Irish author Roddy Doyle shares a meal and tales of self-publishing and heavy-metal background music with John Niven
Roddy Doyle was born in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, in 1958. He worked as a teacher for more than a decade before finding literary success with novel The Commitments, which became a hit film in 1991 directed by Alan Parker. He won the Man Booker Prize in 1993 for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
We had lunch in London (pork for him, lamb onglet for me) when Doyle was over for the rehearsals of the stage play of The Commitments. I drank two glasses of chianti and a glass of sauternes with dessert (lemon polenta cake for both of us), while he sensibly limited himself to a single glass of pilsner. It was a very hot day.
John Niven: It’s been 26 years since The Commitments was published and now it’s a musical. Does it surprise you that it’s been that long?
Roddy Doyle: What’s surprised me is almost none of the musical’s cast were born when I wrote the book!
JN: Does that scare you? The years?
RD: No. Why should it? I like it. I self- published the book in 1987 and I had no idea that a quarter of a century later it would be a West End musical. That was far from my thoughts.
JN: Did you intend for your first novel to be written around music?
RD: No. If things had gone to plan, it wouldn’t have been my first book. I wrote a novel beforehand – it’s in the National Library now, in Dublin – and, obviously, it’s sh*te. Didn’t have an agent. Couldn’t get an agent. It was, rightly, turned down everywhere. When it came to The Commitments, I just assumed it’d be rejected, so I decided I’d publish it myself.
JN: How much did that cost you?
RD: I can’t remember the exact figure. I’d gone into the bank looking to borrow the money for a second- hand car. I had a full-time job, I didn’t have a mortgage, or a family. No responsibilities...
JN: Quite punk rock, in a way.
RD: In a way, yes. Of course, these days it’d be called ‘indie’.
JN: You were teaching at this point. Were you a good teacher?
RD: I hope so. I’ve stayed in touch with some of the kids I used to teach. They’ll be in their fifties, some of them. I taught from when I was 21 or 22 until my mid thirties. I went straight into it from uni – almost accidentally – and I thought I’d give it a year. My degree was bad, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I drifted into teaching, and within a week I just loved it.
JN: But you went in thinking, “I’ll just pay the rent while I write my novel?”
RD: No. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was published in May 1993, and I gave up teaching in June. That was my fourth novel. The Commitments had been released as a film. The Snapper was in production. I just enjoyed it.
JN: Was it odd, still teaching while becoming – ‘celebrity’ might not be the right word – but celebrated?
RD: It was a bit, looking back. I also became a father twice in the same period, so life became quite hectic.
JN: There’s something of a tonal shift around the time of Paddy Clarke. A sombreness comes in.
RD: Yes. Well, with the Rabbittes living in this council house, I always knew they had next-door neighbours – metaphorically – and I wondered what those stories might be about. There might be a woman who was getting battered, and that turned into The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. I think it started with The Van, dealing with redundancy. It was also a time of Thatcherism. Of recession. Or ‘normal life’ as we call it in Ireland.
JN: Were you ever in a band? You write so vividly about music.
RD: No. The main character in The Commitments is the manager because I didn’t want to pretend to be a musician. My new novel [The Guts] is full of fictional bands, music and lyrics that don’t exist.
JN: You write for the theatre, too. Do you enjoy jumping between novels and plays?
RD: I don’t think I’m a natural playwright. I’ve written plays when I’ve been asked, whereas the novels I’ve written because I wanted to.
JN: Why do you think that is?
RD: [Thinks very hard] I’d never go anywhere without a book. But if I didn’t go to the theatre for a long period, I don’t think I’d miss it.
JN: Do you incline to Nabokov’s view that the theatre was a “communal, primitive, atavistic” form of entertainment, inferior to the novel?
RD: Well, he’s a novelist, isn’t he? I wouldn’t share that view, no. It’s a fun one – it would irritate a lot of people – but if I get engrossed in a play I’m unaware of anyone else in the room.
JN: Theatre’s also collaborative, like filmmaking, which is why it maybe scares many novelists.
RD: I think the monstrous side of filmmaking is more entertaining than the pragmatic daily business. But I’ve been lucky. On The Commitments film, for instance, I did a version of the script and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote on top of that. A lot of my version disappeared, but there was blending. I mean, when you find out someone like Alan Parker is going to bring it to life, why wouldn’t you collaborate? In the abstract sense, I’d have loved to have been a director in the same way I’d have loved to have been a footballer. I don’t really want to be. As long as I can fall back on fiction, then doing plays or TV is fine. They’re interesting novelties.
JN: Do you listen to music when you’re writing?
RD: When I’m writing a first draft I listen to Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Maybe Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
JN: Mogwai are good for that.
RD: Very much so. I was really pleased with myself when I wrote two pages of a short story while listening to the Lou Reed/Metallica album very loud.
RD: I thought so, yes.
The Guts is out now, priced £12.99 (Jonathan Cape)