Maeve Binchy, Grand Storyteller and Irish National Treasure (1940-2012)
Maeve Binchy died Monday night, with her beloved husband, Gordon, and her sister, Joan, at her side. She was 72 years old and left us too soon. Journalist, novelist, short story writer, and a born storyteller, she was also a generous friend.
I met Maeve at the Frankfurt Book Fair thirty years ago, on the eve of the publication of her first book, Light a Penny Candle. Viking had just sold the paperback rights to Dell, and I would be the proud publisher. We were both a long way from home, and I told her how I had read her book on a bus going from New York to the East End, sobbing, with everyone on the bus looking at me like I was nuts. In the way of many great storytellers, Maeve was still telling this story last year, but in her version, the driver stopped the bus and wanted to know if anything was wrong, and there was much sympathy from everyone around me as I cried that someone in the book died and they thought it was a friend of mine.
Since that first read, I have helped introduce her to her legions of American fans. For the publication of Circle of Friends (before it was a movie), I invited Maeve to come to the U.S. She was hurting from a hip problem, and she lectured me on VALUE, saying she couldn't possibly come to the U.S. if she couldn't tour, and we would be spending “all that money,” and she wouldn't be able to do all the things I would want her to do to promote the book. She couldn't give me “VALUE.” I explained that it was up to me to decide where the “value” would be, and I would take care of her. She kept her bargain, and I kept mine. She came to New York and held court in her hotel room, giving interviews as the pro she was. The book was her first New York Times bestseller.
For the publication of Scarlet Feather, Mayor Daley invited Maeve to Chicago to be in their St. Patrick's Day parade. The entire Binchy clan showed up from all over the world, and I will never forget the sight of Maeve as she was escorted down the main streets of Chicago on her own float. The night before, she spoke to over 500 people, and her opening words were something like this: “if you expect to hear about my poverty childhood in poor Dublin, you will be disappointed. I was raised in a middle class family in Dalkey, where my father was a barrister, and we all went to university.” Everyone applauded her honesty, relieved they wouldn't have to sit through an evening of tales of woe. Maeve once told me she would never write an autobiography because she believed her childhood belonged to her brothers and sisters, as well as to her. But in her book The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club, she lets us in on her life, offering wise and friendly advice based on her own experience.
I treasure the years of friendship we had, sharing our lives. After Maeve managed to go techie with her Blackberry, we would get messages from her all the time about birthdays, her newest idea for a book, or a funny visit to her house by a big-shot movie producer. The computer was more challenging, and she credits my husband, RIchard, for saving her when she was finishing Whitethorn Woods: he taught her how to copy and paste, carefully writing out the instructions on the back of an envelope.
When I visited Maeve and Gordon in Dalkey, I always stayed in the cottage behind their house. Named Firefly Summer after one of her books, it was set up for my breakfast: Irish cereal and coffee and fruit. Then I went over to the house, and Maeve and I worked until lunch time. I would ask a question about a character or plead with her to write more about one my favorites (Muttie, or course), and she would sprinkle her magic. (When Muttie died, I cried again.) After lunch, I was on my own to explore Dalkey or go into Dublin and browse the bookshops... and to see the portrait of Maeve hanging in the National Gallery with other “natural treasures” of Ireland. Then we would meet for tea--she always said that she only had tea when the Americans showed up. Later, her sister Joan and her husband Leonard would join us at dinner at the pub next door, which Maeve claimed was closer to her dining room than her kitchen was. I remember one night when I called my mother in Florida from Maeve's house and told her we were having Chinese dinner. "Chinese?," my mother asked. "But I thought you were in Ireland." Maeve took the phone and gently reassured her it was true.
The last time I visited Maeve to help put finishing touches on her new book, Minding Frankie, I was asked going through immigration why I was coming to Ireland. I said to visit a friend, and the stern official said, “and who is the friend?” I hesitated, then said “Maeve Binchy.” He broke out into a smile and an Irish brogue: “And how is our Maevers these days? Send her my best.” As I left Dalkey, I signed their guest book, along with names from all over the world, honored to be one of them.
We will all miss you, Maeve, but we still have your books to read over and over. I’m going to start with Light a Penny Candle this week.
Yes, Maeve, we love you. --Carole Baron