A Q&A with Rob Doyle and his editors Daniel Caffrey and Alexa von Hirschberg

‘We had some robust discussions about which stories to include, about their order, and I recall having to ask some rather frank questions about the sexual content of some’

Rob Doyle with his editor at Bloomsbury, Alexa von Hirschberg, and his publisher at Lilliput Press, Antony Farrell, at the Irish Book Awards, and, left, Daniel Caffrey, his editor at Lilliput

Rob Doyle with his editor at Bloomsbury, Alexa von Hirschberg, and his publisher at Lilliput Press, Antony Farrell, at the Irish Book Awards, and, left, Daniel Caffrey, his editor at Lilliput



Rob, why do you have two editors when one is enough for most writers?

Sheer greed. Also, it’s because my two books to date were first signed up by the Lilliput Press, and then bought by Bloomsbury, so both sides had editorial input on This Is the Ritual.

Has it created any issues with the editing process?

Occasionally there’s a mild sense of a tug-of-war, but not really. Both Dan and Alexa have been helpful in that they’ve trusted the directions I’ve gone in, often limiting themselves to asking useful questions, making minor suggestions and answering any queries I have.

Have the editors ever sided against you?

The first story in the collection, John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist, is one that I didn’t want in the book. It’s a comical story that to me felt like a three-minute pop song, whereas I was all about High Seriousness. I showed it to Lilliput more as an afterthought. But Dan and the others at Lilliput, and then Alexa at Bloomsbury, all insisted that not only should it be in the collection, it should also be the opener. There has scarcely been a review that hasn’t commented favourably on that story. My editors were right.

You’ve written a novel and a collection of stories. Which was the more enjoyable process?

The writing of Here Are the Young Men might be compared to a prolonged and shattering nervous breakdown. I reworked it hundreds of times, and because I was living in London and outside of any literary world, with zero connections, it was hard to get it published. I went through every trough of despair and crisis of confidence while writing that book. The stories in This Is the Ritual, on the other hand, were mostly written in glee, as a break from the sorrows of the novel. Individual short stories generally don’t take years to write, so even if they crash and burn, it’s not as if you’ve squandered your youth on them.

At what stage did your editors get to see This Is the Ritual?

I showed a very early, much less developed draft of This Is the Ritual to Lilliput around the time they were asking about my novel. There were stories in there that didn’t make the final cut, and many of the best stories had yet to be written. By the time Bloomsbury saw it, the book was close to completion – it just needed a little polishing.

What was the most helpful feedback you received from each?

Honestly, just the encouragement and the assurance that I was on the right track.

Were there any disagreements?

Nothing major.

In This Is the Ritual your characters often have literary-influenced dreams. Does the same happen to you?

Many of the characters in the book are writers, often failed or obscure. The commitment to writing is something that interests me, but when you write fiction about writers, you are really writing about sex, pain, love, loneliness, books, travel, drugs, madness, longing – in other words, about life.

What’s your favourite story in the collection?

On Nietzsche, which is the most nakedly autobiographical story in there. I felt like it achieved something I’d been trying to do for quite a while: combining narrative, literary criticism, comedy, autobiography and philosophy in a piece of writing that doesn’t sit easily in any one genre. It was also written in the heat of a personal crisis all but identical to the one the narrator is describing, so there was the consolation of transmuting, in real time, a painful experience into a piece of writing I consider honest, funny and insightful, constructing, in Nietzsche’s words, “a monument to a crisis”.

Envying other writers’ success is a theme explored in This Is the Ritual. What contemporary writer are you most envious of and why?

A psychoanalytic writer I once read distinguished between “emulative envy” and the other, more toxic kind. Ever since I first read Geoff Dyer – at 25, in India – I’ve had great emulative envy for him: a deep love of the writing and a gratitude that such a writer exists at all, combined with the feeling that comes from asking oneself, right, how the hell can I do this? How can I write in a way that is so uncompromisingly my own?

Scathing reviews are another topic. Were you more nervous about the reviews for your first or second book?

The author Peter Murphy warned me to expect turbulence with the second book. By that point, you’re not a new voice to be cheered on, but an “established” writer who needs taking down a peg or two. There have, of course, been some bad reviews (for both books), but happily This Is the Ritual has been generally very well received.

Who is your first reader?

It used to be my girlfriend but, as Axl Rose once sang, “Well I used to love her/ But I had to kill her”. Now I pace the high street of Wexford town, punch-drunk and bedraggled, waving a sheaf of tattered pages, shrieking passages at anyone who’ll listen.

What’s the most discouraging feedback you’ve ever been given?

When I was unpublished, living in London, I called around to a friend so he could give me his verdict on the latest draft of Here Are the Young Men. He utterly demolished me. I went out of there profoundly depressed, feeling like I’d been violently beaten, which of course I had. The friend was right – the draft was flawed - but really he was getting his revenge for a perceived wrong I had committed against him. Friendship is complicated…

Do you discuss your ideas with your editors in advance?

Not really. I’m not a planner; I just feel my way into everything. So I explain in broad terms my current interests, what I’m trying to do, and they seem happy to let me muck around, delve into my preoccupations and see what comes of it.

Did you resist any of Daniel’s or Alexa’s suggestions that you now feel differently about?

Not really, except for the mild resistance to including John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist.

One of your editors, the male one who shall remain nameless, says you’re “quite intense in your attention to detail”. Is this an accurate reflection?

Yes. With everything I publish I am obsessive about making it as strong as it can be, getting each sentence just right. Also, I choose to write about self-slandering things that put me at a certain risk, so I query my editors to try and gauge what the effect of a particular passage might be. When you write about raw, autobiographical subjects, it’s often a fine line you have to walk.

What’s the best thing about working with Daniel?

He has always had a perfect grasp of what it is I’m trying to do as a writer, ever since he first read Here Are the Young Men and insisted that Lilliput publish it. He gets my sense of humour, and does not become alarmed as my work becomes less conventional in style and form.

What’s the best thing about working with Alexa?

Her enthusiasm and positivity. Tending, like many writers, towards pessimism and self-questioning, I find it encouraging and refreshing to be around that kind of energy. It works well, a yin yang thing. I have always felt that Alexa looks beyond the more extreme, upsetting elements in my writing that might give others pause, and perceives the deeper concerns that justify that extremism.

Every author’s favourite question … What are you working on now?

I don’t want to divulge too much, but suffice it to say it involves travel, autobiography, and various artists and writers.

Rob Doyle’s first novel, Here Are the Young Men, was chosen as a book of the year in the Irish Times, Independent, Sunday Times and Sunday Business Post, and was one of Hot Press’s 20 Greatest Irish Novels since 1916. His second book, This Is the Ritual, was published in 2016 by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press. Rob’s essays, fiction and criticism have appeared in the Dublin Review, Guardian, Observer, Irish Times, Sunday Times, Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2016, and elsewhere. He lives in Wexford


Daniel, what attracted you to Rob’s work?

“Dildo Holocaust” were the first words of Rob’s that I ever read. So I’m not sure I was attracted. I’d been handed the manuscript for his first novel, Here Are The Young Men, and let the pages flick under my thumb until it fell open randomly. I thought: here we go again. Once I started reading, though, I immediately recognised his raw storytelling power and ability to capture the reader’s attention. He’s never boring. He never lets you go. And in the end I came to see that the Dildo Holocaust was completely justified from an artistic point of view.

Aside from its form, how does This Is the Ritual differ from Rob’s debut novel?

This is a very different book from Rob’s first. I loved Here Are The Young Men, but this is still a massive leap forward. In Ireland it seems that suggesting to any writer that they could get better is a terrible insult. At the same time, everyone wants their latest book to be the best thing they ever did. Try squaring that circle. In Rob’s case, though, I can say it outright, because I know he’s totally unafraid of change. I know he’s conscious of not only how much better it is, but also exactly how he got there. How does it actually differ? It eschews conventional narrative mechanics while still telling brilliant stories about compelling characters. There’s no filler whatsoever in these stories. Nothing is background or merely atmosphere. Everything is important.

You struck the deal with Bloomsbury in July 2014. How does the editing process work with two editors?

Several of these stories had already been published individually in magazines and journals, so often, they had been edited already by excellent editors. Then Rob’s polishing them and reworking them over time. Then I come along and give him some general impressions. Then we work in a little more detail in late summer 2014. Then Alexa, I think, was starting to give Rob feedback in late 2014, early 2015. Then in spring 2015 he was back to me, reviewing where the work was at. Again, after that in summer 2015 I think Alexa was working on it again. But the idea that any person apart from Rob would claim any kind of proprietorial interest in the work would be very strange. So, two editors, 10 editors, it doesn’t seem significant to me.

Has there ever been editorial contention?

Not that I was aware of. I know I was delighted with all of Alexa’s input. I’m a very consensual person, except with regard to things that are contrary to the author’s intentions. In which case I get unreasonably angry, only nobody notices. In this case I’d say the most fragile topics were the order and titling of the stories. It seems like a small thing, but we all thought about it a lot.

How closely did you work with Rob on This Is the Ritual?

I suppose I’ve read the collection 15 or 16 times. I think I noticed once in Gmail that we had 135 emails between the main four or five conversational threads for the book. Nonetheless, this constitutes probably a tiny fraction of the time Rob has spent getting and processing input on the work. So close for me, but probably incidental to Rob.

What’s your favourite story in the collection?

When you read something so many times, you don’t retain that easy ability to single out a story that you would as a normal reader. That said, my greatest affection is for the character P Cranley, because I feel like I really know that man. As if I knew him well before and know him better now.

Rob has an amazing ear and this story [Final Email from P Cranley] shows it off. I love his Dublin voices and I love the fact that this is a Dublin voice transported out of the country, out of his mind and eventually out of this world.

You’ve mentioned that Rob is intense on detail when it comes to editing. Can you give an example?

I’d love to be able to give some outré example of writerly obsession off the top of my head, but I can’t. It’s expressed simply in his commitment over several years to revisiting stories, paragraphs, sentences and individual words over and over again, and worrying over them. Always anxious that he may have failed to convey his meaning.

Choose three words to sum up Rob as a writer.

Funny. Contrary. Disquieting.

What was the biggest selling point of This Is the Ritual when pitching to Bloomsbury?

Well, Marianne Gunn-O’Connor did the deal, so you’d have to ask her. In my imagination Bloomsbury descended to Earth in a gold lamé air balloon gunning down their rivals. However, my understanding of business is a little bit vague.

What was the most challenging part of editing the book?

Getting Rob to let his funny be. Rob is a very funny writer. Not just witty, but laugh-out-loud funny. He’s reluctant about this aspect of his writing, though. He had to be pressed to open this collection with his masterful takedown of our national literary pretensions, John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist. On-the-page humour is all about word order and vocabulary. It’s the equivalent of a stand-up’s comic timing. The writer’s precise understanding of how a reader will render the cadence in their mind’s ear. Rob has it. I didn’t want to exert the wrong kind of pressure, but I wanted him to let go of his anxiety about it.

What’s the best thing about working with Rob?

You can’t miss anything. That’s because he’ll be up obsessing about it at all hours and he’ll bring every line to your attention at one time or another and say ‘what d’you think of the this of the that?’ and so on. So I never look at the printed edition and think: we ought to have caught that little thing.

Is Rob an “Irish writer” and if so, how?

He’s the most Irish of writers, because it’s the very last thing he wants to be.

Whose writing does his work remind you of?

Well, comparisons are odious, as my Dad always says before he makes an odious comparison. Either they appear hyperbolic, or degrading. If I say such and such an aspect of his work reminds me of Borges, then everybody says I’m calling him the new Borges. If I cite influences from a despised but widely read genre author, then I’m dragging him into a whole other conflict. The truth is, after so many readings, he doesn’t remind me of anyone but himself. Irish authors have a unique voice, even if they don’t want it. We’re much more different than we think. We don’t actually speak the same language. So I will always find Irish authors hard to compare to their English and American colleagues. Which is not an answer that will please Rob, particularly.

What part of the editing process do you like best?

My ideal would be to sit down and read a perfect book and have absolutely nothing to contribute. I’m incredibly lazy and I’m very distrustful of the editing process and of editors in general. I think the chance to do damage is great. I don’t exclude myself from this. I have been tempted to do bad things to good books. Time is not always on your side and sometimes understanding comes too late. The main thing an editor can do is the same thing a good agent or publisher does in a different way: protect the author.

How do you prefer to see work (both aspiring authors and those you represent)?

I take it as it comes. If I find I start to like something then I’ll print it off myself often enough. Most of what I read has already been read by somebody else, to tell it plainly.

What books have you passed on that you wish you hadn’t?

This is very easy: Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume. I thought it was brilliantly written and beautiful too, but I was reluctant because I was never sure I understood it. When I read Solesearcher1 [Baume’s Davy Byrne prize winning story] I had exactly the same feeling. I had to read it over many times. When I say “understanding”, I do mean on a very fundamental level, the way an author understands their own work. It might sound disingenuous, but except with regard to Lilliput’s bank balance, I think it was a good thing I didn’t handle it. You must, above all, understand the work. I can honestly say, with admiration, I still don’t really understand that book. So perhaps I don’t regret it, after all. Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen will justly mock me now.

What’s the biggest misconception around your job?

Well, I don’t know if this really answers your question, but the biggest misconception around this whole world is that it’s all a secret cabal of well-connected media types or whatever your conspiracy of choice happens to be. The only thing that binds everybody together, in fact, is their shared love of great writing. So the only thing anybody has to do is write well. You will be appreciated. Eventually. By somebody. Unless you literally set fire to the paper as you write. These so called “gatekeepers” are more like dogs outside a butcher shop waiting for scraps. We’re all dying to see something good and the only problem is the cognitive limit on the amount we can read.

What are the titles to watch out for in 2016, both from Lilliput and in general?

I’m working on the final edit for The Abode of Fancy by Sam Coll, which I think is going to be something quite different. It’ll be published by Lilliput in autumn this year. I’m also very much looking forward to Sean O’Reilly’s new collection of stories that The Stinging Fly is bringing out around the same time.

Daniel Caffrey is a director at The Lilliput Press where he has been the commissioning editor for Donal Ryan, Elske Rahill, Rob Doyle and Sam Coll


Alexa, how did Rob first come to your attention?

In the summer of 2014 Here Are The Young Men was just out in Ireland and causing a storm. Publisher Antony Farrell at Lilliput had taken Rob on and was doing a terrific job. The literary agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor, sent the manuscript to us and at the same time our Irish publicist Cormac Kinsella emailed us a passionate note about the book, so we knew there was something afoot. I picked up a copy and was immediately hooked. The depiction of these young boys’ lives had my head spinning. It was bold, inventive, powerful storytelling that crackled with energy and humour. Rob’s voice had all the raw power of Trainspotting but was entirely its own. We bought the paperback rights to the novel and also a collection of stories, which became This Is The Ritual.

How does the editing process work with two editors and one writer?

As with everything in this job, it entirely depends on the author. In this case I didn’t have any discussion with Rob’s other editor. I gave Rob my notes, went through them with him in person and let him crack on.

Any teething problems coming on board an already established editorial relationship?

Not really. There was never a sense that Rob was wedded to one editor’s view. At least to my knowledge! I actually suspect he takes notes and feedback from lots of people.

Has there ever been editorial contention?

Despite only being a novel and a collection of stories into his writing career, Rob is a real pro. If there was editorial contention between editors’ notes he resolved it himself.

How closely did you work with Rob on This Is the Ritual?

I’m generally quite hands on with my authors. I did line notes with Rob but most of the stories had already been worked through so he didn’t need much steering. That said, we had some robust discussions about which stories to include, about their order, and I recall having to ask some rather frank questions about the sexual content of some.

What’s your favourite story in the collection?

For sheer brilliance and absurd genius, it has to be Anus, Black Sun. A man returns home in the early hours, clicks on various porn sites before being drawn to a close-up of an anus. It’s an unlikely beginning for a story about spiritual awakening.

Choose three words to sum up Rob as a writer.

Daring. Hilarious. Dynamite.

What was the biggest selling point of This Is the Ritual when pitching to colleagues?

Rob is undoubtedly one of the most talented and original writers I’ve worked with. He is incredibly focused on his discipline and is constantly challenging himself so that he can challenge his readers. He is extremely dexterous. There’s a great deal of darkness and despair in his work, but there’s also depth, lightness and humour. He enjoys dangling you over the edge, but he’d never let you go.

What was the most challenging part of editing the book?

Deciding which stories to include. Ultimately Rob knows what he is doing and follows his instincts, which I admire hugely. My job is to ask the questions.

What’s the best thing about working with Rob?

He’s a dream to work with. When the Bloomsbury team first met him they thought by rights he should be a bit messed up [because of the content of his writing]. But he charmed everyone. He’s polite, kind, personable, engaged and highly intelligent.

Whose writing does Rob remind you of?

Geoff Dyer, Roberto Bolaño and Killian Turner (of course).

What part of the editing process do you like best?

The conversations. Understanding someone’s vision and working out the best way to convey it.

How do you prefer to see work (both aspiring authors and those you represent)?

If it’s a novel I usually need to see a full draft. With non-fiction a very good chapter outline and sample chapters can be enough. For authors we have under contract I would expect them to finish a draft before I put my oar in. However, there are circumstances where I might offer detailed guidance beforehand.

What books have you passed on that you wish you hadn’t?

There are lots but I do believe that if you pass on something you are not the right editor for it. Editors need to love their books with an unholy passion. Otherwise you’re done for.

What’s the biggest misconception around your job?

That we sit around drinking champagne and having long lunches. Mainly it’s reading all weekend, endless meetings and waking up in the middle of the night with an idea about how to get a proof into Martin Amis’s hands.

How important are Irish writers and the Irish market to Bloomsbury?

The Irish market is very important. Not just in sales terms but it’s a country with an enviable literary tradition and is producing astonishing writers at a rate of knots. As a house whose lifeblood is finding new, literary voices we’d be fools to ignore that.

What are the titles to watch out for in 2016, both from Bloomsbury and in general?

Kate Tempest’s The Bricks That Built the Houses is out in April. You may know her as a spoken word poet or rapper, but what threads through everything she does is her vivid, passionate storytelling. This novel had me pinned to the wall. In August look out for Hide, by the American writer Matthew Griffin. It explores the decades-long love story between two men who meet just after the war. It’s incredibly moving and has a scene with a dog and a lawnmower that I can’t get out of my head. Sceptre is publishing a debut called Harmless Like You by young writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. It’s precise, beautiful and gorgeously structured.

Alexa von Hirschberg is a senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury Publishing

This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle is published by Bloomsbury and Dublin’s Lilliput Press. This month, we shall be exploring the collection in detail, with interviews and articles by the author, his editors, fellow writers and critics, culminating in a podcast interview which will be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Tuesday, April 19th, at 7.30pm, and published on irishtimes.com at the end of the month

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