J P O'Malley

Roddy Doyle: I’m a middle class person commenting on working class life

Roddy Doyle: I'm a middle class person commenting on working class life
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Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958. He first came to prominence with his debut novel The Commitments, which he self-published in Ireland in 1987. The book was then published in the UK in 1988 by William Heinemann. The two books which followed, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991), completed his Barrytown Trilogy. All three books were subsequently made into extremely successful films.

In 1993 Doyle won the Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. The book was praised for Doyle’s ability to write convincingly in the idiom of his main protagonist, Paddy Clarke: a ten-year-old boy residing in Dublin in the 1960s.

Doyle’s popularity has continued to soar. He is the author of nine novels, two collections of short stories and a memoir about his parents, entitled Rory & Ita. He has also written for theatre, film, and television. Highlights include the play, Brown Bread (1987) his BBC drama, Family (1994) and the film, When Brendan Met Trudy (2000).

Doyle’s latest novel, The Guts, sees him return to one of his first fictional creations, Jimmy Rabbitte. When readers were first introduced to this cocky band manager of The Commitments back in the late 1980s, he was attempting to bring Dublin soul to the world.

Jimmy is now forty-seven, living with his wife and four kids. He has also just learned that he has bowel cancer. The Guts, like much of Doyle’s previous work, contains tender writing about family life, together with a wicked sense of humour that is conveyed to the reader mostly through the use of dialogue.

The West End performance of The Commitments opens at the Palace Theatre in London on October 8

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. The Show is being adapted for the stage by Doyle and is directed by Jamie Lloyd. I caught up with the Dublin based author at the Palace Theatre. 

Did you find yourself going back to your notes from The Commitments for this current book?

Well I have no notes from The Commitments. I didn’t keep a thing.

I never attached importance to notes, first or second drafts, or anything like that. It was only when I was asked by the National Library in Dublin to give them my archive of work that I began to think about notes. I didn’t actually think I could use the word archive to describe the crap that was hanging around my office! But I agreed. So I started gathering the stuff that I had, which wasn’t much.

But I did have an original copy of The Commitments, which I used for writing the screenplay of the film. I did have notes on that, and bits of dialogue that I was going to try and use. But other than those things, there was nothing particularly insightful. So no, I didn’t use any notes for this book. 

Why did you decide to self-publish The Commitments in 1987 in Ireland: could you not find a publisher for it?

It was really because I was tired of sending out stuff and being rejected. I had written a novel before The Commitments called Your Granny’s a Hunger Striker, which was very poor. When you finish something that you have been working on for years, the awareness that it’s poor arrives— quite luckily—a while later, psychologically. So it was only when I started writing The Commitments that something clicked and I thought: this is what I want to do.

You send off short stories, and either you get nothing back or you get rejected. I know it’s part of your job as a writer, and actually it’s no harm. A slap on the head is a useful reminder, now and again, that you have to work. But I just thought: I’ll do it myself. Students from the school I was teaching in at the time helped me with the cover, and they even appeared on it. 

Would you talk about the way you use narration in this novel, and in your other books, where the third person omniscient voice is distinct, but also uses the language of the characters as well? The technical term, I believe, is free indirect style.

Well I always feel like my first book, The Commitments, really didn’t really have a narrator at all. I had the characters as near to the front of the page as I could get them, nearly all of the time. If we can use the analogy of film, try and imagine that the author has a camera: he is bang up against the faces of the the characters, and he is at their shoulders all the time, so that his view is almost theirs, but just slightly different. The author is somewhat detached. This method of narration is not far off being the first person. By having that indirect style, which is close to the characters, but a little bit distant, I can control what is going on — well I am doing that anyway because I am the writer — and get very close to it at the same time.

You seem to have a great ear for dialogue in your books, particularly in your ability of accurately reproducing Dublin speech. Do you think the language that is used in your books north side Dublin slang has a certain music to it in the way people express themselves?

Well I love English how it’s spoken in Dublin. I love the rhythm and the bullet of it. Even though I’ve grown up with it, I still actively listen to it. I find in other cities I have been to, people don’t engage as informally as they do in Dublin. Now as a writer, if you have got something as strong as that: why wouldn’t you use that language to create stories from? 

Your characters often seem to be very class conscious — particularly Jimmy in this novel. Are you trying to convey in your work an inferiority complex that working class people might feel against middle class people? Is there a friction that exists between the two classes?

Well there is fun to be had in exploring this. And yes there is friction. Class is a very subtle thing in Ireland. It might be more obvious here in the UK, I don’t know. Jimmy says, for example, that in the working class estates where he comes from, the dogs are big killers, illegal, that they should have muzzles, and suits of armour! Whereas in the estate he’s living in now, he says, they’re little yappers. There is an element of truth in this: I live in Clontarf in north Dublin, and I bring my own dogs walking on the seafront, two little King Charles spaniels. But now and again you see the lads in the tracksuits coming at you, and they’ve got these huge-horse-like dogs, and they’re holding them back!

I think class is often a question of priorities: what’s important to you. If you have money: what will you spend it on? I really can’t imagine any society, no matter how egalitarian it is, that will ever eliminate people’s urge to somehow — for want of a better phrase — redefine themselves. By and large this subject of class is fun to deal with as a writer. I mean it can be atrocious at times as well. But little snobberies are hilarious really. Unless it’s someone pointing out your own of course! 

Would you call yourself a middle class person commenting on working class life?

Ah yeah.

And do you think there is more honesty in the language that working class people use to express themselves: is that why it interests you so much as a writer?

Yeah, I like the bluntness. I grew up on the Kilbarrack Road [on Dublin’s north side]. Our house was a bungalow. That would have made us middle class, I suppose.

But my father’s background would have been more solidly working class than my mother’s. He went through an apprenticeship, and left school before he did the Inter Cert [the Irish equivalent to O levels]. And my mother then would have done the Leaving Cert [equivalent to A levels]. But it would have been relatively rare for a girl to go up to Leaving Cert at that time. So I kind of grew up with one foot in both camps. And one of my toes was in rural Ireland as well because my mother’s people came from Wexford. 

Why do you never feel the need to give specific attention to detail in your books: do you think it would take away from your characters if you did? I’m specifically talking about the lack of elaborate language here. 

Well if you are imagining yourself walking beside, say, Jimmy Rabbitte for example: why would you imagine what he is seeing in detail? Joyce does it brilliantly in Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom is walking around Dublin. But I think that is part of Leopold Bloom’s character. He is observing everything: the textures, the smells and the minute detail. But I always felt, going back again to The Commitments, that describing how things are physically would be a constraint. I didn’t want to describe physical details unless they were part of the story.

You’ve spent quite a bit of time in London over the years, would you talk about that?

It was of necessity really at the time. When the exams were over, many Irish university students came to London to work. When I came here I spent six months working as a road sweeper, actually not far from here: I would have done Bond Street and Piccadilly mostly. I lived for a while in Finsbury Park, and then in Peckham. The rent was eight quid a week in shared room, so it worked out at 4 quid each. That was 1978. 

But then you came back again, to write in the summers, when you were a teacher: why did you decide to do that? 

When I started teaching it was a bit like being a student except that I was being paid for three months of the year when I didn’t have to work. And this was before I had a family, or any commitments, or anything like that. So In 1982 I came here to London for the summer.

I just thought: I would like to get away from the distractions of normal life in Dublin. One of my sisters lived here at the time, but other than that, I didn’t really know anybody. I had a bed-sit in Wood Green, where I could write in the morning, got to the pictures in the afternoon, and I would go to gigs in the evening. It was a good life. And I could afford it because I was being paid a full teaching salary. So there was nothing economic that was compelling me to do the writing. But it was good because when you are on your own — even though I’m quite comfortable on my own — life seems to be longer. When you are at home the day seems more compressed. When you are in a place like London, when you are an outsider, it’s easier to say: I will do some writing for the morning without any distractions. And when I got back to work the following September in Dublin, I became very disciplined to do a few hours in the evening, and at the weekend. And I actually started to fill copybooks with writing.

The Guts by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape. (£12.99)