Dr. Clara Casey has been offered the thankless job of establishing the underfunded clinic and agrees to take it on for a year. She has plenty on her plate already—two difficult adult daughters and the unwanted attentions of her ex-husband—but she assembles a wonderfully diverse staff devoted to helping their demanding, often difficult patients.
Before long the clinic is established as an essential part of the community, and Clara must decide whether or not to leave a place where lives are saved, courage is rewarded, and humor and optimism triumph over greed and self-pity.
Heart and Soul is Maeve Binchy at her storytelling best.A Conversation with Maeve Binchy
Q: Heart and Soul is set in a heart clinic. Why did you choose this setting and how does it influence the story? MB: I set Heart and Soul in a heart clinic because I attend one myself. I have always found it a place of hope and optimism where they teach you how to manage your heart disease and not to be afraid of it. When I was young if anyone had a heart attack we thought it was goodbye. But not nowadays.
It seemed like a good place to set a story, a place where people were slowly getting courage to live their lives to the fullest. And I wanted to make it cheerful and positive and funny, which is what we all need.
Q: The book centers on Clara, the doctor in charge of the clinic, but the book also follows quite an ensemble of characters with intertwining stories. How does your work within the discipline of short story writing contribute to your work within the novel genre? MB: I like to concentrate on the bit part players, the supporting cast as well as the main characters, so it’s often interesting to pause and follow somebody home to a different life while still connecting them to the main story. Then when that person appears again it is like meeting an old friend.
Because I do write short stories I suppose I find it easy to slip into someone’s life for a short time and then leave.
Q: New characters are joined by a few from past books, including Nora from Evening Class, Maud and Simon from Scarlet Feather, and Quentins itself (if I can call a restaurant a character). How did you decide which characters to bring back to life? MB: I decided to bring back characters whose lives were not finished and tidied up. I was even wondering myself would Vonni ever find her long lost son? Would Signora be happy when she married Aidan? How the twins Maud and Simon would turn out when they stopped being twelve year olds. I wondered would poor Father Flynn, who was so basically decent, survive in the parish where they were all obsessed with the Holy Well or would he get a more relevant posting. I so enjoyed meeting them all again and I think the readers like it too.
Q: Irish culture is known for its storytelling, both in the oral and written tradition. Do you also enjoy telling stories out loud? Are you the life of the dinner party? MB: The Irish do love telling stories and we are suspicious of people who don’t have long complicated conversations. There used to be a rule in Etiquette Books that you invited four talkers and four listeners to a dinner party. That doesn’t work in Ireland because nobody knows four listeners. I do talk a lot at dinner parties--I hope not too much but then I love other people to talk also. I am edgy and anxious when people just nod and smile instead of having views on every subject under the sun.
Q: Your books capture the culture of Ireland. Although Ireland has not escaped the recent economic downturn, how has Ireland’s rapid growth--finally joining the ranks of the world’s wealthiest countries following centuries of poverty--influenced your storytelling? MB: Ireland changed a great deal in my lifetime. People became much more wealthy because of being members of the European community. The influence of the Catholic Church changed--once we feared the clergy and were in awe of them and now it is much easier and more communal. Once no foreigners came to work here since there wasn’t enough work for ourselves, but now it’s multicultural and you could hear twenty languages being spoken all around you. It has been a great help to the country and given us all more confidence.
Q: Your first book was published in 1982. Has your writing process changed over the years? How do you continue to challenge yourself? MB: When I started writing I used to concentrate on the 50s and 60s when I was young, but I needed to try to become more modern and catch up on today’s Ireland. So I started to watch the young Irish people and talk to them as if they were a different tribe, which in many ways they are!
I discovered that they are not so different to my generation, they have more freedom, more responsibility and more courage than we had but they also have areas of uncertainty and unrequited love as we all did.
Q: What are you working on next? MB: I am working at the moment on writing a three page outline for another novel. I must make it interesting enough for the publishers to like it and give me the go ahead. It should be in the same style as the books I have already written but not visit the same topics and repeat myself.
Q: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits? MB: A typical day is breakfast (grapefruit and Irish soda bread and tea), then on to a big bright work room upstairs. [My husband and I] both try to be at our desks there at 8:30 am and we work until 1 pm. This includes answering mail and filing. We have a secretary one day a week. Then when work is over we have lunch and play a game of chess--we play seven days a week and have been doing so for over thirty years and we are still hopeless at it but love it to bits.
Q: With two writers in one household, do you and your husband give each other feedback or work separately? MB: We have one long desk in our study upstairs--Gordon [Snell] is at one end and I am at the other. He writes his children’s books and verses and I do my stories. We always read each other our work in the afternoon. The rules are that we must be honest. No false praise. We allow the other ten minutes sulking time if we don’t like what we’ve heard. But then we have to accept or reject the criticism. No one is allowed to brood over it!
Q: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? MB: I have just begun Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which seems terrific. There are so many but off the top of my head here are some names of authors I love: Anne Tyler, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, and David Baldacci.
(Photo © David Timmons)