Here is Maeve Binchy greeting a visitor to her home outside Dublin: "Hello how are you come in the house was built a hundred years ago was your flight late? Nearly always is these days do you want some coffee? I have it made."

She is just as her readers might imagine her—substantial (6' plus), cheerful and never, ever at a loss for words. Luckily, Binchy, 51, is as adept at speedy writing as she is at fast talking, a gift that has helped make her, after just eight years on the job. one of the better-known writers of popular fiction. In addition to three collections of stories and a weekly column for the Irish Times, she has produced four fat, romance-filled novels (Light a Penny Candle, Firefly Summer, Echoes and Silver Wedding) that have sold millions in paperback and charmed the critics. Her latest offering, Circle of Friends, recently became the first Binchy novel to crack the New York Times hardcover best-seller list.

"I write about what I know best," says Binchy. And what she knows best is Ireland. Binchy was born in the village of Dalkey, where she lives today. The eldest child of a lawyer and a nurse, she attended Catholic girls' school ("where the nuns told us the world was full of lust and it was waiting for us," she says, smiling) and then University College, Dublin. It is that sheltered youth that she drew on for Circle. The book's heroine, Benny Hogan, is, as Binchy was, "large, square" and overprotected. "Like Benny," Binchy says, "I got to university and had friends who were normal. They weren't trying to tear the clothes off me."

Upon graduating, Binchy became a teacher. Then, at 23, she lost her Catholic faith. She was visiting the site of the Last Supper, an unremarkable cave in Jerusalem, when suddenly, she says, "I thought, it's not true, none of it. There I was, believing my life was preordained, and suddenly I found out it wasn't. I think if I still believed in God, I'd still be a schoolteacher."

Instead, she began submitting articles on teaching and travel to the Irish Times and in 1968 was hired as women's editor. She turned to fiction at the suggestion of Gordon Snell, the writer she married in 1977. Light a Penny Candle, about a lifelong friendship, was published in 1983 to warm reviews and hot sales. "I was lucky to be 43 when I became successful," Binchy says. "I didn't want yachts or diamonds. To me money means I don't have to worry about the phone being cut off."

Today Binchy and Snell, 58, who have no children, divide their time between London and Dalkey. Though Binchy says she writes to entertain, she favors stories "about strong women." A reviewer once called her "a quiet feminist," and she has that clipping still. Does she keep it because it recognizes her political side? Not exactly. "I keep it," Binchy says, "because I was so pleased that anyone would call me quiet!"