This week, two of my favourite writers died

And I'd like to pay tribute to the very different ways in which they touched my life...
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Publish date:
August 2, 2012
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literature, obituaries, Novels, gore vidal, maeve binchey

I don’t know about you but for me the writers who had the strongest effect on me, in terms of my thinking and writing style, were the ones I encountered in my teens.

This week, two writers who I read prolifically during those years - Gore Vidal and Maeve Binchy - both passed away.

I got into Maeve Binchy first. At about the age of eleven, when I was first sent to an all-girls boarding school that I best remember for its foul atmosphere, and the fact that I didn’t stay long enough to be allowed into the huge library that was reserved for fifth and sixth formers only.

Maeve Binchy with her cat. Reading her novels could feel like getting a hug

Maeve Binchy, who died on Monday after a short illness, was immensely popular with girls throughout the first, second and third years at my school.

I think it was because, while hugely accessible, her prose depicted the complexities of female friendship, a ferociously bitchy minefield we were all desperately trying to navigate.

Looking at the list of novels she wrote earlier today, I realise I must have read almost all of them over the course of two or three years. Until her death was announced, I’d forgotten how comforting it could be to bask in the glow of her words during those often quite painful years of early adolescence.

It’s only now, reading the praise that’s been heaped upon her by other Irish writers, that I realise how truly talented one has to be to broach the subjects Binchy did in such nuanced ways.

Binchy gets slagged off a lot. Despite selling over 40 million books and having her work translated into 37 languages, she’s seen as a bit too twee to be taken seriously, not least ‘cos of the influence she’s had on writers of that most-maligned of genres, chick lit.

Binchy with the cast of the film Circle of Friends, which was adapted from her best-selling novel

Fuck that and all who repeat it. I respected her achievements, I enjoyed her work and I will miss hearing her on the radio, not least because her refusal to be ashamed at writing exclusively for women, and tackling difficult issues that are close to our hearts (adultery, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and so on. It’s a very long list and she was fearless about broaching them).

In doing so, and doing it as honestly and simply as she could, she managed to pre-empt feminist discussions of women’s experiences, and even what writers are trying to do when they produce IHTMs for xoJane. For that, I salute her.

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Gore Vidal was a different kettle of fish. I got into him aged 14 when I was recuperating from flu, and he was interviewed by Richard and Judy on daytime TV.

A more charismatic, intelligent man I had never seen, at least until I met my husband. YouYube any interview with him, and you can glimpse briefly the kind of troublemaker it took to spark my newly rebellious interests.

Gore Vidal, my favourite contrarian, photographed Bond villain style

My husband, incidentally, shares many an attractive trait with Vidal including political awareness, a quick wit, huge intelligence, and a habit of putting people down in the most amusing possible ways.

Vidal once, for example, called In Cold Blood writer Truman Capote 'a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.' But not before, rightly, labeling himself a 'gentleman bitch.'

A political activist, as well as a best-selling author, Vidal was openly gay, a harsh critic of anyone he disliked, and not shy of throwing his opinions into any arena.

The fact that he turned out to have been the screenwriter of many of the classic films my mother raised us on (as well as Caligula!) only made me admire him more.

I devoured his fiction, his essays, and even his plays. His stories about his friendships with the Kennedys thrilled me more than stories about their affairs with film stars ever could.

He (rightly, to my mind) loathed Ernest Hemingway - 'a joke', felt Capote, who he also labelled, 'a filthy animal that has found its way into the house,' to be a loathsome social climber (also right), and once got into a fist fight with Norman Mailer (I’m not even gonna try and defend this, but I won’t say that I wouldn’t have too).

The young Gore Vidal.

He was quick-witted, acid-tongued and one of the renegade few who always stuck to his guns no matter who his politics and arguments offended.

He was my first real literary love. The first writer whose politics and ideas sparked my own interests and imagination, and really made me think about the world outside my immediate circumstances.

Tremendously talented, he was much needed, and will be sorely missed.

Maeve Binchy 28 May 1940- 30 July 2012

Gore Vidal 3 October 1925- 31 July 2012