I held a crumpled piece of paper in my hand. A Dublin phone number was written on it, along with a name. Maeve Binchy. I took a deep breath and rang it, expecting to battering-ram my way through a phalanx of publicity girls. A voice answered, friendly and instantly familiar. I nearly dropped the phone.
Easy knowing I’m more of a writer than a journalist. I’ve always been too star struck for my own good. But this was the writer I returned to again and again when I was fed up with reading flashier books. Dipping into her books was like climbing into a hot bath after a cold day. What can I say that anyone else hasn’t said, about her winning combination of great dialogue, big-hearted characters and gentle wisdom.
I was writing an article for Writer’s Forum Magazine about the value of creative writing courses. I wanted to find a writer who had not achieved brilliant success without the aid of a writer’s course. In an article for The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, she had said that no publisher’s going to creep into your bedroom and pluck out your Booker Prize-winning manuscript. She was definitely going to be in favour of the no-nonsense approach.
Making the Connection
This being Ireland, I had a tenuous connection to her that enabled me to bypass the publicity machine. Still, I had never expected it to be this easy.
‘Is that, eh, Maeve Binchy?’
‘My name is Derbhile and, eh, (deep breath, Derbhile) I’m doing an article for Writer’s Forum, eh, about writing courses and eh.’
At this stage, I felt that having a mallet nearby would be useful. I could have hit my head repeatedly with it. At least I wouldn’t sound like a four year old. Though in my defence, I did manage to avoid gushing. Anyway, I managed to gabble out my request and she warmly agreed. She said I could ring her back the following week with my questions, which I had been too superstitious to make up in advance. Any time between 9am and 10am. I put down the phone, my head spinning. That shouldn’t have been so easy.
The Big Interview
I duly rang up the following Tuesday. Got the same friendly hello. Then she said.
‘Will this take long? Because my sister’s died, you see.’
Words of sympathy and protest bubbled up in my mouth; I couldn’t possibly do it now. She cut them short.
“No, I’ll do it; you’re grand.’
As I ploughed earnestly through my list of questions, my nerves finally began to dissipate. Maeve dropped casual gems into the conversation, about listening to conversations on crossed wires and braving the boredom of teenage girls. Her views on creative writing courses were more benign than I expected. She hadn’t done any simply because there were none in Dublin during her formative writing years.
The Writer’s Friend
No doubt due to her modesty, people don’t realise how much Maeve Binchy actually did for aspiring writers. She compiled a book called The Maeve Binchy Writing Club, which gathered the wisdom of Ireland’s top women writers into one place. She also gave writing courses to teenagers as part of an Irish Times scheme.
As I suspected though, she did ultimately feel that there was no substitute for getting on with it. Her suggestion of writing 10 pages a week is attainable for any writer – it’s a little over a page a day. She did feel that writing courses could work, as long as they didn’t turn into a talking shop.
I was thrilled at the insights I’d received, until the next week, when I heard her being interviewed on radio. She was asked very similar questions and gave very similar answers. But, as she did with me, she answered them as if she was being asked for the very first time.
One thing I did notice once I’d got over my star-fever was how often she used the word ‘you’ in conversation. It’s something I’ve noticed in her books as well. ‘You’ is a word that conveys generosity and inclusiveness. And to me, it symbolises Maeve Binchy.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about her? What were your favourite books of hers?