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A Novel Retirement

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Tour buses rumble through the quaint seaside town of Dalkey, Ireland—10 miles south of Dublin—which has become a haven for the wealthy and ultra-hip. Visitors crane their necks and point their cameras at the splendid houses of the likes of U2’s Bono, singers Lisa Stansfield and Enya and Crying Game director Neil Jordan. But one house on the tour is an unpretentious streetside cottage with a rose garden. And when tourists encounter its occupant, 6-ft.-tall Maeve Binchy, taking out the trash in a housecoat, Ireland’s most popular writer just smiles and waves hello. “People don’t believe I live here, because it’s so small,” says Binchy, 60. “All the Americans say, ‘Nonsense,’ because they’ve been past Danielle Steel’s mansion in San Francisco.”

It’s not that Binchy couldn’t afford to live in swankier digs. After all, her latest novel, Tara Road, was outsold in paperback last year in the U.K. only by that imp Harry Potter. In a recent poll, British readers ranked Binchy sixth on a list of their 50 favorite writers of all time, ahead of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. Binchy is self-deprecating about beating out the Bard. “A lot of my sales are at airports,” she points out. “You are not likely to buy King Lear for a pleasant read on a 2½-hour journey.”

Binchy’s work travels well indeed. She has sold 12 million books in the U.S., and all but one of her 10 novels have made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Tara Road got a bionic bounce last September when it was enshrined into Oprah‘s Book Club. (Binchy’s 1991 novel Circle of Friends was made into the romantic 1995 movie starring Minnie Driver.)

Binchy bristles a bit when critics call her books romance novels, which to her suggests sap, sex and living happily ever after. “I don’t think that being thin or rich or beautiful or married is the solution,” she says. “[In Circle of Friends], Benny does not become thin, she becomes confident. [In Tara Road], Ria does not get her husband back, she becomes confident.”

At the peak of her own confidence as a novelist, Binchy nonetheless has decided to quit. She made the announcement March 11 in her monthly column in The Irish Times, from which she is also retiring after 32 years. More than 800 readers wrote in to say don’t go. They’ve enjoyed her sly columns and warts-and-all profiles. “I used to interview authors, and sometimes they’d say, ‘I got to love my characters. I dreamed about them,’ ” she recounts wryly. “And I’d say, ‘Pass me the sick bag!’ ”

The truth, says Binchy, is that she’s tired. Last year she was on the road promoting her books for 111 days. “You can’t take people’s money for a book—in my case, huge money—and say, thank you very much and then put it in the bank,” she says. “You have to do book tours.” And Binchy doesn’t do book tours—or anything else—halfheartedly, says Christine Green, her agent of 20 years. At a signing in Belfast, for example, a man asked the author to inscribe a book for his wife, “To Beth, From Denis.” Binchy wouldn’t do it. “She stared at him for a moment,” Green says, laughing at the memory, “then said, ‘Oh, come now! You can do better than that! Beneath that sober suit there beats a heart of passion.’ ” Binchy took matters into her own hands, writing, “To Beth, your husband Denis asked me to sign this for you with fondest love!” Beth was so grateful she wrote to The Irish Times, “Ms. Binchy. Binchy knew the joy I would feel reading that inscription from my undemonstrative husband.”

Binchy inherited her high spirits from her mother, Maureen, who died of cancer in 1967 at age 55. “She was so funny,” Binchy says. “When she was on a bus, she wasn’t happy until the whole bus was like a cocktail party. And she knew all the traders in the market and would sit down on a box in her fur coat and smoke and hear about the women’s husbands who were in prison.” From her barrister father, William, who died of a heart attack in 1972 at 64, Binchy and her three younger siblings got their love of reading. Binchy quips that as a writer she suffered the great misfortune of a happy childhood. She drew on her own experience growing up in Dalkey in the 1940s and ’50s for Circle of Friends, in which her heroine, Benny, a big-hearted, big-boned optimist, gets the most popular guy. “I had two overprotective parents who thought their daughter was so dazzling that if I were out after midnight, it would be a temptation for all the men in Ireland to have their way with me,” she says. “It was flattering but bore very little relationship to reality.”

Her parents encouraged their children to tell stories at dinner, and, says her brother, William, 53, no one loved talking more than Binchy. “She speaks very fast and she writes very fast,” he says. There were tales to tell from her days at the girls-only Convent of the Holy Child, where the English nuns not only instilled confidence in their charges—”They told us we could do anything!” Binchy says—but warned them repeatedly about the base intentions of the opposite sex. “They told us there was an enormous amount of lust out there and we must beat it back and put it in its proper place.” At University College in Dublin, where she studied history and French, Binchy was prepared to take her chances, but discovered to her dismay that whatever lust the male students had was reserved for “football and pints,” she says.

Upon graduation in 1960, Binchy taught Latin and history in a Dublin grade school and spent her summers traveling the world on the cheap, often on the decks of cargo ships. So adored a teacher was she that parents pooled their money one summer to pay her way to Israel. (Binchy still has a soft spot for teachers, and when approached at signing events by a fan who also happens to be a teacher, she says, “You get an extra line!”) Binchy wrote back evocative missives about life on a kibbutz, and her proud father sent them to the Irish Independent newspaper, which ran them. She was hooked. It took five years, but in 1968, Binchy finally talked her way onto The Irish Times, in a job for which she says she was singularly unsuited. “I was the most unlikely women’s editor in the world,” Binchy says. “No interest in fashion, no interest in cooking.”

In 1970, on a reporting trip to London, she met Gordon Snell, a BBC broadcaster and children’s book author. Married in 1977, they write side by side in their study, and Snell, 67, accompanies his wife on many of her book tours. “They’re always together,” says Green. “But he doesn’t try to muscle in on what she does. Maeve’s very lucky.” As she well knows. “In all our years together we’ve only twice had rows,” Binchy says. “One was in the Los Angeles airport, about men not asking directions, and the other was about the law of copyright—we were in a Greek restaurant, and we were asked to leave.”

In 1980 they returned to Binchy’s beloved Dalkey and bought their cozy one-bedroom cottage, to which they have added a second-story study. (They also maintain a modest London home.) But in 1982 they were struggling to make their mortgage payments. It was then that Binchy sold her first novel, which she had written between newspaper assignments. The $170,000 she earned saved their home and launched her career.

Binchy believes the time has come to enjoy her golden years at home with her husband and their cat Sheelagh. She hasn’t given up writing completely—her final novel, Scarlet Feather, is due here in the spring—and she still plans to write short stories and a novella or two. But, Binchy swears, no more big books or book tours. “We have enough money,” she says. “We have no children, and we have two houses and two cars and pensions for when we are old. For God’s sake, what more could we want?”

Well, perhaps regular lunches at nearby Finnegan’s pub, where the couple have a reserved window seat so Binchy can people-watch while she and Gordon dine on fresh seafood and raise a toast.

Christina Cheakalos

Eileen Finan in Dalkey