Interview: Roddy Doyle

By Paula Morris In Books

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Roddy Doyle

The “key to getting on with life”, says Roddy Doyle, talking from his home in Dublin ahead of his appearance at this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, “is to embrace middle age, but not to let go of the kid. Never bow to political correctness, at least in the company of your own friends.”

Middle age and middle-aged friendships are on 54-year-old Doyle’s mind these days. His second short-story collection, Bullfighting, is largely set in the North Dublin territory familiar to his readers, but his lads are middle-aged now, with a new set of preoccupations and problems. They have distant and bewildering children, ageing parents, cracks in their marriages.

They suffer from loneliness and isolation, not to mention kidney stones and colon cancer. They measure their days in the acquisition (or disposal) of pets, or the dispatching of rats. They worry about unemployment and Ireland collapsing around them, its “lost decade” about to begin.

The title story, about a group of friends who head off on a men-only trip to Spain, perfectly depicts the awkward readjustments of middle age.

The men try to recapture the wonder and hedonism and bravado of a time before they had children and mortgages, and marriages “on the rocks”.

After an encounter with a bull with burning horns, the main character ends up on his knees, vomiting into the swimming pool. The “spark for these stories”, says Doyle, “was often personal”, although the vomiting scene, he insists, is “not based on anything autobiographical!”

Eight of the stories here were published over a seven-year period in the New Yorker. For a “voracious reader” like Doyle,  who admires the short fiction of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor, likes to keep up with contemporary literature and reads “one or two Dickens novels a year”, publication in the New Yorker, where “people really read the stories”, was a big deal. Every story acceptance was a pleasant surprise, he says.

“I like their rigorous editing. They come back at you with suggestions and ideas. They might want to straighten out a piece of dialogue, and I’d say no – it needed to sound like Dublin, not just someone anywhere in the English-speaking world.” But often the editing suggestions – “unique in my experience of magazines” – made the work sharper.

Doyle eventually decided to assemble the stories into a collection because “it just seemed to make sense. I hadn’t been paying attention to how many I’d done. They were in a file, and maybe I changed laptops or something, and had a look. There were about eight or nine stories broadly about middle-aged men. I thought I’d keep at it and see if I could write a few more, to see if there was a collection there.”

Bullfighting is a fine collection; often unsettling, often funny, and unsentimental. As the narrator of “The Slave” confesses, such a character “never wanted to be a man who wore slippers”, but there they are, the ones who wear the slippers and walk the dog, even if they’re also sending texts and blasting out the Cure. Too many men, Doyle thinks, “grow out of friendship, become isolated. Men are just as afflicted by isolation and loneliness as women.”

Doyle is no stranger to isolation – “If the house here is empty, I can go all day without contact”, aside from an occasional email – but the week we speak he’ll spend three days at Fighting Words, the creative writing centre he set up in 2008, inspired by Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia initiative in the US. The centre offers free classes for young writers and training for teachers.

Doyle hopes Fighting Words will be “an example of how creative writing and creativity generally could be approached in schools, rather than bound by the timetable and measured by examinations.

The notion that changing your mind is a good thing, and that out of a day’s failure a better idea might emerge – I’d love if that trickles through from our premises. “I was at a primary school, a lovely one in the inner city, and on the wall of a classroom there were rules for writing stories. God, Jesus, before they get a chance to write, they’re being told the rules. Penning a story has always been a discovery for me.”

It’s unsurprising education is still a passion of Doyle’s. He worked as a high-school teacher until June 1993, a month after the publication of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the novel that went on to win the Booker Prize and become an international best-seller.

He had no particular premonition of Paddy Clarke’s success; he’d handed in his notice the year before. “I’d written four novels in a relatively short time,” he says, referring to the much-loved Barrytown trilogy of The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van – all of which were made into films – as well as Paddy Clarke.

“I was working on a film script and a TV series, so I wasn’t worried that things would dry up. I wasn’t worried about the financial consequences, but maybe I was worried that I would run out of things to write.” The critical and commercial success of Paddy Clarke made Doyle a celebrity in Ireland, but he soon discovered how easy it was to slide from fame to infamy. A few critical words about James Joyce – “like blasphemy”, sighs Doyle – were headline news.

And in 1994, when his TV series Family aired, Doyle’s status dropped from national treasure to villain. “I got a lot of hate mail, death threats. A lot of attention I wouldn’t have been looking for. For the first weeks after it, I didn’t want to walk down to the shop to buy milk. I didn’t want people stopping me to tell me they liked or didn’t like it.”

In that pre-internet era, “way more people watched Family than would watch a TV series today. Way more than would ever read a book. So it had an impact that it wouldn’t have today.” Despite the reaction – including accusations that it was an attack on the Irish family – Doyle declares himself “very proud of it. If I could pick one thing that I’m proud of in my work, it’s episode four of Family.”

One of the characters he created for the series, battered wife Paula Spencer, became the main character in two subsequent novels. “I didn’t set out to shock,” Doyle insists, suggesting that in the 18 years since Family was broadcast Ireland has experienced “the lifting of stones” about many issues, like the Church’s cover-up of child abuse, which weren’t part of the conversation in 1994.

These days, he suggests, “people are more open to the notion that things happen behind closed doors”. Doyle, who says he’s “always been happily Irish”, believes Irish society has become generally “more open, less religious” over the past decade. But Ireland’s spectacular boom-and-bust shadows many of the stories in Bullfighting, and the mood of Dublin right now, he admits, is “hard to gauge. If you’re visiting Dublin for a couple of days and listen to the news, you’d think things were grim. In some ways they are. But life goes on.”

Aside from the recent 15 years of economic boom, Doyle suggests, most of his life has “felt like recession. That was normal life in Ireland. But young people haven’t known it in the past. How will they cope with it?” He has no kind words for the Irish media, which have been drumming on about “banks and austerity” for the last four years and looking for every possible sentimental angle. Over Christmas, Irish airports were thronged with reporters in search of weeping parents waiting to meet their expat children.  “As if this was a tragedy,” says Doyle. “And a new story. Young Irish people seeking work elsewhere!”

Since Bullfighting was published last year in the UK, Doyle has published his seventh book for young people, A Greyhound of a Girl. He’s said he doesn’t believe in the idea of writing for a specific audience, but admits the world of a children’s book “tends to be a bit more linear. You can play with that, interrupt it, but story, plot, is more important than in the adult books I’ve written.” Doyle also concedes he has “less freedom in the way people speak. The conversations in [the story] ‘Bullfighting’ could never happen in a children’s book!”

But he has more freedoms of another kind. “In my first three books for children, I had a dog who talked. That was great. I never had a wish to have a dog that talked in an adult book. But in a children’s book it’s a little bit of Monty Python. A bit of madness. It was lovely to do that.” A Greyhound of a Girl has “a ghost in it, and I enjoyed that, too”.

There’s even a story about vampirism in Bullfighting, initially written for the all-star Stories anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. “I live near Bram Stoker’s house and I went a bit further with it than I thought.” The story “Blood” is positioned exactly in the middle of Bullfighting as, Doyle jokes, “the half-time entertainment”. He’s working on another novel now. Can he talk about it? “No. It falls apart whenever I do.” 

BULLFIGHTING (Jonathan Cape, $37.99) and A GREYHOUND OF A GIRL (Marion Lloyd, $25), by Roddy Doyle; Doyle will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, May 9-13, the full line-up will be available here.

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