Roddy Doyle: ‘I’ve started another novel but haven’t found its music yet’
My writing day: ‘I could be writing for months before I know what I’m doing’
Roddy Doyle: the coffee I drink in the early morning is so strong it’s possibly illegal, so green tea it is – good for the cholesterol, bad for the self-respect. Photograph: Alan Betson
I wake early but don’t work. I like having the world to myself for a while. I make coffee – with an AeroPress: lots of stirring and shoving – and read until the rest of the house wakes up.
I was a secondary school teacher when I wrote my first four novels, so I didn’t see any reason to change the rhythm of the working day when I stopped teaching, in 1993. I started at 9am, or after I’d brought the kids to school; I worked Monday to Friday; I stopped at 6pm. These days there are no kids to bring to school but I still work Monday to Friday, 9 to 6. Although I’ve started mitching.
“Mitching” means “playing truant” and it only works if you get into trouble if you’re caught. There’s no one out to catch me when I slither out the door to go to the pictures, but it still feels like mitching, something I shouldn’t be doing but that’s doing me good.
That seems odd now, that someone had to persuade the man who wrote The Commitments that he might enjoy listening to music while he worked
My office is in the attic. I bring a mug of green tea up with me. It used to be coffee but the coffee I drink in the early morning is so strong it’s possibly illegal, so green tea it is – good for the cholesterol, bad for the self-respect. When I was a teacher I used to meet hundreds of people every day. A bell would go every 40 minutes; the day was full of human noise. Then, after June 1993, I was alone. I was happy enough but the working day yawned; the silence wasn’t eerie but I didn’t like it. A friend suggested music. That seems odd now, that someone had to persuade the man who wrote The Commitments that he might enjoy listening to music while he worked.
But, anyway, it worked. I have a record player in the office – deck, amp, CD player, a stack of the things. It takes up space – it’s like having a Harley-Davidson in the attic. It’s the first thing I see as I climb the last few steps, and my working day starts when I start flicking through the records, going: “Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah yeah, when did I buy that shite, ah yeah, ah yeah.”
I listen to – or play – music all day as I work, unless I’m editing. Sometimes, I know things have been going well when I realise that the music has stopped and I hadn’t noticed. The music I choose in the late afternoon – the last two hours or so – is vital. Philip Glass’s Music with Changing Parts got me to the end of my novel, A Star Called Henry; I played it every afternoon for a year. My new book, Smile, was pushed along with help from the Australian band the Necks, and their album Drive By. I’ve started another novel but haven’t found its music yet.
I rarely play rock music. It’s too distracting, too many stops and starts, howls and lyrics. Steve Reich, Boards of Canada, Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld, Laura Cannell, Mogwai, Fennesz, Brian Eno, Max Richter, William Basinski, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Christian Blackshaw, Tim Hecker, Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh – these are some of the people who’ve been filling the day for me.
Oh – and I write. First, I go over what I wrote the day before, and add to it. I don’t delete until I’ve finished a first draft. I could be writing for months before I know what I’m doing. I was well into the second year of Smile before I knew why I was writing it. This – not really knowing what I’m doing – has never worried me, until I’m finished. The planning has always been in the writing. I need to accumulate the words before I can start rejecting them. A novel is the work of years, so I need the daily comfort of numbers: 1,000 words is a good day. Those words might end up in the bin but it doesn’t matter.
Lunch is food. I don’t care what I eat. I might sit for a few minutes and listen to the news. I often stand. I often stand in the front of the open fridge door. I rarely meet anyone. I want to get back to work. My head is full of words by then and I’m afraid I’ll lose them. I make a cup of coffee and bring it back up with me.
I divide the day into different jobs. The novel in the morning and late afternoon; a play, say, or a script or my weekly column for the Irish Independent in the early afternoon. I live near the sea and in the late autumn and winter the geese fly over the house, in Battle of Britain formation, at about 4pm every day. I look up at them through the window. They’re my alarm clock – time to get back to the novel.
Hours: eight or nine
Words: 1,000 to 1,500
Distractions: emails – 30 minutes, internet: BBC football page, Irish Times, Pitchfork, Waterford Whispers – 30 minutes
Exercise: gym, two or three times a week – two hours
Mitching: not telling
Roddy Doyle’s Smile is published by Jonathan Cape.