Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Counting in the fox hole with Maeve Binchy

This interview followed the publication of her book, Tara Road. (“CS” stands for “Christopher Simpson,” and “MB” stands for “Maeve Binchy.”)


CS: The first thing I’d like to ask is, “What are you doing with the numbers?” The heroine’s dream home is house number 16. Her duplicitous friend lives at number 32, or 2 X 16. Her mother, who is the eldest of three generations, lives at number 48, or 3 X 16. And when Ria finds her enlightenment she is living at a street number 1024, or 64 X 16.

So the question again is, “What are you doing with the numbers?”

MB: I do not believe you!

I never wrote any of this! I never thought of it at all. I drew a picture of the road in my mind. I thought I wanted Ria living about a third of the way down, and I just threw Colm at one end with his restaurant, and Gertie with her launderette at the other. And I put the old people’s home in there. I just did it all at random, so if you see anything significant, then we had all better hold on to something fast.

CS: That’s really not the answer I was expecting. I just assumed you meant it.

MB: I never thought about it at all. I write so quickly. I write like I talk. Once somebody said to me, “You don’t write better when you write slowly,” and that was like a green light to me. If I write quickly I’ll be finished. It’ll be done and I can go on to the next bit. I don’t go back over it, and my agent — she’s a bossy woman, she’s even bossier than I am — always sees these things.

But she’s never seen anything about the numbers. So I’ll tell her that now. She’ll be amazed that she hasn’t spotted it. I shall tell everybody about it and pretend I thought of it all by myself.

CS: I’ll back you up on it.

MB:You can blackmail me later.

CS: I’ll be sure to keep the tape. Well,with that topic now deflated let’s move on to the next question,which concerns the figure of Mrs. Connor, a strange and ambiguous fortune teller. Where does this character come from?

MB: Well, I’ll tell you where I got the idea of Mrs. Connor. I have a friend in Ireland, a very successful hairdresser, and she told me that many of her clients, who can afford chin-tucks and such, also go to this fortune teller. And she says, “You have no idea Maeve how much they pay her. They pay her fifty to a hundred pounds, and they go out to her house, and she’s got no signs of wealth.” And I asked her, “Have you ever gone?” “No, I’ve never gone,” she says, “I’d be afraid to go.” All of these women run their lives by her. It’s like the church was when we were young.

CS: But none of this reflects your own beliefs, does it?

MB: Oh, heaven’s no. I believe entirely that we are responsible for our own lives. I don’t believe in God anymore. I don’t believe in Heaven or an afterlife. I believe we are here for a short time and that while we’re here we have control over our lives.

I was on a French television program once called Apostrophe. The guy was terribly, terribly, uh, what I would think of as pretentious, but it was a huge honour to be on his program, and I speak very bad French — I speak French exactly the way I speak English: with an Irish accent and very quickly. So, on this program he asked me what was my philosophy of life. And I had never been asked my philosophy of life — ever. Here I was with maybe eight million viewers and I’ve got no philosophy of life.

I knew I had to answer and the thing going through my head was, “I don’t know anybody in France so it doesn’t matter if I make a fool of myself.” But what was I going to say? And then I thought, “Well, say what’s true, don’t you think?” So I said that my philosophy of life is that we are dealt a hand and we have to play it. I cannot think of anything more banal to say, but whatever you’re dealt you play.

In my case, I was dealt the good family, the happy family, a secure background, enough brains to scrape past my exams, enough money to pay for an education at a time when you had to pay for education, and a cheery personality because I was brought up in a happy home. That’s the good side I was dealt. On the bad side I was fat, and that’s bad to be a girl and be fat because that is unacceptable. We were always on the edge of having enough money to get ahead, which sometimes is worse that being poor. And then as I got older I got arthritis, very bad arthritis. So I was lame and fat, and I was a school teacher which is not considered in Ireland a hugely good job, and I didn’t have a fella, and all these things were bad. That was the bad hand, those were the poor cards that were dealt.

What I got out of it all — and I’m not patting myself on the back, I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way — is that I’ve played that hand for the best that I can do with it. And that’s my philosophy in life. And I wouldn’t take any help from God. Even when I had a very serious operation and was told that I could die, and a nice Chaplain came in to me. “I’m just coming in as a matter of course now,” he says, “and maybe you don’t want anything to do with me.” “No, I don’t,” I said, “it wouldn’t be fair, just because I’m going in for an operation. I can’t ask for something from some person I haven’t dealt with in over thirty years.”

CS: You are that rare breed, the atheist in the fox hole.

MB: That’s it. And I’m also the un-guilty one. When I decided to be the “atheist in the fox hole,” I decided, “That’s it; I’m not going to call on Him — or Her or It — in times of trouble.” And that’s for fortune tellers, or for psychics, or any of the others. I have such good friends who believe in a lot of things I don’t believe in at all…who believe in the healing powers of crystals…who believe in lots of things, and they do believe in them. When I was very, very lame my friends were concerned about me. I was hardly able to walk and was bent double, and they would tell me about Seventh Sons and various healers and things with faith because these people had actually cured people. But I said, “There’s no point in going to them because I would be going with a hypocritical heart, because I believe that you always have to try to do it for yourself.”

In my books there are no “makeovers.” In novels of the same type and going to this same audience, there are “makeovers”: the fat person becomes thin, the single person becomes married and the poor person becomes rich. Well, I’ve seen enough thin, rich and married people who are dead unhappy, and that’s not the way to get your redemption in life.

I felt I became a better novelist, and a better person, when I stopped believing that there was somebody up there who was going to look after it all. Because now I have to do something. If I see somebody lying on the street because they’re homeless — I’m not going to take him home, I’m not Mother Theresa — I have to do something to help. Whereas, in the old days, we were more inclined to think of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor for they shall see God.” In Tara Road nobody gets a Makeover, nobody gets life easy. And it’s the only thing I hate, when people say my books are “cozy,” because they’re not. And also in my book there is a lot of my own philosophy about secrets. I don’t feel you have to tell everybody else your secrets. I allow people I know to live in ignorance, and I’m sure I’m living in ignorance about things myself. I don’t believe Gertie has to be told that her husband was a shit. I think she should be allowed to think, “Okay, he’s dead and he was a wonderful person,” if she wants. If she wants to remember it as a beautiful marriage, give her that.

CS: What about your next book?

MB: I already know what it’s going to be about. It will be about a couple, a young man and woman. These two are brought together by an impassioned urge for cookery. There will be twelve chapters and it will be a different story each month.

CS: How hard is it now for you to make a book deal?

MB: Well, I told them all of that─about the book─on one page and handed it to them, and now twenty publishers in different countries have answered back, “Go ahead and do it.” So that’s all I need to do now. I’ll start that book in September of next year and maybe be done by March. It takes me about six months to write a book.

CS: So you write yearly?

MB: I write one book every two years.

CS: As a brand new Maeve Binchy fan, I am looking forward to it.

Originally published in Celtic Curmudgeon: Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999

Notable Interviews

To the right are a few of the noteworthy interviews I've conducted.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin sends a secret message to Carol Burnett's mother.

Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy

Astronaut James Lovell

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