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Roddy Doyle: 'My books stop being about me the minute I start writing'

In his new novel, two old friends meet up for a pint in Dublin city centre – and discover new things about each other’s lives.

RODDY DOYLE IS one of the most recognisable faces – and voices – in Irish literature. He was catapulted to success in the late 80s-early 90s with a string of acclaimed novels set in the fictional Barrytown, the first of which, The Commitments, was turned into a movie that barely needs introduction.

In creating a new way of capturing Dublin and its working class dialogue, Doyle caught the imagination of readers internationally. He reached further fame when his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the 1993 Booker Prize.

He’s since carved out a space as a writer who excels in depicting the quiet lives of ordinary people – be they the folks from Barrytown, a woman who experiences domestic abuse (the Paula Spencer novels), or a middle-aged man ruminating over the impact of his childhood (Smile). In his latest novel, Love, he bring us into the lives of two middle-aged Dubliners, Davy and Joe. 

Yet for all his fame, Doyle’s not someone who courts attention. “I kind of made decisions way back, when it all started off,” explains the author, who grew up in the suburb of Kilbarrack. In 1991, the Commitments film came out around the same time that he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Van.

“So it was kind of a big week. And we made a lot of decisions about maintaining and protecting our private lives – when I say ‘we’, I’m talking about my family,” says the author, meaning his wife Belinda Moller and their three children.

It was about “protecting our private lives … not in any hostile way”. “For example, if conditions were normal and we were meeting for an interview, it would be in a neutral venue, it wouldn’t be in my house,” he explains.

You’d never see ‘at home with Roddy Doyle’ or anything like that.

“I think I’m reasonably good at separating the public and the private, and in most cases people don’t care.”

Dredging his past

On a similar note, he has often written – though not always – about men at a similar life stage to him, but there’s a clear demarcation between Doyle and his characters. Not that it stops people from assuming he’s writing about himself.

“I dredge me own past to create fictional characters,” he says. “I’ve never had a burning urge to write about myself.”

The nearest he’s come, he notes, is writing a short story about a man who accidentally ends up in a bullfighting ring as the bull is let out. This happened to him in Spain, and he laughingly calls it his ‘Hemingway moment’, in reference to the American writer’s obsession with bullfighting. But even that short story ended up being, to all intents and purposes, fiction.

He’s come up against assumptions about the line between him and his characters many times. “I remember in the early days, a couple of the journalists actually got quite angry when they realised that I was making it up, The Commitments. Some of the ones who wrote about music, they thought it was fundamentally wrong. That somebody with no experience of a band could write about one.”

The character Paddy Clarke was born in the same year as Doyle, and lived in a similar area. “So there was an assumption in a way that it’s about me,” says Doyle. “So again, you’re using the rough stuff of your life but it’s like, it’s not about me. But I don’t mind.”

Fiction, after all, can never be entirely fictional. There has to be some essence of the author in there – even if the character or story is entirely fresh or new, the writing can be imbued with some emotion or viewpoint familiar to the author. 

Love high res

Pandemic pressure

When Ireland went into the initial Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ in mid-March, Doyle was in Newcastle. He arrived home feeling “like Typhoid Mary”, having a strange sense of “carrying the disease” into Ireland.  

Just as the pandemic upended everything else in the world, so it upended his plans too. He had three plays cancelled, including a musical of The Commitments. 

Love was initially supposed to be published in Europe in May, but this was put off until October. It was, however, released in the US in June, so Doyle spent quite a bit of the summer doing Zoom interviews across America.

Most notably, he had to leave aside a novel that was set in the present, when the present imploded thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

While his daily routine hasn’t changed – he works from home – his focus has. He’s found himself turning again to short stories. Though a short story can contain a whole world in just a few thousand words, it also lets a writer capture vignettes of a strange time like we’re experiencing now.

Doyle has found the short story the ideal vehicle for writing about the pandemic, and has already had a story published in The New Yorker.

“I’ve been writing to catch moments in this strange time, rather than trying to write something big about it,” is how he puts it.  ”So I’m actually writing something that tries to capture the present day. And I’m [also] writing something that absolutely, completely and utterly ignores the present day. So that balance seems to be working for me.”

I have loads of work so it’s great. But there was a while ago, March, April, where I was wondering ‘what will I do?’. 

It’s an odd experience, reading Love, because most of it takes place in a scattering of Dublin pubs. The night out that Davy and Joe has isn’t possible now.

As they reminisce about their old haunts, the sense of nostalgia becomes covered with yet another layer of nostalgia – the reader’s own. At one point, Davy lists out their local pubs, and it’s like reading a relic from times past. 

“I think almost in a way the book takes on a nostalgia that was never intentional.”

But though Doyle had no idea about the way the pandemic would colour his new book, there’s another element in it that also feels somewhat pertinent right now. When Davy meets up with Joe, Joe tells him about a new relationship he has. This new woman – a woman from their mutual past – made him realise he was living a “shadow life”.

The shadow life, says Doyle, is “like this imagined life that runs parallel to the real one. And often it’s a regret if you like, and an intelligent human being would also probably concede, well that was never going to happen, but it’s always that elusive thing, ‘what if’. And Joe actually articulates it.”

That idea of a shadow life is something that hits strongly now. What shadow lives would our alternative selves be living in a 2020 without a global pandemic? 

“I think this thing is going to go on so long, the rest of our lives. I don’t think it matters too much what age you are at the moment, but the rest of our lives is going to be measured somehow post-pandemic,” he says. “We’re going to see things in a post-pandemic way it’ll be like post-war.”

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He has an image of people, in a few years’ time, being able to go into pubs again, when we’ll remember that “it wasn’t always like this”. 

Yet his characters in Love are “not pining for the old days”. “They’re still vital, they still like the present day. They’re not ready to make themselves redundant or retire. So they still feel alive in the world.” Perhaps there’s another lesson in there for us too. 

The pub is an important, almost talismanic, place for Davy and Joe. It’s also an important device in much of Doyle’s work – why so?

“When I was a teenager the aspiration was to go into a pub and be accepted, if you like,” he explains. “To go to the counter, say ‘can I have a pint of Guinness’. Just make sure there was no desperation or nervousness in your voice, don’t say ‘please’ too emphatic, don’t break down in tears if he says, ‘Yeah’. It was a trial.”

Doyle says that these days, he and his closest friends don’t meet in each other’s homes. “We go to a neutral space, a pub. We don’t have the clutter of home. It’s almost like you hang more things than your coat when come in,” he says. 

You often find that you “continue the conversation you might have been having the last time you met”, he adds. In that neutral world, there’s a comfortable shorthand between pals.

“You don’t need to look over your shoulder to make sure there’s nobody listening to what you say. And if you say something that sounds a bit brutish, it isn’t, and the people you’re talking to understand it’s not, and you don’t have to justify yourself. So there’s an ease to it.”

This isn’t everybody’s world, he notes. But it’s a world that’s familiar to Joe and Davy, who converse in that sometimes staccato Doyle style, with layers of subtext and meaning beneath seemingly nonchalant or throwaway observations. Where a “– Yeah” doesn’t mean ‘yeah’.

The novel started with “a spark of autobiography”. Davy and Joe visit a relative at a hospice, which was inspired in part by Doyle’s mother’s death at a hospice.

More autobiographical sparks flitted in the air long before the novel was written. Ten years ago, Doyle attended a reunion at the school where he once taught. Watching former students coming towards him, he says it was almost like he could see them age in real time. Yet he also witnessed how the dynamics between the former pupils had not changed. It was as though time had collapsed upon itself.

“I met three middle aged women. And the last time I’d seen them they were three 16-year-old girls who used to hang around together. And as they got closer and I was chatting to them, [I realised]… they still hung around together.”

It’s this oxymoronic sense of time moving on and staying still that stands out in Love. 

We may think we stay the same inside, but we’re changing constantly. Even if we don’t want to. 

Love by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape and is out on 15th October. 

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