This interview was made possible by an IU New Frontiers Exploratory Travel Fellowship and a shorter version dealing only with Doyle’s short fiction (The Deportees, Bullfighting, and Two Pints) first appeared as “‘What we think we know’: An Interview with Roddy Doyle” in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Roddy Doyle is, first and foremost, a Dubliner. His novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and children’s books are set mainly in his city. As a result, he is the chronicler of modern life in Dublin. His short story collection The Deportees (2008), initially written for immigrant magazine Metro Éireann, can be considered a historical document that captures the changes in Irish identity brought about by the influx of inward migrants of the late 1990s. These stories trace the acculturation of African and Eastern European immigrants to Ireland, while presenting the Irish in their new role of hosts to uninvited guests. “New Boy,” one of the stories from this collection, was adapted into a short film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009. In his second collection of short stories, Bullfighting (2011), Doyle explores the male Irish psyche during the midlife crisis, which also reflects the country’s current economic downturn. Doyle’s distinctive style includes heavy use of dialogue and vernacular, which is best illustrated in his two collections of dialogues, Two Pints and Two More Pints, first published on his Facebook page. Doyle is the co-founder and chairman of “Fighting Words,” a creative writing center in Dublin. He won the Booker Prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. His novel, The Guts, received the 2013 Eason Novel of the Year by Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Doyle latest works include The Second Half (2014), co-authored with Roy Keane, and Dead Man Talking (2015), a novel written for Quick Reads, an outreach initiative that targets adults with low levels of literacy. Doyle is also a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
I met with Roddy Doyle at The Twisted Pepper, a trendy Dublin café that doubles as a music venue by night, at 10:00 a.m. on June 17, 2014. The owner was kind enough to let us into the main bar area early so that we could escape the busy street traffic noise of the outdoor seating. Although the piped disco/pop music did follow us inside, it was a muted version that provided the soundtrack for the interview. Our private venue was soon reclaimed by a friendly employee who proceeded to grind great quantities of aromatic coffee, no doubt in preparation for the opening of the main bar area to the public. Doyle was very nice about it all and we both often paused in midsentence to allow for the coffee grinder to do its job. The situation was quite funny and worthy of appearing as the backdrop to one of Doyle’s fictional dialogues.
Eva Roa White: First, thank you for giving me this interview. My first question relates to another interview you gave to Jody Allen Randolph in 2010. You stated that the new Ireland represented “a shift in the way we think about ourselves.” Four years later, is this still your view?
Roddy Doyle: Yes, I think it is that kind of perception about ourselves, free of economic conditions, so to speak. Obviously, the influx of people into the country was determined largely by economic conditions. People came because there was work. People stayed because there was work. People started families because there was long-term work, or so it seemed. But the downturn in the economy, at first there was a lot of lazy journalism, people saying all the Eastern Europeans are leaving and the Africans are leaving, but it hasn’t been the case. According to the last census, which is I think only about two years old, one in ten people living in the Republic of Ireland weren’t born in the Republic of Ireland, and that’s the case during the recession and that would be a bigger proportion in the cities and in certain parts of the cities. So the way I think Irish people and then people my age and a bit younger perceived themselves then would have changed. But the older I get, I think that happens anyway inevitably, regardless of whether it’s people coming into the country or people leaving the country. I think one of the things I’ve been interested in over the years is who defines what it is to be Irish, or American or British, you know? It’s an ongoing and often quite a vicious debate and sometimes quite a violent debate in other parts of the world, and was in Ireland for a long, long time. So yeah, but I think, on an obvious level, once the black faces started being a regular sight on the streets of Dublin, and once you started hearing younger black kids with Dublin accents, things were never going to be the same again.
EW: Continuing with the theme of immigration, Declan Kiberd mentioned in a recent lecture that emigration means that we are not allowed to imagine a future in our own country. Did you stay in Ireland because you could dream a future for yourself here?
RD: Well, I was lucky insofar as I got a job immediately. I went for a job interview before I finished college. I’d been doing my teacher training in a school and there were vacancies and I must have impressed them somehow while I was training because I got the job. So I didn’t. Later on, I wondered you know, out of wanderlust, if I would have liked to move around the world a bit, but I decided, no, I was much happier working in the school so I never had to emigrate, you know? There was a point where I was the only one of my siblings (there are four of us) who lived in Ireland, and that wasn’t unusual. But it wasn’t an issue for me. Never. And I didn’t stay because I wanted to write about Ireland, because at that point I wasn’t writing, you know? It just wasn’t a necessity. And in terms of my curiosity about other parts of the world, the holidays for teachers are very generous, so I was able to wander around for three months every year, you know? So that fed the little bit of curiosity. I didn’t go out too far, around Europe and Britain. So no, it was never an issue for me.
EW: So staying in Dublin is not a political statement for you, like it might be for other writers?
RD: No. No. No. I’m betting that life is a lot more complicated than these debates that the Irish writers left because they couldn’t work. They chose to leave, and I’m sure it was a little bit more complicated why they left. I don’t like the simplification in terms of Irish writing, but in terms of leaving the country. It’s often quite close to sentimentalism. So I’d veer away from generalizing. But I stayed in Dublin because I liked it and then I began to write. But then when my family arrived—you know, you can’t uproot children on a whim because you think, “Oh now I’ll write from a different perspective. I get angry with the cultural milieu of Dublin and decide that I’ll uproot myself.” Because I wouldn’t just be uprooting myself; I’d be uprooting four other people and that seems very selfish. They’re Dubliners, you know, my children. They’re in their twenties now, two of them. So it wasn’t really an option, you know? It didn’t occur to me.
EW: Toronto’s The Globe and Mail stated that Bullfighting is “probably the finest collection of Irish short stories since James Joyce’s Dubliners.” I would go one step further and say that both The Deportees and Bullfighting are the new Dubliners. Do you feel that in a way you have written modern versions of Dubliners?
RD: No, I don’t. You know, it’s very flattering. I wasn’t aware of that review. I wouldn’t pay much attention to it myself. You see, the problem is it’s almost as if Joyce invented Dublin and everybody has to then be judged against Joyce and, of course, he didn’t. He is a brilliant writer, I am not denying that, and Dubliners is certainly my favorite piece of writing by him. But I don’t measure things against Dubliners. Although, having said that, I’ve written the script for a modern version—it may never be made so there is no point in talking about it—of one of the stories. My characters are out on the streets of Dublin, or in their houses in Dublin, or in a pub in Dublin. I don’t do that because Joyce did that. It’s how city life works.
With The Deportees, I was very keen that the new to the country would rub shoulders with the people here and vice versa. Inevitably, that means people meeting. I think my stories are probably less grim, a little bit more hopeful perhaps than those of Dubliners. There’s a propaganda element to The Deportees stories, insofar as I’m saying, “Isn’t this great?” It may well be, I am not sure. I haven’t read those stories since I wrote them, but I don’t know how well they would stand up to other work that I’ve done because of that propaganda element—which is very, very deliberate. When you’re delivering 800 words a month, there’s only room for so much, and again there was the propaganda part. I have to be aware at times as well of the people who are reading it, who are reading Metro Éireann. Some of them, they wouldn’t be as familiar with Dublin English, certainly not in the early days when they arrived. It takes a good while, you know, for anybody to. You have to reacquaint yourself constantly with the rhythm of the English that’s spoken. You go down to Cork and it seems much farther away than London because their English down there is so fast and musical, in a way that you really do have to spend time attuning yourself to it.
Bullfighting was different. Bullfighting is about men in their middle years mostly, and is largely inspired by little things that occurred in my own life or little things I’ve heard about from friends who are, as we all are, growing older. So I’ve got so much to sit down and write, Joyce is never in my head, you know? City life. I mean, I’m quite content being Irish and I like being Irish and I enjoy the informality of life in Ireland and I think it’s a good place to live regardless of economic conditions. It’s safe for me to say that because I’m not directly affected by it insofar as I am able to make a very good living, but I see myself primarily as a Dubliner, really. I like the rest of the place, but I don’t feel at home in it. Dublin is my home.
EW: Well, you are certainly a regional writer, and when I made the comment about the comparison to Joyce, it was primarily in terms of your works becoming historical documents in a way; they seem to capture Dublin at certain times in history.
RD: Yeah, I mean funnily enough, I was just thinking about that on the bus on the way in this morning, on the short journey here. It was something I was reading. I was reading a novel by A.M. Holmes, the American writer, and she mentions someone looking like Raymond Burr, the actor, and I was thinking, a younger reader would need to google Raymond Burr. Does this make less of a piece of writing, and I thought, “No, it’s great.” And the option there is to look at Google. As a piece of writing gets older perhaps, if it lasts, there may be footnotes at the end of the book as there are with good editions of Joyce, you know? You capture something at the time, and if it’s a football result, a song that is being played around it’s well and good, if it helps capture the moment. And I think perhaps the Deportees stories do capture that, that almost feeling of slight disbelief that people were coming to the country, as opposed to what has always happened, leaving the country. I’m sure that became a bit irritating to the people who were arriving, as if they were somehow under glass and looked at, but it could have been a lot worse, I suppose. I remember a taxi driver, an African taxi driver. I asked him, “What country are you from?” and he said, “I’m sick of answering that question.” I could understand him being sick of answering that question. But the other hand of that world, if you’re a taxi driver and you want to meet people, it’s a nicer question than some of the ones that could have been asked. So I could understand his point but the other hand is, well, your children won’t be asked that question. You know? So I was just trying to capture that moment.
EW: As far back as The Commitments, you have written characters who are in search of their own version of Irish identity by reaching out to other cultures and bridging differences. In your own life, you have modeled this openness by writing for Metro Éireann and by collaborating with Bisi Adigun on an adaptation of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Modern World. Could you tell me about these partnerships?
RD: Metro Éireann is an old one now. I think I met Chinedu Onyejelem and Abel Ugba, the two founders—must be in 1999, so fifteen years ago. I read about it. They had an article in the Irish Times about what they were setting out to do, and I thought, “that sounds good,” and I arranged to meet them. Two nice fellows—still are. Abel is in London now, lecturing, and Chinedu is a friend of mine. He is still the editor of Metro Éireann. So I suggested I write a story, a chapter a month, and see how it goes. A little bit like Dickens, a tiny little bit like Dickens. Because he used to write serially. And I wondered, you know, it must be terrifying to start writing what became David Copperfield and later books which are even more intricate. It must really be terrifying to set off and to send off the first few chapters and then realize, “Oh Christ!” I think it could account for his early death in some ways, that he just exhausted himself. But I just thought it could be fun. And it was. And remains so actually, because I am still writing for them; but I haven’t been giving them my full attention, because some of the stories I’ve done in the last few years are probably as entertaining, but they aren’t as well thought-out as the others. I have to do something about that. I’ve been really busy. But I still do it because I enjoy it.
The work with Bisi Adigun: it was Bisi’s idea that we update The Playboy of the Western World, and the work itself was really enjoyable—really, really enjoyable. I mean, working with somebody else as a writer is a solitary occupation, but then when you’re writing with somebody else, there’s a tension there, which is inevitable. Frankly, Bisi is not on my Christmas card list anymore, and I know that I’m not on his list. So it was sometimes quite tense; but it was really, really, creatively enjoyable. We met on a Tuesday and a Thursday, so we worked those two days, and I was working on a novel on the other days and got, you know, three pages a day and looking at every line of Synge’s original and making slight changes. Funnily enough, the language of the African character, the Nigerian man, Christopher, as you know, was actually closer to Synge’s English than the Irish-born characters. That was fun. So it was great, and then The Abbey picked it up, so it was on the main national stage, which, I suppose was ideal because you wanted it to be big. There is no point in doing something like this, bringing the two ideologies, two languages, two colors, everything together, and then playing it to forty people in a basement somewhere. I mean, it’s alright, but we were very, very lucky to get The Abbey.
Unfortunately things went terribly wrong in terms of both my personal and working relationship with Bisi and ended up on the steps of the high court. It went on for six years. It was only resolved January last year. A huge expense. I can’t speak from his point of view. I can only speak from mine. But looking back, was it worth it? Was it worth doing for all the grief that came later? No. It wasn’t. It’s just horrible to have somebody you consider a friend, when things become a little bit complicated, immediately accuse me of racism, and others as well. The anger didn’t stop. It went on and on for years. It had a bad effect on those of us who worked with him. Because he sued everybody. He sued my agent; he sued The Abbey; he even sued the director, and he represented himself legally. There were no attempts of mediation. Pointless. So it just kept on and on and on. When it was over, it was great. I took a deep breath, and it feels like a long, long, time ago. But in retrospect, I’ve two, two big professional regrets in my life. One was I was invited to write a version of Peter Pan for the BBC, and I said no. I was too busy, and I really wish I’d said yes. I should have said yes. It was never made. It would have been a lovely job. And the other one is working with Bisi, unfortunately. Creatively brilliant. To see it in The Abbey, it was great, and I think 90%, 95% of the people wanted to see it. It was great. People find it hard to believe that something so funny and so joyous could have resulted in so much anger. Largely one-sided. I mean, I’ll never understand it myself, and I’m not really curious anymore, you know. Cut it off. It wasn’t a great experience. But, having said that, it wouldn’t put me off working with someone else. I’m working on a book with another man at the moment, a footballer. It’s going great. So at one point I thought, “I’ll never work with anybody again,” you know? “I’ll just write on my own.” But once I calmed down, I wouldn’t allow that strange experience warp other possibilities. I can’t go into it. The legal details are boring, and it’s not that I have signed a confidentiality agreement—it never arose—but even if it had I would have refused because I think it’s my right to speak. It becomes quite boring, really. I don’t know if it’s part of your brief at all.
EW: Well, I had given a paper at a conference and was celebrating your collaboration with Bisi Adigun, and I saw it in a way that it was really Ireland coming together with the other and actually, it was a sort of marriage. You were creating a child with the new Playboy and then when I heard about the estrangement, I thought that it ended in a divorce of sorts, and it was sad.
RD: Yes, I suppose. But, not to deny the success of the marriage at first, but [laughing] I’m not altogether comfortable with the marriage/divorce analogy. I’m actually happily married now, have been for 25 years, you see. But I think it’s a good thing to celebrate it, because it was very successful. I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore, so I gave him my share of the play and agreed with my lawyer that it’d be part of the agreement, the legal agreement, to get rid of him. But I have decided that six years ago after a conversation with my wife. I said, “Look, I don’t want anything else to do with this anymore. Let’s just get rid of it.” It took six years. Actually, at one point, he demanded it. And I thought, “No. It will be done on my terms, not your terms.” So, I think it might tell you a little about him, that he demanded it. It would never occur to me to demand somebody’s share of intellectual property. Never.
EW: Are there plans in the future to publish the script?
RD: No, No. It’s not mine anymore.
EW: You’re not involved with it at all?
RD: Bisi Adigun owns it and has owned it since January 2013. So it’s his. I signed. I don’t want anything to do with it. I know that there was a lot of interest in it. There was talk of Broadway and the West End of London. Because I was approached, or my agent, John, was approached about that. But whether they’re going ahead, I haven’t heard a thing. And I’m not curious about it. I believe somebody told me Bisi is working in a university in Africa at the moment.
EW: Which is your favorite story from The Deportees and why?
RD: I think there are two that would be neck-to-neck if there was a sprint. The first one, because it was the first one, “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner.” It’s very much an Irish man looking at the foreign man. I think I have a right to say that. I read an article recently where the word “foreign” was becoming the new horrible word, but to me, you grow up with the word and it’s not offensive. And just because some intellectual says it’s offensive, I don’t care.
EW: I am “foreign,” and I have no problem with it.
RD: Yeah, yeah, and it’s this working-class man looking at a foreign man, which is not to say he is foreign; he’ll never come in the door. So it’s very much my first tentative step looking at this man. And then my second favorite, because I took it a step further and was a little bit braver, is “I Understand.” I just had this idea of an African man walking around Dublin, and I began to think about Dublin and to see it. A bit like when I’m writing from the point of view of a woman or a much younger person: you have to take your glasses off anyway, but you need to start looking from the younger kid’s point of view, bring yourself down a bit and start looking up. I can walk around here without looking left or right. I’m not being curious about home, you know? Whereas I think if it’s an African man newly arrived, there is a sense of threat, if it’s dark, which I wouldn’t feel necessarily. I might, but it wouldn’t be because I’m different from everybody else; really some people will hit you regardless of your origins [laughs]. They just want to hit you, you know? So I enjoyed looking at the world from his angle—his perspective, I suppose. But his angle is a more interesting way to express it. As I got deeper into the story—because I don’t plan ahead, you know. It’s very much I’ve got a chapter done and send it off at the end of the month. And as I got deeper into it, I began to feel that there was something in it. So they are the two that spring to mind, and there are one or two later ones, if there is another collection. There’s one about, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s about a Nigerian woman running in a local election. It’s five years ago, as a member of one of the traditional Irish political parties. Chinedu would have a copy of that, which I’m sure he could get to you. And I think that was a deeply satisfying one to do as well.
EW: “57% Irish” was also a great story. It was really “messing” with the Citizenship Act and, in that way, that story was political.
RD: To a degree, yeah, it was. But satirical more so, I think. Although satire is generally political—has to be. I found it also, if I remember, the nearest to science fiction I’ll ever write, I’ve ever written. I suppose that is the essence of good science fiction really; it is never too far from fiction. You mightn’t believe in ghosts, but you believe in this ghost. Maybe not in that way, but I’ve no doubt that it would have been government officials discussing how we measure it. I think things are more open now than they were, such as the citizenship ceremonies. They’re more joyous affairs. The last Minister for Justice used to turn up, and it was great. He was a very pompous man, but at that level, I think he was right. “Yes, it’s in my diary, I go there.” It’s a small country, you know? These things are important. I think to a lesser, or bigger degree, I enjoyed writing all of those stories, and I think it probably comes across that there was an enjoyment in it. I didn’t feel [like there] was inevitably a point where I was busy with other things, and [there] comes a moment at the end of the month and you realize the deadline is looming, and you think, “Ah Jesus, why am I doing this, why am I doing this?” But I suppose it’ s a bit like getting up every morning—you know, you think, “why am I doing this, why am I doing this?” But they all serve their different purpose, really.
EW: How about Bullfighting? Do you have a particular story from the collection that you like best? I know that “Recuperation” was first published in the New Dubliners collection.
RD: Yeah, I wrote that because they asked me to and then it was taking forever. I mean, Dublin publishing being Dublin publishing, it was on, it was off, it was on, it was off. So I actually sent it to The New Yorker, and then they said they’d like it, and I asked the then-publishers what happened if they didn’t publish the book. “Is it okay if The New Yorker has it?” And he said no. But anyway, it worked out that he saw the wisdom of allowing it in The New Yorker. But the invite came from—I can’t remember the woman’s name [Oona Frawley]. The woman who edited it, she was great. She was really great. Having said that, I only met her briefly. They are spread. The one now, “The Slave,” was originally a monologue that was never performed. The invite there came from Nick Hornby, the English writer. A version of it was in a book that he put together as a fundraiser for a school that specializes in teaching kids with autism because his own son, Danny, has autism. So it was for a fundraiser, and I wrote that in barely 2000. But it occurred to me then, a few years later, that I am writing about middle-aged men here, so I would have been forty-two when I wrote that one. Then I drift on and I’m writing about men in their fifties. So it was all about generally middle-aged men.
They’re two stories I’m particularly fond of. There are three actually. The later one, the one that comes later in the book, the last story, “Sleep,” which is, I suppose, the nearest thing I’d ever write to a love story or such—and there’s a lot of living in that story. It’s not something I think a twenty-one year old could write, or it would be an extraordinary twenty-one year old, but I think you need to have felt your children growing up, you need to have felt you have turned a corner somewhere. You need to feel a bit redundant in some ways to have written this story like that. So I am very happy with it. It was partly inspired by the death of a friend, and by other friends having the experience of cancer and coming out successfully from it, and that slight scare that accompanies the second part of your life, you know?
And another one that just sparked is the story “Animals,” ostensibly about all the different little animals buried in the back garden. We were moving house. I remember laughing at the idea, because we’d been then in the same house for 14 years, so I think my eldest child was about thirteen when we moved house. We were laughing at the idea that people bought the old house and started digging up the back garden, all these little skeletons that they’d find, you know? And that’s what sparked that—and also it coincided with the start of the economic downturn. And it was like falling off a cliff. That’s what it felt like. So those two things came together.
And then the title story itself, “Bullfighting,” and it’s a relatively recent one. It struck me how really, really important friendship is, you know? I’m meeting friends tomorrow night. We meet very regularly. I grew up with them, known them since we were twelve. It’s only now you begin to appreciate how really good that is, and actually a little bit rare. I don’t think that men are very good at keeping in touch in that way, but we’re lucky in that none of us emigrated, and we all lived within walking distance of each other and always have. The story itself, the plot itself was inspired by a mad Sunday evening, actually walking into a bullring, just before they released the bull. But that’s an anecdote, you know? That’s something you tell to other people the following morning. But actually, that happened and I gave it to my friends to read before I sent it to The New Yorker. I remember one of them saying, “Did anybody vomit in the pool?” and I said, “No, no, I made that up. Seemed like a good ending.” “Okay, okay,” [they said]. So it’s very much their story I feel, and the book was dedicated to them.
EW: You definitely have those themes in The Guts. The scare, and also the friendship.
EW: One very important theme, I believe, throughout all of your work, is family. Who is family? At one point, Jimmy is trying to decide who is part of the family.
RD: Oh yeah.
EW: How do you decide who is your family? At all levels. Not just in terms of your small family, but the human race…
RD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Who’s family, who isn’t family? It seems to be a movable feast, really. I remember my father, who recently died. It was a very, very funny moment, but actually in a way quite dark. My sister had been married, and there’s a photograph of my wedding day: myself, my wife, and people standing around us on the steps of the registry office, you know? And I was looking at it. It was on the television at my parents’ house with all the photographs, in the days when the television was like a table, you know. It was an extra table; you didn’t put them up on the wall. And I’m looking at it, and I’m thinking, “There’s somebody missing.” Because it seemed there was a little black triangle, and I said to my father, “Who’s missing?” I won’t name him, but it was my sister’s ex-husband. My father had gotten Indian ink, and he had done a stellar job of it, brilliant, so it was gone. I thought it was a printer. He did it very delicately and you’d really have to be looking carefully to notice the absence. It’s a bit like with the beginning of Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where the photograph originally had the Czech heads of state and then one of them was executed in Egypt and wasn’t in the photograph anymore, but his hat was. My father blocked it out so it was funny, and that guy was no longer in the family. Recently I had a kind of dinner for my son’s twenty-first birthday, maybe six months, seven months ago, and the family were there, including my other son’s girlfriend, and the birthday boy’s girlfriend. They’re no longer an item, although they were together for quite a while, so they are all gone now, but you don’t have the burning need to get in touch with a lawyer and say they are no longer in the family. It’s a loose thing. It’s a loose thing, isn’t it really? I suppose there is a difference within the legal definition. I’m not fussed, you know? Who do we ask? We are having the family all together in the house on Sunday, who do we ask? Who do we not ask? It’s a big loose amalgamation of people.
EW: This idea of deciding who belongs, who doesn’t belong, even if only temporarily, that’s what Larry first encounters when he thinks of Ben as possibly becoming his son-in-law, right?
RD: Yeah, yeah.
EW: And by the end of the story he is, “Oh, okay, fine. You can be my son-in-law.” Larry is almost disappointed…
RD: Yeah, that’s a comic moment. I remember jokingly saying to my wife, “Are you disappointed that neither of our sons are gay, as far as we know?” and she said, “A little bit.” One of the boys was bringing home a girl, and I was away, and I asked my wife, “What’s she like?” “She’s lovely.” “What color is she?” “She’s white.” “Ah well, maybe the next time they’ll bring home a black girl.” I think one of the ways to approach it is that earnestness kills everything. And one of the ways to approach it is through humor. People sometimes assume that to joke about something is to insult it or to evade it, and I find the opposite. I know when I hear racism, but when I’m writing it or when I’m exploring it, I’ll be the best judge of that. I mean it sounds arrogant, but I won’t be asking somebody to give me their legal opinion. So I suppose in a way, the thing where he is disappointed that he is not going to have grandkids you could say is a little bit patronizing, but that’s a matter of opinion, I think.
EW: You approach a lot of very difficult, very profound issues with a very light touch, through humor. And although some might say that it doesn’t go deep enough into the issue, it…
RD: In terms of The Deportees, when you’re delivering 800 words a month, there’s only so much you can do—and again there was the propaganda part. The publication has to be born in mind. So taking into account why I did it and where I do it, I have to be aware at times as well of the people who are reading it, who are reading Metro Éireann. Some of them, they wouldn’t be as familiar with Dublin English, certainly in the early days when they arrived. It takes a good while, you know, for anybody to. I was in London yesterday. You have to reacquaint yourself constantly with the rhythm of the English that’s spoken. You go down to Cork and it seems much farther away than London because their English down there is so fast and musical in a way that you really do have to spend time attuning yourself to it.
EW: Speaking of music, music is very important in your work, and I wanted to ask you why do you have Jimmy play the trumpet in The Guts? How does it tie into his approach to life?
RD: Very soon after Christmas 2012, he gets a trumpet for Christmas from his wife. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I was waking in the middle of the night and my wife was saying it was as if I couldn’t breathe. It was—ah, what you call it? I’d wake up and the snoring is bad and then I stop breathing. Sleep apnea. So, not sure if it was or not, she did a Google [search] and saw that one of the recommended, you know…all this sort of stuff is recommended. But one of the things they recommended is a wind instrument, or a brass instrument, and we were going in to see a movie to a cinema quite close to here, and there was a music shop beside it, and we were in a bit early, so I bought a trumpet. I bought a trumpet. And the man who sold me the trumpet, lovely guy, said you’ll be playing a tune by next Christmas.
And it was later, when I was writing a novel that I thought, “wouldn’t that be a great message for Jimmy’s wife, Aoife, to tell him?” The trumpet is her love letter saying you’ll be there next year. Because he’s not altogether sure he will be. So I took it from there and began to get trumpet lessons, which I still do, and little bits of instruction my trumpet teacher was giving me, you know, I can use these. It’s not autobiographic in any sense. I never had to deal with cancer, nor anything like that at all. But it just struck me. This is where little things you hear can become useful. Again, it’s the angle, change the angle and it becomes useful for the story. But it was just coincidence really. Jimmy as a character is a bit younger than me, about seven or eight years younger than me. Actually, it’s one of the nice things I learned about the trumpet. I never had to read music either. And I can struggle through the rudiments of it now, at my age. It’s fantastic to be learning something. And it’s so many other things. I mean, many people sign up for night classes from September through January. I never have. I could see myself doing it, and that’s one of the things people who have done all that stuff, that’s a rare thing. “What will I do now?” In Jimmy’s case, well, “I’ve come through radiation therapy and chemotherapy treatment, I’m alive, my hair is growing, so, what do I do now?”
EW: And it helps control his breath too.
RD: Yes. Oh yeah, yeah. It is physical exercise, you know? Even when you play badly, particularly badly, you’re exhausted.
EW: You make the connection between Jimmy’s cancer of the bowel with his being gutless at one point in the novel. [Interrupted by coffee grinder noise.] This [the coffee grinder] is food for another short story, right?
RD: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know how you recreate that noise. It’s starting to be coffee as part of this city’s culture.
RD: [To owner:] No problem. I would have thought you’d do the decent thing and shut the shop down till we were finished here.
EW: You make the connection between Jimmy’s cancer of the bowel with his being gutless at one point in his life.
EW: Could you explain this? Has he lost his way?
RD: Well, the thing with the bowel and guts and having the guts to do something there is
that, from the writer’s point of view, the happy coincidence of the multiple meanings of the word “guts,” because it’s an inherently comic word, you know? It’s hard to pass in the bucket of guts. You don’t want to look at them, because every time you want to laugh. So it has all sorts of possibilities. So yeah, in a way. Aoife, his wife, talks about his friends and he says he doesn’t have any friends, and he means that. And she has to kind of nudge him towards the fact that he does, and in a way it’s up to him to email them, phone them, you know? They’re there. So he does feel a bit finished. And the kids. I think it would be the case with a lot of active parents. From the father’s point of view, there’s a point when the kids are small and you’re ferrying them to football and you’re ferrying them to parties and you’re checking their homework and you’re reading to them as they go to bed and you’re picking them up, you know? And then gradually the picking up stops because they’re too big, and the physical contact stops because they’re embarrassed by it. It’s a form of grief, I think. One of the things you do is to try and come through that, you know, to rediscover a bit of the life that you seemed to park while you’re rearing the kids or other things you didn’t realize were there at all, you know. And part of it would be Jimmy’s going to the rock fest.
I mean it’s a happy coincidence again. I was invited to go on this one brilliant one, The Electric Picnic. I go every year. I’ve gone now for the seventh year and I was asked to go, to read, because there is a literary tent. So you can pretend it’s rock and roll. You’re reading to twenty people while some rock group is playing for 20,000 people farther down the field. It’s great. I hadn’t been to a rock fest. I’d been to some outdoor gigs, but I go to a lot of gigs, and I’m going to Bob Dylan tonight. But I go to a lot of gigs. I was up to one last week. Ideally, I like to go to one a week, two weeks, whatever. I love live music. But I hadn’t [been] to a festival in years, since I was twenty-five or -six. I went to this one and really, really loved it, so myself and my wife have been going ever since. And it was a surprise. Brought my sons when they were too young. We brought them for a day so they could feel the flavor of the thing. I kind of enjoyed it, but felt a little freakish because I was far and away the oldest man in the field, and I was with my kids as well and, you know, all these drunk kids in their late teens, early twenties. It was enjoyable, but I felt a bit freakish. This one, it was more enjoyable, and it struck me, “This is great!” And you don’t have to come for the kids, because they’re adults themselves; they’re actually somewhere else at the festival. So it was just a bit of freedom. He’s discovering that, I think. He’ll be there next year as well. There’s no doubt at all.
EW: Why did you have Jimmy sell nostalgia in The Guts?
RD: It was just a bit of fun. And it is interesting. As I said, I was in London yesterday and I’d a bit of time to kill, and, as I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve had time to kill, because I’ve been working on a book seven days a week with a deadline at the end of the month; but actually, there’s only one small bit to do now and I’ll be dealing with it tomorrow when I meet the man I’m working with. So I’ve a meeting in London and I’ve time to kill, so I went for a cup of coffee, and there’s a place a bit like this. I was the oldest man in the place, I’d say by thirty or twenty-five years. I went to a record shop, and I was by no means the oldest man in the place, and I was flicking through CDs and vinyl, and there were men in their sixties or whatever, so it’s something that either never goes away or people leave slowly. It’s a fantastic enthusiasm. It’s a link back to the teen years, you know? Music will never ever be as important. I don’t think you’ll remember it note for note, word for word. I hear my daughter singing all these songs in her bedroom. It’s lovely because it reminds me of myself in a way. I wasn’t singing, but I was listening. And I know she’ll always love music because she plays. But when she comes to my age, which is a bad thought in one way, but when she comes down the line, music will never be quite as important as it is at the moment.
The nostalgia thing was a bit of fun. I was at a gig last month in a small bar, and the band, an old punk band, one of whom is dead, Lee, wasn’t there; he’s dead, but the others were there. They’re men; I think the oldest of them is sixty, and the others are in their fifties, and they were belting out this music, and they were really, really good. And all they want to do is play, what they’ve been doing all their lives. At one point it became unacceptable to do that, unless you were the Rolling Stones, but the idea of these men getting together and singing about “my baby drives a Cadillac” and that sort of stuff was unacceptable. But there they were upon the stage, and I was—actually, the audience were all the same age, you know? That was great! It was brilliant. It’s not the future of rock and roll by any means, but the music was as good, really. They were doing great versions of what were old songs as well at the time, so it was just great. And I don’t go out of my way to look for these bands. Another band that I was at last week, they’re all in their forties. Fantastic. And playing music that reflect their age, their lyrics; they are short stories of alcoholism, about broken marriages, things like that, you know? Great, great music, and I think that’s one of the things that’s happened with rock and roll; the better people, as they got older, brought their experience with them. It’s much more interesting than it probably would have been, them anticipating the 1970s.
EW: Right. It’s a way of reclaiming a social space that had been closed to older musicians for quite a while.
RD: Yeah. Yes. That’s all I can say, yeah. And Dylan is what, seventy-something?
EW: Although it’s brief, Two Pints seems to have quite a lot packed into it. It almost seems to harken back to Bullfighting and look forward to The Guts.
RD: Yeah, the two men are of that age, I made them slightly older than myself. I just thought it might put a little bit of distance between me and them. Slightly older, their significant years are a little bit different to mine, but I know their years because I’ve older siblings. It is a Facebook thing. When I was starting The Guts I needed to know a little bit about Facebook. I was asking my kids, “What happens on Facebook?” you know? Because I didn’t want to go there. Basically they were saying, you know, kind of mind your own business, so I opened up an account. I remember I was sitting in the kitchen. I had the laptop down. I generally leave it either in my office [or] up in the attic, but I brought it down. I seemed to need the company of the dogs and the other people in the house before I did this because I really didn’t want to do it. But I opened up a Facebook account and almost immediately I had these friend requests. I began to recognize names; a lot of them were old students of mine.
And it’s quite an amazing experience, really. Facile at one level, but then there was a girl and she might have been seventeen or eighteen when she left school, maybe even younger, but there was her name and yeah, yeah, yeah, you know? And before I even had time to think, she’d be nearly fifty now, or she’d be forty-seven now. I saw that her marital status was widowed. Of course, why not? I mean it’s sad, but I thought, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I immediately started thinking. I’ve kept in touch with some people and it’s nice to see their children and grandchildren. When the Queen was here and then Obama, I was walking home one day and I began to imagine this conversation between two men. I just had it in my head and I wrote it out. And for some reason it turned out to be about 200 words and I said, “Well, that’s it!” And the reaction to it was very positive and I thought, “Well if I’m going to do this again, I’ll keep them short, 200 words. I’m not going to invest too much time on it. I’ll be doing them when I feel like it.” Months will go by. This year particularly, I haven’t done any, and then I did two of them last week, I think. So there’s another collection coming out in September. Two More Pints. But they’re all on Facebook, there’s nothing new about them.
EW: I’ve been reading some of them because I have liked your page, so I do get some of them.
RD: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Somebody died last week, so I did one and then there’s the whole mother and baby Holmes controversy, so I wrote one more hard-hitting about that. I can’t remember who it was that died.
EW: Was it Maya Angelou?
RD: No, because they wouldn’t have known her, the two men. Can’t remember, can’t remember. So it’s one that struck me. Maybe a couple of years ago I started getting these messages, “When are you going to write about the Irish economy?” “Why didn’t you write about this?” No, no. I think I might just close it all down. “Why aren’t you writing about this?” It’s a nice little outlet.
EW: I’m really interested in the way you bring the global and the local together in Two Pints. You have the wife of one of the men experiencing the deaths of Whitney Houston and Donna Summer as personal losses.
RD: Yeah. That’s just funny. But we do feel it as a personal loss. Later today, if we heard that Bob Dylan died, I wouldn’t be going to the gig tonight. On the other hand, it would be much like a personal loss, although I’ve never met the man. When Lou Reed died, I just felt “Agh!” you know? Because he’d been a huge part of the soundtrack of my life and then he’s dead. So these things do affect us personally, I think. People we don’t know, they tend to be closer to us. Kylie Minogue. When the news was out that she had breast cancer, we’re thinking, “God love her, I hope she’s okay.” It’s as if she can come up the road, but that is part of the success of her personality or something like that. She’s like the kid from up the road who went on to great things. So there are people I think who touch us more than others. So yeah, even sometimes you hear something about Barry White. And you think it carries a lot of…not necessarily weight—a Barry White wouldn’t carry a lot of weight—but it could certainly carry a lot of memories for people, you know? So it’s a heightened version of what happens. Whitney Houston dying is tragic. I think she was in the Fear Factor a few years back and it was hard to watch because she was so out of touch with what she had been. And there’s a desperation to it. So it’s like watching somebody who really shouldn’t be drunk, drunk. Although she wasn’t drunk. There are people who carry drunk quite well and there are others who must really go home, and somebody ought to take him by the shoulder, or take her by the shoulder, and put them to bed. So Whitney was a little bit like that. It all went terribly wrong. There is an emotional aspect to it all.
EW: And particularly now that we have access to all the minor details of people’s lives, like you can actually google “Whitney Houston.”
RD: Yeah, I haven’t really thought too much about that. I’m sure if we go back and start looking at magazines, they are full of the stars. They’ve always been there and their manicured version, so to speak, the “official stories” about them. I think my wife was reading some book set in the 1700s, set in the eighteenth century, and she’s saying it’s exactly as it is now, you know? The allure of it all, famous people for being famous, because they’re famous. And it’s not a global thing; the global really didn’t exist.
RD: A lot of people didn’t know the world was round.
EW: I guess that we all know more about more people now.
RD: We think we do.
EW: Or we think we do. I’m not sure how much time we have, but I wanted to ask you about, going back to The Guts for a second, the bicultural character of Ocean in The Guts. It’s interesting because an ocean usually connects two continents.
RD: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
EW: So, is there any particular representation of the new relationship between the U.S. and Ireland?
RD: No, not really. It’s nothing really new. I think if you acquainted yourself with Dublin, you’d see it’s remarkable how many English accents you hear. For example, the Italian accent: with the Italians, it’s a lot of the Googles and the dot.com companies—you know, there are a lot of Italians. There are a lot of European and English voices. I think that actually the biggest proportion of the immigrants is English, British. And there’s a lot of Americans. There always has been. And Americans, they carry—particularly the middle-class ones—that self-confidence. And they’ve arrived two days and already they know actually better than you do. At one level, [sound of exasperation] “Hang on,” you know, “hang on.” For example, they talk about “I was on O’Connell.” No, you weren’t; you were on O’Connell Street. We say street, road, avenue here, you know? “Three blocks.” We don’t have “blocks.” How many blocks? We don’t do blocks. We do distance. But they breeze their way through. On one level it’s fantastic, tremendous. So Ocean is just one of those. Jimmy dismisses her completely at first because she is just an American kid, bloody know-it-all. But actually she is very bright and sharp. And I think that’s one of the things that’s quite interesting. My youngest child is sixteen, and she’s with a gang of her friends and it’s all “Oh my god, like, oh my god, oh my god,” and if you listen at that level, you’re “Ah, Jesus Christ, have they forgotten all the other words in the English language?” But actually, when you get over that, and you start listening to what they’re actually saying, they’re so sharp and funny and bright, and I think she’s a little bit like that.
EW: And Jimmy’s children are like that.
RD: Oh yeah. He sees that more readily in his own kids, of course, than he does in anybody else’s. Particularly Ocean’s father. He represents all that’s awful about the Irish man, you know? And, of course, the embarrassment of it all—these are comic moments. And I like the fact you’d be inclined, people of our age—and when I say “our,” I mean my age—you are more used to names like James and Sean, Patrick and the like, Deirdre, and Kathleen; and then you encounter somebody named Cheyenne, or Ocean or…
EW: …or Apple.
RD: Apple or Bratislava. You’re inclined to dismiss them. But it’s stupid. You know, really stupid.
EW: I wanted to ask you, what does it mean when Noeleen tells Jimmy that “Youth has been canceled”? Which I think is a fantastic statement.
RD: [Laughs] She’s a real marketing woman, you know? In fact, it’s a rock-fest that has been canceled.
EW: Exactly. So basically, youth has been canceled; and then of course, we do not follow the youth at the rock festival, we follow…
RD: I mean the reality is, if you’re looking at the migratory patterns of the average youth—teens and early twenties—during the summer months, they’re going to all these festivals. The city is awash and the country is awash with festivals, and this particular one, the Picnic, is not designed for middle-aged people by any means; it’s a bit uncomfortable there. But it’s not dominated by kids’ dance music or bass, you know? One fast-forward shot down the queue, it’s like a rite of passage; it’s called Oxygen, and it’s gone. So Noeleen’s worry is that that’s a harbinger, that this is the future, that everything is going to shut down. She’s talking about making a living. “Youth has been canceled.”
EW: Right, so there’s a deeper message there as well, like the recession.
RD: There is, yeah, and, of course, obviously the bulk of people who emigrated have kids, you know? Gone to Australia and Canada.
EW: So exporting our youth again.
RD: Yeah. But, the world is a smaller place. In many ways they come back. We can try to avoid the sentimentality. A kid going to Australia, it’s a long, long way away, but they can Skype every day; they can text any time they want. The next door neighbors, their son lives in Australia: they’re out there once a year. He comes home once a year. I mean, it’s not ideal but, on the other hand, kids were leaving anyway. It’s not always about jobs and the economy. Sometimes they want to see a bigger place than Ireland.
EW: In a recent interview you stated that when academics take ownership of a writer it makes it more difficult for ordinary people because they feel intimidated.
RD: There is a truth in that, yeah.
EW: And I agree with you. What do you think we scholars can do mitigate this to some extent? Do you have any ideas?
RD: Get a life! [Laughs] I think it’s happened with Joyce particularly. People are utterly intimidated by the prospect of reading Ulysses, for example, because they feel they can’t do it unless they have a doctorate. Or, you know, what is the third generation of scholarship? Now people reporting, writing about the scholars. And it’s like boys pissing in the snow to see who can piss farther. So I think Joyce is probably beyond saving at this stage. If you decided, if you pulled the plug on the Joyce industry, how many academics would be out of work? There would be quite a lot.
EW: And maybe a lot of pubs would make less money on Bloomsday.
RD: No, no, I’m not suggesting that it should be done at all, but I think it’s a question of clarity. I always feel, unless it’s something medical, or something that involves a formula or something like that, if I read a sentence and I can’t understand it, I think the writer’s to blame.
EW: I agree.
RD: Absolute clarity. When I read even the titles of academic essays on literature, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that means. I’m watching the football at the moment because of the World Cup.
EW: Of course.
RD: One of the commentators, he’s talking as if he’s talking to fellow professionals, and I don’t really know what it means. And I think it’s his fault; it’s not my fault. I mean, I’m not a professional footballer. It’s his fault that he can’t, and actually it’s the company’s fault for going with him in the first place. So I feel that’s one thing that could be done, to bring the language back down to earth, frankly. Again, I don’t want to be involved in that in any way. I’ve read a few essays about my own writing. I don’t understand it. If I can’t understand it, that’s a big problem, I think.
EW: Well, plus Joyce was having a lot of fun with his writing. So it also takes away some of the fun.
RD: Yeah, yeah. And I also think he wouldn’t have felt that everybody needs to understand every sentence that he’s written. Because part of it is, it would mean that you would have to learn Latin and Greek, which isn’t an option, really. “I’ll just go away now and finish the book when I’m fluent in a dead language.” So yeah, I think that that’s what’s happening with Beckett. Also, once it becomes the intellectual property of a group of people, sometimes there’s a toll that is also attached to the humanity of the writer that is forgotten about. It’s easier to do when the writer is dead, obviously. “All of Beckett is brilliant.” There are no high points. Everything he did is beyond criticism. Or beyond fault. And it’s beginning to happen I think with John McGahern, the short story writer and novelist. It’s beginning to happen with him. There’s no point in saying, “No, that one’s not very good; this one is much better.” The summer school, the academics getting together, I think on one level it’s brilliant. I’ve no problem with it. On the other hand, it’s the language, and there’s nothing quite as numbing. You see something glorious, like a goal being scored—and I use the parallels because those are the enthusiasms in my life—but if it’s analyzed to the nth degree, the magic is rubbed some. It can be really brilliant. When somebody says, “Do you know why that happened? Because he knew this is going to, and then the ball is going to come this way, and then,” yeah yeah, yeah; but then when somebody decides both the angle and statistics 37% of the time, you know, suddenly, the magic begins to fade.
EW: Right. If it’s overanalyzed.
RD: Yeah. Although I don’t know what you do about it unless we introduce legislation. [Laughs] Jail term or community work—you know, “Community work if you even mention Joyce once in the next two days. You’ll have to do a thousand hours community work in an inner-city area where Joyce used to live, and it won’t be a good experience.”
EW: Only allowed on Bloomsday.
EW: What are you working on now?
RD: I’m working on a book, nearly finished now—we finish next week. It’s a book about and by an Irish footballer. He’s forty-two now, so he’s an ex-footballer. He played for Manchester and Ireland. And it’s about the last ten, twelve years of his life. It’s more about how he lived after football, because I think it’s an interesting one—because hugely successful athletes, they’re confronted with things like retirement when they’re very young. And he’s an interesting man, a very controversial man here and in Britain and anywhere where people like football. So I’ve been writing since January a book with him. When it comes out it will be, you know, it’s called The Second Half—it will be Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle. So I suppose it’s ghostwritten in a way, but the two of us have been writing it together. And so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime little adventure for me. I wouldn’t be doing it again.
The invitation, or at least suggestion, came from a publisher I’d never met; I didn’t know the man. I just thought, “Well,” you know, “do I want to do this? Oh yeah, I’ll give it a go.” Met Roy and he thought the fact that I wasn’t a sports journalist or whatever could be an advantage for him. It’s been very intense, because I’ve been literally working nine or ten hours a day, sometimes more, seven days a week to get it done on time. I’ve never written a book to a deadline before, so that in itself is very satisfying, knowing that I will do it on time, that it will be ready and possibly quite good. After that, I’m working on a television series. It will be six parts, and I’ve written one, and it’s been greenlit, as they say, so I’ll have nine months to write the next five parts. I don’t want to start them all because I haven’t written a short story or fiction since The Guts was finished. I’ve never actually not been writing a novel since I started, so I want to start a novel; but I’ll take it easy during the summer months. Really, I need a holiday.
EW: Well, you’re incredibly prolific, so you must be working constantly.
RD: I do, but that’s part of the energy. I’m very happy doing that. That’s what I like doing. I work a kind of general 9 to 5 like everybody else, and you can get a lot done. But this has been unusual insofar as the deadline’s always creeping up. And on a personal level, there’s been a couple of bereavements in the family, and it’s not easy working when this happens, you know? The television series and the new novel will keep me going for a long, long time.
EW: Would you mind telling me what the television series is about?
RD: I’m kind of reluctant, but it’s about, again, it’s about a man coming out of illness and having to reinvent himself, trying to go forward, but also to reclaim what he’s lost—his family, largely. And being nudged, if you like, by his daughter, a young woman of twenty. So it’s very much family relationships between the father and the daughter. I’m playing it for laughs, comic. Very much so, yeah. There’s nothing in it telling me to do this in stark naturalism. No, it will be set in Dublin today, but it will be comic.
EW: It sounds wonderful.
RD: I hope so.
EW: I want to thank you very much for the interview.
RD: You’re welcome.
EW: I just wanted to ask you one more question. Who do you expect will win the World Cup?
RD: Well, I’ve a hundred Euro on Argentina at 4:1. Not great odds because I was too late. I think I waited until the last week before I went in. I should remind myself to go in months before it starts. I don’t know if they will win it, but certainly there’s nothing telling me they can’t. It’s been a great World Cup so far. Absolutely brilliant. I was having fun watching last night’s game, and I was at the room watching it, the USA and Ghana. Normally wouldn’t be something I’d watch, but it was great, you know? So Argentina, I hope.
EW: We’ll see what happens. Thank you.