It has been a busy year for Roddy Doyle. Not content with scripting the stage version of The Commitments, which is currently at the Palace Theatre in the West End of London, he is knee deep in collaborating on a high-profile memoir with the footballer Roy Keane. Doyle is also involved in a hush-hush new television series that he absolutely can't talk about.
Irish? English? “Eh, yes,” he says, with his bold-child grin. “Both.” He relents enough to explain that it’s an English production company but that the series is set in Dublin. And that really is our lot.
Doyle is, in any case, here to talk about his new children's book. A novel-length version of a story he wrote for the Dublin St Patrick's Day parade in 2011, Brilliant tackles themes of recession and resilience in the author's inimitable style. It takes Churchill's description of depression as a "black dog" and turns it into a celebration of the power of optimism, energy and community as the children of Dublin chase the dog away and return the city's "funny bone" to its rightful place.
The book is beautifully produced, with black-and-white illustrations by Chris Judge that include a delightful map of Dublin. And it is, of course, filled with the sort of fun that appeals to eight-year-olds and up: farting dogs, talking meerkats, kids who like to play at being vampires, and seagulls with attitude.
Like Doyle's other children's books, from The Giggler Treatment (which was published 14 years ago) to A Greyhound of a Girl (from 2011), Brilliant slips down as easily as a 99 on a hot day. So it's interesting to hear the author talk about how tricky these apparently effortless little books are to write. "I wrote the first books for my own children," he says. "I'd have a certain child in mind – and then two years later that child no longer existed."
With his own children now grown, Doyle aimed Brilliant at a child who might be reading The Giggler Treatment. "But I missed the target," he says. "Not in the sense of a target market but in the sense of a child's sense of humour, a child's viewpoint. So I had to abandon it and start all over again. Then I was messing around with footnotes and things like that – so I just had to slap myself and start all over again."
Well, they do warn about working with children and animals. But when it comes to children's books, Doyle says he couldn't work without a good editor. "I've found with my adult stuff that when I hand a novel over to my publisher it's generally finished," he says. "Of course it's always open to editing, but I've never had to do any sort of major rewrite. It has always been little things. I remember with The Woman Who Walked into Doors, my publisher came over from London for the day. His flight back was in the evening – and we were finished by lunchtime. I think we went for a pint. But the work was done."
With the children’s books, he says, he doesn’t seem to be as sure of himself. “I’ve always needed a good editor to nudge the story on. Certainly, if the book’s supposed to be a little bit mad the editors often try to get that little bit more madness in. And that’s all, invariably, grand.”
Given that Doyle finds children’s books a challenge, why, at the age of 56, does he keep writing them? That’s what he asks himself, every time. “It’s never a question when I’m writing for adults. If somebody said, ‘Will you be writing another book?’ it’s like asking me, ‘Will you be inhaling in the next second or so?’ It’s not a question that needs an answer.”
The answer has to do with the business of trying out new things – stretching his creative wings, as it were. “It allows me to use a part of my imagination that’s closed – no, not closed, but not as wide open as it is when I’m writing for adults. There’s elbow room in a children’s story.
“If I’m writing a novel about a middle-aged man with bowel cancer, the dog isn’t going to start talking to him – and I don’t want the dog to start talking to him. But it seems a shame not to allow dogs talk now and again.” He chuckles. “It would probably do him good if the dog started talking to him.”
The middle-aged man he's talking about is Jimmy Rabbitte, once the young dog of The Commitments, now reincarnated in older, wiser form in Doyle's most recent novel, The Guts. "It occurred to me recently," Doyle says, "that of the 10 novels I've written there's only one that stands alone: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Otherwise I've always gone back to characters."
He revisited Paula Spencer, for example, in 2006, a decade after The Woman Who Walked into Doors. Having survived the violence of her marriage, his heroine, in her eponymous novel, is still cleaning houses but has a few bob in her pocket for a change. Jimmy's case is, Doyle admits, more extreme. "It seems really brutal that Jimmy [is] a man of 21 who goes to bed, then comes downstairs and he's 46. With cancer."
It's nothing new for the characters in Doyle's novels to face hardship, especially economic hardship. But this, he stresses, is a literary rather than a political decision. "With The Van I wanted to write about unemployed men, largely because of what I was looking at every day. If those two men hadn't been unemployed, The Van wouldn't have worked as a story.
“I don’t feel a burning need to highlight life’s injustices, because I think the fiction wouldn’t be very good. But if it’s there, it’s there. I suppose the backdrop infiltrates the story somehow, and gives it more urgency.
"I'd never sit down to write a book about the recession. The Guts isn't about a recession but about a middle-aged man who just happens to be living now. Officially the recession's over – isn't it? Which doesn't mean an awful lot. We're told now that things are 'picking up'. Which doesn't mean an awful lot to most people, either."
As a writer who is well known internationally, Doyle must get all sorts of invitations and suggestions. How does he decide what to do next? “I ask myself,” he says, “is it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Because I think this is the point in life where you should be thinking these things, not when you’re 10.”
The BBC once asked him to adapt Peter Pan. "I said no, I was busy – which I was. But quite soon after I was thinking, I should have said yes. So I thought, I'll always take a deep breath before I say no again. Unless it's something so stupid that it's not even an issue."
The musical version of The Commitments has, he says, more than lived up to his once-in-a-lifetime criterion. "Whether it works out commercially or not, it's an amazing experience to see all these people come together. At one point, before the first preview, there were something like 77 people employed – which is an army in a theatre. And to be involved in it, not just witnessing it, was amazing."
The Roy Keane book will be published in October. Coauthoring is a real change of gear for Doyle – and, he says, very much a one-off. Before taking it on he weighed up his strengths the way a manager might look at a new midfielder. His interest in dialogue. In the use of, ahem, vernacular language. “I asked myself, ‘Is the fact that I’m not a sports journalist an advantage? Is the fact that I was never a sportsman an advantage? The fact that I don’t support Manchester United?’ ”
Doyle is due to deliver the manuscript next month. Has he done it all? He could bang on about the long, long conversations he has apparently been having with Keane, or the seven-day working weeks he has apparently been putting in. Instead he produces another grin, accompanied by a well-timed one-liner. "No," he says. "No. I'm on me way home to do it now." Brilliant is published by Macmillan Children's Books. The Guts will be out in paperback, from Vintage, at the end of June