Roddy Doyle keeps himself to himself. His business is his and his alone. He seems the type of person (and he’s certainly the kind of writer) who deals in the real world. Married to Belinda, with whom he has two sons (Rory and Jack), he works from home and writes most days within a disciplined, structured framework of time and separate projects.
Twice Booker Prize nominated (In 1991 for The Van and 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which he won), Doyle has long since shed the thin celebrity skin that clung to him so ill fittingly. He lives in a North Dublin suburb, the precise location of which we neither know nor want to find out.
That’s the way he likes it. That’s the way he wants it. Modest in demeanour, unassuming in countenance, private in manner. That’s Roddy Doyle for you.
“I had no idea my name was going to be called out,” he says of the night in 1993 that he was awarded the Booker Prize. “After that, for a while, I was making decisions that I’d never had to make before, like how public did I want to be. Having conversations with my wife that we never thought we’d have. But we made our rules early – about publicity, privacy – and gradually we got back to normal, so to speak. There were demands on me, having won the Booker Prize, that I’d attend this and do that, but I really didn’t want those things. I hadn’t done them before, and I didn’t want to do them. People wanted me to open this, launch that – I could see why, but I didn’t want to be in that world. For example, I love going to the theatre, but I rarely go to an opening night unless there’s a friend involved.”
How apt is the comment about theatre, as Doyle’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is currently rnning at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
Doyle’s treatment of the satirical work about flagrant self-interest and bribery was given a first draft in 2010, when, as he says about Ireland’s financial woes, “things had well and truly gone belly-up”. By the time the second draft was started, he remarks, “the IMF rumours were starting, and denied. I was working on the first act of the second draft when the IMF came into town. So some of the events happening were easy to slot into the play itself, as well as some of the language – references to delegations arriving, and so on.”
Notwithstanding his serious work, Doyle has a justified reputation for being able to make people laugh. Was there any pressure on his part to make his treatment even funnier than the original? “I suppose the hope is that it’s funnier, but how do you measure funny? Certainly, not to do the play for laughs would have been a major creative mistake…”
Doyle hasn’t made too many of those, it has to be said. Now in his early 50s, his back-story is reasonably well known – he attended a Christian Brothers school in Sutton, North County Dublin. After college he started his working career as a teacher of English and Geography in Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack, in the city’s Northside. He achieved major recognition (as well as criticism) for his official debut novel, The Commitments, and for his subsequent two novels, The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991). In 1991, Alan Parker’s film of the debut novel made Doyle even more famous, which was even further added to by the success of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (which remains one of the best-selling Booker Prize-winning novels).
From then to now, Doyle has attentively applied his skills at delivering realist work that is rooted in the working-class experience.
In turn immensely funny and intensely dramatic, his writing rarely (if ever) rings untrue; his dialogue is naturally unfussy and all the more riveting for it. When did he realise that he wanted to write full time?
“Full time didn’t enter into it… My job as a teacher was what I was happy doing. If someone said to me that it was what I’d be doing until I was 65, then grand. I started in 1979 and I loved the job.”
Quality is perhaps the key word when it comes to Doyle himself – albeit quality of life as much as quality control, each of which he has managed to blend without any obvious discomfort. He has little problem scrapping work he’s not satisfied with, he says, the English teacher in him wielding a red biro with as much accuracy as Zorro.
Doyle and the world at large can be thankful he didn’t cut into shreds The Commitments, which in 2012 celebrates the 25th anniversary of its publication (as well as possibly making its stage debut in London). Does he have a sense of what has happened to him in the intervening time?
“I don’t think about it,” he replies, “because my head is down working on things. I go up to the attic and I work away on things, and that’s as good as I am. I’m not being coy, either – as good as I am is what I’m doing today.”
Roddy Doyle’s latest works include a short story collection, Bullfighting, and a novel for children, A Greyhound Of A Girl. The Government Inspector runs at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre until January 28.
Interview by Tony Clayton-Lea