For nearly three decades, Maeve Binchy’s novels and stories have portrayed the lives of average people in Ireland. They’ve garnered big sales, a cultish readership, and a number of acclaimed film adaptations, 1995’s Circle of Friends with Minnie Driver among them. But aside from the Oprah nod of approval, Binchy’s work has sparked little critical interest. Perhaps critics don’t know what to do with her — she reads something like an amalgam between Cecily von Ziegesar and Frank McCourt. This week, How About You?, the film adaptation of her short story “The Hard Core,” opens starring the venerable quartet of Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Brenda Fricker, and Imelda Staunton as four cranky codgers in a retirement home at Christmastime. Vulture spoke to Binchy one “cold, horrible fall morning in Ireland” about the new film, how she got her writing start from a kibbutz, and taking the money and running.
The Hard Core manages to be very dark and also curiously uplifting by the end.
It’s basically a Scrooge story. In Ireland and England we don’t have Thanksgiving, so people obsess over Christmastime. I wrote some short stories in the 1980s about how it’s up to us in life to make our own happiness. The Hard Core was a story about four cranky old people who made others’ lives miserable thanks to their unpleasantness. It’s one where people are suddenly transformed, an extension of my apostolic wish that everyone be happy.
Why are they all in the home?
We decided they were just dysfunctional: Their problem was not physical, but rather they were incapable of living a life of their own. I was going to have a part in the film, too. I was in Tara Road sitting in a bar, drinking a martini with my husband, Gordon. This time I was going to say, “I thought she was dead,” to Gordon when Vanessa Redgrave sings in the bar. But I was sick on the weekend when I was meant to be doing that so I missed my line. I was enraged. I would have gone mad if they had given the line to someone else. To my joy, they didn’t bother with it.
I’ve read you worked in a kibbutz.
In 1963, I worked in a Jewish school in Dublin, teaching French with an Irish accent to kids, primarily Lithuanians. The parents there gave me a trip to Israel as a present. I had no money, so I went and worked in a kibbutz — plucking chickens, picking oranges. My parents were very nervous; here I was going out to the Middle East by myself. I wrote to them regularly, telling them about the kibbutz. My father and mother sent my letters to a newspaper, which published them. So I thought, It’s not so hard to be a writer. Just write a letter home. After that, I started writing other travel articles.
The Ireland of today seems to be decidedly different from the Ireland that most of us used to hear about, the one reflected in literature and music.
Modern Ireland is a dramatically different place. It’s been a haven for people of lots of different nations — well, up until this financial crisis. And we became quite a rich country as a result of our joining the EU. We’ve become much more cosmopolitan, and the power of the church has been reduced. When I was young, everybody went to Mass because they were afraid. The people who go now go because they want to.
You announced a few years ago that you wouldn’t be going on any more book tours. Why?
I’m not able to walk very well. I can’t fly long distances. Book promotion involves a lot of going into shopping malls, getting in and out of airports. I told my publishers I wasn’t going to do any more books. That was met with a glum silence. I said, “I can’t go out to promote them; it seems wrong to take the money and run.” They said, “You can take the money and run.”
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a book coming out called Heart and Soul. It’s set in, of all places, a heart-failure clinic. But don’t worry; I assure you everybody does well at the end, and nobody is clutching their chests.