hands on a new Maeve Binchy buke, yeh knew it was goin’ to be a quiet fuckin’ night.
– Same in our place.
– Still but. No hard feelin’s.
– I liked her on the radio.
– Yeah. I was thinkin’ tha’ meself earlier, when the News was on, like. I was lookin’ ou’ the kitchen window. An’ young Damien was ou’ there, sittin’ in the deck chair, yeh know – takin’ notes. Watchin’ the polar bear peelin’ the skin off o’ Larry Hennessey’s new English bulldog. An’ I said to meself, Maeve would’ve seen the funny side o’ tha’.
– I know wha’ yeh mean.
– Wha’ for us would be just a normal everyday domestic scene. She would’ve made it look funny.
Jennifer Johnston:She was to me the essential Irish woman, funny, generous warm-hearted
It’s very hard to think of the world without Maeve. We all of us knew her health was not the greatest, but I don’t think many people contemplated that she would ever die.
She was to me the essential Irish woman, funny, generous warm-hearted; she always seemed pleased to see you and you were always pleased to see her — to pass time with her, to talk, to laugh and have a drink with her. She travelled the world and wherever she touched down she will be remembered with great affection, not just from those who read her books but from everyone she met.
Cathy Kelly:She was one of the few writers on the planet to touch both hearts and minds
I was woken early with the news that dear Maeve was dead and I thought of how much we’ll all miss her golden light – and how huge a loss she must be to Gordon, because they were always together.
As a writer, she was inspirational and a genius. People would rush to buy Saturday’s Irish Times to read her column. I certainly did and nobody but Maeve could make the commonplace so fascinating, or say what we were all thinking and say it with such brilliance.
I grew up reading her books and still devour them. On each reading, I realise again how talented she was. To write with such gentle simplicity and yet contain all human life with its nuances in each sentence is a skill only a genius like Maeve could achieve.
The first time I met her was back in the late 1990s when she had a lunch party for Irish women writers in her house in Dalkey. My first book was out and I barely considered myself a writer, so I was thrilled to be asked, especially when Maeve was such a heroine of mine. I was so nervous when I arrived, but she welcomed me with such kindness. We were all shown her house and the room overlooking Dalkey bay where she and Gordon wrote and where cats meandered across the in-trays. I adored it – this was a writer’s house with books on every wall.
That was the day, I think, when the idea of mentoring took hold in my head. Maeve was so welcoming to every writer and wanted us all to know that we were fabulous, that we must stick together and help each other, and that’s when I first got the notion that the pie is infinite. There’s enough to go round and we grow through helping others. She taught me that. Through her, I learned to mentor people, and I’ll never forget her for that.
The last time I met her was at Eason’s 125th anniversary, when she and I were to speak, along with author Paul Howard. Before the speeches, the three of us sat in a corner and gossiped and giggled. Maeve had this marvellously black sense of humour and she was wildly funny and entertaining. That brilliant mind never stopped working and, even when the photographers were snapping away, she was saying hilarious things out of the corner of her mouth.
Maeve Binchy was one of the few writers on the planet to touch both hearts and minds. She will be greatly missed and my sympathies go to her beloved husband, Gordon, and to her family and friends.
Colm Tóibín:She brought self-deprecation to a fine art, but there was always irony behind it
Maeve Binchy was one of those people that you were always delighted to see. The more famous she became, it seemed to me, the wittier and the more charming and ironic she became too.
About 20 years ago we were getting our make-up put on beside each other in RTÉ before a chat show. She looked at me in all sincerity and said: “Now, I have to talk to you, and I’ve been meaning to phone you.
“You see when I was in America I was interviewed and they asked me who I knew in Dublin and I mentioned you along with a lot of other people and then I realised that I didn’t really know you. And what I’d love now is to be sure that you wouldn’t contradict me, and that you wouldn’t say you didn’t know me at all the next time you went over there. I mean that would be awful, wouldn’t it? For me, it would anyway. And I know you wouldn’t do it.” She smiled warmly and knowingly, and then she got on with discussing things of greater importance with the woman who was putting on her make-up.
As I sat there gazing into the mirror, I had no idea what to say in reply to her. I felt that was part of her aim when she began to speak. I loved that. She brought self-deprecation to a fine art, but there was always irony behind it, and wit, and a sort of steely way of not ever being dull.
She had sort of put me in my place while pretending that she was doing the precise opposite. On the programme, I found that I agreed with everything she said.