Roddy Doyle is one of the world’s best-known and most admired writers. He’s the multi-award winning author of eight novels, all of them critical and popular successes, including, the Barrytown Trilogy: The Commitments (filmed in 1991), The Snapper and The Van. Doyle’s extraordinary novel, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha (1993) is the bestselling winner in the history of the Man Booker Prize. His next novel, due out in April 2010, is called The Dead Republic, and it's the final book in The Last Roundup trilogy. This interview for The Manchester Review took place in late January 2010.
M.J. Hyland: In a remarkable documentary/interview, shown recently on the BBC, the pianist, Alice Sommer-Herz (then aged 98) was asked if she still practices the piano every day. She said, ‘But, of course. This is my food.’ And, by that, I suppose she meant many things, including that she depends on music and that she couldn’t stand to live without it.
Do you practice every day? Could you stand to live without writing books and plays?
Roddy Doyle: I never practice, if by that we mean writing for the sake of it, to improve or hone the craft – train, like an athlete. I just write, pick up where I left off the day before, the novel or the story or screenplay, whatever I’m working on. I work Monday to Friday, unless there’s a deadline flying towards me; then I’ll work weekends. I love what I do, and I think about it a lot. I’m not sure if I’m ever properly switched off. I work quite hard. But, as for not being able to stand life without writing, if I begin to think along those lines it just feels like sentimentality, or self-importance beyond the call of duty. Surviving without a book to read would be much more difficult than life without a book to write.
MJH: Could you tell me a little more about this? About why it is that you love what you do; what it is about writing that you enjoy? And, are there things about the act of writing, the slog of it, the painstaking editing, or anything else about the life of a writer that you don’t love?
RD: I love writing a sentence, examining it, writing the next one, seeing how they work together, moving on, making slight changes. I love when I look up at the screen and I find that it’s blank: I’ve written a page – it’s a tiny triumph. I love watching as the story builds – a sentence that confirms it’s going to be story, an idea for the title, a burst of dialogue that makes the characters seem familiar, or unfamiliar, or interesting – brings them to life. It’s the daily writing life. I like writing scripts; I love the shape of the page, the dialogue running down the middle – I think it’s beautiful. I enjoy editing when I finish the first draft. I hack away at the words and sentences and paragraphs. The more painstaking editing – third and fourth drafts – I find very hard; the final decisions. It’s getting harder. I don’t remember being remotely as anxious when I was younger. I blame my kids; they’ve beaten the arrogance out of me.
MJH: Sommer-Herz described giving concerts in Theresianstadt (the concentration camp where she was held for three years); how she played Schubert’s piano sonata in B major, in an icy-cold hall, and she said: ‘I remember thinking, if Hitler would sit here, he would perhaps hate less, with these two bars - with these two bars - which are so grandiose.’ Sommer-Herz also said that music is the best gift given to human beings (and, by extension, the best gift given back to the world by talented musicians). I think of the gift of great story-telling in similar terms. Do you agree? Or do you make less lofty claims for the power and worth of the writers’ art?
RD: I love the idea of changing the course of history by reading The Commitments to Hitler, in 1939. I’d have been happy to do it, to be parachuted behind enemy lines with a paperback and cyanide pills. But I don’t think it would have worked. I think story telling is vital, but not necessarily my own story telling. The ‘is it vital?’ decision is the reader’s, not the writer’s. I’ve met women who’ve told me that The Woman Who Walked Into Doors changed their lives; it’s a humbling, wonderful, embarrassing experience. But I’m sure there are thousands of people who’ve fallen asleep reading my work. A few weeks ago, a young man told me that The Snapper was shite. At the moment I think the best gift given to human beings, or, at least, me, is Didier Drogba.
MJH: How has your fame and success impacted on your life as a writer? Has it, perhaps, changed the way you approach your work, or the early impulse or intention behind your work?
RD: I was in India last week, at the Jaipur Literary Festival. I was invited because the work I’ve done has brought success, whatever it is, and fame. So it would be daft for me to claim that fame hasn’t impacted on my life. It has. But when I’m in my office, working – I don’t think it gets in the way. I still feel the same anxiety as I work, the same excitement, the same determination to do as good, as clear, as original a job as I can. I still hate handing over completed work. I still feel the validity of unfinished work crumbling away when I discuss it with anyone. I’ve a novel out in a few months; I’m as excited about it as I recall feeling when my first book was published. I’m about to start a new one; I feel as giddy and as uncertain as I always have been. If I approach work differently, it’s down to experience, I think, not success. Although, that experience – nine novels etc – is probably a reasonable measure of success.
MJH: In 2009, you founded Fighting Words, the creative writing centre in Dublin, where free writing classes are held for youngsters. Could you tell me a little about Fighting Words and why you started it?
RD: I co-founded Fighting Words with Sean Love, who used to be the Director of Amnesty (Ireland). I suppose, once a teacher always a teacher – it’s a congenital ailment. I was in San Francisco about six years ago, and I went down to see Dave Egger’s centre, 826valenica. I thought it was fantastic, so simple and effective. I thought it would be great to do something similar in Dublin but did nothing about it until the next time I visited San Francisco, and this time I stayed a few days and took notes. I chatted to Sean about it when I got back to Dublin, and we almost immediately started wandering the inner city, a couple of times a week, looking for possible premises. I think I did it – and do it – because I find it exhilarating, to encounter these children and young people outside the context of school – although they come in school groups. A friend of mine, a film director, was involved in a summer camp we ran, on scripting, then making films with mobile phones, and he said that watching the kids work reminded him of why he’d become involved in film making in the first place. I feel the same way. I watched a session recently, when the kids, aged about ten, were asked what made a good story. This little girl put up her hand and said, ‘Conflict and resolution’, which was hilarious but also a bit frightening. The school system insists that children somehow ‘understand’ what makes a story before they let them write and discover for themselves. At Fighting Words we encourage them to write first, and then look at what they’ve done. I sit every Wednesday afternoon with a group of teenagers who just write. It’s called Write Club. They write; I write. I wander around and chat to them about what they’re doing – fantasy novels, scripts. I go back to my desk and write. It’s a great way to spend the afternoon.
MJH: Could you tell me a little about your new novel, The Dead Republic (which is due out in April 2010) and something about the writing of it? I’m interested in the ‘aboutness’ of the book – the subject matter - but also the mechanics of its making. How long it took, whether it came easily, or whether it was particularly difficult to write; whether you were working on other books at the same time, and, if it was difficult, why?
RD: The final part of a trilogy is always going to be tricky, I suppose. Here’s the gamble: are there three solid books in this character? Am I capable of sustaining the concentration and enthusiasm to get through three fat books? I started the first book, A Star Called Henry, in 1995; so, it’s a long time. The final book deals, to an extent, with the Northern Ireland Peace Process, but I don’t know if had that name, or any name, in 1995. Things seemed to be happening – ceasefires, talks about talks etc – but I grew up with ceasefire announcements, so the last book, The Dead Republic, was taking shape as I wrote the first two. Then the bringing it all together – I brought a character from the first book into the final one, then had a horrible thought: I killed him in the second book. I was terrified – what would I do? I kept going, three, four, five, six pages a day, and, luckily, when I re-read the first two books, there was no sign of my having killed the man. I think the last book took two years. I knew by then how it would end. I realised quite early, in 1995, that the trilogy would be, somehow, about identity. This became much more important – to me – as I wrote The Dead Republic. I wrote two books for children and another novel, Paula Spencer, in the break between the second book, Oh Play That Thing, and the final one. I didn’t want to jump straight into the final book.
MJH: For one semester, in 1996, I studied at the University College Dublin. One mizzling day, when I was sitting outside Roebuck Castle (yes, the School of Law was housed in a castle which looked down at the rest), I was reading The Van, and I thought: Roddy Doyle studied here, and I wondered then, as I wonder now, what kind of student you were?
What were your days at university like? What kind of student were you? Did you have pockets stuffed with money? Or, did you live in a bed-sit without gas heating, and eat lots of tinned tomato soup?
RD: If Christy Mahon, in The Playboy of the Western World, was ‘a middling scholar only’, I was behind him in the class. I was less than middling. I scraped through, never more than a few marks above what was required to limp into the next year. This was never choice or timing; it was ignorance. I never really got the hang of exams or good study. I wish I had. But I had a great time. I wrote my first published pieces, for a magazine called – wait for it – Student. I saw people in the college café and on the bus laugh at lines I’d written. I was involved for a while in the Students’ Union. I witnessed the installation of the first condom machine in Ireland, in 1979, onto the Student Union wall – at least, I think it was the first in Ireland. It was a big, big – and, from 31 years distance, strange – deal. I also witnessed it being taken down a few days later by the college authorities – with a screwdriver. I think Ireland was on a different planet back then. I never had much money. I went abroad to work every summer, saved virtually every penny. Germany – canning factory; London – road sweeping. Those summers were important, the experience of working, the rhythm of it. I remember it every time I handle a brush. I lived at home, in my parents’ house. I wasn’t entitled to a grant and I couldn’t afford a bedsit. That came later. I loved the time at UCD – great friends, great books, the chance to read so much. But my real education began when I started teaching.
MJH: When did you know that you would be a writer?
RD: I suppose, people’s reactions to things I wrote led me to think, or hope, that there was something going on. And getting it wrong, writing something that people didn’t react to, was also a lesson. A couple of teachers, especially in primary school, let me know that I could write well. At UCD, I was given the opportunity to write once a month, for Student. I remember my father laughing out loud at one of the pieces I wrote. I think I finally realised that something was going on when I stood in the wings on the opening night of a play I’d written, called Brownbread; this was in 1987. The laughter was almost solid, like wind. It was wonderful. I think I knew I’d be a writer when I gave up teaching, in 1993. I couldn’t call myself a teacher anymore, so I had to call myself a writer. It sounds a bit daft, I know, but it’s true – and maybe even healthy. I didn’t realise I was a writer until after the publication of my fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
MJH: Thank You
The photo in the headline of the article appears courtesy of Mark Nixon.