JP O’Malley talks to the 55-year-old Booker Prize winner about his new novel The Guts and what it’s like to become more like his father as he gets older
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LONG BEFORE he became one of Ireland’s most popular authors, Roddy Doyle used to sweep the streets for a living.
His designated area was not far from where we are sitting. It was 1978, and Doyle was working in London for the summer.
At the time he was a student of English literature and Geography at UCD.
“I would have worked Bond Street and Piccadilly mostly,” says Doyle.
“The rent I was paying for a place to live at the time was eight quid a week in a shared room, so it was four quid each.”
“Then I started teaching back in Dublin, after I left college. It was a bit like being a student, except that I was being paid for three months of the year that I didn’t have to work. So in 1982 I came to London for the summer. I just wanted to get away from the distractions of normal life in Dublin and write.”
“When you are in a place like London, and you’re an outsider, it’s easier to write without any distractions. When I got back to work the following September, I became very disciplined, doing a few hours in the evening, and at the weekend. And I actually started to fill copybooks with writing.”
By 1986 Doyle had filled enough pages to produce two novels.
The first one was called Your Granny’s a Hunger Striker, which currently resides in The National Library in Dublin. It’s really an artefact that celebrates resilience and self-belief, rather than good writing, Doyle admits. “When you finish something that you have been working on for years, the awareness that it is poor arrives — quite luckily — a while later, psychologically.”
Tired of negative rejection slips, Doyle decided to self-publish his second attempt at a novel in 1987: The Commitments was reviewed very favourably. When the book was picked up by a UK publisher a year later, Doyle felt he was heading in the right direction.
“It was only when I started writing The Commitments that something clicked, and I thought: this is what I want to do.”
Doyle may sound nostalgic, but he has every reason to be.
This October The Commitments is being adapted to the stage for the very first time.
We are sitting in the basement of the Palace Theatre, in the West End, where the play will run for a number of months.
Coincidently, Doyle has also just written a book that resurrects one of his most famous fictional creations: Jimmy Rabbitte.
When readers were first introduced to this young entrepreneur/music fascist, back in the late 1980s, he was attempting to bring Dublin soul to the world. Jimmy is now 47 and married with four children, working for a website that promotes aging Irish rockers. Jimmy has also just learned that he has bowel cancer.
Like much of Doyle’s previous work, The Guts is told with a wicked sense of humour, conveyed to the reader mostly through the use of dialogue.
The novel also sees Doyle writing with a genuine tenderness about family life: zoning in on how Jimmy, and his father, Jimmy Sr, relate to each other. When Doyle began as a writer he was determined his work would eschew the family stereotypes in much of Irish literature. While silent and repressed fathers may have been the central focus in the work of an author, like say, John McGahern, such portrayals didn’t hold any resonance with Doyle, who was coming from an urban, emerging-modern–Ireland.
“As a writer I wanted to get away from the notion that the father is the guy in the corner reading the newspaper, because he is not,” says Doyle.
“In this book I wanted to portray how Jimmy was becoming like his own father. He says things like I am my fucking Da! And I think people of my age particularly think like this. Which gives you pause for thought, because you don’t like to think of yourself as being a replica of somebody else.”
“Jimmy is lucky to have the father he has. It’s also a bit of an age thing: you have a man in his early 70s, talking to a man in his late 40s. They are father and son, but they are both mature men.”
This is something that Doyle recognises from the relationship he has with his own father, he says.
“I can chat comfortably to own my dad, who is now 89.
Obviously I am constantly aware that he is my father, and he is aware that I am his son, but he is not offering advice, or asking how I did in my exams! Or telling me to go and bring a condom with me when I’m out late at night! So it’s different,” says Doyle with a mischievous grin.
The domestic setting is somewhere that the 55-year-old Booker Prize-winning author has always felt comfortable in.
It’s the place where much of the drama comes from in his earlier novels, like The Snapper and The Van.
Take this small passage from The Guts as a typical example: The narrator describes how Jimmy would miss the small mundane things in life, if cancer were to get the better of him: He started to fill the dishwasher. He remembered now, he enjoyed it. Fitting everything in. All the things he did in the house, the washing, the hanging up. He enjoyed it all, he always had.
Doyle admits that carrying out even the simplest of tasks in his own home can make him become both philosophical and sentimental at the same time.
“It’s those little details that give a rhythm to a day: when you are filling a washing machine, and you are picking up your children’s jeans or whatever. You are always conscious that these are my children’s jeans. And I might be thinking, ah for Jesus sake, why don’t they do it themselves. But actually I’m happy doing it, because it is somehow part of the stuff of daily life. Hanging out your kids’ washing, or just saying ‘your clothes are inside’: it’s just another act “And you think: what would I miss [if I were gone]? You might say I would miss next year’s World Cup, or I would miss looking at women, which is another domestic detail.
But it’s the little day-to-day stuff that I would miss more than anything else. Not that one would like a life of filling and emptying the dishwasher! In The Guts Jimmy recognises that. And it hovers over the book all the time.”
A conversation with Doyle will take you down a road that addresses serious issues relating to class, politics, family, and other matters that he feels are important to him.
Nevertheless, he finds moments to interject with a bit of humour.
Primarily because being funny comes naturally to him. But he also wants the lighter parts of his work to reflect how important comedy is in all of our lives.
“I never consciously say: I am going to write comedy. I don’t see a dividing line between comedy and being serious in my books. It always stuck me as a strange and contradictory thing that in a country like Ireland, where we laugh a lot, and there is a lot of ready wit in normal conversation, that comedy is by official Ireland — I don’t want to sound like Eamon Dunphy here — undervalued.”
“Comedy is as important as tragedy, and reality walks the line between the two. I suppose earnestness, or something without laughs in it, is mistaken for tragedy. But that’s probably not tragedy: it’s just shite!”
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