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Interview with Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy’s work is so well known that she will need no introduction to most of our readers. A former teacher and journalist on the Irish Times, she was first an incredibly popular newspaper columnist and – after the publication of Light a Penny Candle in 1982 – a bestselling novelist. 

Why writing?

Because I love telling stories – my head is full of them. I am a bit like a schoolgirl stumbling over the words to get out all that has happened in the exciting school day.

What novelists do you admire?

I love thriller writers. I read about three hair-raising books a week. My favourites are Harlan Coban, Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Kathy Reichs and Ed McBain.

How was your first novel published?

I had written two collections of short stories, which had done moderately well. But only moderately. I decided to write a novel about what I know best: friendship and the difference in approach to life between the English and the Irish. In 1981 I spent a year of long weekends writing Light a Penny Candle and I then sent it off to the publisher who had said she was interested and who had paid me an advance of £5,000.

When did you know you were successful?

When the publisher telephoned to say it was terrific, and that we would make a fortune. She said there would be an auction for the paperback rights. It was impossible to take in; I kept thinking I had dreamed it all.

What is your working day like?

The study in our house is up a spiral staircase: it’s a lovely, bright, sunny room with lots of glass, and dictionaries and paper, and photocopiers and pens and sticky tape and no excuses whatsoever. My husband Gordon Snell is a writer of children’s books, and in theory we come up to this room at 8am and work until 1pm. We both have laptops which are too complicated for us and we think fondly back to the days of those sit-up-and-beg typewriters when all you had to do was get a new ribbon and nothing could Delete the Entire Manuscript.

What author-related things do you do?

I used to love book signings and actually enjoyed talking to people about the characters in my stories. I never regarded them as a chore. But sadly, as life went on, I got a rather serious heart condition and now I can’t travel and do author tours and go out and meet people like I used to. I really miss that, but then, no one has everything!

What are the highlights of your writing career?

I have had some of my short stories adapted for the radio as dramas, I loved that. And I’ve had several of my stories filmed, including one coming out at Christmas called How About You? starring Vanessa Redgrave, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Fricker, Hayley Atwell and Joss Ackland. I think it’s terrific and I am dying to see it in the cinemas. But then I would wouldn’t I?

What advice can you give to aspiring novelists?

Seriously, it’s very boring, but you must write at least 10 pages a week otherwise you’re not writing, you’re only playing around. I got very good advice early on about having a plan, writing a sort of scaffolding out of your 15 chapters – and writing the last line of each chapter in now. That’s meant to stop you rambling on and on and gets some pace into the book.

Do you ever have writer’s block?

No, I never got it because I used to work on a newspaper and you weren’t allowed to have writer’s block there. You had to do the damn thing – no matter how you felt. Writers block is often an excuse not to get down to it. Be very ruthless. Pretend someone is waiting to read it – like an angry newspaper sub-editor. It’s amazing how you’ll get it done.

Have you ever been rejected by an agent or publisher?

Of course, like everyone I got dozens of them, but I am a sunny-minded, optimistic person so I don’t brood about them – that’s the way it goes.

Like life, it’s a matter of luck. It boils down to one person’s opinion, whoever reads your manuscript that day. You meet someone who likes your work and you are home and dry – but it very rarely happens first go. If you get over-dejected by refusals then you’re not nearly tough enough for this game.