'Dear Roddy, I hope you are still alive'- Child's hilarious letter inspires Irish author Roddy Doyle to write book
Dear Roddy Doyle, I hope you are still alive…those were the words, in a letter from a young fan, that inspired the author to revive his children's book series after a break of many years. But, behind the scenes, he's been busy with everything from translating an opera to his Two Pints posts, he tells our reporter.
Roddy Doyle is a smiler. Almost every publicity photo of the bestselling author shows his boyish features creased into a grin, and in person he is not much different. Even when the conversation turns to fatal illnesses, financial insecurity or the essential absurdity of life, a sardonic quip and wry chuckle are rarely far from his lips.
"It's not a conscious thing," he insists at one point. "It just seems to be my natural disposition. I think it comes from having parents who were serious people but could also be very funny - I had dinner with my own kids last night and we spent almost the entire time laughing."
This basic cheerfulness, you suspect, explains how Doyle has managed to navigate the peaks and troughs of his turbulent literary career.
In the three decades since he self-published his debut novel The Commitments (a first edition would set you back roughly €275 today), he has been dubbed both a national treasure and a national disgrace, awarded the Booker Prize and dismissed by some critics as not a proper writer at all.
All these controversies might have died down, but at the age of 58, Doyle's storytelling skills are still very much in demand - and he is entitled to feel at least a little bit vindicated.
"I remember once being in my car and an RTÉ arts show devoted to me came on the radio," he says. "It was unbelievably patronising. Somebody even praised the structure of my novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and then said, 'I don't know if Roddy Doyle is actually aware of this himself', as if it had been just a happy accident. By the end of the programme, I felt like driving out to Montrose and punching everyone involved."
Doyle looks genuinely furious for a few seconds, then the smile returns. At moments like this you can see why he was once such a popular English and geography teacher at Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack, the north Dublin suburb where he grew up. You can also see how he could quickly restore discipline in his classroom if anyone tried to take advantage of his good nature.
While Doyle is a friendly and thoughtful interviewee, he freely admits that talking to journalists is not his "first love". He is officially meeting me in a central Dublin hotel bar to promote Rover and the Big Fat Baby, the fourth in his Giggler series of children's books that stretches back to 2000.
The Gigglers are mischievous spirits whose main job is collecting poo from Rover the talking dog and making sure that nasty adults walk in it - a concept that he assures me young readers find inherently funny.
"I wrote the first Giggler story when my son was a small child," Doyle recalls. "Now he's in UCD. Sometimes I go into a coffee shop and there's a young lad with a beard, who has never heard of The Commitments but gives me an espresso and tells me how much he loves the Giggler books."
With his own offspring grown up - he and wife Belinda have two sons and a daughter - and no grandchildren yet to act as a sounding board, Doyle had put the series on hold.
That all changed when he received a letter from an English boy which began: "Dear Roddy Doyle, I hope you are still alive."
"I sat there in the kitchen reading it with my wife and we both just cracked up. He went on to ask if I wear a hat and smoke a pipe when I'm writing for adults. So when he wanted me to do another Rover book, there was no way I could let him down."
This, it turns out, was not the first time for Doyle to point out that rumours of his death had been greatly exaggerated. "A few years ago my goddaughter's teacher was reading out one of my stories and announced, 'This is by a writer called Roddy Doyle, who sadly died a few years ago.' I think she was mixing me up with Roald Dahl!"
In fact, there are certain stylistic similarities between the two RDs, even if Doyle is too modest to compare himself directly with the great Norwegian. Adults are usually the villains in their books and sensible children end up coming to the rescue. "I don't think that stories need to have moral messages. But I will say that if the Gigglers had been running Ireland, Seanie [FitzPatrick] would have had plenty of s*** on his shoes!"
Anybody who thinks that writing children's fiction is an easy option, Doyle says, is seriously deluding themselves. "If anything, I'm less confident because the options are greater. When Jimmy Rabbitte [from The Commitments] is in a room with his dog, at least I know the dog can't talk. But in a Giggler story anything can happen and I'm constantly asking myself what I can get away with. I know a lot of parents like to read them aloud to their kids, so I'll usually throw in a few little jokes for them as well."
As a boy growing up in 1960s Dublin, books were Doyle's window on the world. "I was a slow reader and my mother helped me learn with comics, The Beano and The Dandy. Then Just William took me to the English Home Counties. I had an Uncle Joe in the States who would send over boxes of books that taught me all about American history. I can still remember how exciting it was when my father took the blade out of his razor to cut the tape."
These days Doyle is the chairman of Fighting Words, a charity based in inner-city Dublin that encourages children to try writing their own stories. He describes the process as "completely exhilarating". Many of those kids have every right to be angry about their lives, he says, but instead they are bursting with creativity and still know how to laugh.
"I've never come across a child who wasn't interested in books. I do, however, sometimes meet grown men who tell me that they never read. I don't know why they tell me, I couldn't give a s***e!"
Is Ireland a better place for young people today than when he was a teacher? "I'd like to think so. They're certainly allowed to talk more and can feel secure with adults.
"But we still have a way to go. It really annoys me that when Donald Trump uses 'locker-room talk', people describe him as 'childish'. That is absolutely not how children behave. We need to understand that childhood is not a preparation for existence, it's an existence all in itself."
Although it seems hard to credit now, in the early 1990s Doyle's much-loved Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van) sparked accusations that he was a one-trick pony.
Since then his CV has expanded to include historical sagas, film scripts, stage plays, television dramas and various other literary genres. In the last three years alone he has helped turn The Commitments into a musical - which last month enjoyed a second run at Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie - ghosted Roy Keane's second autobiography and written a new translation of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni for the Dublin Theatre Festival.
"I do all these things partly because I can," he says. "I'm usually working on a novel under my own steam, but another project could come along at any time. If it sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or at least an adventure that will stretch me in some way, then I'm up for it."
There is another, more prosaic reason for Doyle's prolific output. Like most jobbing writers, he has bills to pay. People assumed that The Commitments' film adaptation must have made him a millionaire, he confides, whereas in reality he was paid a fixed fee for the screenplay and got nothing in royalties. Winning the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993 sent his sales figures through the roof ("It was rock'n'roll for a few years"), but more recently he has sometimes worked out how many hours were spent on a story and realised that it paid less than the minimum wage.
"One problem is that as I get older, I'm writing more about middle-aged men," he says. "Middle-aged men don't read fiction. Middle-aged women do, but they don't want to read about middle-aged men!"
Fortunately, Doyle's profile means that offers of much more lucrative work regularly arrive in his inbox. Becoming Roy Keane's ghostwriter on The Second Half took this lifelong Chelsea fan out of his comfort zone, but the collaboration worked so well that he eventually found himself speaking in a Cork accent.
"The important thing is that Roy genuinely wanted to do it," he reflects. "We were working to a tight deadline, so at times it was 14-hour days, seven days a week. He was very concerned about being fair and would go through the text line by line.
"But I can honestly say we never had a disagreement. Roy is a born storyteller and I just helped to bring that out - it worked because we allowed each other to bring our different skills into the room."
The Commitments musical was an idea Doyle had resisted for decades, but going to West End shows in London with his children convinced him that the time was right. "I wasn't going to write it myself at first. Then I started interviewing people for the job and realised that I was answering the questions myself. The challenge was to create a musical about people who can't actually play their instruments, which I think we've managed quite well. So that's been another new experience and a really rewarding one, too."
From the sweet soul sounds of Mustang Sally and Try a Little Tenderness, he moved seamlessly into the world of 18th-century opera. "Don Giovanni caught me on the hop," he says. "Translating the lyrics for 73 pieces of music was incredibly hard work. It took a full year. But I loved the craft of it and seeing the final product on stage was a high point of my life. Just brilliant. Completely brilliant."
All of these successes have brought Doyle to a happy place in his professional life. It is striking, however, to hear how often he makes throwaway remarks about his longevity such as, "Most of The Commitments' cast weren't even born when the book came out." Now well into his second half-century, he is clearly becoming more and more preoccupied by the ageing process.
As a teacher, his gold studded ear-ring and Doc Marten boots earned him the nickname 'Punk Doyle'. Today I can't help pointing out that we are both wearing the same brand of tweed jacket. "There comes an age where it just feels right, doesn't there?" he laughs, before generously agreeing that I seem to have got there a few years before him.
When you start attending more funerals than weddings, Doyle muses, it's hard to avoid thinking about grief. "If we're lucky, we don't encounter much loss in our younger years. Now I sometimes hear that a pupil of mine is dead, somebody I last saw when they were 15. It gets you rattled. Your angle on life changes and so does your vocabulary."
One way of staying young at heart is to keep up with new trends such as social media. While writing his most recent adult novel The Guts, Doyle opened up a Facebook account for research purposes and was immediately intrigued by its possibilities. He now uses it as a vehicle for his hugely popular Two Pints sketches, - which featured in two books published in 2012 and 2014 - based on a couple of middle-aged men sardonically discussing the issues of the day in their local pub.
"They are great fun to do," he says. "I see those characters as two fellas who don't know each other all that well, but are comfortable enough to say whatever they want. Political correctness goes out the window and sometimes the modern world confuses them, but they are absolutely not stupid."
Doyle is hugely resistant to the idea that any of his work is autobiographical. "I've never been in a band, never been pregnant and never been unemployed," he says with reference to the Barrytown Trilogy. Even so, there are times when the Two Pints men sound like mouthpieces for their creator's opinions -most notably a piece about last year's same-sex marriage referendum in which one of them mentions his gay nephew.
- I thought to meself, 'A few years o'marriage will fix tha' little f*****'s cough for him.'
- That's why you're votin' Yes? It can't be-
- No. I'm just messin'. Look - f*** it, I love him. He's a great kind an' if he ever wants to get married, he should be able to. An' me sister can have her big day as well.
A moving target is more difficult to hit. The sheer variety of Doyle's recent output brings this old adage to mind, although he is still occasionally pigeonholed as the writer who uses so many four-letter words. In a 1997 episode of Father Ted, Dougal calls the title character "a big b******s" and is asked, "Have you been reading those Roddy Doyle books again?"
There are very few things he has done that his children think are cool, Doyle admits, but being namechecked in Father Ted was one of them.
A few years ago, however, somebody compared him to the Anglo Tapes' foul-mouthed bankers and left him distinctly less amused.
"When I was first published, some journalists were shocked to find that I was softly-spoken and could actually string a few sentences together," he says. "I remember a guy from Hot Press being outraged that I didn't talk like one of The Commitments. That eventually changed when I was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, although even then there were debates over whether or not I deserved to be called a 'proper writer'."
For Doyle, being accused of patronising his working-class characters was bad enough. Being accused of demonising them was even worse. The situation turned nasty after his 1994 television drama Family, a hard-hitting story of domestic abuse that he would later adapt into the novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. He insists the show is the best thing he has ever written, but it caused uproar among people who believed such things could never happen in this country.
"That was a really bizarre time," he says. "Family was broadcast a few days after Riverdance, just when Ireland was feeling good about itself. I found myself accused of letting the nation down. I was attacked from the left for supposedly suggesting that all working-class men batter their wives and attacked from the right because apparently it only went on in English Protestant houses."
Death threats began to arrive at Doyle's home and even his mother was pushed in the street. When he went to a pub, friends would form a shield around him and send over pints.
Today he puts it down to the insecurity that goes along with being a small nation, concluding, "We love ourselves too much and we hate ourselves too much."
With hindsight, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to even grittier shows such as Love/Hate shows that Doyle was simply way ahead of his time. He can still put people's backs up every now and then, such as his description of Dublin as "a dreary little dump" and his claim that James Joyce "could have done with a good editor" (which prompted Senator David Norris to label him "a moderate talent"). As this interview winds down, however, his biggest beef is with the terrible Irish weather.
"Feel the weight of that," he says ruefully, inviting me to hold his rain-sodden woolly hat. He then walks out into the street to get his photograph taken, cheerful smile back in place.
"I do have a certain grit," is his summing up. "I can't help but feel satisfied by the fact that some fans know The Snapper off by heart, or that parents have such affection for The Gigglers books, or that Two Pints has become a part of people's daily lives. But I wouldn't describe myself as vindicated - I've never felt I had anything to prove."
'Rover and the Big Fat Baby', published by Macmillan, is out now
Portraits by Mark Condren
'Kids know all the things that are worth knowing'
Kids know lots of things. But adults think kids are stupid.
Excuse me — we do not.
I’m an adult.
A very important adult, actually.
OK. This is how it is. Adults love their kids. They think kids are sweet, lovely, charming, brainy, funny and wonderful. Am I right?
Well, mine are.
But they also think that kids know nothing. That kids are small and their heads are small, so there’s no room for important things in those small heads. That is what adults think. But this is a big, big mistake. Because kids know a lot. In fact, kids know all the things that are worth knowing.
Here are just some of the things that kids know:
eating fish is stupid;
holes in the ground are interesting;
worms are cool;
mice are cool and not cool at the exact same time;
shoelaces are stupid;
dogs can talk.
Extracted from Rover and the Big Fat Baby by Roddy Doyle, with illustrations by Chris Judge