Roddy Doyle: 'I wish more middle-aged men would buy bloody books'
Ireland's brilliant novelist talks ghosts, zombies, Dracula, music and Fernando Torres.
Roddy Doyle's recent book of short stories, Bullfighting, captured wonderfully the vaguely comic despair of middle-aged manhood. When I told him I'd enjoyed the book, Doyle replied: "If it's happening, you may as well use it. I just wish more middle-aged men would buy bloody books."
There doesn't seem much that Doyle can't let his imagination roam around and transform into beautiful, moving and funny fiction and with his new book for children, A Greyhound Of A Girl, he has even turned to the afterlife to create a brilliant ghost.
The 53-year-old Dubliner, said: "I'm an atheist so I suppose that was part of the challenge of writing about a ghost. Strictly speaking, I don't believe in anything. But, you know, turn off the lights and your imagination begins to run riot. In novels, I have written about things that can't happen so I suppose the challenge here was to make it believable. No matter how close to personal experience a story might be, inevitably you are going to get to a part that isn't yours and, actually, whether it happened or not becomes irrelevant. It is all about choosing the right words."
Doyle said: "I have no difficulty with the notion of the ghost. I do enjoy Gothic fiction or books about zombies if they are well written and I like vampires. I'm interested in the way vampires have been changing in the 21st century. Hideous creatures have become glamorous and I kind of crave a return to the real, more interesting thing. I live close to where Bram Stoker grew up and there is something about that I like - walking, a few times a week, by the house of the man who wrote Dracula."
Doyle's seemingly effortless switch between age groups and subject matter is helped by his pattern of writing, with different stories on the go simultaneously. Hence Bullfighting was penned at the same time as a moving story about four generation of women facing up to death.
Doyle added: "If you are dealing with a family story like Greyhound and put that away for a day and then focus on the life of a middle aged man and think, well those characters share the same kitchen somehow and then it's fun to look at something from different perspectives. I work roughly from nine to six and there is no commute so if you sit and do nothing it seems like an eternity. So, actually, you have plenty of time to write. I might do three pages of Greyhound and then read a football website or hang out the washing and put on a coffee and by the time I come back I have had time to shed one and get ready for the other. Sometimes one leaks into the other but I am reasonably good at identifying that."
Greyhound Of A Girl went through a few drafts. The first was dropped because Doyle thought there was "too much silliness and it wasn't working". The humour remains but it is part of the very fabric of the conversations between the women.
Talking has always been a big part of the Doyle background. He said: "My parents were sixty years married. There were lunches where my father's endless siblings were there with lots of friends in their seventies and there was just constant crackles of laughter."
Basing a book around grandparents was something of an act of imagination for Doyle, as he explained: "My maternal grandmother died when my mother was three and the other died when I was about seven so I grew up largely without grandparents. I suppose in a way I was trying to imagine what it would be like to have a grandmother. My own children have those relationships and that can be reassuring for a child because kids can be horrendously judgemental to their parents but look at a Grandparent and bypass that and see what it may be like in a few years time."
Doyle brings in family names (there was an Anastasia in his family past) and some are for amusement, such as Scarlet. He said: " I just liked plonking in the notion that a woman with the surname O'Hara is called Scarlet. I loved the idea she went from dance hall to dance hall until she found a man called O'Hara."
And Mary? "Mary is a name now freed of religion so you can call a kid that without it being assumed that you are wearing barbed wire under your vest. It's actually a lovely name."
Given the vibrancy of Doyle's music-based book The Commitments, does he allow himself music while he writes?
He said: “Not when I am editing but if I am writing prose I go for something ambient. I know I have been really concentrating on something because the music has gone off and I have not even noticed. When I started writing full time I had not long stopped being a teacher and when at last I had a full day to write, I would put music on and wonder to myself - am I allowed to do this? Then I thought: 'I am control of this and no one is telling me what I can do.'
“If I am beginning to wilt towards the end of the day then music helps and there is something about composers like Philip Glass, Steve Wright or Michael Nyman that seems to act a bit like an espresso without the coffee. Their rhythm is quite infectious. My tastes are quite broad, though. Charles Mingus nudged others aside for a while.”
And does he still get out to hear music? “I saw Brian Wilson and last week I went to see a brilliant young American called Sam Amidon at a club in Dublin. It would want to be exceptional before I would accept anything Irish. That’s too familiar. Although Van Morrison is brilliant.”
It was 'Van The Man', of course, who wrote the poetic song Streets Of Arklow. Yet Arklow is mocked in Greyhound - the best thing about it described as the bypass. Was that intentional?
Doyle said: “Very much so - Arklow is a tip. When Ireland was being modernised. It was one of the first towns to be by-passed. This sort of slagging - I am not sure the verb is used in England in the same way - basically of mocking one's place or mocking someone else's place is part of our culture I suppose.”
Doyle talks fondly of a "memory soup full of days in Wexford". Did writing Greyhound bring on a case of middle-aged nostalgia?
"I remember one glorious day when the family were harvesting with a big combine harvester and we children were playing on the bales but I can even get nostalgic for something like an electric typewriter. There is nothing quite like the noise of an electric typewriter. It's not quite the same the 'tippy-tippy-tippy' sounds you get from a laptop. I was in San Francisco recently and the Modern Art Museum had an exhibition of typewriters and I got weepy looking at some of the Olivetti's."
Nostalgia for an Ireland past is a small part of a new tale that is also potent and troubling. The image of Mary being scared of going into the hospital is striking. Real life is always at the heart of Doyle’s writing. He said: “When I had a kidney stone once I was in a city centre hospital on a Friday night and I literally saw a girl who had taken an overdose die on a gurney. It was a vision of hell. That stayed in my imagination and the sadness of people outside hospitals. Of families holding themselves up as they leave behind a dead relative. As an adult it's difficult going to hospital but as a child it's very threatening."
Even with such a busy writing schedule, Doyle still finds time to read. We find we are both fans of Charles Portis (True Grit) and Doyle urges me to look up online a brilliant picture of Portis on set with John Wayne as his creation Rooster Coburn. He adds: “Right now I am reading Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt novel. It’s great, very like True Grit.”
We differ, though, on football. Doyle remains a diehard Chelsea fan and will be heading straight from the festival in Bath on Saturday to watch Chelsea take on Swansea. I can’t resist asking him whether he saw the incredible Fernando Torres miss against Manchester United. “The miss was a Rony Rosenthal moment but he was nippy and sharp and the goal he scored against United was fantastic.”
Doyle, who started following Chelsea under Tommy Docherty in the 1967 League Cup Final, said: “I watched that final with my father and decided, along with my friend up the road to follow Chelsea. My highpoint would have been the 1970 FA Cup Final replay against Leeds, when I was eight or nine.”
He’ll remain a Blue but whether he will keep writing children’s fiction is unclear. As his children have aged so his books have evolved from picture books and the wonderful daftness of the Giggler stories to the serious issues around death in Greyhound.
He said: "Writing for adults is clearer, in that once someone reaches a certain age it's a question of taste really whether they like a book or not. If someone gets to the age of 45 and says they didn't enjoy the book because the main character is 57, that would be slightly weird. There is more freedom writing for adults because I can write at my own pace.
“I’m really not sure about keeping on with children's writing. I wondered when my children had grown up whether I would still want to do it, or be interested in it, but I suspect the answer is probably yes. That said, I wouldn't be going into Paddy Power and putting one hundred quid down on me writing children's books in five years whereas I guarantee I will be writing fiction for adults. I hope I will be writing continuously and die in mid-sentence.”
Whatever he writes - and take note any middle-aged men - it's always worth the trouble of reading.