Yall already know Roddy Doyle is my homeboy, and one of the authors I respect the most. And yall already know I like good pieces of journalism, and that nothing floats my boat more than a well-conducted, inspiring interview.
That said, check out Charles Taylor’s awesome interview with Doyle, conducted for Salon in October… 1999!
How’s that for a throwback?
Roddy Doyle is one of those rare writers with both a critical following and devoted readership who has managed to consistently grow and change with each book. His latest, “A Star Called Henry,” is the first in what will be several volumes depicting Doyle’s hero, Henry Smart, as he makes his way through 20th century Ireland. Encompassing the 1916 rebellion and the attendant sectarian violence, and presenting one of the bleakest and most vivid portraits of poverty since Dickens, the novel continues the richness of language and the exploration of characters’ interior lives that distinguished Doyle’s last two books,“The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” We talked by phone during his recent North American book tour.
Much of “The Barrytown Trilogy” is written in dialogue. Do you feel that helped pave the way into the first-person voice of your last few books?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. I think what happened with “The Commitments” is that what I tried to do was make it narrator-free. Just to let the characters do their own roaring, and I kept the descriptions as bare as possible. And then gradually, the next book, “The Snapper,” but particularly, “The Van,” were more introspective. The narrator was getting closer to an individual character.
I think probably “The Van,” more than anything else, got me closer than the other books. It’s written in the third person but if such a thing is possible, it’s written in the second-and-a-half person, if that makes sense. It’s hard to be neat and tidy about things that are terribly messy when you’re working on them.
What you’re describing seems to be a way of getting at the interior language of the characters.
“A Star Called Henry” is your first historical novel. How difficult was it to feel your way into that?
Extremely. It’s historical because the narrator happens to be extremely old. And because he’s born in Dublin, he grew up in tumultuous times, far more tumultuous than they would be at the moment. For the first time ever, even with “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” which in many ways was describing something I wasn’t over familiar with, I couldn’t really start this book at all. I’ve always been able to start a couple of pages and then kind of stall till I give it more thought. This time around I really couldn’t start because I didn’t know enough and I had to research. In the past I’d read for verification, to make sure I was right. This time ’round I was filling in holes in my knowledge.
I take it Henry’s story will continue?
I’m working on the second volume. When I started writing I didn’t realize I was going to be dividing the story into pieces. I tend to plan as I write. And I want to leave myself open and the character open to keep on going until it seems to be the time to stop. So it could be three books, ideally; it might be just two if things are beginning to lose steam and it could be four.
This is the first time reading one of your books that I haven’t felt complete empathy with the protagonist. The possibility of violence is all through this book. We really don’t know what Henry might be capable of. A man like Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. might take a misstep but we know he’s essentially a good person. This is much more ambivalent.
Well deliberately so, because I think essentially quite a lot of good people killed quite a lot of essentially good people. My grandparents, for example, were killed during that war. And indeed two essentially good people in different circumstances have been killed during any war.
I wanted to make sure that Henry wasn’t an evil character because I think that’s too easy and lazy. There are yawning holes in my own family history. We know that both of my grandparents were involved, as they say — the word being “involved” — but we don’t know to what extent.
My father saw my grandfather hold an IRA gun which he had buried in 1922 and dug up again in 1939, but it was corroded and useless. But what none of us know and never will know is, did he use it? It’s unlikely that he didn’t and yet apparently he was a very gentle, nice man. I never knew him, he died when I was an infant.
But that’s the type of thing I was trying to capture. I think if Henry had been born in a more sedentary, more solidly working-class environment, rather than that underclass environment, he’d have had a perfectly normal life like the rest of us. Or if he’d been born 20 years later.
There seems to be an expectation that Irish writers are going to take on the 20th century history of their country. Do you feel that Irish history can be a trap for Irish writers?
Oh, I think any history can be, yeah. I was going to play with it. Not necessarily in the sense of fun, but I was going to mix fact and fiction just to see how far I could go. I didn’t feel that, “Now it’s my turn.” And I don’t think many Irish writers do anymore. I just felt, it was an ambition I’d had for quite a while.
Really, the history came after the character. What I was keen on doing was a bit like, I wanted to see if I could copy Dickens basically. To see if I could write a story a bit like “David Copperfield,” starting at the beginning. And it just got bigger, not necessarily better, but bigger as I went along. The history was dragged behind the character really. Because he was born in Dublin in 1901, the questions are always then, “Well was he in the 1916 uprising?” and I really couldn’t say no.
It was different traditions. I love Peter Carey’s book “Illywhacker” and Günter Grass’ “The Tin Drum.” These are books that left a very lasting impression on me. And indeed “Midnight’s Children” and “Shame,” the Salman Rushdie novels, made a very lasting impression on me. And they may have been at the back of my mind when I was starting this book. But I didn’t feel really self-consciously Irish when I started it. Although possibly now that it’s finished and looking at all six [of my books], it probably is the most Irish.
Well one thing it shares with Dickens is the sense of poverty all the way through. And it’s much starker in that you seem to be very determined not to accept the usual sentimental excuses for what poverty breeds, but to show poverty at the root of something tougher.
I wanted to put in context, without making a political statement, to explain why the independence movement took off, or why Henry would have gotten involved. That it wasn’t just a whim. Despite the proximity of Ireland to Britain and despite the official status of Dublin as the second city of the empire, in fact it’s a third world city and Ireland was a colony. And I wanted to just show the starkness of the poverty and try to get across that most working-class people were not politically motivated at that stage at all.
For the full interview, check out: http://www.salon.com/1999/10/28/doyle_2/singleton/