'Charlie adds the sugar to my day' - Roddy Doyle on his beloved Weekend character Charlie and new book
Created especially for Weekend magazine, Charlie Savage - a middle-aged Dubliner with a hilarious take on the modern world - is Roddy Doyle's most personal character to date. Now, as Charlie's antics are complied for a new book, the acclaimed writer tells John Meagher about his inspirations, his love for his parents, and how Charlie adds "a bit of sugar" to his day. Illustrations by Ben Hickey. Photographs by Fran Veale.
On the way to this interview at the popular Whelan's pub and venue in Dublin's south inner city, Roddy Doyle walked passed another watering hole. If the name Jimmy Rabbitte's sounded familiar to him, that's because he dreamt it up for his much loved debut novel, The Commitments.
"I'd heard about this pub, Jimmy Rabbitte's," he says, "but this was the first time seeing it. Maybe I should have gone in for a pint."
I quip that they should be doling out free pints for life to him. He smiles. "Maybe I should look for 10pc of their profits." The proprietors of Jimmy Rabbitte's, Camden Street need not worry: Doyle is joking.
"I actually remember exactly where I was when I came up with that name," he says. "I was in my flat in Clontarf and I was working on what would become The Commitments and I needed names. So I borrowed the phone directory that was in the hall downstairs and I flicked through it. I came across Pat Rabbitte. He was a young TD at the time. And then Jimmy came to me. Jimmy Rabbitte. I liked it."
Doyle has a thing for names. He is aware that thanks to his character in The Snapper, some Sharons curse him, for instance, and he knows that Joey 'The Lips' Fagan has become something of a fictional Dublin folk hero. He's proud of that because he says he can still recall the flicker of pleasure he felt when he came up with trumpet player Fagan's nickname.
And now, there's Charlie Savage. Regular readers of this magazine will be familiar with the weekly instalments of Doyle's latest fictional creation. "Maybe it's something to do with liking two syllables," he says. "Jim-my Rabb-itte, Char-lie Sav-age, Paul-a Spen-cer."
A year of those columns has been collected in a new book, Charlie Savage, and Doyle has been greatly heartened by the response to the character. "People - older people, especially - seem to warm to him a lot. My mother loved him and she read those columns right up to her death." Ita Doyle died last year at 92. "It's a great age, of course, but there's loss there too."
Roddy Doyle aficionados will feel like they knew his mother. Both she and his late father were immortalised in his first non-fiction book, Rory & Ita, which told the story of their lives, largely in their own words. And now, he takes comfort in the fact that she adored reading about Charlie, this middle-aged Dubliner who experiences modern life in much the way he himself does.
"I was at the end of my last book [Smile] and I got an email out of the blue from the Irish Independent asking me if I wanted to write a weekly column for Weekend magazine. The timing was ideal. Six months either side of it and I probably couldn't do it, because I'd have my head in something else. I liked the fact that it was a fictional column because I don't think I'd have been able to write something new every week if it wasn't fictional and I've always admired people who can write to deadline like that. And keeping it to 800 words can be a challenge, but it's one I really enjoy. I mean, it's a little glimpse into the adult world, having to present something fresh every week. That's something I hadn't done before."
Doyle is 60 now, but looks at least 10 years younger. He has the air of one who is happy with their lot. He begins his working day with the column. "I'll put on a record and then I'll write a couple of hundred words of Charlie. It adds a bit of sugar to the day."
Then he will work on other projects. Right now, he is in the latter stages of editing a forthcoming novel called Love. "Nobody's told me it's not a good title," he says, with a laugh. "It's about two men in a pub talking about women. They're lifelong friends and there's a certain amount of backward-looking. I'm interested in this notion of memories - do we share memories? Their perspectives can be quite different."
Writing Love has been quite unlike any other of his books. "Normally, the writing part takes much longer than the editing, but this time I wrote it quickly and I'm taking my time getting the editing just right." He will deliver the finished manuscript to the publisher in the summer and it will likely be out early next year.
Doyle is comparatively prolific. "I like to be working," he says. "I'd usually write between 9am and 6pm. I like to have different projects on the go." He's an early riser. He gets up at 6am and is careful not to wake his wife of 30 years, Belinda Moller, granddaughter of former President Erskine Childers.
He is open to unexpected commissions, like Charlie Savage - and the Roy Keane collaboration which came out of the blue. "Again, it started with an email: 'Would I like to work with Roy on a new book?' The timing was right. I met Roy and we got on really well. He's very affable."
The result was The Second Half and Doyle's sounding board during the writing stage was his father, Rory, who was in hospital by then. "I'd go to see him and I'd tell him about the anecdotes Roy had told me and my father loved hearing the bit of gossip. I remember him [Keane] saying to me that when he was manager of Sunderland he questioned where the leadership was in the dressing room because nobody was picking the music the team would listen to before going out to play. It was left to the kit-man to decide. And the kit-man used to play Dancing Queen by Abba. Roy was furious. I told my father and he doubled up with laughter, but his voice was gone and he couldn't make a sound. Otherwise, it would have been the heartiest laugh."
Doyle continues to keep in touch with Keane, albeit sporadically, and anticipating that a question may appear about the Corkman's less than glorious latter months as Ireland assistant manager, he says he "doesn't want to go there".
It's the only time in an hour-long conversation that Doyle is guarded. He seems happy to shoot the breeze on any subject, especially when it centres on his body of work. He doesn't re-read his books unless he is adapting one for a new medium, as was the case with The Snapper which he helped turn into a lively stage play for the Gate Theatre last year. Due to popular demand, it will return to the same theatre in June.
"It's strange to read something you've written a long time ago, but I don't go into this idea of being critical of work that's already published. What's the point?"
He hasn't re-read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, his 1993 Booker Prize-winning novel. Was it the book that was most deserving of this prestigious literary honour? "Hard to say," he says. "Maybe The Woman Who Walked into Doors or A Star Called Henry would have been more obvious picks."
Despite that unwillingness to rake over his past work Doyle says he is becoming inspired again by the style of writing that characterises his earlier books. "The way I presented dialogue, the way I could establish class in a couple of lines… that appeals to me now again."
He says he is not tempted to revisit those indelible Commitments characters 30-odd years on, although he knows such a move would likely generate a lot of interest. "I am," he says, "in this extremely fortunate position where I can write pretty much whatever I want."
Doyle is especially proud of his screenplay for the Irish film, Rosie, which hit cinemas late last year. Directed by Paddy Breathnach, it stars Sarah Greene as a young mother who is struggling to put a roof over their heads. It's a tough film to watch, but an important one because it captures the everyday tribulations of Ireland's unfortunate population of 10,000 people who find themselves trying to live in emergency accommodation.
It was hearing a young mother in that onerous situation on RTÉ's Morning Ireland that prompted Doyle to write the screenplay. He has long been engaged by social justice and the Fighting Words charity he's involved with is typical: it aims to get disadvantaged kids to create their own stories and poems. Intriguingly, it's part of the programme at Oberstown, the children's detention facility in north Co Dublin.
Rosie is Doyle's first screenplay credit since the Dublin-set comedy caper, When Brendan Met Trudy, almost 20 years ago. There would have been others, but they fell between the cracks much to his frustration. "I was excited about a film version of A Star Called Henry [to be directed by the arthouse moviemaker Michael Winterbottom] but it never went ahead and then there was a TV series for Sky Atlantic that I'd written two episodes for but that fell through as well." The latter was about the Russian dogs that went up into space in the years before manned space flight and Doyle says he was deeply engaged by it.
Despite such setbacks he says there's a great deal that he has to be thankful for. "I'm getting to do what I love every day and I don't take that for granted."
It validates that decision to quit his job as a school teacher after the success of his so-called Barrytown Trilogy and to concentrate on writing full-time. Barrytown - named after a Steely Dan song - was clearly modelled on Kilbarrack, on Dublin's northside, where Doyle spent his formative years. "I subscribed to the idea of writing about what you know," he says. "And a place you know."
Those first three books, The Commitments ("I'd originally called the band 'The Partitions' - I'm glad I changed it"), The Snapper and The Van, remain Doyle's best loved works although he says that is more likely due to the film adaptations than the novels themselves. "The books sold well, don't get me wrong, but it's the films that would have reached more people and I'm okay with that."
Their successor, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, was also set in Barrytown, not at the tail end of the 1980s, but in the very different Ireland of 20 years before. The 10-year-old narrator is the same age Doyle was in the late 1960s but he has long said there are only scant autobiographical aspects in that book.
Charlie Savage has far more of Roddy Doyle in him, especially when contemplating the business of being the parent of adult children. "It's a very strange thing, actually," he says. "My youngest [Kate] is 21. The years went by fast.
"Charlie thinks of his childhood a lot and I do too. I think all people reach an age where they start thinking about their childhood. And of course when I think about growing up, I think about my parents."
He speaks with great affection about both. "My parents liked modernity," he says. "They didn't rue the old days. Central heating was a great invention as far as they were concerned, as were mobile phones." He stops and breaks into a big smile, his mind transported elsewhere. "My father got a Kindle. He phoned me once. I was walking by Fairview Park and the traffic was loud and I could just about hear him on the other end of the line: 'I've done it! I've done it!' and I was like, 'Oh f***, he's fallen in the bath or something'. What he had thought he had done was to download a book on his Kindle, but instead of buying Jude the Obscure, he had bought the complete works of Thomas Hardy. And, being my father, he read them all."
Doyle, unsurprisingly, continues to read voraciously too - despite the long shift he puts in front of his computer. He adores Dickens - "he's one of my great gods and I have a bust of Dickens on my desk" - and he is especially enamoured with one of the great Victorian writer's more obscure works, Little Dorrit. "He was under severe physical pain when writing Great Expectations but when he put down the last full stop, the pain stopped. I wonder is it a myth, though? Seems a bit too neat."
He's also a music nut - no surprise to anyone who's read The Commitments - and he always listens to music when he's writing and editing. "For Charlie, I can listen to anything upbeat. And it can be vocals too - I don't find it distracting. But for a novel, it's probably going to be something instrumental and the volume will be turned down a bit."
He's been chatting so animatedly that the half-drank Guinness on the table in front of him has gone 'dead'. It's time to go. You sense he wouldn't mind another pint - one he can enjoy without interruption. Well, Jimmy Rabbitte's is just up the road.
'Charlie Savage' by Roddy Doyle will be published by Jonathan Cape on March 14, at €14.99