Roddy opens his door
Published 25/04/2010 | 05:00
Since the meteoric success of his first novel, The Commitments, readers have warmed to the energy and humour in Roddy Doyle's writing. Inspired by fatherhood, his beloved Dublin and the Irish identity, the Booker prizewinner talks to Ciara Dwyer about the joys of teaching and pet cemeteries
In Roddy Doyle's latest novel The Dead Republic, the hero Henry Smart doesn't die until he is 108. "I thought why not? He's going to stay alive as long as I want him to," says Doyle.
This is typical of the Dublin-born writer. Roddy Doyle's confidence to follow his own instincts has led him to become the successful writer he is today. Although he has never been the sort to look for adoration, people have warmed to him through his work, especially its humour.
Back in 1987 when he wrote his first novel The Commitments, there was a joy and energy to the young fictional Dubliners who believed in the dream of putting a soul band together. One of the characters proclaimed that Northsiders were the blacks of Dublin. I thought of Doyle's line the day before I met him as I watched the St Patrick's Day parade. Black women had painted their faces with tri-coloured eye shadows.
Doyle came across the parade too, but accidentally on the way to the cinema, to see Alice in Wonderland, with his family.
"What's interesting about the parade is the amount of new Irish, the immigrants," he says. "It's fascinating the way they actively and enthusiastically take part in the whole thing and want to be involved in it."
But this is no great surprise to Doyle. He has been watching the new Ireland emerge for some time and using it as material for his work. No wonder he and Bisi Adigun wrote their adapted version of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, complete with a Nigerian Christy Mahon and the widow Quinn, a tough Dublin hussy in a tracksuit. As Dublin swirled into a new city in the 21st Century, Doyle has mined it for his work. But that is what he has always done, from his Barrytown trilogy onwards. Dublin is part of him and he says that he never strays too far from it in his work. It is about the language as much as the character. It is what he knows and loves.
A huge fan of Sean O'Casey's works, the influence is evident in Doyle's writing. The Snapper was like a modern version of Juno and the Paycock, showing the dynamics of a Dublin family with the comical father as unique as Captain Boyle and the daughter who became pregnant.
The film of that novel is shown on the television once a year and Doyle tells me that he takes great delight when he hears children, who weren't even alive when the film was out, repeating its catchphrases -- "Snip, snip, Mr Burgess".
His latest novel, The Dead Republic, is the third part in the trilogy which started with the fictional character Henry Smart who becomes embroiled in history, finding himself in the GPO during the 1916 Rising. He then heads off to America and befriends Louis Armstrong. In the final novel of the trilogy Henry is back in Ireland, giving advice to John Ford for the film The Quiet Man.
"The books are about Irish identity and who decides what we are," says Doyle. While there is some Irish history in The Dead Republic it reads like a thriller. As Doyle says, "One of the jobs is to make sure that you didn't need a degree in history to follow it. So it had to be a story."
What does Doyle make of Ireland now? Is he hopeful for us? "I don't despair but I think it's depicted as bleak. There's nowhere that's perfect. This time last year it was unbearable in this country," says Doyle, "not because of day-to-day living but because of the way we were being presented to ourselves on the radio and the television. There were the same couple of dozen people telling you how the country was dead and the politicians' failure to communicate was quite staggering. Things have calmed down a bit. Life goes on.
"It's never not interesting being in this country. I really like Dublin. I can't imagine myself living anywhere else," he says.
But it is not all perfect. Sometimes the behaviour of the Catholic church gets to him. "When you hear the sheer scale of the abuse you think, 'What do we live in?' You read about the attempts to hide it and the mealy-mouthed way the Government dealt with it."
The arrogance of the papal nuncio annoyed him. "We should have responded somehow equally arrogantly." And yet he finds himself feeling sorry for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin."I do in a way but I don't know why exactly because he's one of them. But it's probably because he's fundamentally a decent man. He looks a bit like an ageing rocker. It's the hair. I'd say he had a mullet in his early days."
While he fumes at the notion that canon law supersedes the law of the country, Doyle then pulls back. "In a way I feel it's nothing to do with me. I'm a total atheist."
Although raised a Catholic, in his teens he stopped believing. If he was dying would he ask for a few decades of the rosary? "Maybe I would, but just for the crack."
Nor does he want his funeral in a church. He hasn't given it much thought and smiles as he says that he is feeling quite well. "I jokingly say throw me in whichever wheelie bin is the right one. Would it be the green one or the brown? For compost or recycling?"
He laughed when a friend told him the incorrect fact posted on the website Wikipedia that he now lives in Monte Carlo. "I just thought it was hilarious. I haven't been there yet but I'm looking forward to seeing my home. Worse still, it says that I was born in Dalkey. That is even more far fetched," says the Northsider.
It is often said that writers don't have lifestyles. They don't go out. Instead they stay home and invent. The same could be said of this Booker prizewinner. These days Doyle lives a quiet life in Clontarf with his wife and three children -- two boys and a girl. The eldest is 19 and the youngest is 12.
He is protective of them and doesn't like talking about his private life yet he gives me a glimpse of life at home. "I don't know if fatherhood changes you but it adds. I suppose there are certain lifestyle changes which are a choice, like hangovers become a really bad idea when you've got young kids. They weren't that common but they're far less common now. I find that my role as a father changes. You have to know when to let them go and I'm not sure that I do. You hope that you're doing it right but of course you never can do it right.
"When you're walking through town with kids when they're very young, you start looking at what they're looking at. You begin to see things that you never saw before, or just at ground level. You begin to realise what a lovely city Dublin is. You end up seeing things at angles that you didn't anticipate seeing. There are routines and habits that become very funny in ways and great material for stories, like pets and funerals for animals, like goldfish. It seems absurd."
Did he say a prayer at the dead animals' funerals? "No, we said goodbye. There hasn't been one in a while but there's a garden in Killester full of dead animals in mobile phone boxes. Some archaeologist will say, what the f*** is going on here? If life can be seen as a series of doors and some of them are shut and some of them are open, then having kids opens doors which you didn't know were there."
He works nine to six in the attic. The only time the kids interrupt him is when they come up looking for a few bob. He walks a lot and goes to the gym a few times a week. He enjoys going to the cinema and frequently goes to gigs. He loved Aslan's recent concert. He has been going to the Electric Picnic for the past few years and enjoys it.
It is some 17 years since he stopped teaching in Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack.
"I taught for 14 years so I'm longer out of it than I was in it. I loved it. There were days when you were exhausted and absolutely humiliated but by and large, you get the hang of it. I like the kids and if they get a sense of that it usually works. There was a great atmosphere to the place and a great energy to it. We were all very young at the time. I was working with Paul Mercier, the playwright, and the novelist Catherine Dunne."
While Doyle was teaching he was writing but he points out that the writing wasn't an escape from teaching. He simply did it because he loved it. He submitted his work to get published but, met with rejection at every angle, he decided to publish The Commitments himself. He and his pal John Sutton, the producer from Passion Machine Theatre Company, approached the bank with a business proposal which Doyle says was "a greater piece of fiction than the book", and got the loan.
Couldn't they have just lied and said that they wanted the loan for a car? "I suppose we could have but it was more fun that way."
The rest is history. There have been eight books, films of some of them, and even an opera using the text of his novel -- Paula Spencer. Doyle just kept on writing. He also branched out into children's books, after he found himself fed up reading books to his children. He used to make up stories at night, but the writer in him wasn't happy with them, so he put them down on paper and polished them.
Two afternoons a week Doyle works on the Fighting Words project. Kids from Larkin Community College in Sean McDermott join him in a hall on Russell Street, where they are doing a book project. They all write short stories.
What would possess Doyle to go back to teaching? "I do it because it adds a bit of variety to my life."
He tells me that he is disciplined with his writing and can manage the time away from his writing desk.
Is it about giving back? "No I hate that. If I didn't like it I wouldn't do it," he says.
Therein lies the secret to his success. Roddy Doyle pleases himself and in so doing, pleases others.
The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape, €14.99