Roddy Doyle is nearly 60. It seems hardly credible. The "bald man with glasses", as he describes himself, seems timeless, forever of Commitments age. He recalls a heavy interview day in Milan about 15 years ago, when a media couple swept in, "like a scene from a Fellini film. Leather trousers, shades on a dark day. And they started – 'where are the cool places to go in Dublin?' I hadn't a clue . . . They had a notion that because I wrote The Commitments, I will forever be 28."
But he is slowing down. “I’m changing. I’m mitching a bit these days, yeah. I haven’t done any work in quite a while. Just tiny bits and pieces. Up ’til recently I’d have said I’m well capable of doing three or four things at the one time but now I’m almost dreading a new piece of work coming along. Having a new book out carries an anxiety; watching a play in rehearsal carries an anxiety. It’s a bit terrifying.”
A glance at his body of work may reduce lesser beings to despair. Eleven novels, seven children's books, plays, screenplays, short stories in the New Yorker, a musical, a ground-breaking television drama series, a Man Booker prize, a Bafta, a libretto for the opera, Don Giovanni, for pity's sake. It's not clear if one of the "bits and pieces" is a searing film script about homelessness, "currently in the process of getting funding, hopefully", about a woman in a car with children.
So yeah, I'd say it's all becoming a bit punishing really."
"I was looking at the list of stuff that I've done and even trying to account for what I've done in the last four years – and if I wasn't me, I'd be impressed," he says with a laugh. "Don Giovanni was only going into rehearsal this time last year, I've had the Two Pints play that the Abbey did and Smile, the new book now. I've already done a stage version of The Snapper that's going on in the Gate next year. So yeah, I'd say it's all becoming a bit punishing really."
Role of money
He can afford to take time out, probably. Has money made a difference to his life? "No, I don't think so. I've travelled to places where I wouldn't have gone if I'd been a teacher. Sometimes I've been invited – Palestine, India. There have been pieces of work that made quite a lot of money, most recently the Commitments musical. That was great because I'm quite content earning a lot of money, but on the other hand, it allows me to do work that earns no money whatsoever." The latter includes a deep involvement in adult literacy programmes, that libretto for Don Giovanni – "makes no economic sense whatever but it doesn't matter"; and Two Pints – "done in pubs. Tickets are cheap," he grins.
His life is normal, disciplined, family-oriented. His work meant he was at home with the three children in the early years – "My commute was up and down the stairs." These days, when he wakes at about 6am, he spends a few hours reading. Right now, that includes Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy, "the absolutely brilliant" Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, and Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. He keeps up with contemporary Irish fiction and will go out of his way to read younger writers, "because I wouldn't have a problem listening to music by someone of 20 or 30 so why wouldn't I read the work of people of that age, if it's good?"
A northside Dubliner who has lived in Clontarf for nearly 30 years, a short hop from where he was reared, he is far from a recluse – a perception he finds hilarious
A northside Dubliner who has lived in Clontarf for nearly 30 years, a short hop from where he was reared, he is far from a recluse – a perception he finds hilarious. He enjoys a pint with his old schoolmates, uses the bus to go into town, and enjoys going unrecognised. Allowing for the occasional blip, such as the row over the national maternity hospital, he feels "very comfortable living here, even as a non-Catholic".
It wasn't always so. He put anti-amendment leaflets through doors during the 1983 abortion referendum campaign and recalls that time as "one of the ugliest social moments in my life as an Irish person. It was poisonous. There was never a debate and I was thinking I was somehow – Jesus – Davy Crockett or something that I survived. That poison was there for decades and still is."
Ten years later, the "notion that I was now somehow public property" after the Man Booker Prize win alarmed him so much that he wanted to run away. "All my family, me as well, want nothing to do with the public side and we made a decision to live privately. What encapsulates it more than anything else was when Family [a four-part BBC/RTÉ television drama featuring a battered wife] was broadcast."
He was having a pint when people drifting in from evening Mass told him the priest had been giving out about him from the altar.
The shocking first episode in 1993 turned him into a news headline and a subject on current affairs shows. He was having a pint in Raheny on a Saturday, "half-pissed and already feeling depressed enough after watching Chelsea lose the FA Cup Final", when people drifting in from evening Mass told him the priest had been giving out about him from the altar. A raft of "really ugly letters" followed, railing against Family's depiction of working-class life and accusing Doyle of undermining marriage. The nadir was a death threat in the post. That gave "additional significance" to going for a bottle of milk or answering the phone, he recalls in the tone of someone who remembers too well.
"So it was batten down the hatches. It's actually very easy to live privately here, particularly as you get older. Bald men with glasses aren't exactly rare. But I've seen Paul Weller walking down Grafton Street and he is very distinctive looking, yet nobody went near him. I think on any other street elsewhere in the world, he'd be mobbed."
And here is Roddy Doyle, fulfilling his publicity obligations, gamely insisting that “there’s a certain novelty to it”.
Art of writing
He has come a long way from the days of having to defend his writing style against critiques of the “he has no idea how to write a novel” variety. He is utterly relaxed about whether people find him through his books, plays or his screen adaptations. But he will not allow his art to be underestimated. “I examine every word, I examine every sentence, I examine every sentence that went before it and the one after it and I make sure that every word serves its purpose and that sometimes there might be an extra syllable – particularly in the case of dialogue – because the notion that my dialogue is realistic is quite funny in a way . . . It’s totally artificial in that it has to have a rhythm which is asking too much of the average group of people who are talking together. But I won’t let a sentence go by if it doesn’t fit the rhythm . . .”
There is no such thing as a “classic Roddy Doyle”. “I’ve always tried to make sure that I do something different than the previous one. Actually one of the satisfying things about this one is that it’s my 11th novel but it’s very different.”
The evocation of life in a Christian Brothers' school in the 1970s is chilling.
With Smile, he didn't set out to write about a boy who had been abused at school. But this is Roddy-Doyle-with-a-twist, such a monumental twist that for the first time ever, he sent an early draft to his publisher, to make sure he "was getting away with it".
The evocation of life in a Christian Brothers’ school in the 1970s is chilling.
Chapter 2 begins with Victor Forde, remembering the boredom and the terror of St Martin's CBS. The French teacher, Brother Murphy, is transparently miserable, probably aching to be an actual Frenchman. On one of his happy days, when the boys are teasingly begging to be let off homework, Murphy grins and looks straight at 13-year-old Victor: "Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile." They are excused homework, but instead of elation, there is silence. A boy whispers : "He fuckin' fancies you." "You're a queer," hisses another. And so, Victor becomes "the Queer". The agony and menace are palpable.
It feels authentic because it is. "A Christian Brother said exactly that to me when I started secondary school in 1972, except it was 'Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile'," Doyle says. Nothing ever came of it, he adds quickly. "The man never laid a hand on me, did not tell me to stay back after class. But he said that in the class with 30-odd other boys and they did shout 'queer' at me, inevitably." Inevitably? "Yes, inevitably. I'd have shouted 'queer' if it had been someone else."
That savagery is in the air when you go into the school, he says.
"I had been slapped in primary school occasionally but I never saw such violence and I haven't seen it since," he says of those years in St Fintan's CBS in Sutton. "It was also brilliant, it was hilarious, so eccentric and mad. But there was a level of savagery that was just terrible and when a teacher homed in on somebody . . . There was a boy with a stammer for example and one of the teachers gave him a terrible time, would ask him a question and then immediately say 'Next!'; just slagging him, mocking him because he had a stammer. And we would laugh – and the reason we would laugh is because he wasn't picking on us. It was relief really . . . If I met that guy I'd apologise now. It's a savage world.
So yeah. Inevitably. I was the queer, the homo.
“So yeah. Inevitably. I was the queer, the homo. This strange man was saying that to me and the floor opened up in front of me. It didn’t have the consequences that were in the book and the word ‘gay’ didn’t exist as we understand it now. It was all within the Queensberry Rules of slagging. But it went on for years, which was very unwelcome; people would thump me on the back and say ‘smile at him and tell him you don’t want homework, smile at him’, until that brother disappeared in third year.”
It remained “a steady story” in his head. “I wondered what to do with it, as in what happened after that – well, nothing happened after that except I did wonder what’s wrong with me and my smile that I’d attract the attention of that guy.”
He was about half-way through the first draft when he decided how Smile would end. "I heard a homeless man on the radio saying that he'd watch people walking by and they all seemed to know where they were going and they kept the secret from him. I thought it was a brilliant capture of the state of homelessness but also a state we would all feel on occasion. I decided that a character at the end of my novel was going to say that. So in a way I had two characters, the boy at the beginning telling the story and the man at the end."
And in between, of course, there was the horror. Was he aware of sexual abuse at St Fintan’s?
In the following years you couldn't help but know there were boys who were asked to stay back to wrestle.
“In the following years you couldn’t help but know there were boys who were asked to stay back to wrestle. I can’t say that any of them were abused but again I’ve met fellows I went to school and sometimes the question would arise, ‘d’you think?’ – and nobody said ‘no’. I think everybody would say definitely, definitely. We’re guessing, yes – but I think it’s a very educated guess.”
A “vivid memory” is of a teacher administering a brutal beating with a leather strap for something trivial. “He was sweating, really sweating and his sweat landed on me as he was doing this. I’m not sure if I had the words then but I certainly knew he was getting some sort of sexual pleasure from it. It couldn’t conclude in that way because the notion of that being in some way sexually satisfying was totally foreign to me but if I didn’t think it, I felt it – and I know it now . . . And the only thing that was important to me after it happened was that I wouldn’t cry. And I didn’t.”
There are no happy memories of St Fintan's, certainly none like those of the Jesuit old boys his own age.
There are no happy memories of St Fintan’s, certainly none like those of the Jesuit old boys his own age. “They talk about schooldays almost in the present tense and have reunions all the time and even stayed in touch with some of the priests.” No CBS old boy he has met “has ever referred to those as the best days of their lives or wanted to reminisce about this day or that. There’s always kind of ‘see you now, bye bye’.”
And yet, some managed to forge priceless, lifelong bonds from the terror. “If you go to a place like that, there is really nothing, literally nothing, as wonderful as laughing in the back of the room when you know if you’re caught, you’re fucked. And it’s such a bonding. My best friends are from that time, we’ve known each other since we were 13. I’m meeting them this evening for a pint. I love them and it’s been brilliant to grow old with them. I’d probably argue that if conditions in the school had been different, we’d have gone our separate ways.”
They might. Or might not. There is probably another novel with a twist, right there.
Smile is published on August 31st, by Jonathan Cape