Monday, February 15, 2010

Roddy Doyle - a short Q&A

[Did this short interview with Roddy Doyle before I moderated his session at the Jaipur Literature Festival; a version of this appeared in M magazine. Roddy said many other interesting things during the actual session, but I don’t yet have a transcript]

Intro: For over two decades now, the Irish writer Roddy Doyle has nimbly straddled the line dividing “popular writing” and “literary writing”. Doyle’s work has been immensely popular, both in his country and abroad: most of his books, including The Commitments (which was made into a very successful film by Alan Parker) and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, have been bestsellers; his 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is among the most widely read Booker Prize winners ever. His fiction, driven by conversation, working-class slang and short, staccato sentences, is accessible to a large readership.
But Doyle, now 51, is also a very respected writer, particularly acclaimed for his ability to bring very different types of characters to life: the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is pitch perfect, as is the book’s non-linear structure, which mirrors the restlessness of a young boy’s mind; Paula Spencer in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is one of the most convincing female narrators ever to be created by a male author.

A testament to Doyle’s versatility is that he participated in three sessions at the Jaipur Literature festival this year: the first dealt mainly with his novels, the second was about writing for children and young adults, and the third was about screenwriting (in the company of the director Stephen Frears, who made the movie versions of Doyle’s novels The Van and The Snapper).

Have you been to India before? What are your expectations of the literature festival?

No, I haven’t been here before. What to expect? The company of people who love books, and food that will bring a shine to my bald head!

But I’ve been following developments in Indian writing in English – I’m a great admirer of the work of Rohinton Mistry, and I wish Arundhati Roy would write another novel. I recently read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which shocked and entertained me – two things I love in a book. I suppose one of the things I look forward to in Jaipur is being told what other Indian fiction I must read!

You have a talent for getting under the skin of very diverse characters. When you first began writing, did you consciously set out to stretch yourself as much as possible, to do something notably different with each new book?

It wasn’t a conscious decision at the start. I just wrote a book (The Commitments), finished it, and started a new one. As I finished one book, I’d be thinking about the next, and, I suppose, by the end of the third I was consciously deciding to stretch myself. I wrote Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in the first person because I’d never done that before and thought it would be interesting to try it. I found that I enjoyed the first-person voice, so I did it again with the next book, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors – but with a very different type of narrator. I try not to repeat myself.

The characters, or narrator, often drag the style of a novel behind them. Young characters will bring their language, rhythm and preoccupations; a mature woman will bring hers. I decided to write the second Paula Spencer book in the third person because I didn’t want to write a “sequel” to the first, or to try and repeat it. The first book was about an entire life, to the time of the book’s conclusion, but the second book was a single year in Paula’s life. Different book, different approach. Again, I wanted to avoid repetition.

What sort of research is required to “get” the cadences of the speech of people like Paula Spencer and Paddy Clarke?

I did no research for Paddy Clarke. I used to be a 10 year old boy; that seemed to be enough. I was a school teacher when I wrote it, all the time listening to young people yapping away: that helped. I’ve always loved the sound of people talking; I grew up listening to the neighbours and my parents mimicking the neighbours. If I was to set Paddy Clarke in 2010 instead of 1968, its rhythm would be somewhat different – different slang, different grammatical rules broken, but the same energy.

With Paula Spencer, the cadence came easily; the narrator, Paula, is about the same age as me, from the same part of the world etc. Other aspects of the book were foreign to me – the gender, the violence, the poverty, the dependency on alcohol. These slowed me down; I had to work hard to fashion the sentences that would bring her life to paper.

You deal largely with the working class – with the little triumphs and disappointments of “working-class heroes”. Have you ever been tempted to write a novel set in a completely different milieu?

In Ireland when I was growing up, there was a grey zone between working class and middle class, where most of us lived, one foot in each camp, so to speak. I’m comfortable, and more interested in, writing about the working class, the world of the Rabbitte family [in the Barrytown Trilogy], and the lower middle class, where Paddy Clarke comes from – where I come from, I suppose. I’ve been writing short stories for a while, about new arrivals into the country – Africans, East Europeans – coming into contact with people born here, in Ireland. Because of the nature of the work they do, for example, child minding, they often work in “big” houses. I’ve also written a novel, Oh Play That Thing, set entirely in the US.

Do you often get feedback from readers in other countries – Asian countries, for example? Because I wondered if your distinct sense of humour – often driven by Irish colloquialisms and local references –translates well to other cultures.

I don’t get much feedback. I often don’t “get” a joke because it’s being told ten miles up the road. So I’d always assume that people from outside Dublin or Ireland would have problems – but isn’t that one of the reasons why we read fiction? I read Adiga’s The White Tiger, not in the hope of finding the very familiar, but to read about a “foreign” world that was also very human and, therefore, familiar. I never think about readers as I write but I try to make sure that, if I use a colloquialism, there are words and phrases surrounding it to reveal, or hint at, its meaning.

Contemporary Irish writers are often expected to be spokespersons for their country or to explicitly deal with its history. Are you personally affected by these expectations?

The short, and honest, answer is No. I find the temptation to be a spokesman for my country very easy to resist, although I love the place. It’s never boring in Ireland.

Unlike your earlier work, the current series (The Last Roundup) is set in a distant time period. Did that involve a lot more research than the other books? Also, tell us something about the forthcoming book, The Dead Republic.

I often wonder, if I’d known how much research I’d have to do to write the three novels of The Last Roundup, would I have started? Probably – but I think I’d have drawn a deeper breath before starting. Luckily, I love reading! The first book is set in Dublin in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly in the slums. Some of those slums were still standing, still frightening, when I was a child. Being middle aged has its advantages! The final book, The Dead Republic, brings the narrator, Henry Smart, back to Ireland, from the USA, in 1951. He tries to settle into a quiet life but becomes involved with the IRA – not recommended if you crave the quiet life!


  1. Hi Jai!
    One question off the topic!!just wanted to know your thought on rohinton mistry work.I loved all his books whether its fine balance or family matters!Dont you think he is most underrated and less talked about writer in indian writing in english!!

    Would love to know your take on him???maybe interview with him!!!!

  2. Can't wait for The Dead Republic. The trilogy is really ambitious in scope and its great to see him write of places outside Ireland.

    Did you read the Deportees? Very smart collection of short stories...

  3. Anon: I've only read Such a Long Journey, which I liked a lot, but somehow never got around to Mistry's other work.

    A fan apart: no, haven't read The Deportees. The only short piece of Doyle's I've read is his football essay "Republic is a Beautiful Word" in the My Favourite Year anthology.

  4. I loved Paddy Clarke and The Woman Who Walked into Doors although of course, my favourite had to be the Barrytown Trilogy. Thanks so much for posting this interview.

  5. Sue: you might also be interested in the transcript of our Jaipur session, which covers similar territory but has Roddy speaking at greater length. It's on the Random House blog - here's the link. I think there's also a link to a video of the session there.

  6. Thanks, Jai, I'll check the link out. It does look interesting.