Changes: Roddy Doyle
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:03] Hello. I am Annie Macmanus and this is Changes. You're so welcome to Changes this week. I am speaking to you from the rave shed. It's a really hot day. It feels like August and the big news in the rave shed, which is slowly changing over the course of these last few months (I'm kind of doing it all up), is that the sofa arrived today and I put it up and it's really exciting. Can't wait to have my first daytime nap on it. I will report back. Other thing I need to tell you is that tomorrow we are doing our first ever Changes Live as part of The Podcast Show in London. We're going to be speaking in front of a live audience with a special guest, and that guest is Ella Vaday, the drag persona of Nick Collier who you will have seen on RuPaul's Drag Race. Amazing stories of change to tell you all about. It's going to be a very fun and interesting evening. Starts at eight o'clock. If you want to come and see us, please do! Go to the show notes to find out how to get tickets. That's tomorrow night, as in the 24th of May, in London. All right, you're in for a treat this week. I'm really, really happy and kind of proud to bring you this guest. If you're Irish, you will know of Roddy Doyle. He's kind of a cultural beacon in the country of Ireland. The man behind some of our favourite stories in book and on film. He's also transcended, obviously, you know, the literary landscape of Ireland to become famous all over the world for his stories. He won the Booker Prize in 1993 for his book, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. He's the author of eleven acclaimed novels, including The Commitments, you might know the film of that story. The Snapper, The Van and Smile. He's written novels for children. He's written plays, short stories. His latest book of short stories is called Life Without Children, which is all about kind of, loss during the pandemic. Roddy Doyle has always been a rule breaker, which we're going to talk about in this conversation. It's an element of him that I find really fascinating, this kind of fearlessness and this conviction in terms of how he writes. At the start of his career, he kind of smashed through literary norms by writing his dialogue in the thick Dublin accents that his characters spoke in. Because of that, his books are so vibrant to read, they just feel so alive. They're also hilarious at times, sad at times, and in a lot of instances, both hilarious and sad at the same time. I am such a big fan of his work and of the way that he's able to get inside people's heads. And I could have spoken to him all day. He has such a wisdom and such an articulate way of talking when it comes to putting his own personal stories in the context of Ireland at large, and how it was changing as a country from the sixties on. So, he talks about his school days and there are some experiences which he talks about which you may find upsetting. If you're concerned at all, do check the show notes. But let's get into this conversation. In preparation for it, I reread a lot of Roddy's books including his Booker winning book, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which is written from the perspective of a ten year old boy. And I had to start by asking Roddy about one of the things that I was most impressed by in this book, which was the level of detail, granular detail, and the clarity of memory in terms of describing the place that Paddy Clarke lived in. I asked if it was right to say he had borrowed from his own experiences as a child.
Roddy [00:03:30] It would, yeah, the geography very much is the geography of my childhood. The building sites and the area that's changing from rural into suburban, you know. And beside the sea, the coast, that's where I grew up. So, I use those memories. The school, the absurdity of the school, the eccentricity of it, and the kinda, almost the benignness of it, that primary school I went to. It's not exactly the school I went to, but I think in tone it's not far off it, you know?
Annie [00:03:59] Yeah.
Roddy [00:03:59] And then, I was always aware of the delicacy of your position, of one's position in a gang of boys, you know? That you had to bring some sort of skill into the gang, or you weren't in the gang. And I always had some sort of political sense, I suppose, of erm. I knew I was never going to be anybody's leader. I was wearing specs by the age of ten, so specy-four-eyes was the standard description.
Annie [00:04:28] Ok. Yep.
Roddy [00:04:29] I knew that my sense of humour basically gave me a certain amount of clout, you know. So, that was very fresh. When I wrote Paddy Clarke, I started it I think in 1991, I was thirty-something, thirty two perhaps, and being a child of ten didn't seem so far away.
Annie [00:04:50] Yeah.
Roddy [00:04:51] I wouldn't be able to write that book now. I don't think I'd be able to recreate those small little details that were still, I suppose, somewhere to the front of my mind when I was a young man.
Annie [00:05:02] They're so sensory, you know, everything from smells to sights. It's just so- you really feel like you're there. And I felt like a degree of jealousy. I was like, Oh my God, imagine being able to remember your youth in that way.
Roddy [00:05:13] I think as well, children see and hear and smell things in a way that we don't. We are trained to stop this, or we train ourselves to stop it. What I found fascinating about watching my own kids was that, their utter refusal to differentiate between what was important and what wasn't important.
Annie [00:05:31] Yeah, yeah.
Roddy [00:05:31] You know, you'd bring them in to see something spectacular and their concentration would entirely be devoted to the chewing gum on the ground.
Annie [00:05:40] Yeah.
Roddy [00:05:40] You know, not on the blaze of glory, the firework display, the visiting president or whatever it was. They couldn't give a toss. They were much more interested in the chewing gum on the ground. And following them as they walked through the city and looking where they were looking, I saw like rooftops that I hadn't looked at in years. My parents always lived in the same house, in Kilbarrack, in North Dublin. In that sense I was able to research, I was able just to go to my parents house and I remember kneeling down in the kitchen to try and capture what it was like to be a much smaller person in the same room.
Annie [00:06:15] Amazing.
Roddy [00:06:16] *Laughs* I had it, so it was easy, you know, in that way it was quite easy. I suppose, I have my parents to thank in a way, that they'd never had this wanderlust. Once they got into the house in 1951, they dug in and nothing would have shifted them. You know, the only thing that shifted them eventually was death.
Annie [00:06:32] Mmm. So, they're gone now but what were they like when you were growing up, your parents?
Roddy [00:06:36] They were terrific looking back. They really were terrific. They were very consistent, you know?
Annie [00:06:42] Yeah.
Roddy [00:06:43] It was a very stable two time- in some ways too stable. I knew exactly what I was going to get for my dinner every day of the week, you know. My mother had this routine. I think it grew out of her own childhood where she had to. You know, she had to have this routine. You know, leaving aside in those days, Catholic Ireland on a Friday, you were getting fish, you know. So, the other six days of the week, often in other people's houses, were a surprise. Sometimes the mere fact that there was anything on the table was a surprise. But that was never an issue in our house. But we always knew exactly what we were getting. Which was a good thing, and in some ways perhaps a somewhat suffocating thing. It took me a long, long time to see food as something to be enjoyed and as a novelty. I don't blame me mother for that by any means or me father. And anybody growing up in 1960s Ireland wouldn't have seen food as a novelty *laughs*.
Annie [00:07:32] Yeah.
Roddy [00:07:33] Unless there wasn't- you know what I mean? Not so much the quantity of food, which might have been a novelty in some houses, but the notion that you could eat things from other places in the world or whatever. But when I was a very young child, my father had- he had been a printer and he became a teacher of printing, err compositing. And the brilliant thing about that from my point of view, was that he had the summer holidays that teachers have. So, he was at home for three months of the summer and I didn't realise this was abnormal or strange and it was perfectly- it was perfect for me when I was a small boy to have me dad around. You know, they were both very funny people, very, very funny and great storytellers and silence was rarely an option. You know, I remember like Paddy Clarke sitting under a table, they didn't know I was there and I wasn't snooping as such, but they were chatting away for what seemed like hours. She'd be in the kitchen and she'd come out and say something at the door and go back in and he'd shout something back into the kitchen. It was never- not a violence. And there was never any, 'what? What? What did you say?'. It was an ongoing conversation about what he was reading in the paper and what she was responding to, and so they just rolled in that way all the time. And again, looking back on that, it's a lovely way to- it's a lovely place to grow up, you know.
Annie [00:08:55] Yeah.
Roddy [00:08:55] So they were, they were erm, terrific and very supportive when I decided to write, you know. Very, very supportive.
Annie [00:09:04] You spend a lot of your career writing about family.
Roddy [00:09:08] Yeah.
Annie [00:09:08] Why do you think you kind of go back to that subject so often, do you think?
Roddy [00:09:12] Because they were characters, I suppose *laughs*. You know, I was writing short stories during the first and second lockdowns, and it was all about isolation, you know. Somebody said, you know, I'm well known for my trademark, as they call it, dialogue. It's very hard to write dialogue when there's only one character *laughs*.
Annie [00:09:32] But you do, you do it really well. It's just one character talking to himself.
Roddy [00:09:37] *Laughs*. That's a different challenge, you know. It's all a challenge. But, I suppose the bulk of us come out of families, we're shaped by our families, like it or not. We may not be aware of it. And a lot of us then go into new families. We create our own families. So, there's a yawning, if you're lucky, a bit of a yawning gap between the two. But some go straight from one into the other, you know. I thought there's scope for humour, for chaos, for the dark side of life and then there's the generational rub, you know? The difference in rhythm, the difference in slang, the difference in attitude towards one another. So, in a way the school I was in, this comprehensive co-ed. Boys, girls age twelve to eighteen, then the staff were all relatively young, one or two of them had married one another. So in a way, it was a bizarre family.
Annie [00:10:27] And that's the school you were teaching in?
Roddy [00:10:29] Yeah.
Annie [00:10:29] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
[00:10:38] *Short musical interlude*.
Annie [00:10:38] Well, let's talk about school because you bring up school, your own school, as one of the biggest changes of your childhood. Is that right? Tell us about that.
Roddy [00:10:46] Well, I'm talking about the change from primary to secondary I think.
Annie [00:10:50] Ok.
Roddy [00:10:50] It'd be overdramatic to call it traumatic and I think probably to transition from one to the other is a big event in anybody's life. But, I went to what is called a national school, primary school here in Dublin, very close to where I grew up.
Annie [00:11:04] Right.
Roddy [00:11:05] And it was an all boys school, fifty four boys in the class.
Annie [00:11:10] Fifty four, God, that's a big class.
Roddy [00:11:11] It is yeah, yeah. And the teachers were all men. Looking back and living it at the time, they did it really well. I now know that they were young men. Corporal punishment wasn't illegal at the time, and some of them used corporal punishment. But I never saw it used with any enthusiasm, shall we say. And generally, my memories of the school are really, really positive. And if I met any of the teachers I had, I'd be delighted to meet them. Then the shift. I went to a Christian Brothers school and in many ways I had a great time there and had brilliant friends who I still- are my closest friends from, you know, so fifty years later. More than fifty years later. But the tone of the place, the atmosphere of the place, my sense of adulthood changed. I went from in school, primary school, kind of being looked after by men who did their best, to being sneered at, sometimes beaten, pushed, generally treated badly by men of the same age in some cases. They were given licence to be really awful, now there were Christian Brothers, they were terrible, but there were a lot of lay teachers as well. Funnily enough, you begin to think it's normal. You know, you're living it, you begin to think it's normal. And it's only later on that you realise, you know, when I started teaching myself in an entirely different place, I realised how abnormal it was and how wrong it was. And as I got older then it gets worse and worse and worse somehow. You know, you would have thought that fifty years after walking into the place, you'd calm down. And I am, but you know, it's consigned to the past. But it still shocks me that this was considered a fit education for young boys at that time. I didn't learn an awful lot in that place, you know. The bulk of what I learnt, I learnt in primary school. And I was discouraged at times. It's really weird. And looking back now, when you think of, you know, I won the Booker Prize, I've had, I don't know, thirteen novels published. I'm one of the better known Irish- living Irish writers. The brother at the front of the room told me I couldn't do honours english, that I wasn't good enough. And I knew I was, but yet this adult, and he was the principal at the school at the same time, was telling me I wasn't good enough. Something in me said, I'm going to do it anyway, because other teachers had said that my writing was good. But this man, can you imagine the principal of a school actively discouraging a young man from pursuing his- wasn't a dream as such, I suppose, with a small D perhaps it was. I wanted to go to college. It wasn't a normal thing back then. It was a big decision for somebody of my background. I got application forms for two colleges: University College Dublin (UCD) and Trinity College, and I had to get them stamped by the school principal and he wouldn't do it.
Annie [00:14:18] What?!
Roddy [00:14:20] "Why would I waste my time?". And eventually he did it because he knew I'd go home.
Annie [00:14:25] Sure.
Roddy [00:14:25] And if me father and me mother said, 'did you send off those applications?' and I'd say I couldn't, because Brother what's his name wouldn't stamp them for me, my parents would have gone up or my dad would have gone up to find out why not. So, he was just a bully. But that was the tone of the place right the way through. Now, there were great teachers there. And as I said, it was, you know, I don't know, in the in the days of corporal punishment, when it was really, you know, a real thing, laughing at the back of the room, there was absolutely nothing like it because it was a matter of life and death. And that, I think it's one of the reasons why I think in a way my comedy can be so precise because it was a matter of life and death. If you were caught laughing in the back of the room, I mean they could slaughter you, absolutely slaughter you. But at the same time, that added *laughs* so much.
Annie [00:15:12] That added to the Jeopardy.
Roddy [00:15:14] When you're with your pals. It added to- absolutely.
Annie [00:15:15] God, yeah. I mean, again, you read about it in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and it's kind of like, Jesus, you're kind of willing these kids to just shut up because you're like, Oh, my God, would you not?
Roddy [00:15:27] Yeah, I think I got closer to the darkerness- darkness of it in a later book called, Smile. I stripped away the comedy in a way.
Annie [00:15:35] Right.
Roddy [00:15:36] I was never erm, I was never sexually abused. And it seems bizarre that a lot of people who went to a school like that, or sometimes the Jesuits or whatever, often have to begin their conversations about it by saying something like that.
Annie [00:15:52] God isn't that just awful. But you were beaten? Physically beaten?
Roddy [00:15:59] Yeah, there was one particularly, erm. I was messing with a couple of lads. I think we were in second year, so we were fourteen, waiting for the teacher to appear. We weren't doing anything violent, nothing overly boisterous really. We were just, you know, as we say, having the crack. And a teacher, I won't name him, stuck his head in the door, called us out. He used to roam the corridors looking for excuses, basically to beat up kids. And he put us in a line, took out his leather strap. And I've never experienced pain like it, you know. I was cute enough to get to the end of the line, but he was a strong man. And I'll never forget the sweat on his face and the grunting. Each grunt-.
Annie [00:16:42] Oh Roddy.
Roddy [00:16:42] Like, later on I knew what was going on and the sweat fell on me. The big thing for me, the only thing that mattered, because I'd lost contact with my hands, you know, I couldn't feel anything. The only thing that mattered to me was that I wouldn't cry in front of the other boys in the class. That was all that mattered to me. And I got down and sat and put me hands on the, on the legs of the desk, you know, the metal legs of the desk, and basically tried to hold those- the legs of the desk for the rest of the day, if possible, because holding a pen was err- is just impossible. I'll never forget the shaking of it as well, you know, and the- what was, again, don't think I really noticed it in a conscious way until maybe even years later, the fellow feeling around me, you know. The lads looking out for me.
Annie [00:17:34] Right.
Roddy [00:17:34] I suppose a sense of also feeling lucky that it wasn't them. And the weirdest thing sometimes- in retrospect, the teacher who- I can't remember what he was teaching us, what subject it was, but while we were being beaten in the corridor, he must have gone past us into the classroom because the class had started. And this was considered okay. Can you imagine walking pa- you know? I mean, ten years later, corporal punishment was illegal.
Annie [00:18:01] Right.
Roddy [00:18:02] So, in many ways, as a writer, I kind of feel I'm glad I was around for this sort of stuff. Like, this crossroads between almost 19th century colonial Ireland and the modern place I inhabit now, you know. There's an awful lot to write about, that's for sure.
Annie [00:18:19] I mean, how has your attitude to what happened changed over the years?
Roddy [00:18:26] I realised later on that what it was, that man got sexual satisfaction from beating up kids. I realised it. And I used it, I remember now in a short story that I wrote a couple of years ago called, The Charger. But I decided out of curiosity, I think I might, if I can, I'm going to find that man and ask him why he is- why he did it. And I googled and found him. And he had died six months before.
Annie [00:18:51] Oh, wow.
Roddy [00:18:53] But just- I don't know if I'd ever have actually done it. So in a way, it did inevitably shape or certainly distort my attitude for a long time, I think. It's inevitable. I wouldn't go so far as it explains what a crazy place Ireland is, but somebody said that Ireland went straight from the 19th century to the 21st, that we bypassed *laughs* we bypassed the 20th century, you know? That when we got independence in 1922, basically the Catholic church took over the position of the coloniser and that it was a very puritanical place to be in. There were more people incarcerated, you know, for various reasons, mental homes, orphanages, than there were in Stalinist Russia, proportionately. Erm, all the dirty secrets were hidden. Any sense of freedom, you know, cultural freedom, sexual freedom, freedom of identity, anything like that was suppressed, you know. Dire poverty, almost encouraged, I would say, because, you know, there's nothing like poverty to keep, to keep people down. Then, I suppose it's like everybody exhaled at the same time and said enough. There were extraordinarily brave people who stood up and said, 'I was abused', and the pillars, you know, of the church began to crumble. Things happened that I would never have expected to happen, you know, first being divorce, the divorce referendum.
Annie [00:20:33] Oh yeah.
Roddy [00:20:33] Then, gay marriage very recently. And then abortion. That particular referendum. One of the great things about Ireland is that we have referendums when we want to make decisions and they're a great invention because you do get involved. And so, all these changes came about. The economy opened up, which was a great, you know, several decisions made by kind of boring civil servants in the late fifties, early sixties, opened up the economy. We joined the EU and began to look out, you know, rather than in. Trying to invite outside cultural influences rather than to keep them out. I mean, when I went to the Christian Brothers, soccer was frowned upon as a foreign game, really, you know, and it was well into the 1990s before it became a hugely popular sport outside of the cities. So, all these things changed, you know, and, you know, luckily brilliantly during my lifetime. But I would never have anticipated the speed of it myself, you know?
Annie [00:21:36] Yeah.
Roddy [00:21:36] It's a very, very different place now to the place that I grew up in, or even into my- into me thirties, really.
Annie [00:21:44] Yeah. So, it's interesting watching Ireland change from abroad, you know, having been away from Dublin for twenty- over twenty years now. Kind of, being an outsider looking in, gives this very kind of unique perspective of watching it change. You're kind of leaning up against a screen, kind of like, you know, rooting for Ireland and, you know, seeing all these referendums take place. It's just, it is extraordinary isn't it, when you say it, when you lay it out like that, just how quickly it's changed.
[00:22:20] *short musical interlude*.
Annie [00:22:20] You taught for fourteen years.
Roddy [00:22:21] Yes.
Annie [00:22:22] Is that right, yeah? What made you want to be a teacher?
Roddy [00:22:25] In a way, I drifted into it. It wasn't an accident because obviously I decided this is what I'd do. But if we could describe it casually as an accident, it was the happiest accident of my life, or the best accident *laughs*, you know. I fell in love with the place really very quickly. The atmosphere in the school was just brilliant. The kids- I got an email recently, just a few days ago from a kid I used to teach who I hadn't heard from in more than thirty years, and it was wonderful. It was so in a way, respectful and affectionate. It allowed me to think that, you know, my memories of teaching aren't just sentimental and nostalgic, that there is a certain truth in them. The wish of these kids, they were so quick, so sharp, God, did they entertained me, you know? *Both laugh*. And I hope I occasionally taught them something useful or at least joyous. It really rid me very, very quickly of the notion that you can really measure intelligence, you know, or that there are such things as a category of intelligent people and a category of not so intelligent people because these abilities or whatever, crisscross. Some of us are lucky enough to be officially intelligent and others aren't but, *Annie laughs* it was such a contrast to the place I went to that I just thought it was great.
Annie [00:23:47] Well that's what I was wondering, is there some sort of subconscious need for you to subvert, you know, your experience of horrible teachers into something positive?
Roddy [00:23:56] It would have been very unconscious, certainly, you know. Obviously if it's unconscious, I wasn't aware of it, but I'm still not aware of it, if you like.
Annie [00:24:04] Yeah. You mentioned the idea of being kind of officially, you know, academic or officially intelligent. And it strikes me with you that that's something that you've always set out to do. Maybe unconsciously, again, you know, to kind of break the mould of what 'official' is in terms of a literary establishment, literary rules, traditions.
Roddy [00:24:24] Yeah.
Annie [00:24:24] Why do you think that is Roddy? Why have you always set about in that way or ended up breaking rules?
Roddy [00:24:30] Well, I think being of my- being the age I am, whenever I put on a bit of music at home, the shout would come from my father, 'turn down that bloody noise!'. *Annie laughs*. I don't think it happens anymore in households because, you know, my children don't live in the house anymore. But, you know, I'd hear them playing music and I'd go in to see what it was. Or I'd go in to gloat and say, I saw them in 1977.
Annie [00:24:53] 'Oh, you should check out th- if you listen to this, you should check out them.'
Roddy [00:24:55] Yeah. Yeah. It must've been hell to have a dad that knew more than they did. And, you know, a know all. And in the area that used to be their- the preserve of teenagers. Music.
Annie [00:25:06] Right.
Roddy [00:25:07] And I realised really when I was listening, when I became- and I kind of fell into the world of music and literature when I was a teenager and I suppose, I realised that the great way to express yourself is to do what the others never did before, you know, to break the rules. You know?
Annie [00:25:22] Was there something or some piece of work or some piece of music that helped you to realise? That made you see it was possible?
Roddy [00:25:30] I suppose I'll give you an example, I worked in a factory, a canning factory in Dusseldorf, or near Dusseldorf in 1977 when I was a student. And worked on the late shift and one friday after the late shift we got a train into Dusseldorf, were sitting in a bar where they were playing music, which itself was an extraordinary thing. And in a row, three songs were played, Exodus by Bob Marley, The Passenger by Iggy Pop, and Hero- Heroes.
Annie [00:25:57] Wow.
Roddy [00:25:59] David Bowie. And I think Heroes particularly, because I'm a big fan of Bowie and here he is doing something that really he hadn't done before somehow, you know. It wasn't what he had been doing three years before or probably even one year before. And the Iggy Pop song then, it was kind of built on, built on a rhythm or something that I'd heard before, but actually it just felt so new and so fresh, and the lyrics felt both nonsensical and really powerful and somehow, somewhere or other, underneath it all, quite deep, you know. And then, Exodus, where do you start? So, all of this music that I would have been listening to around about that time suggested to me that the way to do it is to break the rules. And actually, when you go back and listen to their music, if you like, turning their back going, that wasn't bad either *laughs*. You know, it was a kind of a win-win thing. You know, Flann O'Brien was a, I think, a big influence on me and his books, The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, because he was messing all the time, breaking the rules. And the biggest thing, the biggest influence he had on me, I think, is in At Swim-Two-Birds where he puts the Dublin accent on the page.
Annie [00:27:12] Right. Yeah. Like phonetically?
Roddy [00:27:15] Not so much that as the rhythm.
Annie [00:27:16] To the rhythm of it. Yeah.
Roddy [00:27:17] And the kind of, absurd characters saying Dublin things. And the mix was just brilliant. And it was a group activity, it was me and friends reading passages of it out loud, you know, and discovering alcohol at the same time, under a tree, reading these passages out loud. Helpless with laughter. Because this was the, you know, the way these characters, a lot of the men were talking, was exactly like our da's spoke, if you like, and our uncles spoke.
Annie [00:27:46] Yeah, so you recognised yourselves in it, which is rare.
Roddy [00:27:47] Yeah, with that humour in it, that absurdity in it that just made it so funny. And the lesson I suppose was that everything around you can be made into either humour or certainly into some sort of art. So, I think it's from early on there and of course everything about this, you know, football, a lot- Flann O'Brien was a, you know, an Irish writer, but a lot of what we were listening to was so deliberately not Irish.
Annie [00:28:13] Right, yeah.
Roddy [00:28:14] That was subversive in a way, because, we were still living in a place where, you know, everything from outside of Ireland was vaguely suspect unless it was classical music, you know, and everybody was safely dead, you know?
Annie [00:28:29] Yeah. And then, of course, you self-publish The Commitments, your first play, which then, you know, went on to be a huge success. And that was you doing exactly what you wanted to do.
Roddy [00:28:36] Yep.
Annie [00:28:36] Breaking a lot of rules.
Roddy [00:28:38] Yep.
Annie [00:28:38] And I guess when you have a success that early, then you're like, right, well, I can do it. I've broken all the rules and I'm doing all right here, I'm making a living or, you know, things are happening.
Roddy [00:28:47] Yeah, well I wasn't making a living with it at the time. You know, I got a bank loan to publish the book myself, and it wasn't making a living, really. I never thought of it as making a living or even erm- I was really happy as a teacher and I didn't have a family of my own at the time, so I was well able to juggle the teaching and the writing. I started The Snapper before I published The Commitments. So my, if you like, my commitment was to writing in that style regardless of whether I earned a few quid or not. But, you know, it was what I wanted to do. And, you know, there was a lot of kind of, dismissal from the kind of Irish Times, criticy world type of thing, you know, and Hot Press as well were very dismissive of The Commitments. I kind of liked that. I kind of liked that.
Annie [00:29:33] But how did you like it Roddy? Most people would be, like, devastated from that kind of thing, you know?
Roddy [00:29:38] I think.. I'm not altogether sure. It's possible, I think, that you can be hurt by something and really kind of welcome it at the same time.
Annie [00:29:47] Unmotivated, yeah.
Roddy [00:29:47] I don't think it's sadistic. It was certainly like, it's the cliche, 'grist to the mill', you know. I think it was 'grist for the mill'. Erm, I remember a review of The Commitments, a very early review saying I hadn't a clue how to write a novel, but it was very entertaining. And I think, you patronising prick, you know, but that would just get me into the, you know, well I didn't have an office at the time, but rushing to three feet in the bedsit *laughs*, to the table to get writing, you know.
Annie [00:30:17] But I think that criticism is so telling because you did write a novel. You just wrote a novel your way. You wrote a novel that wasn't the way that the literary establishment presume a novel to be.
Roddy [00:30:26] I was very aware of that, you see.
Annie [00:30:28] There's such conviction in that, though.
Roddy [00:30:31] Yeah, and it's all in that phrase, 'the guardian's at the gate', you know?
Annie [00:30:34] Yeah. What's the most common criticism of you as a writer, over the years?
Roddy [00:30:40] Oh, it's kind of disappeared. But there was this dismissal of 'it's so easy, he just write, he writes thinly disguised screenplays'. That I was on the make, so to speak. I was writing screenplays and disguising them as novels. And there was a queue of people from 20th Century Fox wanting to make these into films, never any examination as to why filmmakers would be interested in making a film about a young woman who's pregnant in Dublin in the mid 1980s. So there was a lot more going on than that. But I suppose it was the idea that it all looks so easy and I think I was able to deal with that because some people have said, 'you must have had great fun make- doing that, were you?'. And I'll always say, no, I didn't have great fun. But I do realise that a lot of the hard work, particularly in editing, goes into making it seem like, you know, if it's The Snapper or The Van, great fun.
Annie [00:31:43] Yeah.
Roddy [00:31:43] And it's not up to me to go around the world saying, 'oh, it was agony, it was terrible. I was bleeding. Blood, sweat and tears were pouring down my face as I wrote this', because that's not true either. But, I suppose it's very hard for people to see any sort of literature or art as labour, you know. And that's fair enough, because I think part of the skill is to make it look, in a way, effortless. And I think when I'm reading something and the writer, often male, is very keen to let you know that it's been a big effort, then I *laughs* I'm inclined to close it and say, well you can keep that to yourself.
Annie [00:32:17] Yeah *laughs.
[00:32:17] *short musical interlude*
Annie [00:32:30] Roddy, let's talk about the big change in your adulthood, please. What that would be.
Roddy [00:32:36] Erm, I think probably the biggest would be becoming a parent.
Annie [00:32:39] Right.
Roddy [00:32:40] Even as a writer, I wrote Paddy Clarke because I became a parent, you know, my fourth novel, Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha. I don't think I'd ever written it, or I might had come around to it in a different way if I hadn't had a baby in my arms, you know. And beginning to anticipate how his life was going to be like. And I suppose, looking back at my own. And I began to think, well, there's a book here maybe. Also, even the shape of that book was dictated by the rigours of parenthood.
Annie [00:33:11] I'm fascinated by this. Tell us about this.
Roddy [00:33:13] Well it was utterly shapeless and I'd, you know, because then when I was writing it, I became the father of two children. You know, it all happened very, very quickly. So we had a toddler and a baby and literally one in each arm sometimes. And I was teaching every day. So I'd wake up very early in the morning, for example, you know, and I'd listen out... Grand, very quiet, make a cup of coffee, do a little bit, paragraph or two, if I could. And sometimes that paragraph or two became an entire little world of its own in the book. I didn't know that at the time. Paddy just describing something, you know?
Annie [00:33:49] Mm hmm.
Roddy [00:33:50] And then other times. Say, my wife might take the kids away for a couple of days and there'd be a longer paragraph or, you know, it would end up being more formally a chapter because I had the time to do it. So I was kind of juggling parenthood and teaching and the writing. And writing these little glimpses of a child's life. No plot as such. You know, memory feeding another memory, feeding another memory. And by the time I got to the end and I began to realise I did have a plot, Paddy watching the collapse of his parent's marriage, I was really quite surprised because I didn't know I was going to be finishing the book that day or that I was anywhere near. And if memory serves me, I printed it all out and I put it on what was then, my office floor, trying to see what I had in me hands. And it was a complete and utter mess and a kind of, a reflection of my life for the previous- a happy mess!
Annie [00:34:43] Yeah, just like fragments, like, it's quite fragmentary.
Roddy [00:34:44] Yeah, absolutely. Very fragmentary. And I began to put, you know, I'd take a page and say, I'll put that with that page and began to see a spiral, a literal spiral, Annie, on the floor with me sitting in the middle of it and going around, really. I said, well, there's something missing here. There's a big gap from this to this. And then there's- this is all accounted for right up to the end when the story becomes more of a straight, linear story, as he can't avoid the fact that his parents are fighting. And the book wouldn't have been the book. And it ended up, I think it captures the mindset of a ten year old boy for the simple reason that I was a thirty-something year old father, you know? Being a parent, leaving aside all other emotional things. It had an immediate effect on my writing.
Annie [00:35:32] Wow. So, not just what you wrote about, but also the form?
Roddy [00:35:35] Yes.
Annie [00:35:35] It's so interesting.
Roddy [00:35:35] Yeah, particularly early on. And I think my humour changed somewhat, I think to a degree in a way that I can't quite account for, the books became a bit darker. Mortality-
Annie [00:35:48] Yeah, I mean, Paula Spencer after PaddyClarke just fucking broke my heart. The woman who walked into doors.
Roddy [00:35:54] Yeah. And I wrote I mean, I wrote the television series, Family, which-.
Annie [00:35:59] Yeah.
Annie [00:36:01] Err, inspired- it's usually the other way around, but the novel was inspired by the television series. I started writing that in 1992, I think I write about the time where I became the father of two children. And in a way, I couldn't have been happier. I couldn't have been personally happier. But I think I was very aware of the flip side of that, you know. Suddenly- one of the things you become a parent, you're responsible for somebody small, and suddenly life insurance becomes a thing on the agenda where, you know, previously, you know, I hadn't given a second thought. I'd never-.
Annie [00:36:36] Of course. Of course, mortality.
Roddy [00:36:37] Couldn't have given a toss, yeah. So the responsibilities are added to. I think inevitably when you're a parent, it brings you closer to the feminine side in you. I think particularly perhaps for, you know, my father wasn't present at the birth of his children. I was.
Annie [00:36:54] Yeah, that's a generational thing isn't it?
Roddy [00:36:57] Yeah. And I made a bit of that in The Snapper. You know, Sharon's father wasn't present at the birth of her children, you know, and he's a relatively young man. Of his children, sorry. So erm, again it's one of those crossroads things really, the different- I think being a parent creatively opened me up to stories that probably I wouldn't have been aware of, without it being glaringly obvious. I suppose it added to the arsenal, if that makes sense.
Annie [00:37:27] Yeah. And it has carried on adding, right? Because you know, you've written in your most recent book of short stories about characters whose children have left home and that feeling post. So it doesn't just stop when they're born, right?
Roddy [00:37:38] No and it surprised me in a way that that thing is still there. That feeling is still there. Because I thought, you know, when the kids became independent and didn't really need me, you know, I'm talking about me and I'm not talking about us, you know, leaving people out of the story. But I thought I'd entered that period of redundancy, really, and it's not nice. It's horrible in many ways. And the freedom, it seems to suggest, isn't welcome at first. You don't know what to do with it, really. And I thought that was well out of the way. But then it's a different kind of, I don't think it's a redundancy, it's a it's a form of grief I think really. You know, I'm lucky in that my kids are living in Dublin and I see them regularly and all is great. It's brilliant. But at the same time, that role, that parental role is different. It's more- you're not even there as a guidance counsellor really anymore. You're just... I'm not sure what the role is. I'm happy to say.
Annie [00:38:34] Still figuring it out?
Roddy [00:38:36] Yeah, yeah. Grand. I don't mind that at all. I'm not, you know, 'I don't know' is one of my favourite answers. So yeah, but it is a strange- when I started writing those stories, I didn't anticipate that the absence of children would be a big, big part of it, you know. But it is.
Annie [00:38:53] As a writer, you end up putting what's in your head on paper. And as you just alluded to, sometimes you don't know what's going to end up on the paper. And sometimes you're going to figure out stuff about yourself. Is there something in the fact that, you know, your life has been documented in an abstract way throughout your novels? Of course. I mean, obviously you've written a book about your mam and dad, but in terms of your personal experiences, is there something comforting in that?
Roddy [00:39:19] Not comforting, no. Erm, actually... something perhaps... don't like the word therapeutic.
Annie [00:39:30] Right.
Roddy [00:39:31] We're getting older. Well, you aren't. But I am *laughs*.
Annie [00:39:35] I am. Trust me.
Roddy [00:39:37] It's awful. I mean, it's awful, really.
Annie [00:39:42] Oh Roddy no, don't say it! Come on!
Roddy [00:39:44] No, I'm saying this cheerfully, but it is awful. You know, friends die. You know, there's no redeeming features in that, it tears your heart out, its really awful. The little humiliations of growing old can be funny, particularly if they're shared with other people. But what it is, it's material, you know. Probably less people want to read about it, but it is raw material for the work, you know, and it's great to have the experience of, you know, rearing children, uh, grief in its different forms. They're inevitable. It's the package, you know, you can't escape it. And yet, as a, as a writer, I can use these experiences. I'm not falling back on my old life. I'm not trying to recreate the glory days of The Commitments or The Van or something. And I'd have no interest in doing that, you know, no more than I'd want to be a teenager. And I find as well that if I was to try and write a book that had a lot of young kids in it, I probably wouldn't be able to because I'm not close enough to the rhythm of how they speak.
Annie [00:40:57] Yeah.
Roddy [00:40:57] Whereas, I'm very familiar with the rhythm of people of my own age and younger. I mean, it's not a failure of imagination, it's erm, you need some sort of solid ice under you when you set out to write a book. And I find it interesting to try and capture the different phases of my life. It's not a, it's not a planned thing in any way but inevitably, when I start off to write something, there has to be a little bit of familiarity about it, you know. It is in a way, I suppose, in a way, therapeutic. If therapy is to be the main object, it's going to be bad art.
Annie [00:41:33] Yeah.
Roddy [00:41:34] And if you say, you know, the fact if you write about the death of a friend, does it make you feel better? No. *Laughs*.
Annie [00:41:41] But it maybe helps you figure out how you feel a little bit more, no?
Roddy [00:41:45] Err, it does. To a degree it does. And if it doesn't help me figure out, at least it's a way of just screaming out your pain, so to speak. And the opposite of pain, the joy, you know? It's the stuff of life, you know?
Annie [00:41:58] Are you writing more or less these days?
Roddy [00:42:01] I'm writing as much, I think, but I'm using my time differently. I used to stay in the office all day, but now I realise that I'm very self disciplined and I can do a lot in a short burst of time.
Annie [00:42:14] How much can you do, Roddy?
Roddy [00:42:17] If I'm working on a novel, if I do a thousand words, I'm more than happy. What I do is that I concentrate at first on the quantity because I don't really know what I'm doing. And then later on, I worry about the quality and I go back and I fix it.
Annie [00:42:31] Wow, wow.
Roddy [00:42:31] But I think if I worry too much about the quality at the very beginning, I probably wouldn't start.
Annie [00:42:37] Yeah, I'm the same as you.
Roddy [00:42:37] It's a bit like, you know, you have to learn to drive before you drive, but you have to get into the car, you know?
Annie [00:42:43] Totally.
Roddy [00:42:43] You know, and you have to be kind to yourself. So, I reckon quantity first then quality. And I'm often surprised when I go back and look at the quantity. And actually, some of it isn't bad, you know?
Annie [00:42:54] Yeah.
Roddy [00:42:54] Because I think we can be over judgemental. And even at this stage, I mean, I don't know how many books I've written and that's literally true, you can still be hard on yourself, you know. You can still be too judgemental really. So, I think you have to fight against that by being as kind to yourself as you possibly can be. So, I'm a bit looser with my time than I used to be. And certainly in terms, you know, the people- if retirement age is sixty five, I'm just more than a year away from it, and it means nothing to me. It doesn't mean- it doesn't make sense to me, the idea of just stopping.
Annie [00:43:26] Yeah.
Roddy [00:43:27] I'm never short of stories. I'm never lost for something to- quality comes into it then but I'm never lost for things to write about. I've a list of ideas as long as my life, you know, and I think it's how I use the time rather than whether I use the time. That's the thing.
Annie [00:43:42] So what would you do if you didn't write?
Roddy [00:43:45] There you go. Read. Read and be consumed by jealousy and all these, these young Irish women who are being published, you know. *Annie laughs*. So, the only thing to do is to keep on writing and ignore them. *Both laugh*.
Annie [00:44:01] Thank you so much. I really appreciate that conversation.
Roddy [00:44:04] It's a pleasure. It's a pleasure.
Annie [00:44:09] Thank you so much to Roddy Doyle. I just loved that conversation. It meant the world to me to have some time to speak to him. And if you haven't read Roddy's work before, you can find a link to his website and all his books in the show notes, including his latest novel, Smile, and his book of short stories, Life Without Children. But do go and read The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha, and The Commitments and The Snapper and The Van, all those classics. I mean, I just had such fun going back and rereading them. So, next week we are going to be having a conversation all about a very new thing that has happened in our lives over the last couple of years. And that is long COVID. I'm going to be joined by Kate Weinberg. She's also a writer, but she's going to be talking us through suffering from and starting to recover from long COVID, a change that many people are still feeling the effects of and still trying to figure out what the hell is going on when it comes to trying to recover from it. So, anyone you know who's suffered from long COVID or if you're curious about it, this is a really enlightening and informative episode next week. And also just very moving as well, hearing Kate's own personal journey with it. So thank you so much for listening. Please subscribe. Follow the podcast, leave a rating where you can. It helps us to be heard by more people. We were Podcast of the Week in The Times last weekend. We were so, so happy about that. So, it's so nice to be recognised and I just love hearing from you. So yeah, do go and let us know how you go with it. This episode of Changes was produced by Louise Mason for DIN Productions. Thank you and goodbye.