ARTS : A fair crack at happiness

Her chronicles of family life earn a loyal following, a healthy income - but no big book awards. Maeve Binchy talks to Helen Birch
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Maeve Binchy is one of Britain's richest women. Last year, she earned £1.4m, more than Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. In the official league table of top-earning women she is sandwiched between Catherine Cookson and PD James. The film of her novel Circle of Friends, which opened in the United States seven weeks ago, has already made $18m (£11.4m), outstripping similar low-budget, small-scale dramas Priest and Muriel's Wedding.

Everyone, it seems, has heard of her, but in a straw poll of friends and people in this office, not a single person had ever read her. Her books, of which The Glass Lake is the 13th, regularly make it to the bestseller lists and stay put (her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, published in 1982, remained in the Top 10 for 53 weeks) and have been translated into seven languages, including Korean and Hebrew. Yet she rarely makes appearances on the books pages of broadsheet newspapers. Maeve Binchy is one of a handful of women writers whose readers care nothing for literary plaudits.

Binchy writes 600-page doorstoppers, beach books, fireside books, the kind of stories women read alone in bed with a packet of chocolate biscuits. They are set in Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties, what she calls "my time" - before the Pill, Mary Robinson and paedophile priests, when the doctrines of the Catholic Church weighed as heavily on an adolescent girl's heart and mind as her spots.

Focusing on pairs or groups of women friends, Binchy chronicles the growing pains of young women living in tiny villages, where few indiscretions go unobserved and secrets must be as jealously guarded as an unbroken hymen. Her protagonists, who are all perfectly ordinary - fat, shy, selfish, insecure - leave home, strike out for the lights of Dublin to get an education, fall in love and are betrayed by caddish lovers or their own romantic idealism. But they are always somehow bound to the past, their lives circumscribed, and often destroyed, by the subtle violences of Church and family. They are old-fashioned tales, laced with nostalgia, yet their sprawling narratives are expertly structured, cutting deftly between people, place and time. And they possess a very appealing quality, compassion.

Binchy is a living embodiment of the advice so often meted out to aspiring novelists - write what you know. The eldest of four children, she was born in 1940 in the village of Dalkey, 10 miles from Dublin, where her father was a barrister, and she attended a nearby convent school. A few years ago, after more than 15 years as London correspondent for the Irish Times, she returned there with her husband, the children's writer Gordon Snell. Today the village, best known as the setting for Flann O'Brien's comic novel The Dalkey Archive, has become a magnet for showbizzy types.

But there is nothing grand about her. She lives in a small house ("I like people to say I live in a modest house") tucked in a tiny side-street two doors down from the pub where uninvited fans (and there are plenty of them) are politely asked to wait until she's finished work. I'm ushered up a twisting wooden staircase to the sunlit garret where she writes, side by side with her husband, every day from 7.45am until lunch, breaking off to answer fan mail (she does not have a secretary) and to write her weekly column for the Irish Times.

Binchy is a big woman, 6ft-tall, and wide too. She waves me into a chair and shuffles, with a terrible arthritic stoop, to fetch a bottle of water, talking all the time. She delivers words as fast as a production line, a professional interviewee, lacing her chat with a nice line in self-deprecating humour. "I'm incredibly organised," she says. "It takes me eight months to write each book, and I'm starting my next book on September 1, which has to be delivered by May. And I write like I talk, without much pause for breath and punctuation."

When she begins a new book, she draws a map of the village. "I put a house in, and as soon as I have a person, I give them a birthday. It stops me inventing characters for no reason. Then I'll write 10 chapters, so that by the end of chapter 3, this will have happened and by the end of chapter 4, that will have happened." It sounds like a formula, but Binchy is an avid reader of thrillers; she knows that fans of popular fiction are as alert to sloppy plots as the most rigorous critic. "You can only get away with one bad book," she says.

She had nearly finished her own "bad book" before realising the fact. "I have an idea, an emotion, to begin with. In Light a Penny Candle, it was friendship. In Circle of Friends it was betrayal and in The Glass Lake it was the fragility of the mother-daughter relationship. I tried to write a book about revenge, and realised it didn't work. I can't share the feeling of revenge, so I wasn't able to write it. I read to page 12 and thought, ach, to hell with it. Why can't she just forget him?"

This niceness, this "refusal to thunder about anything" is one reason her books travel so well across ages and cultures. As is her avoidance of sex. . "I write like I talk," she says again. "And I would never ask anyone about their sex life. So to write about it would be a betrayal, both of my own experience and of the men I've made love with in my life." But the absence of judgement is also pragmatic. She describes the rather cloying adaptation of Circle of Friends as "sweet", but admits to preferring her own ending to the sugary Hollywood version. "I'm a great fan of Andrew Davies [who wrote the screenplay] and of [director] Pat O'Connor [Lamb, Cal], but I realised that when you sell your book for a quarter of a million dollars, you're not going to be sitting on a high seat sipping a glass of wine and giving people instructions."

The film, like her books, has been praised for its depiction of Ireland in the Fifties. "I used to write articles for the Irish Times haranguing the Tourist Board for wasting taxpayers' money. Today, I'm regarded as a national asset... I write all these books about Ireland with no rain in them." Is she conscious of exporting a cosy image of Ireland? "What I'm doing is reflecting what we were like in the Fifties," she says firmly. "And I remember it all so well... the dreadful Fair Isle jumpers we wore, our utter hysteria about sex, about saving ourselves. We were all the same. Those girls standing on the railway station in their green uniforms all came from the same kind of homes. We'd never met anybody; we had no knowledge of Protestants, unless we'd lived next door to some. I could not believe that there was a country where bells did not ring at midday. You may think I was retarded, but I didn't rebel."

Instead, when she left University College, Dublin, she became a teacher in a girls' school. This, like so many of her experiences, finds its way into her novels. Her refusal to depart from what she knows may account for the loyalty her books inspire among readers. But she does eschew real awfulness. The "bad" people in her books - sanctimonious gossips, cheating lovers - all fall into the flawed human beings category. And she admits to a "rose-tinted" view of family life. "It's in my heart not be be too judgmental about people. My family is all terribly close. And when I was in my thirties, I met a good man, honest and true."

But, she admits, before taking me off to the pub, she does have a practical take on the world too. "I do think you have a fair crack at happiness if you take charge of your own life. I think if there's a message in my books, that's it."