Saturday 17 August 2019

Maeve and me: Gordon Snell opens the Binchy family album

Gordon Snell gives Orla Neligan a sneak peak into a life spent with his late wife Maeve Binchy as he reminisces about their time together

Gordon and Maeve pictured at home
Gordon and Maeve pictured at home
A young Maeve Binchy.
Gordon Snell and Maeve Binchy with Barbara Bush at the White House.
Maeve Binchy in 2005 alongside a portrait of herself by Maeve McCarthy.
Gordon and Maeve with Oprah Winfrey in Chicago.
Maeve as a child
Maeve with actress Andie McDowell

Perhaps it's a trick of the light, or the angle with which he is sitting, facing the sunlight as it streams through the window, but Gordon Snell's eyes appear to be twinkling. "Excuse the mess," he laughs, waving a hand over the clutter of books and photographs that have been laid out for the purpose of today's interview.

We are sitting in his study in the home he once shared with his late wife Maeve Binchy. Around us is a library of organised chaos, as relaxed, figuratively speaking, as he is. Although it's been seven years since Binchy's death, she is everywhere: beaming from a picture on the wall behind his head, from a photo on the desk, from the piles of her books stacked beside him. "Her presence is very much still here," he smiles. Emotions can get triggered sometimes, he admits. It might be a film or a memory of her that catches him unexpectedly, but he's quick to assure me he has lots of Binchy's family living nearby, great friends who look out for him, and their two cats Audrey and Fred, who are a great continuity and great company.

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At 87, it's clear Snell is still fired up with the same curiosity and sense of wonder that has powered his career as a children's book author for the last 40 years. There are no 'geriatric' moments, instead he answers my questions with charm, deftness and a sharp wit, retrieving memories from years ago with great clarity, humour - and that twinkle in his eye.

As a writer, I don't exactly subscribe to the myth of the lone scribbler in the garret, but would find it difficult to focus with another person in the same room, which is why it surprises me to learn the couple wrote side-by-side. "We really did get on so well," he smiles, looking out the window. "We would write from 9am every morning. Maeve was a great multitasker; she could answer the phone or listen to music while she wrote, which I could never do. Then at 1pm, we would break for lunch and read each other our day's work." There were a few rules, however. "We didn't interrupt each other while working and we had to be totally honest. If you did have a criticism, you were allowed 10 minutes sulking time and then you had to get on with it," he laughs.

Gordon Snell and Maeve Binchy with Barbara Bush at the White House.
Gordon Snell and Maeve Binchy with Barbara Bush at the White House.

Snell and Binchy met in London when he was working as a radio producer for the BBC and Binchy was a journalist for The Irish Times. Was it love at first sight? "We just really clicked. One of our first dates was in Boulogne in France. Back then, you could take a hovercraft there and back in a day. Of course, we never got past the port. We found a pretty grotty-looking restaurant, but the food was fabulous and we sat there all day drinking, eating and talking, and got the boat back that evening. We basically went to France for a chat," he laughs.

It blossomed from there, Snell moving to Binchy's hometown of Dalkey in Dublin where he still lives. Being married for 35 years and both writers, you might expect home life to be somewhat fatigued by competition, but it's obvious Snell and Binchy give the lie to the cliché; they were each other's fans, each as romantic as the other. "We were terribly sentimental," he rolls his eyes in mock distaste, "and dedicated every book we wrote to one another." It started as a way to remember what the other had written - a filing system of sorts - and soon developed into an ongoing love story. Who does he dedicate his books to now, I wonder? "Nobody," he says somewhat sadly. "I simply couldn't," he adds, picking up a scrapbook bulging with news clippings and articles about Binchy. "A friend made this for me, isn't it fantastic," he trails off, momentarily lost in his memories.

It would be hard to top a lifetime of romantic dedications, but Binchy managed to surprise her husband with what he considers to be "the most romantic" gesture, and one he couldn't follow, by having a rose named after him for his 65th birthday. She had given him his usual birthday 'verse' and a book of poems and that, he says, would have been plenty, but then followed it up with this beautiful yellow Rosa Gordon Snell, which is planted in their garden. Recounting the story, Snell is animated and clearly still tickled by Binchy's ability to surprise. It's one of the things he loved most about her, along with her unwavering optimism, humour and modesty.

When her first novel Light A Penny Candle catapulted her to international fame, she remained slightly bemused, especially when the paperback rights were sold for a record-breaking sum. "The publisher rang to tell her the news and asked was she sitting down. When she heard the amount she said: 'Now I'm sitting down.' Then, in her naivety, asked him who got the money, to which the publisher responded: 'Well Maeve, I'm afraid you get it.' We then rang the bank who had been hounding us for months and paid off a considerable loan," recalls Snell, picking up a copy of Light A Penny Candle in Swedish.

Of the 17 novels and four collections of short stories she wrote, which sold over 40 million copies worldwide, it remains his and Binchy's favourite. It was sent to five publishers before being picked up from what Snell refers to as the 'slush pile'. The editor thought it had fantastic power and the rest is history. It follows the fortunes of two young girls growing up in Ireland and England after the Second World War and is the second of Binchy's novels, after Minding Frankie, to be adapted to stage. "It's partly my favourite because it was her first novel and the one everyone got excited about. She used to get up at 5am every morning and write it before going to work at The Irish Times, but it's also a great story of friendship and it's very dramatic, so will make for great theatre," notes Snell. "Aisling is one of my favourite characters from all the books. We grow with her from childhood, she's always her own person, nursing the bonds of friendship and her loving family with resilience and, above all else, a sense of humour."

Binchy was a master storyteller with an ability to write warm character-driven stories often depicting small-town Ireland with great accuracy and wit. She had the rare gift of speaking directly to the reader as though you were a personal friend. For me, like so many others who grew up with her books, the wording and rhythm of her stories was like a warm, comforting blanket. According to Binchy, the nicest thing ever said about her was that she was a 'quiet feminist' - her stories were modern tales about modern women despite being often set in the past.

Gordon and Maeve with Oprah Winfrey in Chicago.
Gordon and Maeve with Oprah Winfrey in Chicago.

But for someone who evidently led a very happy home life, her books were chequered with drama and tragedy; she wasn't afraid to take risks, often tackling difficult topics with aplomb. "She wasn't reckless, but was always open to new experiences and, yes, she was brave," adds Snell, remembering the time she was asked to appear on a high-brow elite French talk show and tackled all the difficult questions in French. Was there a particular book that was more challenging to write? "As any writer knows, the start is always the hard bit and she had so many characters, I honestly don't know how she remembered them all or kept them all going," he shrugs. "But I think Firefly Summer was a tricky one. She was writing about these two young girls and their life in a small town, swimming in the river until she realised that their childhood was going on and on. I remember her saying to me, 'Oh Gordon, I need to get these two married and betrayed or something. I'll finish the book and they'll still be 14 and having a great summer.' She considered killing off Maggie Daly and I was horrified. In the end, she found a dramatic event that fitted well, but I remember she struggled with it."

I can't quite imagine Binchy 'struggling' with her narrative. Like Snell, they seem to have shared the same measured quality so that I imagine very little rocked their status quo. "Laptops," he says a little indignantly. They apparently drove him and Binchy mad. "Great for typing up manuscripts and sending to publishers, but give me paper and pen any day," he muses. As for Binchy, who was fanatical about punctuality, people who were late "ticked her off". "I used to be a bit more casual with my time-keeping but she whipped me in to shape," he throws his head back laughing. Apart from tardiness, very little irked her. Even when she became ill towards her death in 2012, Snell confirms she never complained. According to Binchy, she had a charmed life and everything to be grateful for.

She and Snell neither relished nor disliked their global celebrity. Their outlook, instead, was that of a curious, if slightly bemused, spectator enjoying the moment, from the time Oprah rang and said: "Hello, this is Oprah Winfrey" and Binchy responded, "Come on, who is it really?" to her friendship with Barbara Bush, who was a die-hard Binchy fan, and that time in the taxi on their way home from Dublin Airport when she expressed her shock at one of her books being translated into Estonian. "The taxi driver quickly put her back in her place when he told her that Estonia was only the size of Wicklow," laughs Snell, remembering the moment. "She loved that Irish humour."

Humour is an important element of Snell's own work. As we speak, he rattles off funny verses from his books. It's a habit he formed from the age of eight when he came second in a school poetry competition. "Gorey old Jim was a pirate grim… it's about all I can remember of it," laughs Snell, who explains that his childish imagination and continuing curiosity is what led him down the children's book path. Many of his books are based on Irish lore and legend: The Cool MacCool a comic twist on stories associated with Fionn MacCool. When Fiacha offers Fionn his rusty spear to prevent him from falling asleep under the Fire-Fiend's spell, he promises that it has the power to ensure his eyelids never fall, 'Not even if you have to hear, / A teacher droning in your ear, / A party speech, a boring sermon, / Or seven operas in German'.

The idea for one of his favourites The King Of Quizzical Island came from reading about the flat earth society. "I thought what a marvellous idea to have a character that sails out to sea to prove whether the earth is flat or round. 'Because it's quite well known and I've heard it said by wise men old and clever,/ That if you choose to sail to the edge of the world you'll fall off and fall forever.' It's that sense of wonder and mystery and a good dose of humour that appeals to children, I think."

He didn't set out to be didactic; they are adventures, often with good moral principles, brave characters and always with a comic slant. "After all, everyone likes a good, exciting story with a bit of mystery and magic."

Maeve Binchy in 2005 alongside a portrait of herself by Maeve McCarthy.
Maeve Binchy in 2005 alongside a portrait of herself by Maeve McCarthy.

Snell himself has seen the world, had a long and happy marriage and career success - is there anything left he'd like to do? "I'd like to write more books," he answers without hesitation. Retirement, it seems, is a long way off.

As we sit poring over his books in the morning sunshine, Audrey the cat peeps her head around the door and hops up on Snell's lap. It strikes me that there is a childlike and endearing quality to Snell despite his 87 years. I ask whether he has any parting advice for a writer or, indeed, anyone.

He leans forward, eyes twinkling: "Take notice of your daydreams."

'Light A Penny Candle' runs at Limerick's Lime Tree Theatre, April 9-11, The Everyman Theatre in Cork, April 16-20 and Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, April 23-May 4.

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