Roddy Doyle's writing used to inspire death threats. His 1994 television drama Family angered some people for its depiction of domestic violence and family break-up. "There were news headlines the day after the first episode. I couldn't believe it. It was the topic on every chatshow. There were questions on Questions and Answers. John Bruton had a statement about my right to do it. I got death threats."
“From whom?” I ask. We are sitting in a booth at the Food Room, around the corner from where he lives in Clontarf, in north Dublin. “They’re generally not signed, death threats,” he says and laughs. “They were never to the door. The most chilling thing, in a way, was when my wife opened the door to the kid who used to deliver the paper. He said, ‘My mother said I can’t deliver the paper any more [and] to say, “He’s a fucking disgrace.” ’ ”
Things have changed a lot in Ireland, and Doyle has documented many of those changes across 10 novels and a clutch of plays, films, television series and short-story collections, not to mention seven children's books. He has recently returned to the Rabbitte family, the subjects of his first three novels, in both a stage-musical version of The Commitments (which opens in the West End on October 8th) and in his new novel, The Guts, where Jimmy Rabbitte, the young Svengali behind the eponymous band, is now a middle-aged family man facing his own mortality. (Jimmy had previously returned in a short story called The Deportees.)
"When the word 'recession' started being used again there was a certain glee in some of the reporting," Doyle says. "There was a 1980s soundtrack. The Eurythmics would be playing while someone explained what a recession was . . . I started thinking about the Rabbitte family because I came up with them during a recession and began to wondering how Jimmy would be coping. I thought about his father, who had been unemployed in The Van. When I wrote The Van I thought he would never work again."
Doyle wrote The Commitments, his first published novel, as a teacher at Greendale Community School, in Kilbarrack in north Dublin, in the mid 1980s. "I drifted into teaching," he says, "but I loved it and loved the contact with the kids. I started writing at around the same time. I was living on my own, with no responsibilities, a bit of money for the first time in my life and three months off in summer. I went to London to get away from friends, got a bedsit and went to Wood Green library and wrote every day."
Out of that came his first, unpublished book, Your Granny's a Hunger Striker. "There's one copy in the National Library gathering dust," he says. Immediately afterwards he began work on The Commitments, the story of a burgeoning, then imploding north Dublin soul band. "It wasn't about the kids I taught, but it was inspired by the energy, the buzz, their wit. I imagined them later with a bit of independence, past school, past parental supervision, where if they said the word 'f**k' there was nobody to stop them."
He recalls trying to get the rhythm of the music into his prose. “I drove the guy in the next room demented as I replayed an old tape, repeating the same musical phrase, again and again.” He chuckles. “It’s so much easier with iTunes.”
After the rejection of his previous novel, he and his agent John Sutton decided to self-publish The Commitments. "We found out that the whole shebang would cost about the same as a second-hand car. My wife was the publicist, my students were on the cover, Derek Speirs took the photo and Charlie O'Neill, another friend, designed it. Easons took it. There was very little fiction published here then, so it got reviewed in all the papers. Hot Press's Bill Graham wrote a really scathing review. Then Elvis Costello wrote a piece that said, 'If you want to know what being in a band is like, read The Commitments,' so it became a talking point."
There were specific criticisms. "People said it was too Dublin and too short. But I'd read short books before, and I didn't remember Ulysses being a problem because it was too Dublin." And there was resistance to the use of the vernacular. This observation prompts a digression about the evocative use of language in the Anglo tapes. "I immediately started thinking about what [the Anglo executives] were thinking about after they put the phone down." He laughs. "It was good stuff."
Self-publishing The Commitments worked out. Doyle found a publisher, Dan Franklin of Random House, whom he works with to this day, and in 1991 Alan Parker made the Commitments film. Doyle stayed teaching until he had finished his fourth novel, the Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
"I was really worried when I left teaching that I'd run out of things to write about," he says. "It struck me as really important to wander around and hear what was happening. Any little experience stays with you . . . I worked as a road sweeper as a student in London, and any time I hold the handle of a brush it's immediately there. When I had Paula" – the protagonist of The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Paula Spencer – "working as a cleaner, I knew where the aches came from, the monotony and also the satisfaction. If you're living and writing at the same time a lot of things become research. This is sometimes quite disturbing for the people you share your life with, but once they're assured that that's not why you're sharing their life with them, they're okay."
Doyle jokes about writing from a lofty perch – he works in the attic – but he's involved in several projects that ground him. He writes fictional columns for the multicultural newspaper Metro Éireann (some of which are collected in the Deportees collection), and he cofounded the inspiring community-based creative-writing organisation Fighting Words.
I suggest that most community projects in Ireland seem to be kept afloat by teachers or former teachers. He laughs. “Before you lose the run of yourself, if you look at some of our dodgy politicians some of them have been teachers as well.”
Doyle likes the company of other writers but doesn’t like when the arts are put on a pedestal. “I’ve heard people say ‘the arts never let us down’, which I find a bit smug,” he says. “Sometimes I read about ‘My Day’, with some writer [who is] dividing his time between London and Paris [and] doing a few hours in the morning: ‘So exhausted. Just been writing for two hours and can’t control my characters.’ All this kind of bulls**t . . . I found you could do an awful lot in a day, loads of writing, and still have time for things like Fighting Words.”
The way his novels document change as it is happening is, he says, quite deliberate. "When I started writing The Van I wanted to write about a year in this man's life. Coming up to the World Cup in particular, I said, 'I'll use this if it works,' and it did. When I was writing Paula Spencer I was also writing a year in a life. I went to The White Stripes so she went to The White Stripes. I'd think, Is she listening to this? I remember a young girl on Joe Duffy the day after a school-bus crash talking about young friends who had died, and she was brilliant. I thought that Paula would respond to that. So she's in the book . . . If someone said, 'You never wrote about the boom,' I say, 'I did. It's called Paula Spencer.' She's my guide through the boom. I was writing about not the big houses she was cleaning but the cleaner."
The Guts takes in the consequences of recession but is also a moving, funny story about a middle-aged man having a crisis. Is that because of where he is in his own life? "Yes. None of us are very aware of our youth, but we are very aware of our middle years. At its bleakest, friends start dropping off," he says. "Rather than fret about it you laugh about it. You groan every time you bend down to pick up something. You say, 'Jesus, I sound like my father.' And I think you reach a point, common with parents but less obviously with men, where you feel redundant as a parent. It's not unlike grief, I find. A lot of the stories in Bullfighting [his recent short-story collection] are about that phase, and I think to an extent the last third of The Guts is post that phase."
It has been a long time since Doyle has been a literary outsider. He likes new challenges. He's fascinated with the technical details of staging a musical. (He tells me all about the number of drum kits required.) He enjoys working with Fighting Words. "I'd love to be going there this afternoon," he says. He'd also like to write another television programme, and there are projects at early stages of development. "I have meetings with people," he says, "but in their hearts they're always looking for The Commitments II."
He recalls when his work was underappreciated, the subject of bad reviews and death threats, but says that “feeling vindicated is just a giddy version of being mean-spirited. You can wallow in it for a little while, but luckily I’m sharing my life with people who recognise that for what it is.”
Living in the same place keeps him grounded, he says. “I was waiting at Tara Street Dart station for a friend, and there was a bunch of lads coming down the quays, all in their late teens, lads in tracksuits, and one of them broke away and came right up to my face and said, ‘Are you Roddy Doyle?’
“And I said, ‘I am, yeah.’
“He said, ‘So what?’ ”
He cracks up with laughter. "I loved that. It was just fantastic."
The Guts is published by Jonathan Cape