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

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

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

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