When stuck in traffic, Maeve Binchy doesn't lose her temper, she takes notes. "I watch people. I'll wonder about this woman—I bet she's out for her first date. And that man knows his son is on drugs. I'm never bored by anything," said Binchy. "I'm very interested in the small details of people's lives, I almost have to be dragged away from them."
Binchy has made a career—even two—from exploring the details and dramas of people's lives, first as advice columnist for The Irish Times and now as one of Ireland's best-loved authors. Though she's written both novels and short stories, she prefers the term storyteller. "People think novelists have style. I'm not being apologetic, I don't have any style," she said. "I don't write like Margaret Atwood or Fay Weldon, I don't write like anybody. I write as if I was talking. That has been useful to me. If you just talk away, that's where you're nearest the truth, nearest yourself. I write as if I was telling a story to a friend."
It's that winning, chatty tone she uses in her new novel, Scarlet Feather, to tell the story of Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather, who start a catering business in affluent Dublin. "In Scarlet Feather, I'm writing about the adrenaline of the workplace," said Binchy from her home in Dalkey, just south of Dublin. "You share an awful lot of somebody you work with. When I worked in a newspaper, it was possible to have a huge, overpowering relationship with the guys I worked with that had nothing to do with sex."
"I don't want heroines who are elegant or wealthy. I want ordinary people."
So though Cathy is married to Neil Mitchell, a driven immigration attorney, and Tom is living with drop-dead gorgeous Marcella Malone, the catering team shares a private—and vivid—world revolving around delicious menus and demanding clients, collapsed cakes and conniving help.
"Caterers usually feed people in a moment of crisis; they see them when they're having a party, a wedding, a christening, a 25th anniversary, everybody's nerves are stretched," said Binchy, who cheerfully confessed she wasn't speaking from first-hand experience. "I'm not a very good cook at all, it's amazing to admit it—it's like saying you're bad in bed or something. But two of my friends were in the catering business, so I knew the background things."
The background things, like struggling to put together a meal for 70 people when you're told only 50 will be there, may not be the stuff of glamour, but glamour interests Binchy not at all. "I don't want heroines who are elegant or wealthy. I want ordinary people," she said. "In my stories, there's no makeover. The heroine does not become beautiful—my God, Miss Smith, you're beautiful when you take off your glasses. You're not changed by any one outer thing, certainly not by one guy swooping in and taking you away."
Cathy's biggest external change is getting a haircut, and it fails to soothe her feelings towards her snob of a mother-in-law or resolve issues Cathy has with her husband. Like Benny in Circle of Friends (1990), Ria in Tara Road (1998) and other beloved Binchy heroines, Cathy pushes forward, even in hard times. "A streak of toughness combined with optimism is a good passport through life," said Binchy. "The winners are the ones who get on with it."
When Binchy's characters aren't winning, they keep their misery to themselves, a lesson Binchy herself learned as a girl. "My father used to say, when people say how are you, it's a greeting not a question." She admits this puts her at odds with the current Irish literary trend of Frank McCourt and Nuala O'Faolain, whose memoirs bring to light their dire childhoods.
"Poor Nuala and Frank. I was lucky, I had a hugely happy childhood—no Irish person seems to have had that," Binchy laughed. "I was the eldest child of two nice people who loved each other and told me I was the nicest girl in the world. It made me happy and confident. When my sisters came along, I had to share being the best girl in the world, and that was the best gift, the sense we were great. We were sure of an audience of five, we all listened to who my mother met when she went out, what my father did in the law courts all day, the dramas, old farmers fighting with each other. My life was full of stories."
Hearing stories about everyday others made Binchy, 60, eager to tell stories herself. She just wasn't sure at first if she'd have much of an audience. "When I wrote my first book in 1982 [Light A Penny Candle], hand on my heart, I thought only Irish people would read it. I didn't think anyone else would be interested in the problems of people in dull, wet places."
Since then, her works have been translated into many languages, giving Binchy readers galore. Still, she wasn't expecting Oprah Winfrey to call, telling her Tara Road had been selected for Oprah's Book Club. "At first I thought it was one of my friends making fun of me. I said, oh, yeah, who is this really? But she said, this is Oprah, and I straightened up immediately," said Binchy. "Oprah made me very much more known to American people. I get a great deal more fan mail from America than I used to. It's been a huge pleasure to me."
The 1995 film Circle of Friends also gave Binchy a much wider audience—a happy ending to a process which at first terrified her. "When I saw the script for Circle of Friends, I had to lie down with shock. I thought, there is none of my book left. There seemed no words and no plot at all. But when I saw the movie, I was absolutely delighted."
Binchy starts writing first thing in the morning and works until early afternoon. "I share a study with my very nice husband [Gordon Snell], who's also a writer. We do four minutes' housework in the morning in case someone comes around, but we look at our watches as though we're off to the office," she said. "I'm a very, very disciplined person."
And she always finds material for her stories, just by watching people. "No one's life is ordinary," she said. "We're all the heroes and heroines, with fate or flaws to beat."
Ellen Kanner is a freelance writer in Miami.