Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Write quickly, don't be a poser, and have fun when it's time to have fun' - Maeve Binchy's nephew Chris on her advice to aspiring writers

Maeve Binchy was a warm-hearted, helpful font of wisdom for aspiring young writers, recalls her nephew Chris Binchy

Helpful advice: Maeve Binchy in Canada on a promotional tour in 1986
Helpful advice: Maeve Binchy in Canada on a promotional tour in 1986

When I started writing this article, it took me a while to find a way in. I circled like a cat on a couch looking for the ideal place to settle, hovering and lowering and then deciding that this might not in fact be the right approach. Days went by.

Maeve would not have done this. She would have said to think about what you want to say and then say it clearly, and not to waste time finding more elaborate ways of doing it. Some years ago we met up and she asked how my work was going. "Slow," I said. "It's taking me a long time to get going."

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"I've never found working slowly to be a good idea," she said. "Working quickly is better."

The first job I ever had was serving drinks with my sister at parties in Maeve and Gordon's house in the 1980s. Maeve had worked in London and Dublin as a journalist and her first novel Light a Penny Candle had just been published. The parties started at lunchtime and lasted through the afternoon. There were a lot of people there and we had to move. Our instructions were to keep pouring and to enjoy ourselves, which is still good advice for anybody hosting a party.

In 1995 I was a night manager at a hotel in Dublin. It was full of actors and politicians and people doing all sorts of business. To work on the desk of a hotel overnight you needed to have an easy, welcoming style, but with notes of authority and menace. You had to make rapid judgments about people when they walked in, to see what they wanted, whether they were supposed to be there, if they were honest or dodgy. If trouble started, you needed to take control.

But I was always tired and I couldn't concentrate. After a few months, the only thing I was interested in was sleep. I fantasised about dark rooms, big empty beds, clean sheets. I wanted to be a guest. I should just have left but I didn't know how. When I was going to work, I would look at the horizon above the hotel, hoping to see flames lighting the sky. If the place was on fire I could go home to bed. Instead, I caught flu and went to the doctor who gave me a sick note. During my time off, I entered a writing competition. I wrote in my own voice, kept it simple, focused on what was on my mind at the time - the general public at night and how I thought they should behave. It was a rant but it was heartfelt.

I came second in the competition and handed in my notice the next day. "I am going to be a writer," I told the general manager, who kindly didn't say much in response. "I am going to be a writer," I told everyone I met and I liked the sound of it. At all stages, Maeve was encouraging and enthusiastic. Her advice was that if you're not producing 10 pages a week, you're not really doing it. I tried to keep up that pace.

At Christmas, she gave me the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. Before the internet, this was a way to find the address of a suitable publisher or agent. You would follow their very specific instructions (font size, word count, NO fantasy!) and send sample pages of your work off in the post, enclosing a stamped self-addressed envelope if you wanted to hear back from them. When eventually I produced something, I did this. As long as you had something out in the world, the rejections weren't too bad. I went back to work in restaurants, writing sporadically, did a college course and eventually, eight years after handing in my notice at the hotel, my first book was published.

When it was coming out, Maeve sent me a letter. Publishing has changed a lot in the 16 years since then, but her words are still relevant and sensible and funny.

"Booksellers are your friends and everybody working in a bookshop is important. Treat everybody you meet with kindness and respect because that's the right way to behave, but also because, as in any business, the person working on the shop floor or answering the phone today may end up running things in 10 years and they will remember you.

"Don't be a poser. Do not twiddle your fingers in your hair and talk about how you don't really know what your book is about, or if it's any good or how you came to write it.

"A lot of people are involved in the publication of any book, so while you shouldn't take yourself too seriously, you should always take the work seriously. Tolerate the bores, turn up when you're supposed to, don't be late, meet your deadlines. Have fun when it's time to have fun."

She was somebody who had a lot of fun. She worked long, regular hours every day in Dalkey, writing novels and articles and letters and emails, doing all the things that needed to be done and more. Gordon worked at a desk in the same room. Sometimes I would visit them at the end of the day. They usually would already be laughing, sitting together at a table, discussing what they'd been doing. They would ask me if I wanted something to drink and I often did, and then a conversation would get going. It seemed like the perfect way to work and to live.

* Chris Binchy will be among a host of authors taking part in ECHOES 2019 in Dalkey, Dublin from October 4-6, which will explore the concept of community in contemporary writing in Ireland and celebrate the legacy of Maeve Binchy. See echoes.ie

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