Roddy Doyle: ‘To throw The Snapper on to the fire would be a grave mistake’

The Dublin author on his admiration for Sally Rooney, judging classic novels in the current moral climate and his new pandemic-inspired short story collection

Many of the characters in Roddy Doyle’s new collection are men nudging towards the third act in life. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle

Tanya Sweeney

Given the sheer distinctiveness of his writing, it’s curious to see just what low-key a figure Roddy Doyle cuts in real life. He moves through Dublin’ Bestseller Café largely unacknowledged before politely proffering an elbow and sitting down to an espresso. A behemoth of Irish literature he may be, but Roddy still takes the bus. He can still people-watch to his heart’s content.

“Firstly, having a name like Doyle is great — it’s the sixth most common name in the country,” he says. “Also, the older you get, there’s no shortage of vaguely lost-looking bald men wearing glasses wandering around.”

This anonymity has been, on occasion, hard won. “The thing about celebrity is that it’s a choice,” he says, before recalling how, in the aftermath of winning the Booker Prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, everyone wanted a piece of him; specifically, a piece of him that he wasn’t willing to relinquish.

“I mean, it was brilliant, a great, great compliment,” he says. “I’d given up teaching that year, and there is a moment when you win the Booker Prize, where you’re selling a phenomenal amount of books.

“But it does take a while to train people that my life is my life. There was an assumption that I would be media fodder for quite a while. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about fame, but a lot you can do about celebrity. It took a while, if you like, to be able to live that experience on my conditions. It was a pain in the hole in some ways, but I didn’t at any point regret winning the Booker. That would be daft.”

The day after his Booker win, determined to return to the same life he left in Dublin’s Northside a few days before, he turned down a number of press interviews.

“I just wasn’t interested — the book had been out for a while by then,” he says. “I ended up being described as ‘difficult’. I never considered myself difficult. I wanted to live my life with my family and we were adamant from the very beginning that people coming into the house wasn’t going to happen.

Another journalist asked for an interview and I said no. He wrote the thing anyway and called me ‘reclusive’. Someone in my local said, ‘I heard you’re reclusive now. But you’re here every Thursday’.”

That said, I feel duty-bound to ask him about Sally Rooney, another Irish author who is intent on living the life of an acclaimed and famous author on her own terms.

“I think it’s something to admire — really, fair play to her. I don’t know her, haven’t spoken to her, but I think she carries herself really well,” Doyle says. “I’ve read the first two books and I think they’re absolutely brilliant. There’s a lovely cleanness to her language, and her ability to tell a story.”

In many ways, it’s not too much of a reach to consider Rooney and Doyle literary bedfellows. Doyle, too, broke through with a crisp, spare and astute writing voice that set him apart from the pack. And like Rooney, Doyle had also famously turned his attentions to a demographic that had lain largely under-represented up to that point: in his case, working-class, suburban Dublin.

He wasn’t the first to attempt it, he counters. Dermot Bolger had written about the many layers of Finglas in The Woman’s Daughter.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t he? It’s where he comes from. And there are thousands of people living there’,” he recalls. “It was no less authentic than the city centre, or even south of the river.”

Ireland’s new confidence

I get close to hyperbole when I tell him that, rising to prominence at the same time as Riverdance, Paddywood and Italia 90, Doyle contributed to the country discovering a new confidence in its identity. He smiles and blinks back politely. “It wasn’t a master plan,” he says simply. “It just happened.”

Doyle grew up in Kilbarrack, and watched as the farms across the road from his childhood home became housing estates. Even during his days at University College Dublin, it became clear, according to the writer Fintan O’Toole, that “anyone who knew him in UCD had little doubt that he was going to be a novelist”.

Among his first inspirations were the children he taught at Greendale Community School.

“As a teacher, you’re looking at 30 faces, and there are always one or two you’re looking at that are a bit grey, a bit tried. It opens up your imagination a bit [wondering what their home lives are like],” he says.

Doyle began writing The Snapper in 1986, in what he now describes as very different times.

“Very early on in the book, Sharon says, ‘abortion is murder’,” Doyle says. “If I were writing that book today, she wouldn’t [say that] at all. She’d have gone through a different education. Times have changed. Women are definitely more, if you like, individually and collectively confident about themselves. More empowered. So she wouldn’t be saying that.”

In more recent years, The Snapper’s plot — a woman who becomes pregnant after a blackout-drunk encounter with an older, ostensibly more sober neighbour — has been re-examined. This scene is now considered rape, not least because people, post-MeToo, are more prepared to articulate what the encounter was. It has shed an entirely different light on a novel often regarded by the Irish public with no shortage of cuddly affection.

I’m curious to know what Doyle made of the emergence of this particular conversation.

“So much has changed since 1986, when I started writing The Snapper,” he says. “The legislation on rape is clearer today. As the writer [if I wrote it today], I’d make sure that the sex was consensual, that it wasn’t open to doubt. The novel is about a woman taking ownership of her own story; that wouldn’t change.”

Likewise, The Commitments (1987) was a text very much of its time. “The N-word is in there,” Doyle says. “And again, I have to explain that. A lot has happened since then. If Jimmy Rabbitte was forming a band today, he wouldn’t be using that word; not just because I wouldn’t be using the word, but because he is a lover of black music and culture, and some members of the band would, in all probability, be black.”

Of the relatively recent phenomenon of taking books and cultural texts and reappraising them within the current moral climate, he adds: “This bizarre thing of people burning books seems like a very strange thing. Do we throw Oliver Twist on the fire because Fagin is Jewish? No, you might have a foreword that explains and explores anti-Semitism. I think to throw The Snapper on to the fire would be a grave mistake, and I’m not saying that because I wrote it. Because I think if you go to a wall of Penguin Classics and start extracting ones that have racism or anti-Semitism, there’d be very little left.”

Though there have been hugely successful forays into historical literature (Doyle’s trilogy on Henry Smart, The Last Roundup, was set from 1916 through to the 1970s and was well-received), he has always excelled as a chronicler of the here and now. So it goes in his latest collection of short stories, Life Without Children. Although the title story was written in March last year, the book is a series of short, sharp-focus moments from the year of Covid. In one, a nurse cares for a man dying of the coronavirus, helping him connect with his family on an iPad. In another, a man delivers a takeaway spice box to the home of an ex-lover. In yet another, ‘Box Sets’, a man gets hit by a cyclist as his wife prepares to leave him.

It’s a vivid and urgent collection of moments, carrying on Doyle’s tradition of keenly observed, dialogue-heavy vignettes in which the space around the words does an awful lot of the spadework. Given its backdrop, it’s probably a more downbeat, elegiac collection than many of its forebears. “The mothers don’t come out here particularly well,” Doyle says. “Sometimes these patterns come as a bit of a surprise, especially because my mother was great.”

Many of the main characters in the stories are men nudging towards the third act in life. They are, as Doyle notes, overwhelmingly lost, or at least treading in existential angst. “There’s a point in which [these men] feel they’re redundant,” he says. “Their children become independent, and they’re not needed as much any more. Men are defined by the work they do and retirement is supposed to be a dream — linen trousers, walking along a beach somewhere — and it doesn’t quite work out that way.”

Doyle has written about this generation of men time and time again, finding much to mine in those of an age who now know how to send money to someone on Revolut but can also remember the physical sting of a schoolmaster’s leather strap.

He incorporated a personal experience of his own into one short story: “I was 15, and I was hauled out of the classroom. I still remember the agony; holding the metal of the chair, to cool down the pain,” he says. “And it was nearly 50 years ago. If I was an actor and I needed to shake with emotion, I would go back to that moment again. But a big point of pride was that I didn’t cry.”

Warming to the subject of masculinity, Doyle talks about how women are much better at finding excuses to get together and chat.

“With my closest friend, I hadn’t been to his house in years and we had no interest in each other’s houses. We met in St Anne’s Park and froze, even though the pub was where we wanted to be,” he says. “People were like, ‘Why don’t you go to a restaurant?’ But that’s not what we do.”

On the Friday before Ireland went into its first Covid lockdown in March last year, Doyle was in Newcastle in England (“stag and hen central”). He went into Boots, looking for hand sanitiser, and encountered a number of older people “coughing and hacking”.

“I felt very, very far from home,” he recalls. “I was almost convinced I was bringing this thing back home with me.”

Psychological nadir

On the Government’s handling of the pandemic, he adds: “Take Varadkar’s speech on St Patrick’s Day last year. He can be such an absolute git. I don’t like his politics and I don’t like Fine Gael, but that particular evening, he was brilliant. I remember feeling quite strongly, ‘I’m glad I’m here’ [in Ireland]. Not because I felt personally safer, but I think as a country, as a nation and a government, we handled it better than a lot of other places.”

A novel that Doyle had been working on in the run-up to the pandemic had to be scrapped, because it no longer made sense. The time it was set in was no more. “I parked it at first, and eventually binned it,” he says. “The first time I’ve ever done that. Thankfully I hadn’t really gotten into the swing of things with it.”

A number of theatrical shows he had been working on were cancelled or postponed; likewise, plans for the promotion for his novel Love — and the travel that would go along with it — were shelved. For the first time in a long time, Doyle had a relatively blank slate.

“Like, ‘What do I do now?’” he says. “I just thought of writing another short story, then another. Things were changing so quickly. Attitudes were changing. Language was changing. We’d gone from ‘the corona’ to ‘the Covid’. I just thought short stories were the way to go.”

He recalls how certain “columnists and people on the radio” began relaying their own lockdown experience. “’My lovely lockdown’,” he laughs. “Homeschooling, isn’t it brilliant?’ Sourdough. Sea swimming. Wild swimming. Or as most of us would call it, ‘going for a swim’.”

Doyle hit a psychological nadir at the beginning of the year, although it didn’t take him long to find his creative groove. He is back working on a new novel, set in the present day, “because it feels like the present day again”.

“I felt so isolated because I realised I hadn’t been in contact with anyone back then,” he says of his lowest point during Covid. “I thought I was trained to be on my own, and in a way I am. But when it’s forced on you… weeks became months, and that was the worst. But like virtually everything else, it eventually just becomes material for writing, doesn’t it?”

Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle

‘Life Without Children’ by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape

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