Booker prize winner, Roddy Doyle talks to Dave Kavanagh

Born in Dublin in 1958, Roddy Doyle read English and Geography at Trinity College, Dublin before becoming a teacher in Dublin in 1980. He left teaching  in 1993 to write full-time. His first three novels, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991), narrate the adventures of the Rabbitte family, residents of Barrytown, a poor housing estate in north Dublin. Both The Commitments and The Snapper were made into films, and Doyle wrote the Channel 4 series, The Family, which was televised in the UK in 1995.

Roddy Doyle won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1993 for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, that tells the story of a ten-year-old Irish boy. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors (1996) is the story of alcoholic, mother of four, Paula Spencer who is trapped in an abusive marriage. Doyle revisits Spencer’s life in his 2006 novel Paula Spencer. His novel, A Star Called Henry (1999), is set in 1922 during the civil war in Ireland. Doyle is the author of two plays, Brownbread (1987), and War (1989); and children’s books, including The Giggler Treatment (2000), Rover Saves Christmas (2001) and The Meanwhile Adventures (2004). His children’s book A Greyhound of a Girl (2012) was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2013.

Roddy Doyle, 'Love'

Doyle’s most recent books include The Dead Republic (2010);Two Pints (2012); The Guts (2013), which takes us back to Jimmy Rabbitte, now in his forties; Two More Pints (2014); Dead Man Talking (2015); Smile (2017); and Love (2020).

DK: You wrote about your parents in Rory and Ita (2002). Tell me a little about them and your formative years. And what it was like to grow up in Kilbarrick in the 60s and 70s?

RD:Well, anyone’s formative years are going to be important regardless of if they end up being a writer or not, but I do think the geography of the place I grew up in was at the time and remains interesting because it changed so much while I was growing up, from being almost rural, in fact, being rural, there was a farm right across from where I lived, to being a vast building site. For years we were watching building, road widening, the population was changing and it was interesting at the time as well as a bit unsettling, you know? 

The road is being constantly dug up, the neighbours across the road in the farm are gone, and for a few years there is nothing except building going on. So, in that sense, growing up in that patch, on Dublin’s north-side, well, it’s a label if you like and it’s a sense of home so that was important, and the house I grew up in and the contrast between my parents, their different style of storytelling if you like, the difference in their upbringing and their shared love of books and of stories, all of those things were important. 

As for the writing, I really haven’t a clue, but when you get into the habit and it has to be a habit, or maybe a better word is a discipline and when you get into it, that’s when your material makes itself apparent, and you begin filling pages. You write one story and say, now I’ll write another one, and another makes itself apparent and something happens in your life. 

In the case of Paddy Clarke, I wrote that because I had a child, I was a father and I began to think about my own childhood. So it was that event, or that happy trauma if you like that knocked me out of the tree.  The books I had written, The Commitments, The Van and The Snapper, well, I suddenly wanted to write something else and I fell back on my childhood for that. So that was when my childhood suddenly became important from the point of view of writing. 

For the first three books, my teaching and where I taught was important. I used to teach in Kilbarrick. The school was a ten minute walk from the house I grew up in, and stayed in for some years after I started teaching, so it was like walking back into an area I did know, but suddenly it was different. I knew it when it was a field and then when it was a building site with muck everywhere and then I didn’t pay much attention to it while I was in college and abroad for the summers and when I went back to it to teach, suddenly it was a like brand new place. 

It was a dream almost, something that was just around the corner but where you expect one thing and get something completely different. It was the energy in the place then that went into those earlier books, not the subject matter, that was all fiction, but definitely the energy that comes from listening to kids all day, the slang you’d hear on the streets. So, the patch of the world I grew up in has remained important. 

I’m living only about four miles from there now but I don’t have the reason to go there anymore because my parents are no longer there and there are other people living in the house I grew up in, but I do go back, it’s still home, but I feel, particularly as I have gotten older, I’m 62 now I think (laughs) yes, 62, that those early years are the material, the stuff that you write about and I am certainly more conscious of it now than I used to be. It’s not that I fall back on the past all the time, because I don’t, but there is a lot of it there. And a lot of the stories I have written, certainly the more recent ones, in particular, Smile and Love have been in both the present and the past and there is a lot of the past we can look back on and re-access and use in fictional work. 

So, yeah, growing up in my patch was important, but it didn’t make me a writer. That, becoming a writer is more mundane, it’s about being willing to sit, to spend time with yourself and fill pages and where that came from, I don’t know. 

My parents were both very diligent, very disciplined, good workers. My mother had to leave her job when she got married but went back to work when I was in school, so they set that example. Neither of them were easy going, not that they were hard as parents, they weren’t and they were relaxed socially, but, that aside, they were up and out of the house each morning.DK: So they instilled a strong work ethic?

RD: Yes, but there was none of the bullshit that goes with that. I never remember them trying to teach me lessons, and that doesn’t necessarily explain why I became a writer, because they went to work, they worked with other people so I don’t know how that translates to me spending time by myself and becoming a writer.

I do know it was something I really wanted, I wanted to go past being just a reader, I wanted to be a writer, or wanted to see if I could do it. I do know my father would have loved to have been an artist, he spoke to me about that in his later years. He was a printer and went to Art College during his apprenticeship. He went a couple of evenings a week and hung about with other men who did the same and they used to go to different parts of the country and paint. 

I have a few of his old paintings, as do my siblings. He would have loved to have had that life, though he never expressed discontent with the life he had, except in the last few years when I think he had had enough, hated the job, but only for those last few years. So, there was that aspiration but he never shoved me at it, and my mother was the opposite, she would have put a lot of store in stability.  She would have liked me to do something permanent, to say ‘he works in the bank’ or such like.

DK: So, the civil service? Did you do apply?

RD: Yes, when I was in Sixth Year, like a lot of others, I did apply and I did the exams. I also applied to the banks and got called for interview, but I never went because I’d decided by then I wanted to go to college. 

So, why do I sit and write? There’ll never be an answer to it I suppose. There are so many who talk about doing it but don’t. 

DK: I think there’s a difference between those who aspire to it, and those who actually sit down and do it, and keep doing it until they get it right. 

RD: Yes, that’s true, there needs to be the willingness to keep going, like many endeavours. I suppose it’s a bit like joining the gym in January, thousands of people do it, but then they lose their membership card by February. It requires a commitment to write a novel. I think short stories are probably as hard but there is a difference. Starting a novel is a bit of an adventure once you get going, but it’s keeping at it, sometimes for years. 

For me, the first one was six months and I still can’t figure out why. I’m talking about The Commitments, but actually, that wasn’t my first novel at all because I wrote one before that and that took me years and I realised that it wasn’t any good but that wasn’t the point. I think that book was almost like an apprenticeship, I served my time and got to the end of it and I remember being delighted, and then, even before I was getting any feedback I knew it wasn’t good enough, it lacked something, there was no life in it, but at that stage I was already thinking about The Commitments so it became almost a positive thing to waste all that time writing something that was unpublishable. 

It’s easy now, forty years later, to think of wasting all that as a positive, but I do remember afterwards, making rules for myself, eliminating all the difficulties and the myths that we grow up, we have all heard them, the lifestyle of writers, the pubs you should drink in, you know? All that bullshit that you really don’t need.

I also remember thinking that writing was all quite doable. I was living in a bedsit then, just in the next street from where I am now actually, and, as it happens, The Commitments was also written in a bedsit. I realised that all you needed was a copybook, a table and a pen and the willingness to sit and write. I didn’t make it too hard on myself. I was living alone at the time so I didn’t watch much television, but there was live European Cup Football. I remember trying to stay organised, any work I needed to do for the next day (as a teacher) I would do before I left the school so when I got home I could write for a couple of hours and then I was free to watch the football. I didn’t deprive myself of the football, or if I was going to a gig, and I went to a lot of them at that time, I’d make sure to write a page or two first, to give myself the satisfaction of having done a bit, and then I’d go to the gig you know? And then of course, the gigs became part of the work, they became part of The Commitments, but I didn’t go as research, it was all just part of the way I was living. 

Anyway, I made these rules as I went along, trying to incorporate that private, creative life and make it fit into the rest of my life, so there was a balance between living and the discipline of writing, but not going overboard with it. I think if you make it too hard, you’re going to stop.

DK: You taught English and Geography until 1993. Were your pupils a source of inspiration or a form of persecution?

RD: Oh, overwhelmingly an inspiration, though not directly. I didn’t take what they told me and write about it. Years later I did write about teaching, but even then, it wasn’t inspired by my own teaching. I can’t think of a single line I took directly from the classroom, but the kids were overwhelmingly an inspiration simply because you would be listening to them talk all day and the style of speech from that part of the world, the wit, the quickness, the references to TV and song and popular culture, and the sheer, kind of niceness of them, and I know it’s a bland word but in this case, it’s accurate, and also, as a teacher, getting to know the area in a different way, as an adult as opposed to being a child, and getting to know their parents and realising at that point, you know? The importance of education, how pioneering it was, that these kids were often the first in their families to stay in education to the end, so all of that was very inspiring. The kids were never a persecution but by the end, the job was, maybe. I did it for fourteen years and decided I’d had enough. It sounds like a prison sentence, it wasn’t, but what drove me out was, well two things really. On the positive side, there was too much writing to be done, I was writing scripts and novels, I had two kids by that stage and I really didn’t have time, so that was the positive. The negative was I was teaching English and a bit of Geography and then sometime in the 80s, because the school was not allowed to recruit, that flipped to teaching Geography and a bit of English and that didn’t work for me, I found teaching Geography a bit tedious, it was repetitious and not at all where my heart was, so it was the subject really that I fell out of love with, not the job.  

DK: Tell me a little bit about Fighting Words, you founded the project in 2009? 

RD: Yes, well we’ve been open since 2009 and up to March anyway (Lockdown) we’d have kids in,  Primary Schools usually in the morning and Secondary Schools in the afternoon and we endeavour to make filling a page and creating a story as doable and as enjoyable as possible. We are now all over the country, the whole island in fact, we’re in Belfast, east Belfast. I think we’ve also opened in Derry, though it’s hard to keep up. We’re down in Cork, we’re in Listowel, Limerick is coming, Galway we’re there, Wexford and up in Buncranna, Letterkenny as well, so we’re in the four corners of the country and if there’s anywhere we are not, then we will be. 

Since the pandemic things have altered. The kids can’t come to us for the foreseeable future. We had a meeting with teachers from the schools and asked them what they would like before Christmas and they said, well, Christmas stories, so there are twelve of us, twelve professional writers who have each written the beginning of a story that we will get actors to read or perform and so once the kids see or hear the story, they will finish it. 

Under normal circumstances, the kids would collectively write the start of the story and then they take it over individually and complete it themselves, so it’s a lovely way into it, into writing. It works for all age groups, we have adapted it so it works at those different levels, and there’s an open invitation. 

For older kids we do a lot of editing with them, but first we get them to fill pages before they begin judging what they’ve done. We let them write anything they want, and of course there are consequences, bad language or any other issues, we allow them to deal with themselves. 

It’s been a brilliant thing to be involved in, and of course, there are times when I question why I do it, you know, when there’s a lot going on but since we’ve opened, and I’ve been involved from the very start, and it’s been happening now for fourteen years and has been a brilliant experience. 

The quality of writing is amazing, and for me, I particularly love the quality of writing coming out of homes where English is not the only or even the first language spoken. And of course, we are in the Gaeltacht as well. But I love the hyphenated English, you know from a kid who is speaking Polish in the home and English on the street, then writing in English but with that other grammar bubbling away underneath, in the same way that Irish is bubbling away under all of our English even though we may not be aware of it most of the time. 

So it’s a brilliant and exciting thing to be involved with. I’m the Chair of the Board and I have tried to balance it as well so I can be there on occasions, I used to go more than I do now, but it should never be about me anyway. I would hope that if I stopped being involved that  it would keep ticking away without any interruption whatsoever. 

DK: It sounds like workshopping by stealth and a wonderful initiative. 

RD: Well yes, but we tend to go easy on the advice, I’ve heard of workshops where a facilitator arrives with, like the ten commandments of writing, with kids we tend to go easy on the commandments (laughs). 

DK: The Two Pints vignettes are very popular and resonate with many people. How much is culled from real life and how much of it is just Roddy Doyle?

RD: It’s all me, I do go into that environment, but I’m not a down to the pub every evening kind of man, I go maybe once a week, or sometimes I’d deliberately miss my bus so I can go into The Flowing Tide for a slow pint with a book or a magazine and of course I do hear conversations, but I can’t recall the last time I said, ‘Well there’s something I could use,’ but quite often I will hear something that I might tell friends or the family when I get home, but I can’t recall hearing anything that I would say, ‘Oh, I’ll put that into Two Pints.’ I don’t think in those terms. 

In the Two Pints thing, they (the characters) are kind of gentle, very benign souls, they are in the pub for friendship and exist in their own closed moral world, the language is their own, and they don’t care about being overheard. They pretend they are grumpy and in a sense they are, but they are happily grumpy and they love having stuff to give out about. 

But I make it up, the last one I did was when the lockdown started (March 2020) I don’t think I’ve been in a pub since then, I don’t like the new atmosphere, the restrictions, the food and all the rest of it, so really I haven’t been in a pub more than once since March so had no opportunity to hear what was been said about the lockdown or anything else. So, yeah, it’s all made up, I imagine the two lads in the pub and in one sense they are both me, and in another, neither of them are, and I do use daily life, my own life, the state of my health, but none of it in any direct way. 

DK: You wrote Paddy Clarke Hahaha, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1993, as a series of vignettes which took us into the world of a complex protagonist, How difficult was it to remain authentic to the point of view of a 10 year old boy?

RD: It was all trial and error if I remember right. I started the book in 1991, so twenty-one years ago which doing the sums means I was in my early thirties, so I was a lot closer to that boy than I am now, and granted, I was a father myself then, but I wasn’t that far away from a teenager, where now that all seems very far away. 

If I was writing that book now, it would be different because it would be more distant. It might be sparer and I think it would be a different book. 

Anyway, it was trial and error, I mean it was a mess, there was a baby in the house and I was literally grabbing any moment I could to write these little things and I didn’t know exactly where they would fit in the book. I remember printing it out when it was finished and sitting on the floor with the pages and gathering them up and saying, ‘Well these go together, and that fits here.’ Like, I wrote a bit about him watching his mother crying, and I’m not sure why she was crying, so I’m going to have to jot down a note because there needs to be a reason and it has to be written. 

Then, when I did put it all together, there was an awful lot of red biro, because, particularly in the first year, getting the voice was the thing. It required getting down on my knees so to speak, seeing the world from his angle, it’s not just the words, though ultimately I suppose it is, but there is a lot of trial and error first. 

The next book, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is similar, it took two years to write and then an awful lot of the first year’s work was binned because it was so vague, It took me a long time to get to know the character, and that’s why, as a new writer, you have to allow yourself to fill pages in the knowledge that it may not be very good, but you can come back later and rework, and that was the case with both of these books, Paddy Clarke and The Woman Who Walks Into Doors

It’s the same to a lesser extent with every book, but it was more so with those two because they were both in the first person, and though I had once been a ten-year-old boy, I’d never been a woman (laughs) I am a human being, and I suppose that gets you part of the way. 

So, it’s about writing too many words and knowing some will work and some won’t, but you just keep filling the pages, filling the pages, filling the pages, while you get to know the character and even if there isn’t a lot going on, keep writing just to get to know the character. 

In a lot of ways it’s like getting to know a real person. You know, you might have a sense of liking someone, but you don’t really know them until you have met them again and again and then you see them as real human beings rather than this imagined ideal.

DK: So, you write your way into the story or the characters.

RD: Yes, exactly. I remember the national school in Raheny (there wasn’t a national school in Kilbarrick at that time) a lot of the boys from the area went to that school which was about a mile away, so I used that building, my memories of the layout, the floor, the blackboard, some of my memories of the light coming through the windows, little details. 

Then, the headmaster was Mr Ingoldsby (Pat Ingoldsby‘s father) and though I didn’t use him in the book, I did write about a nice headmaster, and also the area, the building site beside the sea became the setting for Paddy Clarke, so a lot of the memories of that time were influences. 

The start of the book for instance, I remember walking down Kilbarrick Avenue with my friend Peter (who I still meet now and again) and as we walked, we had sticks and were whacking the rungs of the gates and singing She Loves You by the Beatles, just the chorus, over and over, it must have driven people demented. I can’t remember why it was that song, perhaps one of Peter’s sisters was playing it when we were in his house earlier. That’s where Paddy Clarke started, and me and Peter became Paddy and another kid. So yes, those childhood memories were used to get me going. 

I read Smile my favourite of your books on a flight in 2019, and it is fair to say that it floored me. How vested were you in this story, and how affected were you by the journey of your own characters?

RD: Well, thank you. The writing was one thing and the editing was another, the book is quite short, I think about sixty thousand words, but the first draft was twice that and I kept taking out, taking out, taking out. I started the book with the germ of the character, Victor, and some of it was autobiographical, like, when I was in First Year this Christian Brother homed in on me, he said he couldn’t resist my smile, and nothing ever happened, not physically, he never kept me back or brought me into a room, he never put a hand on me, but he did in that afternoon show favour which was really unwanted and totally inappropriate. I was only thirteen, my voice hadn’t even broken, and it was a shocking and awful experience. But now, I will say, as shocking and awful experiences go, and when contrasted with what also went on in Christian Brother and in other schools, it was a non-event but it was the spark for the story. I took it further because so many men and women have described their own experience in documentaries, in memories and in fiction that I felt I had the freedom to write the novel, not to record someone else’s experience, but to use all this stuff creatively. I thought in term of that episode becoming something more serious, and that when you write way too much, you overwrite, then home in on episodes, you pare it down to what’s essential, and by essential I don’t just mean an ingredient for a recipe or something like that, but essential to make it as good and as clear as it can be. When I finished the first draft, I was immediately reminded of Paddy Clarke because I printed it out, and got back down on the now more generous floor with more elbow room (laughs) and I surrounded myself with pages, matched with other pages and this is how I got to the core of it. My main worry was, how am I going to end it, and for the first time in my creative life, I showed my publisher, Dan Franklin (now retired) the second draft, unfinished, still a bit rough and he read it and was delighted with it, so then I decided to have the ending as you have read it in the finished work, which I suppose might be a bit supernatural or a bit Dr Jeykll and Mr Hydeish, the shadow person following the real person, the question of is this person really exists? I’d done something similar in a children’s book but wondered, ‘Can I do this in an adult book, and if I do, will I get away with it?’ And of course, that’s always what you’re doing when you write fiction, hoping you will get away with it (laughs). Anyway, he (Dan Franklin) was happy with it, his only advice being to take the relationship with the wife a bit further, to eliminate any possibility that he did have a marriage. When I was doing that in the third draft, when I was making the marriage seem real when I knew it wasn’t, well, that was great because it made me feel so much more confident. You know, when your nose is bang up against a piece of work and you’re judging it all the time, by the time you’re finished, it doesn’t really have any emotional clout because you’re judging it all the time. Where it did become emotional was in finishing it, and it’s not like I feel like I am going to keel over any time soon but as I have grown older, I’ve come to realise that the act of finishing a piece of work is an achievement. When the book came out, back in those days when you could go around to shops and theatres (laughs), I was doing a tour between here (Ireland) and the UK over about two weeks and several men came up to me, and they’d read the book and told me. Now when The Woman Who Walks Into Doors was published, I think literally hundreds of women either came to me or wrote to me and said, ‘I am Paula Spencer,  I have lived that experience,’ and with the men, it was a smaller number, but it seemed to have much more impact, perhaps because I could see myself in them, we were of an age, anyway, they came to me and told me they had been abused by Brothers and they were always accompanied by their wife or their partner, holding their hands and that was very emotional, very, very emotional, and when I was left alone afterwards I felt, you know, that I had done something right. 

DK: Not since Girl On A Train have I encountered a story that utilises the device of the unreliable narrator with the same devastating results as Smile. And it was only on a second reading (something that had to be done immediately) that I saw the breadcrumbs you scattered for us.
In the writing of that book, how difficult was it to balance antagonist and protagonist so the reader could not scream, ‘Cheat!’ while still protecting the power of the final reveal?

RD: I suppose it works, it has its intensity because I took most of it away. It’s a balancing act, you want to pare it down but not kill it. If I went to my collection of music and said, ‘I’ll only keep what I really want,’ I might end up keeping nothing because I’d keep at it and at it, and not just with music but with other stuff as well, I’d end up throwing out everything and then bitterly regret it a day later (laughs). But I kept at it with the story, throwing away stuff that I didn’t think was needed, but then you have to define what ‘necessary’ means creatively, like, a clear sentence is one thing, a clear sentence that’s worth reading is something else altogether, and a clear sentence that invites the reader to see something, is another thing again. So we’re not taking about taking away everything, but you need to get the balance right. It has always suited me to overwrite, I still write way too much, to the extent that when I am writing a novel now, the first thing I do in the morning is go over what I have done the previous day and add to it while always resisting the temptation to delete anything, I leave it alone, I know if it doesn’t look great now, it still won’t look great in a year’s time but I keep writing, adding to the words, adding to the words. The more you have, the more elbow room you give yourself when it’s all finished and it comes to editing and taking stuff away. Getting that balancing act between making sure the story is there, while keeping it to its creatively essential elements is tricky. Giving the unfinished work to Dan Franklin really was a liberation because he said, ‘Yeah, you’re going in the right direction, just take it further.’ So, when I was rewriting I was able to leave the reader thinking that he was married to this woman and just leave a few breadcrumbs, a few hints and take away everything else and allow the readers to believe that one thing is the case, then when you flip it, if you do it confidently enough, then the readers will go with you. But if you write with less confidence, if you leave doors ajar so to speak, or you drop too many hints, then readers will cop on to you much sooner and will become less interested. I suppose it’s like the difference between watching good TV or bad TV, and a lot of it is down to editing, it’s a big part of the job and something that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention because most aspiring writers are more interested in starting out and I think the editing is left out. I’m talking about writing fiction here, not writing plays or scripts which is an entirely different job, but the editing can only happen after you fill the pages. 

DK: You have written 8 books specifically for children, what’s the difference between writing for adults and writing for a younger audience, and which is the harder critic?

RD: Yes, there are 8 of them and that’s all there will be, I will not be writing anymore of them. My own children are now adults now, so I’ve lost that itch and would rather do other things, write other things.

DK: So they were the motivation for writing for children, your own kids? 

RD: Yes, the first one, The Giggler Treatment I wrote for them, the characters were the same ages as they were. I was telling them the stories at night in bed and they really loved them so I started writing down a few pages each day and eventually showed them to a publisher who was interested in them and they became books, but I was actually doing it to entertain my kids. 

As regards who is the harder audience, when I am writing for adults, I don’t think of the audience and I’m sometimes surprised who reads it. I wrote a column called Charlie Savage in the Indo (Independent Newspaper) for three years and I got two types of reactions, one from people my own age, both men and women, they enjoyed it because they could see aspects of their own outlook and life in it, the humour, they saw in it. But, the surprise for me was young women, they loved it. I remember the first tranche when it came out in book form and at readings there were young women asking me to sign books for their Dad, they all said they saw their Dad in the pieces, and I hadn’t anticipated that, that they would read it. So now, I never ask myself, ‘Who is going to read this?’ If I did I think it might paralyse me. I’d spend too much time considering if it will be someone who is 21 or someone who is 60, men my age are said not to read fiction so I might think, ‘Is there any point in me writing this at all?’ With children, for those of us who have them, or have had them we know, they change, so a book you are aiming at a ten-year-old might miss them by a hugely significant six months and might not appeal to this generation’s ten-year-olds. You know, we’ve all heard stories of parents buying tickets for some boy band the kids love and that are coming to town in a year. yet by the time the band arrive, the children have lost interest in the boy band and are now into heavy metal, so that’s the issue with writing for kids, they’re tricky, they change, so I would say in that sense they are more difficult to write for, there’s a precision involved, and you either inherently know or you learn that your average ten-year-old will think this is hilarious, the eight-year-old won’t get it and the twelve-year-old will think it’s boring so yes, they are tricky and another good reason never to do it again (laughs).  

DK: You have written a number of screenplays. What are the main differences between writing for the page and writing for the screen?

RD: When writing for the page, every word is a literary decision, whereas writing for the stage, every word is a direction, part of the information you are giving to a director or a cameraman or an actor.  The thing they have in common is dialogue, you know? That’s the reason I enjoy writing scripts, once you get two characters together, they’re going to start talking and I always like writing that, and again, there is a lot of paring down, paring down so what would normally be a twenty minute conversation, is pared down to two but with all the same content. 

The rest, the bits in-between are instructions, so it’s less intense than writing for the page, editing is also vital but it is a different kind of process. I often divide my day between writing for the page, fiction, and then for the stage and I think you use different compartments of the brain, and maybe that’s not literally true, but it feels that way, there is a different kind of energy that goes into it.

I just wrote a few pages of a film script I’m working on before I met you and it was only an hour and a half of writing but it felt like a good day’s work, three pages, and I didn’t feel tired after doing it, whereas if I wrote three of four  pages of prose in the same amount of time, I’d feel like I’d been running perhaps, might feel dehydrated and be saying, ‘That’s my working day over.’     

It isn’t that one is more important than the other, but writing prose certainly takes more out of you because everything is more intense and every word matters and is part of the whole work, like a dab of paint for an artist and if you get it in the wrong place it wrecks the painting and if you get it in the right place, no one will notice it’s there.

With script work, you need to plan ahead, you need to know how it will end, you can’t go in open,  whereas I am the opposite with a short story or a novel, I don’t know where it is going and learn as I go along and that’s part of the challenge. I’ve never not finished a story, but it’s challenging until you get to a point where suddenly there’s a bit of magic, something opens up in front of you and you think, ‘Oh, there’s the ending’ and it could be years away. Other times it’s just a case of writing. With Paddy Clarke, when I sat down the day the book ended, I didn’t know that was going to happen, it was only when I wrote that piece, that last little scene that I realised, ‘That’s it, that the ending,’ and it was early morning and I was a bit stunned, and remembering thinking, ‘No, that can’t be it, it’s only 10 o’clock.’ (laughs) With other books, you know the end is in sight, on more than one occasion I remember saying to my wife, ‘I think I’ll get this one finished today.’ 

So, I don’t plan the prose, I do plan, very meticulously, the scripts and as much effort goes into the treatment or the summary as what goes into the script itself, in fact, sometimes more. I tend to overwrite those as well, I put in a lot of dialogue which a lot of writers don’t, but when I think a bit of dialogue fits, then I stick it in, it gives a sense or a flavour, and I include a lot of detail about what the future story will be
 

DK: So, what are you working on now, and how is the future looking for Roddy Doyle?

RD: Lots, but in terms of what will see the light of day next, it will probably be short stories. When the lockdown started I was writing a novel set in the present day, I was away in the UK and arrived back a few days after Lockdown started and the question was what do I do, because the present day wasn’t the present day anymore, so that was put aside and I wrote short stories, I think I’ve five finished now, one was in last Saturday’s Irish Times, a short piece called Nurse, there was another in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, there are others that are longer and a little harder to find a home for and I’m not sure if they are altogether finished. So, I’d say the next thing that will be publicly available will be a collection of those short stories. I’m also working on screen stuff, but it’s difficult trying to do that in this world. One of the scripts is set in a time after the pandemic when things begin to relax a bit, and funnily, that’s easier to imagine than the place we are in at the present moment. As to when any of that happens, when it gets made or is seen on screen is hard to say. Rosie, the script I wrote for the film on the homeless woman, was two years between completion and showing on screen, so you know, my job as a writer is done and it can take the producers and director time to get a budget together, to shoot it and then another few years for anything to be seen by the public. 

So, even if I finished a script today, the likelihood is, or the real likelihood is it might never be made, but even if it was, it would still be some time down the line before it was seen. So, at this stage in my career, publishing is much more straightforward, I have a publisher and a very good one, so I don’t need my agent to go looking, so I think that collection of short stories is what we will be seeing next. 

DK: Well, we look forward to seeing it and thank you very much for being so generous with your time. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

RD: You’re welcome, and good luck to you and your readers.

About the contributor

Dave Kavanagh
Dave Kavanagh is a novelist, short story writer and is the current Managing Editor of The Blue Nib,

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