Roddy Doyle has, you could say, a knack for timing. His work throughout his nearly three decade career as writer and more specifically novelist is often if not always parallel, indicative, or even predictive of the contemporary state of affairs. While the Abbey produced Doyle’s version of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, the International Monetary Fund arrived as if on time for the performance, and similarly, Doyle's novel The Van paralleled the thrill and excitement of the World Cup. He knows what’s going on—on the ground. One of the advantages he says of writing for Metro Éireann is that it has forced him “to stay awake and not slip into some notion that I know what street life in Dublin is like without having to venture out onto the streets.” The other likely reason for his good timing is his involvement in a community, whether through the non-profit organization Fighting Words or the many circles of friends and fellow artists—in part a consequence of so many of his works being made into films, plays, and now musicals. He is a writer who works with people.
It is almost as if he is writing a cultural history in real time. No easy task by any means. And for this reason, his work over the last two decades, which parallels the boom and bust of Ireland’s economy as well as the waves of immigration and emigration that accompanied those economic changes, is invaluable in making any sense of contemporary migration and diaspora. As part of the Open Door Series, he has written short stories for adult literacy and language learners. He has been a regular contributor to the multicultural newspaper Metro Éireann, in which his serial, short stories have focused on cultural encounters. And then there is Fighting Words, where primary and secondary students—some of whom were born in Ireland and others who have arrived from elsewhere—write creatively together. One payoff of his perspicuity is to make observations about migration that are as relevant now as they were for Henry Smart of Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy.
This interview was conducted on the morning of November 6th, 2012, in the top room of Roddy Doyle’s house in Clontarf. It was sunny and cool and dry.
John: The first thing I’d like to talk about is the Fighting Words program, which you cofounded. Dave Eggers, in his TED lecture on a similar, non-profit program, 826 Valencia, talks about the practical benefits of improving writing skills. When you describe your program, Fighting Words, you stress also the creativity and imagination involved. Could you explain what you see or have seen to have been the value of storytelling particularly in relation to Fighting Words?
Roddy: Well, from my point of view, the easiest way to approach it is to contrast it with creativity in the schoolroom. And it’s not an inherent criticism of education or the education system, but because of the examination system, because of the school timetable—the bell ringing at every forty minutes for example—because of terms or semesters, because things are measured out in time as much as anything else, it flattens creativity. Or certainly it flattens the creative urge, to put it mildly. If you sit down to write a short story, for example, you don’t sit down with the notion I will write this in an hour and ten minutes and then hand it up and get a mark. Nobody writes really creatively in that way. People do—writers and other artists do—submit necessarily to deadlines. They normally have the elbow room within those deadlines to work, and deadlines are no harm as such, but what we try to do at Fighting Words is to invite particularly children and young people to see creativity as an open thing.
Schools—and I’ve actually seen it on posters in schools, so it’s official policy now—schools hammer home the notion that stories are about conflict and resolution, that the story must be planned before it’s written. We don’t necessarily think that that’s a good idea. Where is the magic? Where is the room for changing your mind? Where is the character that you didn’t anticipate becoming a main character and perhaps nudges the other characters aside, and it becomes a much better story because of that? So what we try to do then is to see the work. There’s that cliché “work in progress” which often isn’t a literal thing; it just means I haven’t finished it yet. But actually we like them to see “work in progress” in a very broad sense, that twenty-seven pages of mess can actually be ten pages of a glorious story.
But they need the time and they need the ownership of it. They need that because a lot of kids who work in school rarely get the chance to really claim the story as their own. And as they go into secondary school very bright kids, ironically, doing English may never write fiction again, because it’s not encouraged in the schools, because it is harder to mark. It’s easier to get marks in the exam system for an argumentative essay—for arguing the case that Ireland is a great country, or Ireland is a terrible country, or Ireland could be a better country, all these things rather than writing a short story. So that’s what we do. I agree heartily with Dave because I do think it has a practical purpose. I see all decisions, particularly when they are on the page, as being practical decisions. They’re creative, but it’s a question of encouraging kids to use the red biro on their own work—not wait for somebody over their shoulder to make their minds up for them and take responsibility—but to take responsibility of their own work. And actually a lot of those little decisions—adverb out, adjective in—are very pragmatic decisions. I mean it’s a great way to go through life. And one of the reasons that we are where we are is because of the herd mentality. One bunch of lads does something so all of the lads had decided they had to do the exact same thing. I would have thought true creativity, true creativity encourages individual thought, and actually the crankiness in us all. You do it that way, but you can fuck off, I’m doing it this way. Which is in some ways probably how the Irish tend to do things themselves anyways.
J: I noticed that sometimes you have classes, in which the students are from all different countries and places and backgrounds.
R: That’s it—in the state schools you can almost predict, depending on where in Dublin they’re coming from, West Dublin particularly, but also the North side. The state schools particularly are a fairly accurate reflection of what the population looks like. It’s extraordinary. I never, even after all these years, find it less than exciting when I find Chinese kids, Filipino kids, Nigerian kids in a class of Irish kids, and they’re the Irish as well.
J: Beginning with a prompt which is performed by the students, the first thirty minutes or so is spent writing the story together, and then it sort of splits into each student or small groups of students finishing the story; do you think that writing the story together has any sort of cohering effect?
R: I think it has a relaxing effect on them. It’s a little bit of theater in a way—they create themselves. And we do this really, just to help them relax. We try to let them relax into thinking. I don’t like the notion that writing is fun, because eventually, if you keep on talking, this notion that everything is fun is bullshit. Getting to the end, coming up with a good ending is a pain, and it’s an anxiety, and it’s always an anxiety. Every writer would probably agree [that], at least usually, it’s such an anxiety trying to find a good ending, but you don’t actually get it unless you slog away. But it acts as a kind of, to use that awful phrase, an “ice-breaker,” and as a way of getting to know the kids a little bit—which ones are more assertive, which ones are less assertive. And a lot of them immediately get the point of changing things, because they can see it in front of them, and it’s not just themselves now, and it’s not private—for a while it’s a bit public, so it’s a good way to start.
J: I've attended a number of the workshops, and I noticed that it’s very creative and performative as well, from the skit to reading their stories aloud at the end. Much of your work, the novels and the stories, has also been converted into more performative genres, like plays, movies, and now a musical. I’m wondering, do you ever see the prose work as a seed or as a score for a future performance?
R: Never ever. It would be a big mistake if I did. This is the first draft of a novel that I’m nearly done going through the second draft of, and it has some of the characters from the early books, and if I thought Oh, there could be a film in this, it would be an absolute disaster. The structure, the layout, it is a completely different exercise, and I know because I adapted some of them myself, and it’s more than just whipping out the dialogue and pasting. There’s a lot more that goes on. It’s a bit like at one point, about twenty years ago, readings in books stores were very, very popular. I remember my third book The Van (1991) was the first time where I really kind of toured, and I did about two weeks in the U.K. in different Waterstones bookstores in different cities and it was really brilliant. The shops were packed, and I had a long passage in the book that made good public reading. And the next time I had another book, Paddy Clarke (1993), there were two good passages that made good reading. But when I was writing—and I can’t remember exactly, I think it was The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996)—I was thinking to myself at one point, Oh, this is the bit I’ll read, and then I thought No, no, this is wrong, this is wrong, I’m not writing this for performance, I’m writing this to be read, so I reigned it in. As it happened there is a chapter in that book that makes good public reading, but that’s not why it’s there. And it’s the same with, if I was thinking ahead, thinking, Oh, if I change this a bit it’d really look good on screen, it could go global, or something like that. But no, prose is prose.
J: I know that The Commitments is now being turned into a musical?
R: Yeah, it will be on stage this time next year—late October next year in the West End, London. So the whole thing starts rolling; it’s like an ocean liner really. Once it starts rolling, it just keeps going, so, yeah, it’ll be fascinating to watch. And I wrote the, what they call “the book”—it’s a bit confusing because it’s based on a book, so it’s easier to call it a script—but I wrote the script as well, so I’ve already been heavily involved. We workshopped it and stuff like that, and then there’s the anxiety of wondering whether it will ever go on. And now it is going on.
J: It’s exciting?
R: It will be particularly exciting, and I think I’ll finally relax when I see that the tickets are on sale. Then I’ll know it’s a fact. I’ll be involved in the rehearsals. I don’t know to what degree. I’d imagine there will be a lot of rewriting as we go deeper in. Once you’re on a stage or a space the same size as the stage, you’d have to do the tweaking and the changing, maybe adding lines, maybe taking away lines. It will be very exciting—a bit frantic, but I’m looking forward to it.
J: Just to shift a bit, I think since 2000 you’ve been contributing to the monthly, then weekly, now fortnightly magazine, Metro Éireann—have readers ever contacted you with feedback or responses to the pieces?
R: Very rarely, very rarely people—children respond much quicker. I receive regular letters from children about my children’s books. I’ve had inquiries about the rights to individual stories, and one of them was actually nominated for an Oscar—a film directed by an American woman called Steph Green, which was a story called “New Boy.” It’s now in the first collection of The Deportees (2007), so that was a nice experience. But I just now and again would get some sort of response, but this morning nothing springs to mind.
But I really have enjoyed writing those stories. They’ve been a great little side exercise. I’m always working on a novel. I can’t think of any time—other than sometimes under pressure or deadlines—of setting a novel aside; I’ve always been either actually writing a novel or thinking about writing a novel, and if I had to be more particular about what I do, as opposed to being just a writer, I’d call myself a novelist. But I do like doing other things on the side. I really enjoy writing short stories and by that I mean real ones. I’ve only recently started writing what I would consider real short stories—by recently, when you get to my age, ten years is recent. But the experience of writing these stories which I sometimes see as little novels, almost little skeleton novels, has been terrific. I’d be wandering around, just walking or on the bus, and I’m often thinking about ideas for those stories, and something hits me, and I think Oh, that’ll fit into a story, and it’s really helped me stay awake and not slip into some notion that I know what street life in Dublin is like without having to venture out onto the streets. So it’s been a terrific exercise.
J: For The Deportees and the short stories, what sort of research do you do, if any? Do you, for instance, keep a notebook?
R: I always keep a notebook. I’d have one in my bag. I have one downstairs in the kitchen. I’d never go anywhere without some sort of a notebook. The stories come from different sources really. There’s one of the more recent ones, called “Bandstand,” and it’s about a homeless Polish man living in a tent in Phoenix Park. And that came out of an article I saw in The Irish Times. And it got my imagination going. An article that coincided with the [economic] bust, and now this man is kind of stranded; he arrives just at the wrong time with not enough English—a university degree, but no English. He’s kind of stranded and stuck, and pride won’t let him go home. That’s where that came from. I’m trying to remember, did I have to do any formal research with the first story, “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner.” I really liked writing the story—immediately liked writing the story. It’s told more or less from the point of view of a middle-aged Dublin man. So that, to me, in retrospect, was a wise way for me to start because that’s what I was. And gradually then as I became more confident with it, the younger African man comes into the story; but I think it might be chapter five or four before he arrives and then: What will I call him? Where in Nigeria is he from? What was his sister’s name? And in the story, there’s a food they’re eating that reminds him of a food from his home. Then I started asking the editors—the then editors, there’s only one now, Chinedu Onyejelem—of Metro Éireann: Where in Nigeria does he come from? I don’t want it to be Lagos; where does he come from? Abel Ugba, who now works in the University of East London, suggested Kaduna. And I wanted a food that might remind him of home that wouldn’t be on their table but that the Irish food would remind him of it, and he can explain it, and he gave me that. And then what was his sister called, and he gave me that. So there have been occasions.
I also did one quite recently: I had an African, a Nigerian woman running for Fianna Fáil in the local elections—and that would have been three years ago now—and I went to the election count with Chinedu, and he introduced me to all the African candidates who were running for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and independently. I usually write a chapter a month, but because of the election, I wrote a chapter a week. And I was able to write the last couple of chapters based on the visit to the action camp. And that was a great day. We had a good laugh. But I took notes when I got home.
Also little things I see. There used to be a guy on Grafton Street, painted blue, and I have a story called “I Understand,” which was [the] first story I wrote from the point of view of an African, and twice during the story he walks past this blue man. And I used the blue man because the Gaelic for black man is fear gorm, which translated literally is “blue man.” So I just thought, Well, I’ll plonk that in there and if anyone notices, well grand. But that I suppose is a kind of observation of my own, but wouldn’t be formal research. I did read a few books about contemporary Nigeria when I started. I don’t know if I used anything in them. But I wanted to get a sense of the tribal nature of the place and a recent history of the place—democracy as practiced or not practiced in the place, just to get a stronger sense. Usually it’s word by word; you have to be a bit careful obviously. For instance, when I have Eastern European characters speak. In my experience they are often very, very articulate, very, very fluent, and I just put a little crack in the sentence sometimes. It’s almost like sometimes people are so—Germans, for example, there English is so good, so formal, that it doesn’t seem quite right. So I try to underdo it in a way. You don’t want the misinterpretations to be the point of the story, but just to allow that notion that English is the second language—not a problem, but the second language.
The most recent story I’ve finished is about a woman who’s cleaning houses, or she’s paid to spend a few hours with old people. And her English is improving slightly through the story. Her son is in primary school and her son gives her lessons and deliberately—he’s a bit of a scamp—misleads her in a way. So there are misunderstandings about the words that she’s hearing. But that’s part of the fun of the story.
J: What about with “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner”? I think it’s published in the Metro, and also published subsequently as “The Dinner” in The New Yorker. Did you approach the two venues differently?
R: No. At the time, Bill Buford was the editor of The New Yorker, and he was very keen, because he had taken an extract from my novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and he did a very clever thing: he took pieces out of it, and kind of knit them together to form what seemed like a short story. And he said if you’re doing any stories just tell me. So I wrote to him in the early days of email—certainly my early days of email—and asked him, “Are you interested?” and he said “Yeah.” With The New Yorker, their editing is incredibly rigorous. And there were only slight changes done, largely because—often chapter three of a story might be a slight reminder of how chapters one and two ended, because it’s a monthly experience. In this case there’s no need for that because it’s all written in one segment. He didn’t like the “Guess Who’s Coming to the Dinner” bit; he didn’t like the reference to the movie, and he just wanted to change the title and that was grand with me. I’m often very open to title changes. Sometimes my editors have come up with much better titles than I have. So my titles tend to be just to stick a label on it. Give the document a name. Sometimes I come up with good titles, other times people have come up with better ones. The editing in that case was kind of minimal.
J: In the short stories, it’s often a joke that serves as the icebreaker, in cases—to use your words—“when someone born in Ireland meets someone who has come to live in Ireland.” There’s no doubt that you’re a master of the joke. I’m wondering how you attained this skill. Do you keep a notebook of jokes that you’ve heard? Is it something you developed? Is it something in the family?
R: Kind of funny family, funny parents. Witty parents. Very witty brother. Funny sisters. Funny children. No. I’d be wary of punch lines. I’d never want a punch line. Most of what I consider the jokes, or the lines that make us laugh, come out of a conversation. I don’t go in knowing what they’ll be. If you have your punch line, or if you have your punch line here and you’re writing the dialogue that will get you to the punch line, it’s going to be a bit forced. Now, you can do it well, and the better situation comedy does it well. It’s not too glaringly obvious where you’re being led. But I find that when I have, say, two men talking, the funny line is going to come out of what they are talking about, a response to something. I rarely think of the funny line and then work towards it. Very, very rarely. And in the case of the Metro stories, they are to varying degrees funny, but not necessarily funny—sometimes “Ha ha” funny, other times, if you like, quietly funny. I don’t know when I sit down what the tone is going to be. And I think often I like setting people up to the extent that this is a doggedly serious story and then it goes mad. It’s in the writing. I rarely think of jokes in the formal sense in the way Woody Allen used to be a joke writer for comedians. I could never do that. I could sit all day trying to think of good lines for a comedian, and I never would.
J: Can you feel the joke emerging as you’re writing?
R: Sometimes there’s a burst of energy, where I just feel Ah, this is it, this is what I’m doing. This is it for the next few pages anyway. I never—I think it’s true to say—I never laugh when I write. The stuff here I wrote quite a long time ago. So when I’m reading it, it’s as if I haven’t read it myself, to a degree. And I might kind of think Oh, I like that line, but I never actually laugh out loud. I never do. And when I’m writing, it never occurs to me to laugh. Every line is much the same as every other line except one of the lines to the reader is a funny line. I recognize the humor. But I don’t please myself. No, I don’t laugh.
J: Do you think there are things that are off limits with a joke?
R: No. Within a story, yeah, obviously if I’m writing for children there is stuff that’s off limits. But not at all. I’m the judge. We have our list of banned words. And we have our list of banned topics. But if they’re necessary—by necessary I mean creatively necessary: if there’s a place for them, if they provoke a character, or if they’re said nonchalantly between two characters. If the word, for example, “nigger” is used, it’s there for a purpose really and nothing tells me otherwise. So no, there’s nothing that’s off limits. No. If we’re talking particularly about working broadly.
J: I think it was last week that Two Pints (2012) was released. And it was written via Facebook, is that right? Could you talk about that and a bit about how digital and social media is changing the way we think of the book or the way novelists writes?
R: I don’t know. I think there are limits to how it should influence the writer. And how it will influence the writer. Certainly how the work, the finished book, is distributed will have an impact, and there’s things to be said there. The reason why I opened up a Facebook account is because the main character in my novel needed a Facebook account. And I thought Well, the best way to find out how this works... This would have been January of last year—early January, holiday time—and I was sitting in the kitchen, and I brought the laptop down, and said, Well, here it goes, kind of almost nervously as someone who had no interest in it really. So I opened up this Facebook account, put in some of the details of my life, put up a photograph, and then almost immediately I had friend requests. And being kind of a novice I said “yes” to the first few, and then thought Oh, look there are people I know here, and I put in requests of my own. And gradually then I see Oh, look, he’s put up a bit of music, or she’s put up this article, or she’s put up a picture of a cat. Familiar names began to appear: ex-students of mine, which was brilliant because I was a teacher until 1993. It was fantastic reacquainting myself, even on that distant level, with people some of whom I hadn’t seen since the early eighties. And they’re not much younger than myself. So I began to kind of enjoy it.
But for a while I was wondering, Well, what can I do? And I was away sometime early-ish last year in a hotel room for a few days and I found myself in the evening having a scan through Facebook. Maybe for an hour or so. And I was enjoying it much more than I would have been flicking through the channels on the TV. It might have been before going out. It might have been when I came home or whatever, and I was too tired to read but too awake to fall asleep. And I enjoyed reading articles about American politics and things like that. Even just listening to bits of music that I hadn’t heard in years. And I just thought Well, what can I do? I was back home and the Queen of England had been in Ireland, Obama arrived for less than 24 hours, and it made a huge impact. And I just thought I’ll write a little dialogue. Two lads in a bar talking about it. And I went to Google Images and I found—I’d never done this before—a photograph: two pints of Guinness. I uploaded it, then figured out how to add the dialogue. I’d written it in a document and cut and paste. There it was—sent it out. And the response was terrific. It was great fun. Great, great fun. So I did one a week later. I decided, Well, that worked, I'll do another. I think it was something about Gaddafi. I suppose I did roughly about one a week, but sometimes I did a few more. During the Olympics, for example, I did two in a row on Katie Taylor winning her gold in boxing, one after the other, semifinal and final. Other times I would have gone quite a while without doing any because there wasn’t anything going or I was too busy. Often I write them in my head, say, for instance, while I’m walking home from Fighting Words. And it’s composed in my head when I get home. And I’ll put it in a document, make sure—my own rule is that no descriptions, no names for characters, and that it’s less than 200 words. And then once it’s less than 200 words, I put it up.
But I was just doing this and enjoying it, really, to varying degrees. And then a man who runs a poetry house said he’d love to publish them. This would be last May. He said he’d love to publish them in book form, like a book of poetry almost. I said that’s a great idea but I’ll have to ask my own publisher. Meanwhile, another Irish publisher said that she’d love to do it. I gave them to my own publisher and said what the others had said. I thought it would be a question of deciding whether to go for the poetry book option or the other option, and my publisher, Dan Franklin, who’s published everything I’ve done—all the adult work—said, “No, no I really love this; we can bring it out for Christmas.” I’m going to give him this novel sometime this month, and it’ll be a year before it is published. That’s generally the gap between submission and publication. And it’s useful: another draft, his notes; getting other people to read it; responding to it; cover ideas. The whole works, you know? So it’ll be a year or so before it comes out. Though in the case of Two Pints, he told me I could keep on writing till the day it went to the printers. So it went to the printers in late September. And I wrote one on the day before it went to the printers, just to add a bit of a full stop. Total contrast—not the way I’d want to work normally.
J: Do you think there’s a demand for a kind of real-time literature?
R: I was in Canada last week and now Two Pints is coming out in e-book format. Kind of a lovely thought: Well, we can’t print our own edition, so we’d like to do it as an e-book. And it’s two dollars, ninety-nine cents. Actually, Penguin have also published small essays and small stories that are probably too long for consideration in magazines but too short to be published individually. For example, Nick Hornby had a terrific essay about last year’s football season. Really, really enjoyable. Again I think it was about four quid, and he would have had to wait for months and gather up more essays so that he’d have a book of essays. In a way that’s a good thing, from my point of view. It’ll be nice to know, say, the idea in my head is not a novel, but it isn’t a short story either. And I know there’s that novella country. But it might be a way of allowing me to concentrate on that piece of work with the knowledge that it might be published in e-form. I’d hate to think that that’s the way I'll start thinking, that, Oh, now I’m gonna write some e-books. It may be the future, but I still—personally, if I’m told, Well, e-books it is now, I’d find it hard to cope with. Much more difficult to make a living as well. Much more difficult to make a living. You earn less, frankly. So I see the Two Pints as a kind of surprise to me still, because six months ago I didn’t know it was coming out. You know, it’s a weird one really. A very pleasant surprise in what was a nice quiet year in terms of new work, because I’m working on a new work next year.
J: It seems in a way that you’ve managed to craft a popular audience without catering to the market. This seems to be indicative of a commitment to a popular but not necessarily market-driven approach to literature.
R: Yeah, it’s not market-driven because I don’t know what that would mean. I will know to an extent with the musical coming up. I will know an awful lot more because it is, in a way, very, very market-driven. It has to be, because it’s a theatrical production with the budget of a small film. You’re talking about a lot of people putting a lot of money into the thing, and there are consequences and there are responsibilities. The poster campaign is vital for it. The songs you choose. The songs I chose are the songs I want—it’s based on a novel, not on a movie, so they’re songs that help drive the story, they’re songs where the rhythm will help to drive the story as much as anything else.
In terms of my writing, my books don’t sell in the numbers they used to at all. I haven’t had a book in the bestsellers lists here in Ireland in a long, long time. I can’t remember the last one. But it was never why I wrote in the first place. That was kind of a happy accident. I just try to do the job I do as well as I possibly can. I think A Star Called Henry (1999) might have been the last book I had in the bestsellers list. I’m not altogether sure—or maybe Paula Spencer (2006) in the paperback for a week or so. But it was never about bestselling lists, and if somebody said, Oh, if you could only repeat that, but I’m not sure if I’d know how. Having said that, I am aware of the fact that a lot of people have read my books. In some cases, when people say “Oh, I love your work,” they’re talking about The Commitments (1987) and The Snapper (1990) and the early stuff. And that’s grand, but they’d have no real knowledge of the later work. But that’s fine. I mean, there’s no problem there. I always just have the head down and try to do the job as well as I possibly can. If I’m writing a play, I just think in terms of my own. There are practical considerations, you know? Do we have a break at the end of act two or do we go on? Should there be an intermission? That [choice] you could see as a commercial decision, but at the same time, you’ve got an actor on stage for maybe forty minutes, maybe an hour. He or she needs a break; it’s just not humanly possible to go on. Why would you torture them? So, particularly when you’re working collaboratively, there are decisions which might be made which would be considered beyond strict art, so to speak. All collaborative work—a play can be considered literature, but once it’s in the hands of others, it’s very practical literature, and you know an awful lot of it is instructions to act. But the novels, in terms of how do you write a hit? I have no idea really. You know, when you think of The Van, for example: it’s about two middle-aged men. It’s the way it’s written that made it popular. But as to why people found it funny at that time, I really don’t know. I really don’t know. It may well be that there was a confidence about it that began to hit the tone of the country at that time. The World Cup. The happy accident of the World Cup. Because I was writing it during the World Cup, and included the World Cup in it, in a way. But I was open to the idea that the World Cup would never quite take off, and I’d just ignore it.
J: With the case of The Government Inspector, your version in many ways sticks quite close to the original tsarist Russia. How did you decide how Irish or Russian to make it?
R: It was a line-by-line decision at first. I was invited to write it by the Abbey, and I’d seen it years and years ago in my early twenties, but had no real clear sense of it. I was in London the next day and went to Foyles bookstore, a great shop, and I bought two versions of it—two translations of about seven available—and read one on the plane on the way home and said, Yeah, I could see how this could be Irish. So I suggested it to Aideen Howard, the literary director of the Abbey. I would set it somehow today in Ireland but use the same names and the same character names and the same geography, but it would in effect be Ireland. And that the dialogue would be Irish. And that I’d use the boys’ words or whatever of the day, rather than try to replicate Russia. So it started from there—hugely enjoyable exercise, actually. And I did a lot of reading at the time—more about nineteenth-century Russia, actually. And the IMF [International Monetary Fund] were heading into town at the time as well, so I was looking at words or phrases that were being repeated, and I’d have a list of them. But I didn’t decide I’m going to squash in all these—where they fit, they fit, and if there was a line, Well, here we go.
J: What was it like once the IMF arrived? Was there any sort of explicit censoring or any sort of self-censoring?
R: No. In terms of the story itself, it was great. As a citizen, one would have been much happier if the whole thing had never happened. If you could go back a bit and slap a few bankers and politicians and say, “don’t do that”—but they did, and we were where we were. As a writer, it was brilliant. The timing couldn’t have been better really—the IMF were the government inspector. So it was great in that regard.
J: As part of the Open Door Series, you wrote the novella Mad Weekend (2006) which has also been translated into Irish as Deireadh Seachtaine Craiceailte. The series is aimed at English learners. What are some of the challenges when writing for an audience that might not be especially familiar with [a] language or culture?
R: That’s a good question. That was the second one I wrote. The first was called Not Just for Christmas (1999), and that was about two brothers meeting for the first time in more than twenty years. It was recently translated into Italian and has been translated into German. Patricia Scanlan, an Irish writer and former librarian, was very aware of the lack of material—Irish material—for adults learning to read, and who wanted to take command of their literacy. They had been using either material from abroad—no harm there—or children’s material, which is problematic. So she set up a body of work. And I think I might have been in the first six, though I’m not altogether sure—maybe the second six. They were published in sixes. And there’s kind of a box set of them now which is very impressive looking. She told me what the brief was, and I thought of an idea: with adults, particularly as you get older, and you’re talking to your siblings about something that happened, something innocuous perhaps—but it’s extraordinary how rarely you share the memory in a literal sense. Actually the perspective can change and something you find hilarious can be a bit upsetting from another perspective. So I decided I’d take it a bit more extreme: these two brothers have a row and actually don’t see each other for twenty years, and it’s a coming together of them. So the idea was there, but the writing of it—Jesus, it was like driving uphill in fourth gear, and driving downhill in first gear: pull the break, pull the break all the time, and examine every word to try and write a sentence that wasn’t patronizing. “This is a cat”—you know, that type of thing. And words that were beyond a couple of syllables, like a word like “Guinness” for example, because they do drink Guinness. But when you look at “Guinness,” it doesn’t look the way it sounds: Goon, Guinn, what is it? But I thought, Well, actually, it’s such a logo, it’s such a brand, that they’ll know what that is, particularly with the capital G. Fine. That one’s in. Other words I had to look at them and think, No, it’s too complicated, so I’ll rewrite that piece of dialogue, but I still have to make it seem like these men are talking—simple conversations. It was really a slog. Really, really a slog. And then I decided I’d situate it in the present day and go back to the memory, and I thought, Well, is that a bit complicated? Because it is actually quite demanding. Will they know? Well, they’ve been reared on movies that do that all the time, and television series, so yeah, grand, we’ll do that. It was all decision, decision, decision, but it was much more. Every line, every word you had to put a torch over it and decide, Is that the word? Really hard. Very satisfying once it was done, and I realized Yeah, it’s grand, and it works, and I got to the end.
With Mad Weekend (2009), Patricia [Scanlan] got in touch again, and she particularly wanted something that had young men in it, because there was nothing like that. It is based loosely, not in any literal way, but based loosely on a weekend I had with my friends in my twenties in Liverpool, when we went over to see a football game. And it was mad, but not in the same sense. Nobody disappeared. So I just took it a step further to make it absolutely daft. I brought in the Liverpool characters, the women, and I had great fun with them. What happened was that, because I was writing the dialogue in short sentences, it added to the notion that they were drunk or a bit daft or a bit mad and it became very funny. And actually the style, if you like, the brief was an aid there because it actually made it funnier than it might have been. The temptation to elaborate wasn’t appropriate, so by keeping it slim and skeletal, the skeletal nature of the thing actually made it funnier because it was more immediate. There was, in other words, very little getting in the way.
J: So now it’s thirteen years or so since the first piece you wrote for the Metro, and now it seems that we’re returning to the historical tendency of emigration out of Ireland. Does this change things, and what do you think of the emigration out of Ireland that’s occurring now?
R: I think that there’s a lot of sentimentality about it. People have always been leaving the place. It’s small. So they wander. The urge, the itch to wander, has always been there. There’s no doubting that there is the tragedy, there is the anger, quite rightly, but as I’ve said, a lot of it has been quite sentimental. Five years ago, young people leaving the country was a cause for celebration; now it’s a cause for tears. And I think family tears are private. One of my sons was working in the airport last Christmas and he said the place was awash with film crews and radio crews looking for tragedy, looking for tears. Even young ones coming back from their holidays had microphones stuck under their mouth because they were crying when they met their mammies. Is it lovely to see her? Yes it is. How long were you gone? Two weeks. And it was just stupid. So it’s there, obviously. It can be in the stories. Son Not at Home. Daughter in New Zealand. It’s in the stories. It’s there. It’s part of what we are, but it’s not as if people go away never to be seen again. I know, if one of my children emigrated, we’d be Skyping, we’d be texting, email as much as we want—as much, more to the point, as they want. I said it last week in Toronto, talking to a group of Irish Canadians, and I said, “They might be crying as they leave their mommies at the airport, but they’re having a ball once they arrive in Toronto, so let’s not see it as some sort of nineteenth-century emigration.” They’re not starving to death.
Interestingly, last year we worked with a group of girls from the inner city in Bolton Street, and during the year, two arrived, one from Romania and one from Poland. Now, that bucks what I suppose is the trend—the notion that nobody is coming is wrong, or the notion that they—“they” as in the immigrants—all left is wrong. Quite a few did; they followed the work, they followed the work. Toronto is awash now. There is the sound of construction. It’s like Oh, that’s what it sounds like; I’d forgotten. But a lot of the people have put down roots. You’ve seen them yourself in Fighting Words—some of those kids have been born here. They’re a great asset because when you hear them swinging from English into their own language, into the other of their languages, it’s amazing. I asked a Polish kid recently, “Do you think in English?” and she said, “When I want to.”
J: That’s a great line.
R: Oh, it’s a great line. Bottle it.
J: In the last volume of The Dead Republic (2010), Henry Smart returns to Ireland from a kind of diaspora in the States. Do you think the disappointment he experiences is representative of returning to Ireland in the fifties or sixties?
R: The thing about nostalgia: your country rejects you in a lot of cases, as it did to so many hundred of thousands, millions of people—either the land itself, in terms of not being able to support them or the policies that were enacted, right up to very, very recently and now couldn’t support them. The country rejects them. They move. And despite the sense of rejection—I suppose with aging—this nostalgia builds up which is often stronger than the reality. It’s probably a psychological necessity. It’s no coincidence, it’s no accident that Riverdance, in terms of the movement, came from the States and not from Ireland. The music is written by Bill Whelan, and it’s a reflection of his interest in music as well. The music is brilliant. So people, then, either for the first time in the case of second or third generations, arrive in the country. And it doesn’t tally with what they expect. And sometimes there’s quite an anger about that. And it’s interesting. Now Henry eventually, in the 1960s, settles into the notion, Well, maybe something was achieved after all—good houses, that children of the people that he knew, the children of the street, brats that he knew, had shoes. They’re being well educated. They’re being built up to be the middle class. And that was the case in the sixties. And so he relaxes into that for a while, that it did actually achieve something after all. But it took him the guts of his life to come to that temporary conclusion perhaps. I think that’s what happens: there’s an immediate nostalgia. Like, who wants to dwell on rejection all the time? People who wouldn’t have given half an ear to the cause suddenly perk up when they hear the chorus in a bar, and they hear it differently perhaps. I would like to think that I would be exempt myself, that I would be able to hear whatever I hear. I’d like to be able to think myself immune, rather than exempt—immune to the trappings of nostalgia. But then, say for example, I had emigrated when I was a younger man, and I had my three children in another place: Would I be bringing them to Irish lessons? Would I be bringing them to Irish dancing lessons? Would I perhaps even be tempted to bring them to Mass, even though I’m an atheist? The last one, no, that would be just stupid. But certainly some of the other stuff, yeah. Put on the bit of green on St. Patrick’s Day. Why not—don’t do it here. So you can see how—and then that can be harmless, it can be a bit of fun, it can be The Quiet Man, but it also feeds the coffers of the IRA for quite a considerable time. So it’s a complicated story, and I hope I even glimpsed it, or gave a glimpse of it, in A Star Called Henry (1999). Or, rather, in the three books, particularly the last one.
Over the years, being so many places, I’ve encountered Irish people, and people who call themselves Irish, and I’m always a bit puzzled by that—not at all defiant about it, but I mean, so many people call themselves Irish to me: Stan Karlofski, whose mother was a Murphy, or granny was a Murphy, that wish to be included—it’s easy to sneer, but I try not to. It’s that nostalgic urge. And I don’t think nostalgia is just a geographic thing; I think it’s also a temporal thing—people nostalgic for the past. It quite often accounts for people my age, their bitterness sometimes with the present, and their tendency to write everything off in the present day. Once, maybe four years ago, it was astounding how often the news or the features were accompanied by a song or something from the 1980s—really stuck in my craw. I think twice or three times, I heard Annie Lennox singing in the background while they were reintroducing the word “recession” into our everyday usage. And it was as if they were giddy with excitement, because it brought them back to the days when they were young—the producers of these shows. And I’m sure they saw it as a bit of a laugh, and actually it stuck in my craw.
J: I know in many of your interviews, the question of Irishness comes up. In a recent interview with Emily Firetog, you emphasized your affiliation as a Dubliner. Do you think the city as opposed to the nation or the union of nations might perhaps provide a more healthy model of community?
R: Well, it did the Greeks no harm. It might be. It might be. I suppose, how affectionate can you feel for a geographical entity? If we set out today, we could go a considerable distance across the city, whereas we’re not going to make much inroads into a small country. As a city person myself, I can’t imagine myself ever deciding I’d settle somewhere other than a city. The urge would be to go to a bigger city. I’m quite content being Irish. I mean, I enjoy it in a way. But I don’t feel a strong gut affinity with it. Whereas I do feel very solidly a Dubliner. Because it’s there; it’s out there. I will actually be in town later on and I love it. I love the streets; I love the corners. Just the whole place, really, I like. I love the accent. I love the sea. I love its geographical location. I really like the whole place. So if I was to feel any emotional attachment to a place, really it’s Dublin. And yet I’m no expert on the place. I wouldn’t have to stray far to be in territory I don’t know. So it’s not that I feel any level of expertise about it. But I do feel also that if you stray a bit from where you are, things change. The accent changes. I suppose, then, as a writer, you want to feel you’re on solid ice as you step out into the unknown, which you do every time you write. So it’s good to feel a strong sense that this character speaks like this because he speaks like this. Whereas if I located him in Cork, does this character speak like this? I’m not altogether certain. And perhaps I never will be. But I’ll chance this and see if I can get away with it. That’s funny actually—as a writer you always have to be alert to the fact that you’re always “chancing your arm,” so to speak.
J: What do you think of the whole idea of the “diaspora?” Next year The Gathering is taking place; are you taking part in The Gathering? What do you make of it?
R: The word “diaspora,”—I mean this morning, on the news, Gabriel Byrne, quite rightly I think, criticized this, “The Gathering,” that’s happening next year; he called it a scam, and I wouldn’t disagree with him, necessarily. The man whose job it is, quite rightly, to defend it, because he is organizing it, using the word “diaspora”—he must have used it about seven times. And then he said, “there are many diasporas,” but I don’t know if the word has a meaning anymore. It seems it has exhausted its sentimental and intellectual potential.
And I don’t want to exaggerate, but it makes me gag slightly. I heard something that, Clare County Council is inviting anybody called Claire, or any name that looks like Claire—Clara. So presumably Dublin would be inviting the Dubceks of the Slovak Republic of Slovakia and of the Czech Republic. It just—I don’t think it should be considered anything other than what it is, which is an attempt to drag people into the country to take their money off them. So it’s just tourist promotion. There’s a lot of the old “diddley eye doodalee,” and I feel a bit uncomfortable with it. If there is an event that I think I might like to be involved in because it seems as if it could be good, I might consider it. But I don’t feel a burning need to be an ambassador or to be part of it. If there’s a gang of Doyles coming to Ireland, I hope they enjoy it, but I don’t feel a burning need to be part of it. “Doyle” as far as I know is the sixth most popular name in the country, so the country doesn’t necessarily need any more Doyles. Or, Bolger is my mother’s maiden name, and I know loads of them as well. I think you can survive without more of them. You see, there was a thing called Culture Ireland, which on very little money did excellent work. It’s gone. So now it’s The Gathering. And that’s this year’s thing, and next year it will be something else. Instead of building on what they had, it’s like jumping from thing to thing. And The Gathering is just a kind of naked commercialism, with which I have no problem. But if you’re selling sausages or you’re selling the country, you’re selling the same thing. I won’t promote sausages, so why the fuck would I promote the country.
J: And this is the last question: this interview will be published in a new journal called Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies, and part of the aim of the journal is to narrow the gap between popular audiences and more academic audiences and also to build an international conversation around Irish Studies. Would you have any suggestions or thoughts or ideas for the journal? It’s online and people can respond, so people will be able to respond to our interview. Would you have any tips or suggestions or thoughts on who else might be great to include in the journal?
R: With Fighting Words, we decided that we would involve ourselves in projects that had a story and was made up of, in any sense, words. The most popular thing was immediately graphic fiction. If we put up workshops for graphic novels—gone. Gone in minutes. Teenagers particularly—they love it. And it was a foreign world to me and still is to a large degree. I’ve educated myself to an extent. The good stuff is unbelievable. Brilliant. But we ended up doing stuff we never considered we would do: songwriting, for example. We just started working on a new musical with kids, and I never thought that that would be part of what we would do either. So by taking two basic things—story and words—it’s amazing how often they appear in ways that aren’t predicted. Radio drama, television drama. And we can partner up with all these people. And they bring their skills. So we still have the same staff, the same amount of volunteers, but we have these extra people as well. And that’s an extraordinary thing.
So I would have thought if you’re doing something about Irish Studies, go past the writers. We actually—and I don’t mean this to be disparaging—get very boring and predictable very quickly. It’s rare enough you come across something by a writer that hasn’t been said by the same writer or his cousin or her auntie. Because what we do, the literary people, is just what we do. But there are other people as well who work with words, but not necessarily in the old fashion sense.
J: That’s a great point.
R: I’m just making the suggestion that the journal go past the literary people and the formal academics as well.