Anna Blackburn and Natalia Duran chat with beloved Irish author Roddy Doyle about his time at UCD, controversy in his early work, and how he has evolved as a writer over the past 35 years.
1970s Dublin was a very different place compared to the modern day. Rock & Roll and the Blues dominated the pub music scene, many students left school early for apprenticeships or secretarial work and even fewer attended university, and authors like Virginia Woolf, Flann O’Brien, Laurence Sterne, and Charles Dickens began to inspire a young man at UCD who would become one of the most well-known and influential writers of our time.
After spending a semester on internship at Fighting Words and working alongside co-founder Roddy Doyle on several projects, Natalia Duran and I were eager to learn about Doyle’s writing process and his personal thoughts regarding modern controversy in his early work.
Doyle described himself as being an “avid reader” as a child, while also dreaming of becoming a professional footballer. In school, he befriended a group of boys who all enjoyed football, reading books, and listening to rock and roll. “We always saw them as more or less the same thing. You know, there was no contradiction between liking football and reading Flann O’Brien or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” But unfortunately for the young man, he was “really such a bad footballer, the words haven't been invented to describe how bad it was” and so he pursued his love of literature at university.
He attended University College Dublin from 1976-1980, studying English and Geography and later earned his diploma in Education. Doyle spent 14 years teaching at a community school which inspired much of his early work. “It was the best decision I ever made, really…” Doyle told us, “teaching 13, 14, 15 year olds, just being in their company. It was co-ed boys and girls, which was quite frankly revolutionary for mid 1970s Ireland and I was teaching in the middle of a working class area on the northside of Dublin, about four kilometers from where I am now and around the corner from where I grew up.”
Over the years, his observation of the classroom, the students, and “getting to know the rhythms of the life” in the area gave him the voices for his characters and sparked the idea for The Snapper (1990). Doyle noted that during his time teaching, a few of the girls became pregnant while in school, another thing that was “quite revolutionary given Ireland at the time.” The girls would be pregnant in school, and afterwards, would not leave for a Mother and Baby Home, but leave the child at home with its grandparents which Doyle described as “such a great thing to witness, a lesson for me and in a way it inspired my second novel, The Snapper.” But Doyle said it wasn’t teaching that made a writer out of him, it merely gave him his subject matter.
Two years after he had begun teaching, he spent the summer months in London and got into the habit of writing by forcing himself to write every morning. He knew that if he was going to continue writing in his spare time, it would have to become a discipline. “You kind of have to nail yourself to a desk and for a while. It’s a bit like learning to drive, you learn to use the gears and then after a while you stop thinking about it.” Early on, he began by writing for a few hours a day until it became part of his routine.
When he had finished teaching, Doyle had already written four novels, two screenplays, two stage plays, and was in the middle of filming a television series. “I didn't stop because I didn't want to teach anymore, I stopped because I really didn't have the time.” During his years of teaching, Doyle married and had two children and settled into the family life so he decided to give up teaching to focus on his writing career. Many define an ‘artist’ as someone who makes a living out of their art, but for Doyle that was never what it was about. When he stopped teaching, he said he “worried that [he] was cutting off [his] creative artery.” But as it happens, it did not work out that way.
Stories continued to surge from his mind, with new characters at the forefront of his work. “Starting [to write a new character] is a little bit like getting to know somebody. When you first meet, everything about them is brilliant. Then reality starts to intervene and you realize that they're human after all.” Doyle said he spends a lot of time with his new characters, allowing them to occupy his thoughts and thinking about what they might buy at the supermarket or what phrases they may use based on their age, gender, race, etc. Doyle said he really enjoys writing children characters because, while the language and experience of females and teenagers feels foreign to him, “children don't differentiate between what's officially important and what isn't – everything is important.” But very quickly, he turns his focus toward making sure that his characters are good, “not good as in morally good, good as in a well-written character and that becomes more important than anything.” In his fourth book, The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), Doyle said he had to push aside thoughts of good versus bad morality and “concentrate on the quality of the prose.” For Doyle, the story is not about the issue, it is about “creating a story that people can immerse themselves in. It's important to remember that no matter what I want to achieve, perhaps politically, I'm writing a novel and the fact that it's a novel is more important than the subject matter.”
“I find heroism is in the daily struggle... who would've thought, 18 months ago, that caterers in hospitals could be considered heroic. But, now, there's heroism attached to that.”
Duran and I noticed two major elements in Roddy Doyle’s novels. The first being the lack of the modern-day conception of a ‘hero’ character and the second, his minimal use of description with emphasis on dialogue, especially in his early works. When asked about the lack of a ‘hero’ character, Doyle said, “I find heroism is in the daily struggle,” mentioning his admiration for frontline workers of the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially those working in hospitals: “who would've thought, 18 months ago, that caterers in hospitals could be considered heroic. But, now, there's heroism attached to that.” Doyle also said, “I wouldn't want to burden anybody with the phrase of a ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ because it seems to deny their humanity, and I think we're all flawed and it's vital that we remember that,” and to him, the best, most well-written characters are flawed.
When asked about his minimalistic approach to description and reliance on dialogue, Doyle alluded to his first novel, The Commitments (1987), “There are all these different voices, you know, and I never got around to describing them physically, except for a few key things, because it seemed irrelevant.” In The Commitments, all of his characters talk very quickly and Doyle felt it would be more effective to distinguish the different voices by giving them repeated phrases. In regard to The Snapper, because it was a more intimate story, Doyle found the use of dialogue was the most efficient way of communicating their emotions, asking himself “what’s the best way for her to give the news to her parents? Tell them. What's the best way for them to convey their feelings? Talk.” He feels words say a lot more than facial expressions.
The Commitments is a short novel built around Doyle’s love for music, which has continued to influence his work. “I loved the pub music scene. I went to a lot of pubs that have music and I went to a lot of gigs, and that was really what inspired The Commitments, trying to imagine a bunch of kids from the area that I began to call Barrytown, doing what I watched being done.” He not only wanted to portray the live music scene in Dublin but also capture the “noise of Dublin, the voices, the humor that's in the air.” Whenever he sits down to write, Doyle listens to music on the record player in his office, enjoying artists like Philip Glass, Steve Wright, and John Lydon’s Public Image LTD. “It’s the music I need when I’m writing a story. When I have a new piece of work, I tend to look for a new piece of music to associate with the new story. It somehow makes the room a bit more like the particular room for that particular piece of work.”
Another cultural influence which Doyle incorporates into his work is religion. While it does not have a direct impact on his work, he makes sure to be aware of the people for whom religion is still quite important. Doyle, himself, has been an atheist since he was a teenager, however linguistic references to religion and God appear in his work, with characters using phrases such as “for God’s sake” and “Jesus Christ, we’re not going out today.” Doyle feels a layer of Catholicism will always be somehow present in Ireland. “In a way, it's a bit like traditional Irish music. You may not like it, but it's there, you know. It's always gonna be in the air somehow and religion is a little bit like that as well. I have to be alert to the fact that when I'm writing about characters, just because religion means nothing to me, it doesn't mean it doesn't mean anything to anybody.”
In addition to the ever-changing societal views of religion, Doyle incorporates other social, economic, and political topics into his stories such as racist language, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and immigration. While he said it was not his intent to highlight these issues as a way to bring about change, many people still view his work as strong, raw accounts of problems which need to be discussed and addressed in society instead of remaining hushed wrongdoings. However, his collection of short stories, Deportees and Other Stories (2007), was written with the intention of raising awareness about the change in Irish society in relation to the economic pick-up in the 90s and early 2000s and the increase of immigrants from all over the world. Regarding the recent Black Lives Matter movement, Doyle said, “I think Black Lives Matter is brilliant because I don't think it's going anywhere. It's not a fad that is going to be put back up on the shelf till the next time. It forces us to think.”
Many critics raise the question of ‘who should be allowed to write what?' This is a concept which has never eluded Doyle. He works very hard to be aware of what is considered appropriate in societal norms. “I think it's something I've always been alert to. When you're writing about somebody you don't have a first-hand experience with, you have to choose the words carefully and always be alert that the Dublin I step out into today is not the same place as it was thirty years ago”. In 1987, after the publishing of his first novel The Commitments, Doyle may not have thought anything of using the n-word in the story because it was normal then, however, he is very conscious that is no longer appropriate.
In response to a suggestion that the protagonist’s pregnancy was a result of rape in The Snapper, Doyle said “It's certainly open to interpretation. In 1986, it wasn't. I think some people have difficulty understanding that, essentially, the book is a comedy and they ask, how can you write a comedy about a rape? And my argument would be, it's not about rape, it's about a woman taking control of her own circumstances and I could have no problem justifying it that way. But, when I wrote it, I didn't have to justify it”. This then begs the question, how should society respond to these controversial topics in Doyle’s work? Doyle couldn’t have answered the question better: “I think the way is to leave it and allow it to be discussed and debated and explored in the way that history is, rather than try to pretend that it didn't exist. And who knows what we now consider a norm, what the perspective will be in a few years from now. So rather than try to impose a present-day outlook on the entire human existence, to allow for the layers of progress and regression to explore literature in that way.”
Doyle said it isn’t the brick and mortar of a roof over your head that brings you through life, it’s language and the experiences you have, and the stories you share with others.
While Doyle is most known for being a prolific Irish author, he also co-founded the non-profit organization Fighting Words with Seán Love in 2009. “I would like to think the Fighting Words experience makes young people more secure in their independence... [allowing] children, young people, and older people to take command of their own words. They don't have to feel beheld by anything or anybody for speaking or writing, but that it is theirs. That is fundamentally vital.” Doyle said that it is not the brick and mortar of a roof over your head that brings you through life, it’s language and the experiences you have, and the stories you share with others. Doyle had always hoped that his own, now grown, children would be independent, able to think for themselves, and about others, that the measure of their being was not something he imposed on them, but something they judged for themselves in just being themselves. It is upon these same ideals that Doyle built Fighting Words, helping people on their way through teaching the language of words and stories in a safe environment of creative freedom.
Over Doyle’s 35 years of writing, he has allowed his characters and his subject matter to age and evolve with him. “The Commitments was written by a younger man who is writing about younger people and they don’t look back. As you get to my age, a lot of it is retrospective. You don't look forward too much, because there's not much there to look forward to. My daughter recently left, she was the last one to leave, and inevitably, there was a rush of retrospection. It's like you reach an age where you've got a sack and it’s full of your life. Whereas when you're younger, you don't have that sack, you're much more mobile.” He said that as one ages their priorities and perspectives change, and as a result so does his writing. Doyle said that he tends to write about what is in the air and so he “might run out of energy, but [doubts he’ll] ever run out of things to write about. It seems that year on year, the angle in which you look at the world changes.”
Roddy Doyle is equally proud of all of his work, as an author, father, and co-founder of Fighting Words, and he is still working on several projects. At the moment, he is writing a collection of short stories titled Life Without Children, which he will be delivering in March and will be released in the autumn of this year.
It was an incredible experience chatting with Doyle about his work and his writing processes. “Interviewing Roddy Doyle was like having a chat with an old friend,” said Duran. “Not only is he a smart and talented writer, but a down to Earth person, empathetic and witty, with fascinating life stories, and Fighting Words is proof of that. It is a creative space where everyone you meet feels like a longtime friend.” It was an even more exceptional experience for us to witness his energy while working at the organization, meeting the fun dad-like character who adores children and loves working with them as much as he does helping aspiring writers tell their stories. For all you know, you might knock on the door of Fighting Words one day and find Roddy Doyle there to open it.
Roddy Doyle’s advice for writers:
“When you start you’re also ending, you know. [In The Commitments] there are great hints as the band is forming…that they're not gonna last very long. And even in the first gig, there are tensions like [Jimmy] keeps referring to it as ‘my band’. And that, to me is part of the success.”
“You'll edit it and you decide well, he's not saying much there. Let's get rid of that or have no idea where that came from...and you create a better [story] because you're taking stuff out and you're leaving what should be there. It's a trial and error.”
“Be kind to yourself because you're on your own and there's nobody really helping you. And this is quite that's strength, in a way, the isolation of it, but it’s trial and error.”
“I feel I am my own best judge. I've trained [myself] never to consider that if I put a line through a page and decide on deleting it, that [it] was a waste of time. Actually, I've always enjoyed deleting because, you see, very often, whatever is before the deletion and after the deletion, when they meet each other, it's often so good that you didn't notice until you tore away that a bit.”
“The first draft [of The Snapper] was literally twice as long as the final book, and in other areas, you might think that all those words, all those months and years, maybe writing those words, what a waste of time and they all end up in the bin. But no, because if I hadn't written the ones that [I] didn't want anymore, I wouldn't have been able to write the ones that I did want.”
“A willingness to cut is often the difference between a career writer and somebody who just wants to write.”
“I think the difference between me and somebody who has always wanted to write a book, is that I decided to force [myself] to make it an important part of my daily life. It could be half an hour, it could be an hour, but the discipline is using that to write and trying to make sure that you go back to it regularly. And I keep an idea of the number of words I am writing to make it easier. It's a discipline. Basically, it's allowing it to become part of your life, measured, somehow in chunks of the day.”