Binchy receives PEN award for lifetime's work


You can't see popular writer Danielle Steele inviting a bunch of photographers to her home for a photocall as Maeve Binchy did yesterday when she was honoured with the Irish PEN/AT Cross literary award. "She has five security guards outside her home in San Francisco," marvels Binchy. "Imagine."

It's not yet 11am and without a bodyguard in sight Binchy is resplendent in glittering evening wear on the sofa of her home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. A bank of photographers click away while she sits and sparkles.

To her right a shelf displays four or five writing gongs. While there hardly seems room for the sturdy wooden block she holds in her hand, a builder is coming at noon and she laughs that she's going to get him to build a special shelf for her latest award, which celebrates a lifetime of literary achievement.

"I don't usually get literary ones," she says. Fellow recipients of the Irish PEN award in the past have included Jennifer Johnston, John Banville, Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien and John B Keane. Binchy doesn't, she says, mind joining "that lot".

The friendly press release for the photocall helpfully pointed out that the home Binchy shares with her husband, illustrator Gordon Snell, is two doors down from a well-known Dalkey hostelry. "Which is very handy," says Binchy.

The small space is cosy and cluttered, filled with leather-bound books, Beryl Cook prints, odd knick-knacks and family photographs covering the wall in the downstairs bathroom. When a US film crew came to Binchy's home, they said: "This is nice, but where do you really live?" She doesn't think they believed her.

Up the winding staircase, light pours into the lived-in study where you find what for fun Binchy likes to call the "celebrity wall".

Binchy and Heaney. Binchy and Oprah. There's a cushion here bearing the words "blissfully retired". Binchy is still writing away, though. "Every morning Gordon and I race to be up in the study by 8.30am," she says.

Downstairs UCD professor and author Declan Kiberd, who last night formally presented Binchy with the honour at a gala dinner, is assessing her contribution to Irish literature.

He recalled how in the mid-1990s advance orders for her books were breaking publishers' records for a contemporary author.

At the moment she is interested in writing about the Filipinos and eastern Europeans who've come to live in Ireland in recent years. "There's the sense that they are still at the window looking in at us, not yet living the life. There's a loneliness in that I want to look at," she says.

A chat with Binchy is pure pleasure. It can span a dusty ribbon on a pair of Margaret Thatcher's shoes, a certain raised eyebrow expression beloved of Nancy Reagan and a tale of how she almost chucked away £5,000 at an awards ceremony.

As we speak a little note drops through her cat-flap. She and Snell play games of chess with their octogenarian artist neighbour Derek Campbell. They play one move a day each and through the cat-flap Campbell has just made his.

"Make sure you say that he always wins - I'm thinking of hiring a grandmaster," says Binchy, smiling. Long may she sparkle.