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A Bountiful Road to ‘Tara’ for an Irish Writer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is much of a muchness about Irish writer Maeve Binchy. First, there’s the number of books she’s written: eight novels, six short story collections and two nonfiction, most of them in the last 16 years. Then there’s the heft of those books--"Tara Road” (Delacorte Press, 1999), the latest, claims a good 2 1/2 inches of shelf space with its 502 pages, and that’s actually a bit slim by Binchy standards.

And then there’s herself. At 58, she is not a small woman at 6 feet, and she brims with words like a river after hard rain. Five minutes into a phone conversation with Maeve Binchy, you simply toss the pen skyward, blessing the angels and saints for the invention of the tape recorder, and let the brogue-rippled words wash over you, like the waters of the Liffey, like the waters of the Boyne.

“If my husband left me suddenly out of the clear blue sky,” she says, explaining the motivation for her newest novel, “I think I’d want to go somewhere that would give me energy. And America has always given me energy. There’s something in the sidewalks and the air, the people walk faster, they think quicker, they’re more hopeful. I’d want to get far, far away from Dublin because Ireland is a small country and everyone would know what was going on. And I’d done a house exchange and I knew the intimacy of that. After living in someone else’s house, I felt like I knew them better than people living on my own street. I knew that they paid some of their bills late, put their nice towels on top, the shabby ones beneath and so on.”

Deep breath.

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She’s in San Francisco, finishing up her first American tour, seven cities that did not--harrumph--include Los Angeles. (“I know, I know, and I’m very sorry about that,” she says. “We are, after all, at the mercy of the publicists. Next time we’ll come down for sure.”)

In “Tara Road,” the first Binchy story to cross the Atlantic, Ria Lynch, a Dublin woman seeking sanctuary from an imploding marriage, swaps houses with Marilyn Vine, a woman living in Connecticut. Marilyn has some issues of her own, as do the other numerous denizens of Ria’s neighborhood, Tara Road. A hallmark of a Binchy book is a cast of characters Dickens would relish, all pairing and sundering, congregating and dispersing in an operatic minuet. Plots and subplots surface and submerge, like tree roots in the grass running toward the heart of the matter, which is always acceptance and growth.

In fact, “Tara Road” is a classic example of what has become the Binchy genre--strong but mildly imperfect women facing down the obstacles conjured by society, the church, economics and charming but shiftless men. Binchy’s is not a war-torn Ireland; she deals solely in the middle class of the Republic--the countryside of peaceful lakes and brilliant green hills, a Dublin that bustles with fish and chip shops and progress, a people concerned with the travails of daily living. Nor is it a place of misty-moisty artistic sorrow; the pipes, the pipes are not calling Binchy’s name. Her optimism is unquenchable, her belief in hard work and faith in one’s self unshakable.

Oh, but it is undeniably Irish. Not just the lyrical descriptions of the green, green grass or the shimmering waters, but in the talking. Binchy, a former reporter and still columnist for the Irish Times, obviously listens as intensely as she speaks--her dialogue runs clean and clear and believable, and there is plenty of it. Which is fitting when you consider the well-spring.

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“I’m a great believer that as long as I get the description of the place right, most characters are the same, aren’t they?” she says of her first attempt at internationalism. “More unites two women in their 30s than divides them. I have to believe this,” she adds, this time not stopping for breath, “because my books are in 32 languages, and when I see them in Korean and Indonesian, I think, ‘However can these people understand?’ But really, I’m writing about life and love; that’s the same the world over, isn’t it? I’m sure there are Koreans in the country who have dreamed of the bright lights of Seoul, and there must be people there whose husbands behave badly and whose daughters are difficult and whose friends betray them.”

“Tara Road” expands Binchy’s ken chronologically as well. Previous work stuck to the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the author herself was coming of age. But Ria and Marilyn are more modern women, calculating property values rather than fabric yards. That, she says, is the journalist in her dragging her out of the past.

Ireland is a much more confident nation now, she says, pleased in a motherly sort of way.

“I can’t tell you how different it is from when I was growing up in the ‘50s.” she says. “It’s startlingly different. Young people go away and come back in a year with good jobs, good salaries and stay, and this is marvelous. When I was young you went away, you were an emigrant and we sang songs about you.

“So it’s a much happier place now. Dublin especially has a real buzz about it. Not that money can bring happiness. Happiness, I think, comes from playing the hand you’re dealt as well as you can. But in ‘Tara Road’ I wanted to reflect the modern Ireland. It’s no longer milking the cow and setting by the fire anymore. That’s only what the people doing leprechaun duty will tell you.”

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Teaching Background, Career in Journalism

Binchy’s own story glitters with a bit of fairy dust in the telling. Trained to be a teacher, her journalism career began when her father, dazzled by her descriptions of life on a kibbutz, sent a letter she had written him to the Irish Independent, which printed it and paid for it. She joined the Irish Times as women’s editor in 1968. Four years later, she moved to London, and just when she was thinking it “was a bit too late,” she met and married fellow writer Gordon Snell. They came back to Ireland, where, after publishing two collections of her newspaper work and one of short stories, she began work on her first novel.

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One year later, “Light a Penny Candle” was bought for 53,000 pounds, the highest price ever paid at that time for a first novel in Britain.

The success of “Candle” and subsequent novels, including “Echoes,” “Firefly Summer” and the “Glass Lake,” made her a literary fixture in England and a patron saint in Ireland. “Circle of Friends,” which became a successful movie in 1995, delivered her up to the American audience.

She is currently the most-read Irish writer. Ever. And given the literary loquaciousness of the breed, that’s saying something.

She is also her own cottage industry. Complete with cottage . . . all right, house, in her native Dalkey, where despite her well-rewarded success, she intends to remain. But her best intentions--to reject the chic in favor of the homey--are being thwarted even there.

“When I was growing up in Dalkey, which is about 10 miles south of Dublin, it was the boondocks. You can’t imagine how dreary it was, and we hated living there. Now everyone wants to live there, all the singers, U2, Neil Jordan, Tina Turner has an apartment there. And you see how amazing even a really dreary town where I grew up can become.”

That, it would seem, is the price of fame, and a newly thriving economy. And although there are the tourist buses stopping by for a peek at the author taking out the garbage, it’s a fair price all in all.

“When they do publicity for my books in other countries,” she says, laughing, “very often there are contests, and the prize is a weekend in Ireland and a lunch with me. Which has always been lovely for us, but now it seems it has become a very exciting prize. Not me, but to come to Ireland. Before it was almost like a punishment. So it’s wonderful now that people actually enjoy coming here.”

Binchy, who has said she writes as quickly as she talks, has already completed the outline for her next book, which will follow a year in the lives of a man and woman who set up a catering agency.

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“They feel that they are growing together more than with their partners, and we’re not sure we want them to,” she says.

This book too will be set in modern Ireland, where things like catering businesses actually flourish. An exciting time for a novelist, she says, watching this ancient, youthful country come into its own.

“Everyone thinks that their own time is terribly, terribly interesting, that they lived in the most important time, but I really did. I was born in 1940, and until 2000 is the most amazing 60 years. I went from seeing the country totally run by the church, a nanny state with censorship of film and books, and nowadays--I’m not anti-cleric, I’m not anti-church--but I am glad it doesn’t have the foolish hold on people’s lives it once did. And with the money and the new hope, it’s all really great these days.”

Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.


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