Keith Duggan, Interview with Roddy Doyle, in The Irish Times (21 Feb. 2009)

Details: Keith Duggan, ‘A fully anointed man of letters’ [interview with Roddy Doyle], in The Irish Times (21 Feb. 2009), Weekend Review, p.7 [with full-length photo port by Brenda Fitzsimons].

IN LONDON’S fabled publishing houses, one expression above all captures the heartless essence of what awaits the unsolicited manuscripts posted by the unknowns in the brave hope of discovery.

“In those days they had this rather awful phrase,” Roddy Doyle smiles. “‘The slush pile.’ And it was a lady whose name I should remember now that picked it up at Heinemann and gave it to Dan Franklin, who 10 books later is still my editor and publisher.”

The Dublin writer is talking about the transformation of his iconic first book, The Commitments, from a project of pure self-belief into the raucous and highly popular comic novel that would, in turn, become one of the most beloved and successful Irish films ever made. It is fascinating to think now about the quality and origin of the many doomed scripts that Doyle’s own debut lay among.

In retrospect, that his book should be rescued from the shredder seems an appropriate beginning to a literary career that has subsequently proved not so much charmed as irrepressible (the planets were aligning in all sorts of ways for Doyle during this time: he met his wife, Belinda Moller, when she was publicising the film version of The Commitments).

From the kudos and rampant sales success of the Barrytown trilogy, Doyle responded to early and sometimes sniffy assertions about the literary veracity of his books by scooping the Man Booker Prize in 1993 with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Since then, he has continued on a prolific writing journey that has earned him devotees around the world and the usual dosage of singing praise and venomous rebuke.

In the brutal world of publishing, in which profit and loss are the ultimate arbiters of quality and the business of book-selling is about as romantic as stacking tins of beans on shelves, Doyle’s name has long been the gold standard for cash. And on Friday evening, when he will be conferred with the prestigious Irish Pen award at a ceremony in the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, it would seem that he has come full circle, from singular outsider to fully anointed man of letters - whether he approves or not.

“I actually didn’t do anything to change all that other than keep working,” he says in mild protest. “My feeling about that spell of a few years when all those things were happening - winning the Booker and Family being broadcast, those films coming one after another - is overwhelmingly positive. The babies are huge, hulking teenagers now but other than that, life is much the same in many ways.”

The couple have three children whose names he prefers to withhold - “I don’t mind, but they would kill me. They hate being appendages.”

It is a crisp, spring lunch time when we meet in the class room of the Fighting Words project, which Doyle has helped to get up and running. The brand new building is in the courtyard of Behan Square on the Jones’s Road, Dublin and across the road, the Republic of Ireland is due to play Georgia in a qualifying match that evening, but there is no sign of life yet in Croke Park.

The design of the classrooms is wonderful, with revolving bookcases that lead through to a bright, open classroom. Although the idea of a project like this had been nagging Doyle for a number of years, it was crystallised after he visited the 826 Valencia project set up by his friend Dave Eggers in San Francisco. “It is not a direct lift because the culture is very different but the spirit would be similar.”

Doyle is wary about overstating his own role here - he will retreat into the routine of his writing life once he is content that the engine of the project is running smoothly. But for now, he gives the unmistakable impression of a man who is relishing a return to the classroom. He cannot resist pointing out that large letters have been carved into the design at the side of the desks and looks sheepishly proud of them. It is easy to see why a teacher in 1980s Ireland would be tickled by such a bright and encouraging design quirk: whatever Fighting Words is by nature, it is definitely not old school.

It is half shocking to hear Doyle talk of himself as being “at the age of 50”. With the trademark shaven skull, round-rimmed glasses of light steel and the studded earring that has been a constant adornment since his teaching days - famously earning him what is surely one of the all-time great schoolyard nick names, “Punk” Doyle - he has changed little. He is lean and moves youthfully and is one of those men that could be any age.

Even though he left education after the storming success of Paddy Clarke, he has clearly retained the hard-won virtues of the classroom. He listens to questions and observations that he must have heard dozens of times down the years with absolute patience and courtesy. He is succinct and warm in his replies and is seemingly incapable of any show of preciousness about his own work. He talks about his books in a way that hints that he would not be surprised if you had read all of them (as tens of thousands of people have) but equally, not at all perturbed if you had read none.

YOU CAN GUESS the kind of teacher he would have been: capable of having a laugh and capable of shutting you up fast. He wrote with prodigious energy while teaching in Kilbarrack in Dublin - “early in the morning before work, sometimes in a corner of the staff room, I just found ways to get the writing done” - and the teacher’s sensibility stayed with him after he left. No airs and all graces, as they say.

In fact, the morning after he won the Booker prize, he was on a flight back home from Heathrow, shying away from the hoopla. He laughs now when he recalls that one of the more bizarre publicity stunts requested of him was that he appear in a photograph with Vintage Crop, whose victory in the Melbourne Gold Cup had been the toast of Ireland.

“Least the horse had done something to win,” he laughs. “I had written this book and it was out there by the time of the Booker prize and I had already done a lot of talking about it, so I felt that was enough.”

He is ambivalent about the concept of literary prizes: the idea of a “winning” book is, he agrees, somehow spurious. But then again, it is a nice feeling when your name is called out.

“I think I won 3-2 or something. On penalties! I would have been disappointed had I not won it but then, had Carol Shields’s book would have found that easy to accept because it is a fantastic book. I suppose my feeling about awards is that they are very flattering and it is nice to have your work acknowledged You can’t allow them to become all that impor tans to you but it is nice to get them. Anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth.”

Doyle’s Booker success marked the high-point of a series of near misses by Irish authors short-listed for the celebrated prize: John Banville in 1989 (The Book of Evidence); John McGahern (Amongst Women) and Brian Moore (Lies of Silence) in 1990; William Trevo (Reading Turgenev) in 1991; and Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy) in 1992. Doyle was 35 when he won and reflecting now, he does not feel that the success happened too fast.

“I never felt that. You know, it was seven years since my first book. And The Van had been short listed [in 1991] as well. So it was okay.”

HOWEVER, THAT award did confirm tha Doyle had the rare gift for producing book capable of punching their weight as works of literature, while selling at a rate similar to Take That singles. Acceptance from the literary establishment was slow coming and was not an approval that Doyle ever sought. He tries to treat reviews of his work lightly but admits that the complaints that his early work was not “real” literature did sting.

“Of course on a human level, it was hurtful to hear that. That whole debate was going on when the books were selling well - and that probably made it worse. You know, how can it be literature if people are reading it? Some times one feels more vulnerable than at other: But I hope I wouldn’t allow myself to be over influenced by either positive or negative responses. Reviews don’t cause me any real anxiety. But I do recall reading the odd bad review and feeling bad about it - until I put it in perspective. Something along the lines of: well, f**k them. It is a bit like meeting someone aggressive - it rattles you a little bit and then you calm down.”

The bruising that Doyle received then probably stemmed from both a genuine critical evaluation of a sensationally popular new voice as well as old-fashioned literary snobbery. In any event, it was just raised voices at afternoon tea in comparison to the furore caused by his screenplay for Family. Doyle’s four-part drama, produced and screened on both RTÉ and BBC, pushed the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable content for the State broadcaster.

It aired just three nights after Michael Flatley hot-stepped his way into the national psyche with Riverdance. “He took everyone way up,” Doyle grins now. “And Family brought them right back down again.”

Family was an unflinching portrait of the lives of a nuclear inner-city Dublin family cowering under the rule of Charlo Spencer - alcoholic, abusive, volatile and, as played by Sean McGinley, a compelling television creation. One million people watched the first episode: 150 viewers called RTÉ immediately afterwards. Throughout that month of May, Family dominated print, airwave and pub debate. The most serious allegation it faced was that it demeaned the residents of Ballymun, whose surroundings bore a stark resemblance to the fictive Barrytown.

Doyle became accustomed to receiving hate mail in the post. After he wrote a letter of reply to a denunciation by Eamon Dunphy in the Sunday Independent, the paper published his address. For a few weeks, his hallway became a sorting office. He received letters from women expressing thanks, but in the main, the tone and anger of those letters complained about his betrayal of the very class that he had championed with such jocular warmth and charm in his early books.

In so far as the traditional Irish class structure goes, Doyle believes that his fascination is concentrated in “the grey zone between middle class and working class”. From Family he followed Paula Spencer through two powerful novels. If the wisecracking and energy of the Barrytown trilogy and the backdrop of Ireland’s World Cup capers seemed to march in perfect step with the mood of the nation circa 1990-94, then Doyle’s later writing seemed to take him to a lonelier place. Whether the bleaker truths of life as lived by Paula Spencer - or even the rambunctious crusade through 1916 Dublin and jazz age America as embarked on by Henry Smart in his historical sagas - quite fit in with the official version of the newly minted “Roaring Ireland” was not something that concerned Doyle. He simply kept writing the material that he wanted to write about, and moved with the “new” Ireland on his own terms.

“Well, in Paula Spencer, for example, she is living in similar conditions to those she lived in before. But her sisters have come into money. So there is talk of wine, one of them has just bought an apartment in Bulgaria. And I am not critical of that at all. In fact, I think there is a certain wonder in that people who were unemployed at one end of the decade were looking at property supplements by the far end of it. I am not going to change my mind about that because things have gone wrong. But I remember one review which was quite disparaging in the sense that it suggested that those days were gone - that the struggle to fill the fridge was an old story that never happened any more. For a lot of people those struggles were always there. They never went away.”

The crushing truth of that has never been more relevant or stinging than now, when the fantasy of Ireland of the riches has been stripped bare. Doyle is curmudgeonly when it comes to celebrating the joys of the last 10 years. But he comes from that generation for whom “the first televeision brought into the house” was the last word in luxury. He has laready written what is a tribute to his parents, titled Rory and Ita, and, when asked about his general politeness in these interview situations, he shrugs that he was “reared well”.

WITH STUDENTS beginning to arrive for his afternoon class, he talks of Maeve Brennan, the Irish short-story writer who was a first cousin of his mother’s. Brennan’s life was novelistic in its own right: she was gifted, she published terrific stories in the New Yorker and, to top it all, she took a hauntingly beautiful photograph. She became a star at that magazine and in Manhattan literary circles of the middle- to late-20th century but endured a reclusive and eccentric old age.

“I was fond of Maeve but I never really got to know her,” Doyle says cautiously. “She stayed with us for several months around 1973. She came with a view to moving back here but obviously did not. And she lost touch after that. If our lives were running parallel, I don’t think we would have had an awful lot in common beyond the family connection. And perhaps that vague affinity that writers feel for each other - in the absence of other colleagues.”

Doyle keeps his writing life as simple and grounded as Maeve Brennan’s was intense and melodramatic. He admits he has no time for the fabled boozy literary cliques of Dublin, London or New York. “To be honest, I find them quite tiresome, those circles ... they were boring. Because you can get a lot done in a good afternoon besides boozing.”

But he was “shocked and delighted” when Maeve Brennan’s work was rediscovered a decade ago. He considers her stories a marvel and his own stories now feature regularly on the pages of the magazine where his glamorous relative once reigned supreme.

Two o’clock: our coffee cups are empty and a small band of students are waiting nearby. He says he will enjoy the evening of the Pen awards and may well watch his Ps and Qs when it comes to the gods of Irish writing - a few years ago, he was accused of blaspheming James Joyce’s masterwork at a public forum in New York. Doyle throws his eyes to heaven. What was intended as a light-hearted remark - that Ulysses could use an editor - was picked up and printed as a rant.

“Ah look, it was just great fun.”

Then the eyes narrow in mischief.

“Although I do think ... it’s a great, great book. Don’t get me wrong,” he pleads. “It is a great book. It could have done with a bit of tweaking. If I had written it ...”

He laughs out loud and nods to the kids: time for class. After these few weeks, he will return to writing the last of his Henry Smart books. The work keeps coming. Sometimes he wonders what would have happened if that first book of his had been lost in the slush pile. “Would I have had the gumption to go on and publish The Van by myself? I dunno. Because after all, that is just vanity publishing.”

Vanity is about the last word you would associate with Roddy Doyle. He wants to write until the end and, as a cheerful atheist, breezily claims to have no fear of bowing out - or about how long the books will live.

“No. No. Then, it is easy for me to say because every book I have written is still on print and on the shelves. Look, it is a nice, vague thought that when my children are middle-aged, say, they can go into a bookshop and look for their dead dad’s books and that they will be there. But beyond that, no. Then, the National Library asked for my archive and I gave it to them. I could have put a match to it. So ... it doesn’t really interest me. I suppose that is because I know that I am not going to be looking down from a cloud.”

Unless, of course, it turns out that he is wrong. Roddy Doyle thinks about this for a moment. “Well. I suppose. There’s always a first time.”

[ close ] [ top ]