(Part of the Dublin: One City One Book programme for 2015)
Dublin: One City, One Book is a Dublin City Council initiative, run by Dublin City Public Libraries. In the ten years of its existence it has grown from a handful of events to a month long festival. Every year, a book connected to Dublin is chosen and a programme of events is built around it. This year’s book is the Barrytown Trilogy, by Roddy Doyle, which publishes three of his earlier novels in one: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van.
Catherine Dunne interviewed Roddy Doyle in the RDS Concert Hall on Wednesday 8th April. Introducing the event, Jane Alger said that if you’ve seen the films you might think you know the books, but you don’t – until and unless you read them.
This is the sort of thing I wish people would say more often.
I can’t reproduce CD’s questions, because they were so skilful – and the two writers know each other so well – that being there felt like listening in on a conversation where one person (by design) did most of the talking, with unobtrusive prompts from the other. They were that relaxed and easy together, despite the couple of hundred or so people who were eavesdropping. Here’s a summary:
Catherine Dunne and Roddy Doyle go back a long way. They met 36 years ago in the staffroom of Greendale Community School as young teachers. RD started as a H Dip student, complete with Doc Martins and stud in his ear (his nickname was Punk Doyle). In fact, CD lent him a smaller earring for his interview. He loved that job, loved the kids, enjoyed the way they spoke. It was a new school in a rapidly developed part of Dublin, the staff were young and enthusiastic, there was a great sense of fun there – although he wouldn’t want to be too nostalgic about it. He realised he had a great interest in how people speak, in the patterns and speed of speech, how sentences are constructed, how you could be clear without being accurate.
In 1982 he went to London and spent the summer writing an ‘awful’ novel. In 1986, starting to write The Commitments, something finally clicked with him, it was the voices he heard around him every day that he was interested in writing. He imagined the kids a bit older, ‘grown up’. They weren’t that much younger than him. He worked out new rules for himself, how to spell things, making it up as he went along. He knew he wanted to get a group of young people together, and the best way to do it would be either through football or a band (RD is a soccer fan, with a wide-ranging love of music). Paul Mercier – who also worked in Greendale at the time – had just written Studs, an inventive and clever play about a football team so RD opted for the band instead. (He possibly had his tongue planted in his cheek for that one, but it’s a good story. Plausible too.)
It was fun, he said, to superimpose Black soul on Dublin. There were a couple of Ska bands at the time that influenced him: The Specials’ Trombone player Rico Rodriguez, for example, looked ‘really cool’; RD wanted someone like that in the novel, someone who’d been to America and played there, but nothing had to be explained. He likes that, when there is ‘a backstory, as the film people say’ but you don’t have to tell it.
He laughed, saying he was accused of sexism at the time because the women don’t play instruments. Those people missed the point completely: the men don’t play well and the women run rings around them. CD asked if The Commitments was fun to write (great question). RD says writing isn’t fun, but it was exhilarating.
Writing is a job, he says. He doesn’t believe in inspiration. You don’t wait for the words to come, you have to be writing or the ideas won’t come at all. He’s about 40K words into a new novel, and he’s only now beginning to feel he knows what it is. He doesn’t measure his output in words per day but in pages per day. The first draft is the hard part. (CD: It’s like you’re pulling it down out of the ether). RD likes getting out the red pen.
He is, famously, a voracious reader. Asked what his favourite early books were, he says: the William books (Richmal Crompton) and everything by Enid Blyton. Later Catch 22 was a big hit – he was devastated that there were no more by Joseph Heller (until Something Happened). Ragtime (E.L Doctorow) was another favourite. He talked about a TV programme called the Paperback Review – a great idea, his whole family used to watch it. He first heard of Isaac Bashevis Singer there, read The Slave, was enthralled by it. Another favourite was At Swim Two Birds by our own Flann O’Brien. Now? He’s addicted to the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Favourite themes include families, and they talked about Family, Doyle’s 1994 TV series. CD remembered its impact – it aired a few nights after the triumph of Riverdance, and there was quite a (predictable) fuss at the time. We’d just had such a triumph, why drag us down to the muck again? – and so on. RD got hate mail, death threats. [Although it has to be said that practically the whole country cheered at the decisive moment in Episode 4 when Ger Ryan as Paula clocked Charlo with the frying pan. It was a truly iconic moment in Irish culture; I remember it well.] Then he went on to write The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. There was quite the fuss about that too, but he got a lot of support from women’s groups.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, his brilliant, Booker winning novel about childhood was a deliberate departure from the trilogy. Having a child of his own got him thinking about childhood; his parents still lived in the house he grew up in, he could do things like go down on his knees to see the height of the fridge from that perspective. CD asked how he thought himself back to the state of a 6 or 7 year old child. RD said, When you’re a man you don’t have to go too far back.
That got a laugh from the crowd. We laughed a lot. They talked about other things: the later novels, the play (The Commitments is currently running in London), ghostwriting The Second Half (Roy Keane’s autobiography), the Libretto he’s writing now (an English language version of Don Giovanni). Roddy Doyle is nothing if not versatile. He’s also famously generous, with his time and with his support. On this occasion he was fantastically generous and open with his responses. Then again, he was in good hands. The whole occasion was a rousing success. We were all a little startled when Catherine Dunne realised they had run over time – we hadn’t felt the time pass. That’s how entertained we were. Then we all repaired to the fabulous RDS library for refreshments.
For the full – and extremely varied – programme of this year’s Dublin: One City, One Book, go to: