Roddy Doyle talks to Kathy Sheridan about fame, school, activism and getting older
Ahead of the publication of his new novel, Roddy Doyle talks to Kathy Sheridan about his body of work, the brutality of school, the onward march of time and accidentally courting controversy
Roddy Doyle is nearly 60. It seems hardly credible. The “bald man with glasses ”, ash edescribes himself, seems timeless, forever of Commitments age. He recalls a heavy interview day in Milan about 15 years ago, when a media couple swept in, “like a scene from a Fellini film. Leather trousers, shades on a dark day. And they started – ‘ where are the cool places to go in Dublin?’ I hadn’t a clue . . . They had a notion that because I wrote The Commitments, I will forever be 28.”
But he is slowing down. “I’m changing. I’m mitching a bit these days, yeah. I haven’t done any work in quite a while. Just tiny bits and pieces. Up ’ til recently I’d have said I’m well capable of doing three or four things at the one time but now I’m almost dreading a new piece of work coming along. Having a new book out carries an anxiety; watching a play in rehearsal carries an anxiety. It’s a bit terrifying.”
A glance at his body of work may reduce lesser beings to despair. Eleven novels, seven children’s books, plays, screenplays, short stories in the New Yorker, a musical, a ground- breaking television drama series, a Man Booker prize, a Bafta, a libretto for the opera, Don Giovanni, for pity’s sake. It’s not clear if one of the “bits and pieces” is a searing film script about homelessness, “currently in the process of getting funding, hopefully”, about a woman in a car with children.
“I was looking at the list of stuff that I’ve done and even trying to account for what I’ve done in the last four years – and if I wasn’t me, I’d be impressed,” he says with a laugh. “Don Giovanni was only going into rehearsal this time last year, I’ve had the Two Pints play that the Abbey did and Smile, the new book now. I’ve already done a stage version of The Snapper that’s going on in the Gate next year. So yeah, I’d say it’s all becoming a bit punishing really.”
He can afford to take time out, probably. Has money made a difference to his life? “No, I don’t think so. I’ve travelled to places where I wouldn’t have gone if I’d been a teacher. Sometimes I’ve been invited – Palestine, India . . . There have been pieces of work that made quite a lot of money, most recently the Commitments musical. That was great because I’m quite content earning a lot of money, but on the other hand, it allows me to do work that earns no money whatsoever.” The latter includes a deep involvement in adult literacy programmes, that libretto for Don Giovanni – “makes no economic sense whatever but it doesn’t matter”; and Two Pints – “done in pubs. Tickets are cheap,” he grins.
His life is normal, disciplined, family- oriented. His work meant he was at home with the three children in the early years – “My commute was up and down the stairs.” These days, when he wakes at about 6am, he spends a few hours reading. Right now, that includes Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, “the absolutely brilliant” Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. He keeps up with contemporary Irish fiction and will go out of his way to read younger writers, “because I wouldn’t have a problem listening to music by someone of 20 or 30 so why wouldn’t I read the work of people of that age, if it’s good?”
A northside Dubliner who has lived in Clontarf for nearly 30 years, a short hop from where he was reared, he is far from a recluse – a perception he finds hilarious. He enjoys a pint with his old schoolmates, uses the bus to go into town, and enjoys going unrecognised. Allowing for the occasional blip, such as the row over the national maternity hospital, he feels “very comfortable living here, even as a non- Catholic”.
It wasn’t always so. He put anti- amendment leaflets through doors during the 1983 abortion referendum campaign and recalls that time as “one of the ugliest social moments in my life as an Irish person. It was poisonous. There was never a debate and I was thinking I was somehow – Jesus – Davy Crockett or something that I survived. That poison was there for decades and still is.”
Ten years later, the “notion that I was now somehow public property” after the Man Booker Prize win alarmed him so much that he wanted to run away. “All my family, me as well, want nothing to do with the public side and we made a decision to live privately. What encapsulates it more than anything else was when Family [ a four- part BBC/ RTÉ television drama featuring a battered wife] was broadcast.”
The shocking first episode i n 1993 turned him into a news headline and a subject on current affairs shows. He was havi ng a pint i n Raheny on a Saturday, “half- pissed and already feeling depressed enough after watching Chelsea lose the FA Cup Final”, when people drifting in from evening Mass told him the priest had been giving out about him from the altar. A raft of “really ugly letters” followed, railing against Family’s depiction of working- class life and accusing Doyle of undermining marriage. The nadir was a death threat in the post. That gave “additional significance” to going for a bottle of milk or answering the phone, he recalls in the tone of someone who remembers too well.
“So it was batten down the hatches. It’s actually very easy to live privately here, particularly as you get older. Bald men with glasses aren’t exactly rare. But I’ve seen Paul Weller walking down Grafton Street and he is very distinctive looking, yet nobody went near him. I think on any other street elsewhere in the world, he’d be mobbed.”
And here is Roddy Doyle, fulfilling his publicity obligations, gamely insisting that “there’s a certain novelty to it”.
He has come a long way from the days of having to defend his writing style against critiques of the “he has no idea how to write
Up ’ til recently I’d have said I’m well capable of doing three or four things at the one time but now I’m almost dreading a new piece of work