MAEVE Binchy, a larger-than-life author and journalist, whose novels about love and romance in Ireland sold more than 40 million copies in 37 languages, has died in hospital in Dublin. She was 72.
Among the most popular of her novels were Light a Penny Candle (1982), Echoes (1985), Circle of Friends (1990) and Tara Road (1998). The last of these, the story of two women who exchange homes in Ireland and the United States for a magical summer, was promoted by Oprah Winfrey, ensuring runaway sales.
In 1995, Circle of Friends, about childhood friends from the village of Knockglen, was made into a film starring Chris O'Donnell and Minnie Driver. Tara Road and the short story How About You? also became feature films, and The Lilac Bus (1984) and Echoes were made into television films.
Binchy's novels dealt with issues such as betrayal and child-parent relationships, tensions between rural and urban life, and the transformations in Irish life in the late 20th century, and she left sex scenes to the imagination. This formula made her an international bestseller and put her in the top 10 of Britain's most popular writers.
Her fellow novelist, Anne Enright, said Binchy had an unsurpassed grasp of what makes a good story and that reading her writings was like being with a good friend: "Wise, generous, funny and full-hearted, she was the best of good company on the page and off it."
Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, the eldest of four children. She recalled how as a child she was "fat and hopeless at games" but very happy, as her parents "thought all their geese were swans". She went to convent school in the nearby village of Killiney, graduated from University College, Dublin, and worked for a time as a teacher, writing short stories during her holidays, before joining the Irish Times in 1968.
To her readers around the world Binchy was a warm-hearted, compassionate novelist. But to those of her generation in Ireland she was also the funny, irreverent Irish Times columnist whose highly descriptive take on Irish life transformed the nature of colour writing in newspapers. Her early articles became popular for "puncturing pomposity".
In 1972, she was posted to the Irish Times London office, where her account of the wedding of Princess Anne to Captain Mark Phillips the following year was so notably lacking in the conventional reverent prose ("The bride looked as edgy as if it were the Badminton Horse Trials and she was waiting for the bell to gallop off") that it unleashed an avalanche of letters from readers outraged and delighted in equal numbers.
Her talent for storytelling was such that she wrote just the way she spoke. She would type at speed in the London bureau, hand the first draft to the telex operator and head off for one of her long lunches. She dared not reread the copy, she said, or she would spend the day rewriting it. It was this natural fluency that enabled her to produce 16 novels, several collections of short stories and a play in the last 30 years of her life.
In London, in 1977, Binchy married the writer and former BBC World Service broadcaster Gordon Snell, and they maintained homes in both London and Dublin before settling permanently in Ireland.
Binchy had many friends at The Age because the London bureaus of The Irish Times and The Age were on the same floor in The Times building in Grays Inn Road.
In the late 1970s, a group of these London admirers arranged for her to spend three months in Melbourne as a guest columnist on The Age while writing her regular column for The Irish Times from Australia.
Binchy loved Melbourne, and with her husband, Gordon, she returned to Australia many times over the next 30 years, sometimes to promote her latest novel and sometimes simply to spend time with old friends.
She wrote that, like her parents, Gordon believed "I could do anything, and I started to write fiction and that took off fine."
Their Georgian cottage in Dalkey was so unpretentious that when a Hollywood producer came to discuss filming Circle of Friends, he asked about the location of her "real house".
The couple wrote together in the same room, an arrangement that worked well because, as she put it, she was a lark and he was an owl, though mainly because of the unabashed love and affection they showed for each other. Two years ago, she explained in the Irish Independent why Irish people are thought of as being good writers: "We don't like pauses and silences, we prefer talk and information and conversations that go on and on. So that means we are halfway there."
In Ireland it is her warm personality as much as her books that will be remembered, and everyone, it seems, has a fond encounter or conversation with her to tell. One of my own relates to an episode in the 1970s when I rather disloyally sent to Private Eye, which paid #5 for accounts of journalistic cock-ups, a cutting from the Irish Times which had mixed up photographs of the head of the KGB and Private Eye's editor, Richard Ingrams. The day it was published, I met Binchy and asked her if she had seen Private Eye. "I have," she said, "And I got my fiver in the post this morning."
Binchy was a wonderful humorist, often telling hilarious anecdotes, many against herself. She related, for instance, how when the US first lady, Barbara Bush, invited her to a lunch with other writers in the White House and everyone was asked what they would like to drink, she requested a white wine rather than her usual gin and tonic, and then watched in dismay as the others primly ordered mineral water and a full bottle of wine was produced for the one rather mortified Irish guest.
Binchy announced her retirement some years ago, but the books kept coming. Her 17th, A Week in Winter, will be published in October. She won several honours for her writing, among them a lifetime achievement award at the British Book Awards in 1999 and the Irish Pen/AT Cross literary award in 2007 for a lifetime of literary achievement.
Many have spoken of Binchy's generosity of spirit, but she was also recklessly generous. When she received a substantial payment from the paperback rights to Light a Penny Candle, her first novel, she distributed much of it to family, friends and colleagues (enough to pay my mortgage for a month). When she became rich and famous, she replied to every letter asking for help, advice or money.
Shortly before her death, Binchy told the Irish Times: "I've been very lucky and I have a happy old age with good friends and family still around." In truth, she suffered terribly in her last years from arthritis. She is survived by her husband, Gordon, her brother, William, and her sister, Joan.